Adoptive and Foster Parents Can Offer Comfort on Boo-Hoo Birthdays

This is a piece of birthday cake illustrating the possibility of a positive experience for adopted and foster children on birthdays, However, many don't enjoy. They might even throw the cake. They are experiencing mixed feelings. This post tells how parents can nurture and ease sad and happy birthdays with a creative idea of an ice cream craft.

As a child, I always sabotaged my birthday. No matter how my hard my parents tried to love on me, I threw the day into complete chaos, usually rejecting them….or just being crabby.

With the best of intentions, those who love the adoptee celebrate the day as if she were a non-adopted person. However, in the midst of the parties, the celebration, many adoptees feel churned up inside. They know they are supposed to be happy, but a nagging thought plagues them: “I wonder if she (the birth mother) is t

What does a birthday represent? For us, it represents a day of great loss, the day our birth mothers and all that was familiar disappeared.

For the child who was adopted later in childhood, it reminds him of the wrenching-apart day–the day that the past, as he knew it, was to be no longer. For the baby adopted as an infant, the loss happened before he had words to describe it, but it was real, nonetheless. The present-day birthday serves as a trigger, reminding him of past loss.

It is a delicate art for parents to handle adoptee/foster children’s birthdays. Sometimes, it may feel like walking on eggshells.

But, you can do it, parents.

Here are five things adoptees often say about their birthdays.

FIVE THINGS ADOPTEES SAY ABOUT BIRTHDAYS

1. IT’S A SAD DAY

We want to celebrate, but there is a sadness that pulls us down, like a magnet.

Dan said that birthdays were always bittersweet for him. As a child, he said he felt like he was living in a gap, or a changing room. Birthdays were a time when he remembered his birth mother and felt like the two of them were kindred spirits. Whenever he communicated these thoughts to his adoptive family, they had difficulty relating to what he was trying to say. He confessed, “On birthdays, I wished I could have been a better child for my adoptive parents.”

“My birthday is the blackest day of my year,” Melinda said. “My husband would always know because I would either lay in bed at night and cry or soak in the tub and sob. I wondered if my birth mother knew what today was.”

2. I FANTASIZE ABOUT MY BIRTH MOTHER

The adopted/foster child reasons, “If she thinks about me at all, she is probably thinking about me today.”Many adult adoptees report that birth mothers usually don’t remember birthdays, as they are in the midst of great trauma.

Mary Watkins and Susan Fisher describe a scene between a three-year-old and her adoptive mother in Talking with Young Children About Adoption:

“Is she coming? Is my lady coming?” the child asks.
“Which lady?” the mother asks.
“You know,” child replies, “the lady I grew inside. It’s my birthday, isn’t it?”

3.  I CONFORM TO PARENTAL AND SOCIETAL EXPECTATIONS

Because parental and societal expectations are high about birthdays, we believe we must conform. Therefore, we put on a happy face and fake enjoying the day. However, inside, we feel like a hurting baby that wants to be comforted and held.

Weighing heavily upon the adoptee as well are society’s romanticized views of adoption. Be happy. Be grateful you have a family. Don’t disappoint your parents.

4.  I FEAR THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH ME

Nancy Verrier says in The Primal Wound of the child adopted at birth, “There seems to be an anniversary reaction (also felt by the birth mother), which sends many adoptees into despair around their birthdays… is it any wonder that many adoptees sabotage their birthday parties? Why would one want to celebrate the day they were separated from their birth mothers? The adoptees, of course, have probably never really understood, themselves, why they do this.”

Reflecting on his teen years, Bob said, “Birthdays made me feel awkward when I was an adolescent.”

5. I DON’T WANT TO BE THE CENTER OF ATTENTION

Beth says, “As I look back at my childhood, I think I felt the uninvited guest at my own party. I was there but disassociated. I was in the midst of some kind of script and moved through it, but without any heart, without any sense of connection or aliveness. I’m not sure why I cringe when I hear about the celebrations of Adoption Day. For me, the joining with a new family carries with it the separation from another family. This is a gigantic double bind: celebrating joining and simultaneously grieve leaving. I think this is impossible.

“I purposely go out of town on my birthday because I don’t want any attention,” sid a thirty-year-old male adoptee. “So I was born. Big deal. I don’t want any attention.”

“I hate my birthday,” Trisha confessed to her support group.

Now that you know what may going on within your child’s heart, you can be proactive. Here are five things you can do to ease the distress. Be aware that all the above don’t apply to all adoptees.

WHAT PARENTS CAN DO TO COMFORT MIXED FEELINGS

  1. RECOGNIZE DISTRESS SIGNALS. Even though most adoptees don’t talk about it, I believe there are clues parents can look for in assessing whether their child is struggling with birthdays. Some of the symptoms you can look for in your child are:
    • feeling sad and angry at the same time
    • feeling like they can’t enjoy themselves
    • trying extra-hard to please you
    • wanting to run away and hide
    • criticizing those who give gifts
    • criticizing the gifts
    • feeling victimized by expressions of love–none of them are enough
    • daydreaming (possibly wondering about birth mother)
    • being disgusted with themselves for acting angry or critical
    • feeling an unusual level of anxiety
    • minimizing the importance of their birthday–“It’s is no big deal”
    • sabotaging birthday celebrations
    • depression
    • withdrawal
    • self-condemnation.

2. ESTABLISH BIRTHDAY RITUALS

Bill said his mother established certain rituals that brought a sense of continuity and belonging for him. Special dinners with all the family members present.
Another thing you may want to consider to help your child deal with the mixture of feelings is to pull the grief box off the shelf at birthday time and add another item–perhaps a birthday candle. Go through all the emotions described in an earlier chapter to help the child get in touch with her feelings. Then put the grief box up on the shelf until it is needed again. If using the grief box doesn’t seem appropriate, perhaps you could pull your child’s life book out and go through it from day one, reading the welcoming letter you wrote to your child.

3. ASK QUESTIONS

Ask questions of your child preceding and on his special day. “What would you like to do on your birthday?” “How are you feeling about your birthday approaching? Some adoptees feel sad or even angry on that day. Do you ever feel that way? If you do, it’s okay to talk about it with us. We will do our best to understand and help you work through the mixture of feelings.”

4. GIVE EXTRA NURTURING

Think about some of the things that soothe your child. If he likes back rubs, give him one. Children need to calm their bodies, which are keyed up with tension.
Beefing up bedtime rituals can also be soothing: an extra story, a massage, a night light, thinking together of some good dreams to have, or a tape recorder to play some favorite music. Get out the weighted blanket. Make a tent together.

5. TALK ABOUT MIXED FEELINGS AND DO ICE-CREAM ACTIVITY

Share with the family that birthdays may be days of mixed feelings—feelings of happy and sad at the same time. Happy that you have a wonderful adoptive or foster family,  but sad that you lost your first family.

Get a gallon of vanilla ice cream to illustrate this to the family. Pre-buy five candy bars, all different brands. Have on hand: a cutting board, a hammer (which you will keep secret), bowls and spoons for everyone.

When everyone is seated around the table, ask each person to choose his/her favorite candy bar. Then, ask them to return the bars to you. Without warning, bring the hammer to the table and start pounding the bars to smithereens. Explain that life can be that way….we can be broken and hurting. Tell that adoption day is often that way. Proceed to mix the broken bars into the ice cream. “What if we take the broken pieces and mix them in the ice-cream? They become something even better.”

“When we talk about our mixed feelings on birthdays, we can grow even closer together, and that is so delicious.”

All quotes are used by permission of Sherrie Eldridge and are drawn from her book 20 THINGS ADOPTED KIDS WISH THEIR ADOPTIVE PARENTS KNEW.

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