Those in Adoptee-land who will admit it can tell you holidays are hard. Or complicated. Or hell.
Throw in a birthday and you can figure on therapy for life.
I have a love/hate relationship with my birthday. Except for the “love” part. One of the first things I was going to ask my birth mother (if I ever met her) was, “Why?! Why December? Why Christmas!?” As with adoption, only those who have lived it understand. But being adopted and a Christmas baby compounds both issues.
Adoptees already feel as if we were not actually born. This is something Betty Jean Lifton (“Lost and Found”) often mentioned. We weren’t born, we were adopted. And what do birthdays celebrate? The fact you were born. So if you already feel so completely severed from your origins that you cannot imagine yourself as having come from a womb, celebrating your birth is a strange and painful thing. Add a holiday of mammoth proportions (that commemorates what? right–the Messiah’s birth), and that just magnifies the emotions you do not want to feel.
When I was about five I accompanied my adoptive mother to a department store. It had a huge parking lot with light poles. And that day, the light poles had big candles attached to them – sort of like this, only in a 1960s everything-is-plastic sort of way:
I was so excited.
“Are those for my birthday?” Because, you know, candles are for birthdays. And when you’re five, you believe the world revolves around you and businesses decorate for your birthday. I figured Mommy asked them to do it. It made me very happy.
“No, they’re for Christmas,” she gently laughed. And I knew she’d tell Daddy and Aunt Betty the funny thing I said, and I wasn’t happy anymore. It was confusing, having a birthday at Christmastime. Even though my birthday came first, it was an afterthought. Everything was decorated for Christmas. The cake was Christmas-themed. It was all anyone could talk about.
It’s not that I didn’t have birthday parties. My adoptive mother was the ultimate hostess. And everyone loved her. So they carved time out of their busy schedules to attend the fêtes she would organize. I never felt shortchanged in that regard. I got the party. It’s just that it resembled a Christmas party where I got most of the gifts, some of which were the dreaded combination birthday-Christmas presents. (No, I still haven’t forgiven you, Aunt Pearl.) It was just more proof I wasn’t real. Real people get separate gifts. I got birthday gifts in Christmas wrap.
It was like when children have parties for their toys or pets. Although sincere, it’s pretend. My birthday wasn’t real. I wasn’t real. I was still the Velveteen Rabbit. And nothing made that so clear as my birthday, which appropriately happened during the darkest time of the year. I even wondered if my first mother had me then so it would be under the cover of darkness – snuck in, like the present under the tree that no one will admit leaving, to make it look like it was magic.
It was like magic when I was presented, at my grandmother’s on Christmas Eve. My parents walked in with a newborn daughter, after telling no one I had been born and put up for adoption. There are no photos of this Christmas, probably because it was Mom who usually took the pictures, and she was busy holding me and taking care of my young brothers besides. I just don’t understand why no one else thought to do it. A new niece, cousin, granddaughter and no one takes a single picture. When I would look through the family albums, every Christmas was verified with photographic evidence. But that year, the photo card (taken in fall) showed my adoptive parents and brothers on the front porch, my mother most definitely not expecting, and then there were shots of me as a newborn, but not in a Christmassy-way. It was like my first Christmas never happened, and after that my birthdays didn’t happen, just Christmas.
And then there were the half-birthdays. I don’t blame my mother. She wanted me to be able to have an outdoor party, so we tried to celebrate in June two years running. Aunt Pearl didn’t know if I was seven or eight, or if the birthday-Christmas gift she already gave me counted for this or the next one. The half-birthdays were summarily abandoned. They weren’t real either.
I know there are those who think I have nothing to complain about. That I had loving parents who gave me a home and birthday parties while so many others (natural born or adopted) had abuse and neglect. To them, I say I acknowledge what they’re saying, now acknowledge me. Because my pain is real. It’s not about the combination gifts or the hyper-holiday atmosphere. It’s the fact that pain is inherent in adoption. I was always looking for proof I existed, and competing with Christmas was a losing battle. When I looked for proof at age 15, there was deafening silence, and it almost destroyed me. I could not articulate it then, but the void was there. The grief was there.
After reunion I had a “new” aunt. Let’s call her Isabelle. We didn’t have a lot in common, but one thing I always appreciated about her was she remembered my birthday. Sent a separate card for birthday and Christmas, with the birthday card arriving first. This may not seem like a big deal, but it meant the world to me. My birth wasn’t an afterthought. It was a distinctly separate event from Christmas. I mattered. I was real.
Last year, for the first time, she did not send a card. Her health had taken a turn and she could not manage the writing. But while I was out having celebratory coffee, she called and left a voice mail, telling me in her weakened voice, “Happy birthday, honey. I sure hope your day is swell.” I made sure to keep the message as new, just in case, and listened to it from time to time. The following spring, her birthday happened to fall on Easter weekend. I went to see her, and gave her two cards. One birthday, one Easter. She passed away soon after, but not before declaring her birthday-Easter party “swell”.
My phone system needed to be replaced last summer. I didn’t think about the message I so carefully saved. Didn’t occur to me that it would disappear with the old service. By the time I realized, it was too late.
In my present state of agelessness, I should be able to do what I want for my birthday. At least I always thought it would be that way. The kids know what I really want is peace and quiet, and for someone else to make lunch and/or dinner. But what usually happens is:
- I have to drive the kids to/from work or school.
- There is a Christmas event I am somehow obligated to attend.
- People forget what day it is, and will call and never mention my birthday.
- Friends will tell me a month later that they “thought of me” that day.
This year, I really wanted to get away. Take a mini-vacation to somewhere warm. But due to my parents’ health and my finances, it sounds like they will be getting away, while I’ll be here in the cold and dark. I try not to be self-centered, but it stings that they don’t even seem to notice. I’m talking about both my adoptive parents and my birth mother. And now I won’t even have Aunt Isabelle to count on.
I know what I don’t want. I don’t want a party. It’s just too much of a strain. The last time I had a party I was 21 and I made my own cake. People felt put out then, too. They had things to do. They were busy. That’s why I never had another. And being an introvert, big parties exhaust me.
So if you know anyone with a Christmas birthday, please go easy on them. And also go easy on adoptees or mothers-of-loss you may know. The holidays are joyful, but also magnify pain. To suffer any loss during this time is an irony they have to live with forever, and they need to grieve in their own way and at their own pace. Expecting them (or forcing them) to act happy is cruel.
Please, be kind.
Elle Cuardaigh is author of The Tangled Red Thread and she doesn’t like birthdays.