Dreading Birthdays: Thoughts On Adoption Depression

It’s January in Chicago, cold and dark, and I’m dreading my birthday.

At this time of year I can’t help thinking of my birth mother, pregnant with me, growing bigger and possibly more scared every day. She was twenty-five, a college graduate. I may never know why she felt she couldn’t raise me, but after talking with other birth moms I can imagine. In some circles being a birth mom might as well be a life sentence, just like being adopted.

For adoptees, birthdays can be an ambivalent, worrisome or retrospective time, when we especially wonder about all the what-ifs and doubt our own identities. How can you build a self when your anchor was ripped out from under you? I’ve been struggling with that question all my life.

I remember one of my earliest birthdays. My adoptive mother, the socialite wannabe, invited the children of families she wanted to impress instead of my friends (not that I had many of those). This resulted in a mishmash of cliques and many awkward moments among the kids. Pictures of that day show me fiddling with my presents instead of playing all the nice games chosen for me to play. And that’s why I didn’t enjoy the party, or my birthday. Because on this day above all others, I was expected to like what I was told to like, do what I was supposed to do–in other words, be the perfect adoptee. Later I would go back to my room, “grateful” only for the chance to be alone with my books and the snow.

I didn’t really start dreading birthdays until I started asking questions about my adoption, questions that were misdirected or answered with (as I later discovered) outright lies. Before that I just had this vague unease that got worse as the calendar crept toward January. I wonder if my birth mother suffers like I do, from what the shrinkwrappers call “seasonal affected disorder” but I believe is simply part of the human experience. One of the most shocking moments during my brief contact with my birth mother was her revelation that depression runs in our family, in fact one of my uncles suffers severely from it. Don’t ask me what that means because it’s all I’ve got. To be given that tidbit and then left in the dark makes me feel like spring will never come. Maybe depression was imprinted on me in the womb. It’s in my blood, an unknown poison.

My depression has gotten worse since my birth mother bowed out mid-anonymous-conversation. When it comes to my birthday I don’t really care about the onset of (gack) middle age. What bothers me is the reminder of my fate, the circled date on the calendar that says, hey, if the timelines had twisted this way or that, I could have wound up raised by my birth family or some other adoptive family. Things could have been better, could have been much worse. Maybe in some of those timelines I never searched, or never had to because the information was available to me. Maybe in some of those timelines I never lost my birth name. Maybe in some of them I didn’t care, or ended my life because I couldn’t stand not knowing. All of these thoughts are inextricably linked with my birthday.

If you Google “adoption depression” you’ll find almost every single entry is about Post-Adoption Depression Syndrome… when you finally adopt that beautiful baby and can’t figure out why you feel so low. I try to have sympathy for adoptive parents and prospective adopters, but for pity’s sake! I went as far as page 10 and didn’t see a single item relating to adoptees or birth relatives. That’s how negated our feelings are. It is not societally acceptable for an adoptee or her birth mother to be depressed, especially on her birthday. Yet I have not talked to a single adoptee or birth mother who did NOT feel some level of depression about adoption at some point in their lives. Why is this ignored? Because it would destroy the picture-perfect world of adoption. Prospective adopters are not going to be so eager to pay big bucks for those Healthy White (or close enough) Infants if they realize how difficult adoption actually is, for themselves and others. The agencies gloss over the negativities with pretty euphemisms and shiny brochures, which is why adoptive parents end up with so-called PAD in the first place; it’s a symptom of a much larger syndrome–adoption itself.

For me, January is trying to dig out of the chasm. Forget therapy; there’s no DSM definition for assault by adoption, and my psyche is forever repelled by my adoptive parents’ use of therapy to try to force me into the Good Adoptee mold. Not attachment therapy, thank the gods… wasn’t around back then or it might have been part of the “cure” for my adoption. This is horribly common among American families, and adoptive families in particular: if the kid doesn’t behave, better brainwashing through therapy. What we adoptees feel is perfectly normal, even if there are those who will moan and wail at us for calling ourselves (and their trophy adoptees) “bastards.” Guess we’ll have to fend for ourselves when it comes to digging our way out of adoption depression. Here are my shovels this year:

  • Spending time with my kids
    They’re awesome. ‘Nuff said.
  • Adoption reform
    Blogging is the best adoption therapy I’ve ever tried, second only to getting off my butt and writing letters to legislators and the media in support of open records.
  • Creative writing
    Fiction works best for me, but even an article about the dangers of the latest computer virus gets my blood pumping (or else I’ve been a geek way too long). Since we’re on the subject, go patch your Windows computer against Conficker before you have a bad day.
  • Gardening
    Winter sowing is a blast and cures many of my January woes. Now I gotta dig up, heh, funds for more seeds (Geranium phaeum “Lily Lovell” and “Samobor“). And let’s not forget this year’s birthday present to myself: Echinacea “Summer Sky.” Drool!
  • Twenty-two straight hours of The Flash
    I’d forgotten what I crush I had on him when I was a kid!

Despite my best efforts, depression lingers. The world stands locked in ice, and I’m up again at 3am, pondering my fate.


  1. You Are A Birthday Gift

    Do you know what a gift you are to the world? Really!
    Do you realize what a positive impact you have had on the lives of so many others?
    Do you ever stop to appreciate how your writing – both public and private – comfort, encourage, and educate the reader?
    Do you know that your proactive approach to changing the things that you see wrong in the world is inspiring to people you have never met, people you don’t even know exist?
    Do you realize how many gifts were bestowed on the universe simply because you are here at this particular time and place and in these particular circumstances?

    I think it is hard for any of us who struggle with adoption and/or depression to realize our value and our contribution to our communities, large and small.

    Circumstances far beyond our control led us to end up in one family or another. But with adulthood and the ability to make your own choices, you have made your life one worthy of celebration.

    If only for a moment, let go of the whys and what-ifs, put aside any expectations and disappointments, and

    I lift my glass to toast the gift that is Triona.

  2. Was just thinking about my childhood birthdays this morning. I don’t ever remember being happy or excited about my birthday. My secondary parents put a few presents on the end of my bed, usually some books. When I woke up, I unwrapped them alone. Later there would be a cake made by the cook. At about age 8 I realized other kids had birthday parties and asked for one. My secondary father removed me from my party and beat the hell out of me. I remember him repeating over and over again, “I wish you were never born.” My transgression was that I had pushed a kid who was hogging the slide. Or that is what I thought until I read your post. This is the only time I recall he beat me though. After he was done I watched out my bedroom window while my secondary mother served my cake to my friends without me. Yeah, birthdays are a blast. Maybe we should all celebrate our miserable birthdays on one day and call it Bastard Birth Day.

  3. LisaKay – Thank you for your kind words, and happy birthday to you too, fellow January adoptee! Sometimes I feel like I’m spitting into the hailstorm of adoption, but I figure if this blog resonates for just one person, it’s worth it. I am going to take your advice and treat myself to a glass of wine on my birthday to actually CELEBRATE some aspect of it, dammit.

    Harmonygirl – I’m so sorry for your experience. We all deserve to be born and we must strive, like LisaKay says, to find ways to celebrate ourselves regardless of how other people treat us. I’d be glad to bake you a REAL birthday cake from one bastard to another.

  4. Definitely sending you birthday thoughts, and even more definitely resonating with everything you wrote.

  5. ULB – Thanks. I really resonated with your “Unfairly thin sister” post. Where’s the Hallmark card for that?

  6. Thank you for the offer of baking me a cake! Other than the ones my daughters now make for me, you would be the first “relative” to bake me one! I should have wished you a happy birthday instead of adding in my own negative thoughts on birthdays. I raised my glass of wine to you last night to your January birthday and all bastards born in January. I am going to make it a habit to raise a glass monthly to all bastards born in that month. So here’s to all January bastards wherever they may be!

  7. Harmonygirl – Don’t worry, my 5yo has an Easy Bake oven, we can definitely keep you in cakes and cookies!

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  9. Improper – Thanks for writing. It’s hard to think positive sometimes, but I appreciate all of you reaching out and talking about this issue. Funny how it’s all but ignored in the adoption industry, yet you instantly knew exactly what I was talking about.

    Krit – I don’t know why the system munged your comment, but here is the link you sent along.


    Also don’t miss the Alton IL Telegraph article I mentioned in today’s blog post:


  10. http://Anonymous says

    Thanks for your writing. One week away from my birthday and trying to get myself out of this pit. I woudn’t wish the adoption experience on the worst people in history.