Adoption Changes the Birthday Experience

This post first appeared on on March 20.

Today is the birthday of my daughter’s birthmother, M.  I find myself thinking about her frequently throughout the day, more so than I have in past years on her birthday.  I wonder about how the meaning of birthdays has changed for M since making an adoption plan for her youngest daughter, K.

For me, birthdays are about spending time with my loved ones, my family and my friends.   I miss my sisters and my parents, now that we live far apart.  Does M feel a missing place at the table, or do our phone calls and birthday wishes help fill the void?  M is a naturally upbeat person, an optimist who always turns toward the hope that a new day provides, and she has never expressed sadness on the phone when we call to say Happy Birthday.  But I’ve learned that what shows up on the outside doesn’t always match what is happening on the inside.  Being an adoptive mom to K is a bit like being an emotion detective.  Is M similar in the way she protects herself from the world?

When we call M today, she sounds happy and light, and K chats with her easily.  For the past nine years, we have sent M flowers on her birthday, but K wants to break with this tradition and pick out something specific to wrap and send, something that she has touched.  The connection feels more tangible.

I’ve read articles written by older adoptees that describe their feelings of grief on their own birthdays, as they process again the separation from their first mothers.  Anniversaries of loss are notoriously tough.  Every Thanksgiving, as I count my blessings, I have a moment where I struggle to take a satisfying breath while remembering the terrible loss of our first baby.  I move on, I heal, but I don’t forget.

I’ve had birthmothers explain to me that adoptive mothers who have lost babies to death still do not understand the pain of a birthmother, because we do not know what it is like to lose your baby but know she lives on, just not with you.  It is true; I do not know what that is like.  It sounds agonizing.  But I know loss as I have experienced it, and I use my own life experiences to empathize with others in the only way I know how.  Much of the fragile bridge between adoptive and birth parents has been built on meeting each other where we can, and those that embrace the shared effort are able to walk delicately across and find an ally.

We all need an ally on our birthdays, because the amount of expectation built into the day already sets a high bar for satisfaction.  In the first decade of her life, my daughter has not displayed anything other than childish excitement and joy on her birthday, but my husband and I have noticed that she was a hot mess in the days leading up to her birthday for the past few years.  It’s hard to say if that behavior occurred because K was in massive transition (returning from sleepaway camp and preparing to restart the school year), or if she was subconsciously accessing complex emotions around being adopted.

Today, on M’s birthday, I study K’s face after she hangs up from talking with M.  She is animated and chatty as she roughhouses with her younger sister.  This is where having a high-functioning open adoption helps us all.  K and M share more connection than many adoptees and birthmothers, so each communication doesn’t feel so desperate.  Our annual visit is a comforting ritual, and both M and K know that any time one wants to speak to the other, she is just a phone call or a text away.

“Isn’t it confusing for K?” people have asked me, upon hearing of our open adoption.  I think about that tonight, as K takes a marker and prepares to sign M’s card.

“Should I write ‘Happy Birthday Mama!’ on the card?” K asks me.

I pause for a minute to consider her request.  K calls me Mama or Mommy, except for when she is mad, and then she calls me Mom, drawing the syllable out in a huffy tone.

I reply, “You can write what you want.  When you speak with her, what do you call her?”  K has always called M by her first name, and that is what she decides to write in the card.   Her actions are deliberate, not confused.

“How do you wrap a box the right way?” she asks.  Together, we measure and cut paper, and I show her how to fold and tape the paper, making neat corners and lines.   We put an enormous fancy white bow on top of the purple paper, taking care to tape it down in the back.

There is a companionable silence as we work.  Our fingers touch, and I place my hand over hers briefly.  She smiles at me.  We finish putting the package into a mailing box, and I promise to send it to M tomorrow.  I picture her opening it, touching the same card that K touched, feeling the unbreakable connection that exists between the two of them, reaffirmed on their birthdays.

Carrie Goldman is the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. Bullied addresses issues of sexualization, gender bias, and bullying.

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