My son celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday recently. For the first time in several years, his birth mother was not here to join us in person although she most certainly was present in spirit, in my own heart and most assuredly in our son’s. Over the years we’ve come to know and love one another, building bridges, sharing joys and sorrows, basically becoming family together, fellow travelers on a shared life journey. We’ve also come to understand that adoption includes great losses for our son and for his mother and the rest of our son’s first family.
As with anything connected with adoption, relationships swirl in complex ambiguity. I believe all of us have thoughts that ponder the great “what ifs”… What if the adoption had never happened. Who would our son be? Who would we be? Of course, none of us can ever know the answer to that question. Just as assuredly as a puff of breath extinguishes the candles on a birthday cake, adoption snuffed out one version of life for all of us and replaced it with the one which we have lived for several decades. Perhaps we will never know if this was “best.” At this point in time, it is simply what is and we have made peace with that fact even as we all understand the profound “cost” of that reality.
For many adopted children, birthdays can be overwhelming as it awakens powerful and conflicting emotions. What kid doesn’t love to be the center of attention and the recipient of lots of presents? At the same time, for adoptees, their birthday is inextricably linked with awareness of the primal loss of their first mother and extended biological family. I suspect that many kids do not even understand why they feel so conflicted on their birthday nor do they understand what might drive them to create chaos and turmoil in the midst of all the celebrations.
When they are really little, they probably only respond to the excitement and fun. However, once they reach about ten, they begin to truly comprehend how adoption realigned their lives. It’s darned complicated for adults to comprehend the tumultuous feelings of adoption-connected loss and gain which arise. No wonder kids feel overwhelmed. It is wise to remind ourselves of this complex reality so that we can respond with empathy if our children meltdown in the midst of festivities which we’ve arranged in their honor. We must focus on being their source of comfort and understanding so they can deal with their emotions with our support. If we get distracted by our own sense of feeling that our efforts to orchestrate a celebration have been unappreciated or even disdained, we will have missed a powerful opportunity to be the safe harbor in the midst of a storm.
So what can we Intentional Parents do to help our kids? A few days prior to their birthday, try to open conversations that invite them to discuss their thoughts and feelings. Reassure them that you understand that adoption is a Both/and world and that you understand their need to value and explore their biological relationships and heritage. Such conversations can feel awkward; still they must be broached. Try saying something like, Around their birthdays, some adopted kids think a lot about their birth mother. I’m wondering if perhaps you are. It’s okay and normal for you to think about her. I’m sure she thinks about you. Even if our children dismiss this conversation opener, we have planted a seed that roots a vital message: He does not have to hide his thoughts and feelings. We love them enough to make space for all of the people who are important to him. And because they are important to him, they are important to us.
This gift of inclusivity and openness is a birthday present to treasure.
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