The Other Mrs Reed Warbler celebrated her birthday this weekend. Celebrated is inaccurate. We knew that Little Chick had struggled on my birthday so we purposely made low-key plans, barely acknowledging her special day. But even this passing acknowledgement was still too much for Little Chick.
I fully understand that adoptees’ own birthdays are problematic, bringing together their past and present, their birth and adoptive families. But I couldn’t quite fathom why other people’s special days were so difficult. Rather than remaining ignorant, I turned to Twitter for help, hoping that more experienced adoptive parents – or adoptees themselves, ideally – could clarify just why birthdays are so tricky for (some) adoptees.
As with so many issues in adoption, it appears that fear is at the very heart of the matter. A fear of being forgotten. A fear of being left out. A fear of what has happened. A fear of what could happen. That’s hard. Little Chick is already surrounded by fear due to the transitions of starting school. Adding an extra layer of fear, especially one that he might be forgotten or not wanted as much, is incredibly painful.
The fear of abandonment is extremely real to Little Chick presently. I was a few minutes late for school collection one day and it majorly dented his confidence in me. Worse, it dented his confidence in himself. His already low self-esteem took a battering in those moments and it will take a lot longer for him to recover. At just four years old he has expressed feelings of worthlessness, of being rubbish, of not being important. Being late doesn’t help that. But nor does focusing on other people.
Our plans to bake a birthday cake were shelved, seeing how upset Little Chick was by the thought of not having control. Not being the one to blow out the candles. To control when it is time to cut the cake. To an outsider he may have appeared selfish and spoilt. But we saw him hurting and needing to be seen. So, we each had our own mini cakes, made in mugs, zapped in the microwave. Everyone was equally ‘celebrated’ and there was less chance of overeating, a consequence of anxiety and fear for Little Chick. His relationship with food is complicated (so is my own) but he has improved significantly in the past eighteen months. But since the summer he has fallen back into old habits and looked to food as a comfort again (mind you, I’m probably guilty of this too).
In the long-term we will need to find effective ways to help him. We understand why he sabotages our plans and ruins our day. It doesn’t come from malice but from a place of hurting, a place of fear. But others won’t recognise that. They will label him naughty or silly. Worse, they may think him unkind, when he is anything but.
In the short-term, we will probably avoid birthdays, both celebrating our own and attending peers’ parties. It seems sad that Little Chick is missing out on supposedly nice things, but if these occasions heighten his anxiety and unsettle him then it’s kinder to decline invitations. But not celebrating brings it’s own problems, triggering shame, which many adoptees have by the bucketload. Shame is toxic and consuming. Speaking with other adopters, birthdays will almost certainly get worse before they get better. They may never get better. They may just be annual reminders that, for many, adoption is trauma.
Postscript: I would like to hear from adoptees how they feel about birthdays. Hopefully, they may even feel able to share tips so I can help Little Chick, even if it is telling me what not to do rather than offering solutions.