There are a lot of holidays and occasions that may trigger trauma, anxiety and/or depression for adopted individuals. The following blog will discuss the celebration of birthdays from a point of view of an adoptee. Please note that this only one perspective and not all adoptees feel the same way.
As an adopted individual the hardest time of the year for me is my birthday. It often starts and finishes the same. I would hear knocking at my bedroom door. Soon after the second knock, came an upbeat high-pitched voice.
“Are you up?” my adoptive mother said.
There would be a long pause before I would want to say, “Just leave me alone!” Instead, I’d say, “Yeah…why?”
The door flew open and there she was, standing at my door singing me a joyful rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Rather than getting up and running to hug her in happiness, I felt a flood of sadness. My birthday served as an ever-present that I didn’t know who my birth mother was. This was compounded with the reality that my birth mother wasn’t also knocking on my door to wish me a happy birthday.
The ending of birthday would consist of a flood of tears and sorrow for those I did not have around again when the night was over, my birth family. At the same time though, I felt the joy of being connected to those who were there with me.
The thought of my birthday brings a rush of mixed emotions. When I was younger, my adoptive mother, whom I call, Mom, would make themed parties of my favorite Disney movies. My birthdays, as a child, would be spent sitting in my room waiting for the party to start with my mom in the next room making a cake, decorating and hanging up balloons. What brought me the only delight on that day was the happiness and joy she had when the party would begin. Throughout the years, my mom understood how hard the birthdays were for me. She would do just about anything to make it better. As the years progressed, my birthday parties grew fewer and far between. I chose to be with a selected few for a nice dinner at a low-key restaurant where the dress code was jeans and a T-shirt, and this year is no different.
Most children look forward to their birthdays. After all, birthdays are designed to celebrate your coming into the world with people who love you. Birthdays can be a wonderful thing, but for adopted individuals, they may not feel like a cause for celebration.
Cake with Extra Sprinkles of Emotions
Gatherings with family and friends can trigger different emotional responses within adopted individuals, something I often describe to my family as an overhanging cloud. The cloud for me contains dark, sad emotions that bring me to a place of pain and sorrow, reminding me of everything I know and what I don’t know. The one thing I know for certain: I am adopted. The things I don’t know: my birth family, my history and, most important, why me?
Children with a history of neglect or abandonment may experience feelings of anger, aggression, depression and low self-esteem. Birthdays and other family-oriented celebrations may be reminders of being “different.” The adoptee may experience feelings of rejection. These gatherings may cause the adoptee to look around and see a family that does not look like them, and who do not share their history and multi-generational memories. It is a reminder that yes, you were adopted; but, more importantly, it triggers a recollection of the traumatic loss of not knowing or having your birth mother/family around.
Fight or Flight
Trauma can take on many different forms, such as separation and neglect. A child can feel a panic attack — heart pounding and a rise in blood pressure — when the trauma kicks in. This can trigger the “flight or fight” response. Triggers can come from sounds, smells, places and tones of voice. Adoption can make certain children more sensitive to trauma. What trauma is for one child is different for another.
Birthdays can bring back an array of emotions, feelings of loss, and, in some instances, painful memories. When surrounded by friends and your adoptive family, there may be much joy, but there may also be a sense of something missing, a desire to search for that missing piece. These feelings may continue as each birthday passes. Group conversations and meetings with other adoptees may help.
For me personally, I have never found that to be promising enough to make me attend. I can be a very shy person who is socially awkward in situations like that. Even though group conversations with other adoptees may not be for me, I found other passions in my life in the creative realm that have allowed me to grieve this big loss of not having my birth family around. Individual psychotherapy is also very helpful.
The Last Slice
At the end of the day, all adoptees can put on a smile and say, “Thanks for coming to my birthday,” but the emotions are still harboring somewhere within each one of us, maybe for forever. When adoptees sit down at the table to blow out the tall, bright candles, we close our eyes and wish for something more. We all have wished for maybe the same thing once on our birthdays. We wish for a name, a face, a location, anything that will give us more information on our biological parents and/or family. Our wishes are different from people who weren’t adopted. Most kids blow out the candles and wish for that beautiful barbie doll they never got or that shiny toy car they can play with and show off to their friends.
I am a year older and wiser as I continue to deal with the issue of being adopted. However, that does not mean I am okay. I have grown to understand that it is okay, without being okay. This is a process and if this means shedding a tear on the ninth of every December, then so be it. I am accustomed to the feelings of loss, and my sense of early rejection. I accept them as part of who I am and do not need the “I am so sorry.” This underlying feeling of sadness is something I work on every day. I appreciate and love my adoptive family, but celebrating my birthday will always be hard.
Finally, I would like to thank those who do wish me happiness on my birthday, but please allow me this time to take a moment and grieve another year for not knowing who my birth mother and birth family are. Furthermore, if you know of an adoptee whose birthday is soon, wish them a happy birthday, celebrate with them, if they choose to do that. But keep in mind that not all adoptees are okay. We all struggle at being who we are. Adoption will always be attached to us. Sometimes like a ball and chain, and other times like a badge we wear proudly.
Humphreys, Brendan. Sprinkles. Pexels.
Johnson, Lesli. “10 Things Adoptees Want You to Know.” HuffPost, HuffPost Parents, 11 Jan. 2013, www.huffpost.com/entry/adoption_b_2161590.
Karanova, Pamela. “How Adoptees Feel About Birthday’s.” Adoptee in Recovery, 11 Aug. 2017, adopteeinrecovery.com/2017/08/11/how-adoptees-feel-about-birthdays/.
“Trauma Parenting Insert.” American Academy of Pediatrics and Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption., 2016. https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/healthy-foster-care-america/Documents/FamilyHandout.pdf
Shrodes, Deanna. “What’s Up With Adoptees and Birthdays? I Asked Them!!! (Part One).” Adoptee Restoration, 2013, www.adopteerestoration.com/2013/08/whats-up-with-adoptees-and-birthdays-i.html.
Stirling, MD, John, Jr., and Lisa Amaya-Jackson, MD, MPH. “Understanding the Behavioral and Emotional Consequences of Child Abuse.” American Academy of Pediatrics, 2015. https://yvppolicyportal.safestates.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Consequences-of-Chid-Abuse.pdf