Dreading Birthdays II: Celebrating Adoption Loss

January is considered the most depressing month of the year. It’s cold, it’s dismal, the joy of the holidays is over, you’re stuck with bills and work and it feels like spring will never come. It figures, therefore, that January is when I was born. I’ve talked before about dreading my birthday and how depressed I get at this time of year. From what I understand, many adoptees get depressed about their birthdays.
I don’t tell casual acquaintances about my birthday. People always want to know, put it in their calendar, send you an e-card or invite you to a little office celebration with stale cake. But adoptee birthdays invoke too many well-intentioned questions that are conversational for others and heartbreaking for us, like “Where were you born?” (some of us don’t know) and “Are you celebrating with your family?” (which one?) In short, birthdays are stark reminders of what may be our most traumatic experience: losing our mothers, our blood relatives, our cultures, our heritage. I don’t mind sharing with people who know my adopted status and understand that trauma. What I don’t like is the automatic dismissal of the uninitiated: “Oh, you’re adopted! You must feel so lucky.” And I’ll admit, I’m no fun. When people ask me straight out I give them a straight out answer: that I’m adopted, that my birthday is traumatic, that it brings up a lot of feelings of loss and I don’t really like talking about it. Talk about putting a damper on the party.
Some adoptees may not even know their actual birthdays. They celebrate a date made up by the orphanage or agency, a date they may or may not know is false. A few adoptive parents focus on (gag) Gotcha Day to the exclusion of the adoptee’s actual birthday. I find that abhorrent. It’s as if they’re saying, “You didn’t exist until we adopted you. Your life before is not important and you shouldn’t ask questions about it.” Many adoptive parents, however, do their best to incorporate both halves of their children’s existence. Even so, they may not understand the depths of the despair adoptees can fall into around birthdays. They ply adoptees with presents and parties, which the adoptees may accept with a smile while inwardly cringing. They want to please their adoptive parents, for whom this date is truly a celebration, but they can’t reconcile that with their own internal grief. This is especially tough for young adoptees who often feel burdened by the attention. Many people can’t fathom the idea of a birthday being anything but wonderful. Teenagers who seem ungrateful are dismissed as being malcontents or “angry adoptees”, when all they are trying to do is come to terms with their own feelings about such an ambivalent event.
I think it’s important to acknowledge the loss that adoptee birthdays represent. You can’t just hang some streamers and pretend the negatives don’t exist, much as the adoption industry would love us to. (Doesn’t look good in the glossy brochures.) Adoptive families would do well to acknowledge the pain and loss that adoptee birthdays evoke. It’s a good time to sit down, not to talk but to LISTEN to what adoptees have to say and how we feel about adoption.
I prefer to “celebrate” in private. I spend time with my husband and children. I talk to a few close friends. But mostly, in January I go into hibernation. I don’t like to be around other people. I typically take time off because I know if I try to work I’ll just be a wreck anyway. I write fiction. I plant seeds for the spring garden. I try not to think too much about the woman who, thirty-odd years ago, walked out of the hospital leaving her newborn daughter behind, because if I do I will dissolve into a puddle of misery. In short, I hate my freaking birthday. February can’t come too soon.


  1. http://Anonymous says

    So familiar to me, I understand completely. I hated other kids’ parties too, so jealous, their mothers would remark “Just think, Xyrs ago today I was in the hospital” or whatever, and I had no story, no birth, nobody who was even there and yet here we were celebrating that event. You know I truly didn’t know how old i was for many years – until being in reunion in fact and counting it out to say things like “36yrs ago”… that’s how much I avoided birthdays! Roll on Spring 🙂

  2. Happy Birthday from a fellow Aquarius who HATES my birthday.

    What day is yours? Mine is tomorrow the 26th and I will be 65! I cannot believe it. Never, ever even thought about that old!!

  3. PS Jan my be the most depressing month, but Feb is when the most suicides occur. Perhaps those are the folks for whom the Jan blues did not go away…It’s when my daughter took her life: Feb 27.

    So my depression starts now in January when I signed papers and lasts through then. Then, I also get to be depressed in the summer, as she was born July 15.

    That about covers the year. I do like fall and spring.

  4. Yes, only we really know and no matter how you try and explain you end up getting that -blink blink- eyed’d puzzled cartoon character look and it’s usually more frustration that it’s worth to attempt explaining. But, there is power in numbers and understanding. Happy Birthday I am glad you are here.

  5. Thanks all for your comments. AdoptAuthor–I’d rather keep the actual day private (Internet thieves and all). I can well believe that February is the month with the most suicides, it’s a totally depressing time of year. Very sorry about such a sad anniversary for you. I get depressed at this time of year and also Thanksgiving because that’s when my mother ceased contact.

  6. http://Anonymous says

    As a birth mother, I finally gave up trying to celebrate my lost daughter’s birthday and now honor my grief on the anniversary of the day I lost my child. And accept that I will always sink into depression at this time of year.

    It was not until recently that I learned that adoptees also have such a hard time with this day, adding to my own sorrow. Today I just grieve and send love to my daughter, for what should have been.

  7. I hear you Triona. Birthdays, my adoption date anniversary, the refusal of contact anniversary; these are all so hard.

    I’m so sorry that you’ve got Thanksgiving combined with the refusal anniversary – I think that having one reminder of loss is hard enough, but having it come at the same time as a holiday celebrating the word ‘grateful’ is just unthinkable.

    Enjoy your day with your family, and here’s looking forward to longer and warmer days.

  8. Thank you all for your kind remarks. I really appreciate it.

    ULB–The Thanksgiving thing is worse than that, actually, because it’s also my eldest child’s birthday. So yeah, the “grateful” thing on top of no contact, plus the reminder of the moment I became a mother myself. No triggers there! And I always worry that I am going to spoil it for her. Her birthday should be all about HER, not my baggage.

  9. I’m with ya on the whole birthday thing. I do the same. I tell no one, and just hole away with my husband on that day.

    You elucidate very accurately why birthdays are so hard for adoptees…it truly is a reminder of all that has been lost…

    Thanks for posting this…

  10. I have my months too Tri, I hear you. For a long time I always thought it was just me, but I see alot of people, including Real Mothers feel the same-just appreicate the love around you from your immediate family-and dive into that balm-I hope you have a good moments on your B-day and something makes you smile.

  11. http://legitimatebastard says

    I’m glad you are here, Triona.
    The world is a better place with you in it.

    Birthdays are hard for adoptees. I always felt a emptiness, even with all that my adoptive parents did with kid-parties.

  12. http://Anonymous says

    Hello. I am so pleased to have found your blog. Today is m 32nd birthday, & while I am not as depressed as I have been in a past, I am very sad. Is it silly that I always have to have cake, cupcakes, or something sweet to gobble the day up with? Is it silly to want someone to care as much as I that I was born on this date? Going through my adoption papers I discovered my time of birth was 8:03 AM. I told my best friend to call me at that time. I also told him why. & while he did call he failed to wish me a happy birthday. I was so disappointed. My mother believes one should stop celebrating birthdays upon reaching adulthood. I strongly disagree. I am 32 today & am feeling guilty for making a big deal out of this day.

  13. Hi Anonymous, thanks for writing. I feel the same way about wanting some kind of acknowledgment of my arrival on this planet. I was originally going to blog about how adoptees sometimes feel like they don’t exist. I especially feel that way on my birthday. It’s hard to feel like you exist when you have no proof of your own birth.

    As for celebrating as an adult, I say go for it! Heck, I still read books intended for teenagers. Why not? You’re never too old to have a great childhood!

  14. http://jancuisine says

    Wow! I’m blown away by your post. You have encapsulated the exact feelings I’ve had for years, yet I always thought I was the only one who had them. It is so wonderful to hear that I share this experience with so many others and that you all intimately understand my feelings. I, too, have warned my family and close friends NEVER to have a party for me or make a big deal about the day. I generally tell them to work off of my cues and we usually just go out for dinner (and that is more for them and their need to “celebrate” than for me). As the years wear on, I feel the dead time between when I was born and when I was adopted, this utter limbo in which I don’t know where I was, who took care of me, where I lived.
    This year I turn 40, however, and for the first time, it’s feeling a little bit different. I mean, I still have my own ritual of grief that I’ve already started (my birthday is at the end of Feb.) like calling the agency to ask if there has been any contact and working on open adoption legislation, but on the day of, I am going to celebrate myself this year. Forty years is a milestone, especially with all of the issues that adoptees like me have, and somehow I have nursed this wound for 40 long years, and, I have survived and become the expression of four lives that intersect through me and me alone. Whatever turmoil brewed this strange alchemy, I have survived it and I persist. So maybe I will have a glass of wine and toast to that this year.

  15. jancuisine, I have those same questions about where I was between my birth and when I was adopted. It’s one of the reasons I feel so ambivalent about my birthday, because I simply have very few answers. I have been celebrating my birthday more in the past few years but it’s mostly because of my kids who are still very young. They are so excited and I don’t want to spoil it for them. I think many adoptees feel ambivalent about their birthdays. It’s the anniversary of our births but it’s also the anniversary of our losses. That’s a difficult concept for anyone not touched by adoption to grasp, which is why I don’t tell casual acquaintances about my birthday. I took the day off the Friday before and I had one acquaintance who asked where I was and when I said it was my birthday she said, almost accusingly, “You didn’t mention that.” Much as it is hard for others to grasp why our birthdays are difficult, I find it hard to grasp how people can be so casual and celebratory about them.