By Janell Strube
Most December babies get called Christmas babies, but I was no Christmas gift– unless you consider regifting a baby to be a valid present.
Years ago, I stumbled across the book, Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their
Adoptive Parents Knew, by Sherrie Eldridge. A blurb on the back cover said something about birthdays being painful, and something twanged inside me. It was the first written material I’d seen on the subject of adoption outside of a newspaper article I’d read while living in Europe in my early 20s. That newspaper article had stated that adopted girls often had eating disorders and some adoptees described themselves as coming from another planet. At that time I thought, Do you mean to tell me someone else did that too?
And now, here was a book about adoption issues from the adoptee’s perspective so I grabbed it. Maybe there was something for me to learn as a parent about birthdays. After all, on his 19th birthday, my adopted son had harmed himself in a way that impacted his life for years. On another, he threatened to call the police if I came to see him. And maybe there was something in here for me to learn about myself. Without peeking inside the book, I took my prize to the checkout counter and rushed home to get some insight.
Little did I know as I flipped through the pages and came across the “Adoptee Bill of Rights,” that I would trigger my own crisis of unresolved emotions. I didn’t make it through chapter one before I dropped the book, unable to read further. It was as though I had opened a pressurized metal can and something dangerous sprang out that I couldn’t put back inside.
I wasn’t ready to deal with those issues for my own adopted self, let alone use the information in the book to understand my son’s pain. The one thing I took away from the book was the fact that some adopted persons were at risk of committing suicide around their birthdays.
I re-examined my thoughts and actions around the anniversary of my birth.
Often, I just wanted to hide in my bed. I would think about how bad this day was for my birthmother, lying in a hospital bed leaking milk, not allowed to see me. I would think about baby me lying in a hospital nursery bassinet, screaming for her. How my birth grandmother came in to look at me and left. How my mother’s parents never wished me “Happy Birthday.” How my father’s family didn’t know I existed, while, in the words of my cousin, my mother’s side “ejected” me.
How could I be happy on such a day?
This thought process may have been made worse in a family that for religious reasons celebrated nothing. We were taught to put Jesus first, others second, ourselves last. That was the true definition of joy, we were told. We had to deny ourselves, our wants, and our desires. How could I be upset when I was supposed to be thankful I had a family who had chosen me? Even though I was an alien in their midst and was nothing like them at all.
And so I packed my emotions into a deep place inside myself, went to work, kept busy, booked faraway training conferences where no one knew it was my birthday, moved across the world where no one knew me at all.
Once, I walked Fisherman’s Wharf for hours on my birthday. That night, I bought an In-and-Out meal for a homeless teenager I found sitting against a streetlamp, writing poetry with a stubby pencil in a tiny notepad, his dog beside him. I took my crab cocktail back to my room and ate it alone, not answering any phone calls. That might have been my lowest birthday, but somehow that young man saved me – I wanted him and his writing to live and succeed. I wanted me and my writing to live and succeed.
Even though I didn’t finish reading Eldridge’s book, the danger of not celebrating life, not celebrating self, not feeling joy in my own existence, seeped into me. If I didn’t, or couldn’t, celebrate myself, if I didn’t love me, who would? I began a study of joy, a feeling of deep, abiding happiness and a sense of security.
It took a long time, but last year, for the first time in my life, I put in for a day of vacation on my birthday. I bought tickets to music and literary events no one else in my family would dream of attending. And I bought myself a huge present – I paid to develop a personal brand, to bring some coherence to me. As a person adopted at birth, I came into a strange land without a map or a compass and this was a way to find my authentic self, to find and celebrate the me who walks this earth. My brand reflects the spirit that drives me, the gifts I bring to this world, my desire to pluck words of apple and silver out of the universe to share with others.
Fast forward to this year. My brand is done. I have a better understanding of why I write what I do. I see my way to purpose on this earth. Yesterday, as birthday wishes flooded in around midnight from Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Dubai, and moved across the world like New Year’s fireworks, I reflected on the adoptee’s life that drove me to wander the planet to find myself. That journey led to all the special people I’ve met and the unique and wonderful life I’ve led. A life that no one else could live. My life.
I spent the day shopping for sparkly clothes, buying shiny jewelry. Getting purply red nails. Last night I ate out with friends and family. It was not just about celebrating my life, but rather celebrating life —four of us at the table had just completed our latest trip around the sun.
For a few seconds, I let myself dwell on the old grandparent sorrow, the bittersweet pain of my birth mother, then let it go.
Today, I am here to live.
I have learned to give myself the gift of joy and happiness, of well-being, comfort, and security, and to seek those who can love me for myself. On this day, I have no time to spend on my grief, my primal trauma, only time to live and build beautiful memories on a day that should always have been a joyous occasion for me.
Janell Strube is a biracial author and poet. The themes of her writing cover the layers of life she’s experienced as a U.S. domestic transracial adoptee, foster mom, and adoptive mom searching for family and belonging. She is the author of the forthcoming historical novel, Adelaide, Painter of Royalty/Painter of Revolution. She is currently working on a memoir, Not That Black: Growing Up Biracial and Adopted into a White Family in the 1960s. Janell’s work has appeared in the San Diego Poetry Annual, A Year in Ink, and in Shaking the Tree: Brazen. Short. Memoir. Learn more about Janell by visiting her website, Home - Janell Strube, and subscribe to her Substack at Janell’s Substack | Janell Strube | Substack.
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