During the last month or so, our family has celebrated several family milestones. My son turned thirty. My husband turned sixty-seven. We observed our forty-fourth (!) wedding anniversary. With great hoopla (and decked out in costumes,) we gathered for a baby shower in honor of our first grandchild. In a few days our daughter will marry the love of her life on the Mendinhall Glacier in Alaska. Four days after that, she will celebrate her twenty-eighth birthday. Phew, that’s a lot of benchmarks. All these were special yet pretty ordinary for a typical family.
This got me thinking about two additional—and extraordinary—events we will honor in June and July respectively: the Homecoming of each of our children. Adopted as infants and now well into their adulthood, both our son and our daughter still mention and look forward to their Homecoming Day. This is our family's commemoration of their arrival into our family. When they were younger, I suspect they enjoyed the observance as much for the presents and being the center of attention as for the marking of this life-changing event. Now that they are adults, they recognize the importance of this event in their lives. They understand why adoption occurred for them and have come to peace with that fact.
For our two children Homecoming Day was/is a happy event. As kids, they liked the idea of honoring this day and appeared unencumbered with sadness or grief. I think it helped that it is distinct from the day they left their birth families. Although their adoptions were closed, they each reconnected with their birth mothers years ago. (We encouraged, supported and assisted them in this reunion process. Reconnection blessed the entire family)
But many adoptees do experience a profound and painful sense of loss connected to their birthdays and adoption days. So celebrating the event becomes complicated, perhaps even untenable. Be aware of and respect the jumbled feelings that may burden them. Loss is the underlying constant in adoption and it coexists with the gains and joys that adoption can bring. The positives do not erase the reality of adoption loss, pain and grief. Parents can best help their child deal with this complex ambivalence by allowing him to freely express all of his feelings.
Deliver an unequivocal message that recognizes adoption as a both/and relationship. Reassure him that it is possible and acceptable to have a range of feelings some of which might be dark and heavy,(sadness, longing, anger, grief, etc.) And that it is appropriate to have an interest and respect for his birth family. His need to know, understand and connect with his roots is an integral part of the process of becoming a healthy adult. As an adoptee, he has an additional thread to weave into his identity. Both birth and adoptive factors count. Without the benefit of both parts of himself, something foundational will be missing. He might then feel incomplete, off-balance and out-of-control.
Before celebrating the day he became part of the family, clear it with him. If the associated memories are too painful perhaps a “celebration” is not appropriate. Check in with him. Open an honest dialog so you learn his authentic feelings and not what he thinks you want to hear.
As parents, we enjoy reconnecting to that amazing moment when we became family. Truly it was a highlight of our lives. For many kids, it is like a second birthday—the one where they were “born” into their adopted family—and a day they enjoy celebrating. This is not the case for all kids. For those who experience overwhelming sadness associated with this day, parents will respect their emotions and limit any “celebration” to an internal event. None of us want to extract our enjoyment at our child’s expense. Do offer your child a chance to talk about it so you can support him as he struggles with his turbulent feelings.
It is the parents’ job to provide kids the language with which they can express their complex adoption-related feelings. Think about this when determining the name you assign to this special day—Homecoming, Arrival Day, Family Day or “Susie’s” Day. Just remember to focus on the child’s experience. (This is why I am NOT a fan of “Gotcha Day.” In my personal opinion, it is parent-centric and conveys the idea that a child was acquired, like a pet or a treasured prize. ) So will your family choose to celebrate this special day? If so, what will you call the day? What traditions will you include each year?