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.