Though most adoptive and foster parents read, complete training and try-as best as possible-to prepare for what life and family will be like once their new child arrives home, there is simply SO much that can only be learned through experience. Experience is the best teacher, as the age old saying goes.
Yet, experience can be a cruel and unfair teacher as well, especially when everyone is literally trying as best as they can, with all available knowledge, to do the right thing.
There are so many quirks, pitfalls, challenges and unanticipated obstacles that catch most of us mamas and papas completely off guard, the first or second time around the track. These unique challenges on top of normal stressors can often make daily life debilitating.
One of these fun quirks is the tendency for children who have previously experienced trauma to sabotage big events, holidays and other celebratory occasions. ESPECIALLY is the celebratory occasions centers on them. Seems strange at first, I know. Why wouldn’t a child, who possibly never had a birthday celebration, not want to celebrate, receive gifts and breathe in all the love, all the attention? Especially after all the effort I/we put into making today such a special day for her/him!
Well, it turns out, there are plenty of good reasons, actually. And if I only knew then what experience had to teach me the hard way, I would have certainly prepared better and handled some aspects of birthdays and holidays differently, more privately perhaps, more personal, more focused on what really matters.
I would have spent more time asking my child how he or she was feeling leading up to the event and less time focused on how other people were going to respond to any outbursts, rude comments, quirky or withdrawn behavior, lack of eye contact, etc. on the part of my child. Because whether we mamas and papas want to admit it or not, we often fear the reaction and judgment of others during high visibility occasions, which are the exact occasions when our kids are most likely to become deregulated and not behave according to the script. In fact, they will more than likely crumble up the script and either hurl it directly at us or perhaps even set is ablaze. No joke.
Funny thing though. Experiencing birthdays, holidays and vacation through my trauma children’s eyes also made me realize something so simple and important. Namely, it turns out that my child’s birthday was never about me or my feelings anyway or what other people think about them.
Just change the words to Lesley Gore’s song, It’s My Party, to “It’s her party, she’ll sabotage if she wants to. You would sabotage to if it happened to you” and this pretty much sums up the day. #Joy
Kids from hurt or broken backgrounds sabotage celebratory occasions for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons are unique to their personhood and story. However, some of the reasons have to do with deep-rooted physiological damage from their personal loss/trauma/abuse/neglect that makes our kids feel unworthy of being celebrated, makes them feel worthless. They sometimes feel that they do not deserve to be happy. They feel rejected and tend to think and feel all sorts of horrible and untrue things about themselves. If the pain of knowing your child once endured abuse doesn’t get you, this will: that same child, though safe, is now struggling to believe she IS worthy of being celebrated, DOES deserve to be happy, and rather than being rejected is CLAIMED and LOVED and forever part of a family that will fight for her happiness.
The way trauma works is that it gets into the heart and brain of a child (or adult) and attempts to destroy hope, even when a person is on the road to healing and restoration and all observable circumstances in her or his life points to a good life.
So, as the calendar turned a page and our oldest daughter’s birthday approached, I prepared myself for a range of emotions. Happiness, sadness, depression, excitement, anger, guilt, hope, confrontation and/or withdrawal. Where would she be this year? I wasn’t sure.
The night before her birthday, she was cheerful and chatty. She talked about her friends at school, she seemed excited for the simple fact that the next day was her birthday and I could sense no sadness creeping in. I went with it and made sure I was up early (a rarity) to see her walk downstairs to her cards and flowers, and to say happy birthday before she hopped on her zero dark thirty bus to school.
After school, she returned home happier than in the morning. Friends had decorated her locker, written her cards, gave her some gifts and truly made her feel special. And she accepted this! Not only did she accept it, she glowingly shared stories from the day with me and showed me the kind words and cards her friends had made. There was no rejection, no shunning, no sabotaging!
The night continued to get better as we headed over to church for dinner and small group. She asked me if I could pick up a few friends on the way, because she wanted them to be with her for birthday. I happily obliged and spent 90 minutes in rush hour traffic looping around NOVA to scoop up her friends.
She continued to allow herself to be celebrated in simple ways. Friends and teachers from church sang happy birthday to her, she loved the simple fact that her name was on the cake–that other people cared enough to wish her a happy birthday. All smiles, no tears and still no sense of things turning south. Could this be? Would we make it through the entire day?
After church, I dropped off her friends and we headed home for the final portion of her day: opening presents. As we gathered around the dining room table, all seven of us, she carefully opened each card, read every word and then opened her gifts one by one. She seemed surprised by the fact that the gifts she requested on her list were actually the ones she was opening, even though we had previously celebrated in very similar ways. As she opened each wearable present, she put it on and jokingly modeled it for us.
As she opened her final gift, a heart-shaped pendant from her dad, her emotions came to a head. As tears filled her eyes, I could see that she was beginning to battle internally with the voices-the ones telling her she isn’t worthy. The voices trying to remind her of the lies she is working so hard to forget. The lies that create the scars that live deep within. The voices telling the lies that we evict each and every day.
She tried to push the gift away. She put it back in the box and pushed it across the table, saying “no, no, no!” She tried to tell us 101 reasons why she shouldn’t have the gift: I don’t follow the rules, I got in trouble that one time, I was late for class, etc. etc.
But the voices didn’t stand a chance this time. The lies were weakening their grip and she was increasing in strength. She dug deep, through her tears, and accepted our imperfect words and displays of love and comfort. She accepted our hugs. She accepted her celebration and she accepted the simple gift. She even let me put it on her. It was a very happy birthday!
The truth is that we, the parents, didn’t do anything differently this year in terms of how we celebrate. The cards, balloons, flowers, cake and gifts have all been there before. The difference was that after a few years of growing closer to us and learning to trust again, SHE was ready to begin to accept that she absolutely is worthy of being celebrated and loved. She was ready to accept that her birthday really could be happy after all.
This particular story of life, purpose and redemption has been an amazing and painful journey all at once. To be part of her story, one of her mamas, has been such an amazing gift. She is wise beyond her years and capable of much more than she can imagine. I have watched God do the impossible in her: heal hurts, restore hope and bridge a gap between two families, two continents, two worlds that nearly seemed unbridgeable just three short years ago. I am equally excited to witness what is yet to come.
While the words “happy birthday” may roll off our tongues with little or no thought, this mama is beyond thankful that our daughter did indeed have one very happy birthday this year.