Both my kids' birthdays fall during March. It's a fun month, but for our family it also has complications. I'm not talking about making dozens of cupcakes at the same time we're cleaning the kitchen for Passover. I'm talking about the meaning of a "birth" day. We adopted our kids five years ago as preschoolers, so they are celebrating their birth without their birth parents, and they know it.
For many kids who live, even temporarily, without the people who gave birth to them, birthdays can be a time of grieving. Besides adopted kids, I've met foster kids and kids who have lost a parent through divorce or illness who feel this sadness. Then there are kids whose parents are incarcerated or hospitalized, kids conceived by technologies using a donor or surrogate who isn't part of the family, kids who...well, you get the picture. And the grief doesn't always go away. I know adopted adults who still find birthdays sad.
My kids -- turning 8 and 9 this month -- intellectually understand the losses they have sustained. They know that a Russian mom and dad gave life to them, their orphanage "mama" cared for them, and my husband and I adopted them to be their parents forever. Emotionally, however, my children are only beginning to comprehend their narrative. At some point, they will realize that Peter and I chose to raise them because their birthparents chose not to. When that understanding dawns, their birthdays may become very sad.
So how can we adults make birthdays easier for children who might grieve? Here are some suggestions.
1. Consult with kids about how to celebrate. In this and many other basic scenarios (e.g., what food to eat, which toy to play with, etc.), kids feel better when they feel they have some control. So, if your child chooses not to have a big party, go with it.
2. Notice behavior changes before, during, and after the big day. Sleep problems, nightmares, crankiness, sullen silence, and so on can signal grief that a child might have trouble expressing directly. Keep an eye out, be patient and calm, and offer TLC.
3. Welcome conversations about their history. Kids might not know it's OK to discuss their history -- and even if it is uncomfortable for you, it's good to honor these conversations, whether they or you bring it up. Just knowing the adults are receptive can comfort a grieving child.
4. Support the desire, if any, to honor their absent parent(s) or birth culture. If the child is interested, perform a ritual from their country of origin, light an extra candle to honor someone, or contribute to a meaningful charity.
5. Make the home a safe place for retreat. Consider hosting the party outside the home (e.g., playground, movie theatre, miniature golf, ice cream parlor) so the comfort of home is there afterwards.
6. If possible, keep the celebration small. Some kids might be excited about a big party; others not. If the latter, a kid who is overwhelmed by sensory stimulation, sugar, or tons of people will also probably have difficulty processing their feelings.
7. Stick to routine as much as possible, even on the day itself. Kids love routine and when dealing with stressful situations, routine can provide reassurance.
8. Allow kids down-time on and around the day itself. Keep an eye on signals of exhaustion and stress (that often lead to meltdown). Give your child space and down-time if need be, even if it means entertaining well-meaning birthday visitors on your own for a while.
This year, my kids have chosen to have their parties at a nearby indoor playground. They're inviting only a few close friends each. The celebrations will be limited, and the rest of each child's day will follow our the usual routine. We expect to have a blast, but we'll be ready to cuddle, comfort, and listen if necessary.
Image credit: birthday banner via stitchinnetka on Etsy