Holiday Wishes, Lasting Gifts

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     The holidays can be a stressful time in our culture for almost everyone, and even more so whenthere are adoption connections. The term “holidays” currently seems to mean the entire time period from at least Halloween through Valentine’s Day, and particularly centers around Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, and New Year’s. Some folks celebrate all these and more, some celebrate none, but are nevertheless affected by the generally emotionally charged atmosphere. Nearly everyone has memories of past holiday seasons, both pleasant and unpleasant, yearnings and wishes still in our hearts and minds, and hopes for this and future years.
     Families and individuals with adoption connections may have another level of stress, whether open or closed adoption, reunited or not. In some ways, it may be similar to families where there has been divorce or death and remarriage. There are decisions to be made concerning whom to visit or who will host, when, where, for how long, who doesn’t want to see whom else, or does, and so on. Any family with more than one set of grandparents has some of this, too. However, adoptive families also may be dealing with secrets, multiple identities, and feelings of ownership or loss. Nearly everyone in these situations hopes for a happy solution to the dilemmas, but doesn’t always find those solutions. Suppose, for instance, a family has a child in an open adoption. Does the child get to see birth family during the holidays? Does the adoptive family host birth family, or go to visit, or is it only written or telephone communication? There may be fears of confusing the child, of the child’s possible preference of one family over another, of one group or person outspending or out-something another. This does, indeed, happen in other families. A friend once said that when her first child was small, they would open presents at home on Christmas Eve, then drive all night to get to the husband’s parents to open more presents on Christmas Day, until the little boy said, “No more presents!”
     In a closed adoption, whether the adoptee is a child or an adult, there may be unspoken fears about whether the adoptive parents are good enough, real enough, or whether the adoptee is good enough or real enough. Concerns about a child learning the “truth” about Santa Claus may pale in comparison to concerns the child (or even adult) will find out the “truth” about his/her birth parents. Adoptive parents may have sad memories of past holidays when they were wishing for a child, or had lost a child. Not wanting to burden the adoptee with these memories, they may not speak of them, but the sense of sadness and anxiety come through.
     An adoptee, child or adult, who has not been reunited with birth family, may have fears of not pleasing adoptive family, may wonder about birth family and wish to know them, or may be afraid to even wish that. Loyalty and gratitude issues are very big around holidays in particular. Those who were not relinquished in infancy may have definite happy or unhappy memories of holidays past, and may not want to deal with those memories, or may have distorted them, either to make them seem better, or worse, and this may be influenced by adoptive family and their reactions. There is also the possibility that some extended family is open to dealing with this while others are not. There are still families who will not speak of the fact of adoption, and there are even still families where an adoptee is considered somewhat of an outsider, just as a daughter-in-law, son-in-law, or other created family may be perceived as an outsider. Most people wish this were not so, that everyone just considered everyone else the same, but wishing doesn’t always make it so.
     Birth parents also have holiday wishes and yearnings. A birth mother, whether she is reunited or not, or even in an open adoption, will most likely have memories and yearnings concerning the holidays, remembering being pregnant, or giving birth, or having recently relinquished. Since a pregnancy lasts nine months, we can assume that at least 3/4 of birth mothers have such memories. She may or may not talk about these, or about current wishes and yearnings concerning the relinquished offspring. Many do not share these thoughts and feelings with even a spouse or best friend, let alone other children if they have them. Family members may sense the underlying sadness but not know what it is about. A birth mother may be wishing for a reunion but is afraid to initiate a search, or believes she in not legally or ethically entitled to do that, or does not know how, or even may have searched and not found or the offspring has been located but has not been open to a reunion. Others may have had an initial reunion, but the relationship did not develop well. Even when there is a good relationship in reunion, she may yearn for more closeness, or believe she can never do enough to make up for not being able to raise her child. She may also be trying to strike a balance between that relinquished person and her other offspring, or between the offspring and her current spouse or partner.
     It does seem that all parents, all offspring, all families wish for happiness, for the “perfect Christmas” or perfect situation, and the more they yearn for that, the more it seems out of reach. Those who grew up with less-than-happy holidays often try very hard, every year, to do it perfectly, to do everything, and end up feeling exhausted and disappointed. Others protect themselves from these feelings by just not celebrating at all and pretending they don’t care, or by trying to keep everything so controlled, so low-key, that they become very isolated. Some couples who have only one child, who is adopted, opt to keep to themselves lest some other family member talk about adoption when they do not wish to, or just because they want the child all to themselves, not being emotionally able to share her/him with others. Some get around this by taking a trip during the holidays, where no other family is around. Some, either consciously or unconsciously, are particularly afraid at this time of year, that the birth family will somehow intrude and snatch the child away, even if the “child” is now 45 years old. A birth mother, even in reunion, may fear that the birth father will show up and steal the child’s affections, tell a whole different story that puts her in a bad light, or just have more charm, more money, more allure for the relinquished son/daughter than she does. Again, she may not disclose these fears, or even be fully aware of them. She may overtly wish the birth father to be found but secretly fear it, just as the adoptive parents may wish that about birth parents.
     So, if we can’t go back and undo that past, nor bring about the perfect holiday season by wishing and yearning, what can we do? What kind of lasting gifts can we give, not in material terms but in emotional or spiritual terms? The first thing we can all do is to let go of the wish to have that perfect season under our perfect control. We have to deliberately open our fists sometimes literally!) and allow ourselves and others to be who they are, to have their own thoughts, feelings, desires, and behaviors. This is, of course, easier said than done, and must be done over and over, whenever the urge to control, to limit, to give in to fears and resentments, arises. That might mean not seeing as much of one’s family as one would wish, or seeing more of them. It might mean not giving a material gift or giving a different one. It might mean accepting others’ wishes when we don’t really want to do so. It might also mean accepting information one would rather not know, or disclosing information one has kept secret. Perhaps the most precious gift for an adoptee might be information about birth parents. Many times a birth mother has not disclosed the identity of the birth father because of the circumstances. While it is not appropriate to disclose to a five-year-old that she was conceived in rape, it is also not appropriate to refuse to tell an adult their father’s name. People can handle information that is less than wonderful, if it is the truth. We can also acknowledge to ourselves, and to others we trust, our true feelings, thoughts, hopes, and wishes, not by having a crying, self-pitying fit at dinner, but by speaking openly in safe surroundings. Sometimes we’ll also need to bite our tongues when we’re tempted to lash out at someone.
     In concrete terms of a gift, adoptive parents who have been resistant to reunion could look at their fears, and tell their adopted son or daughter that they will support them in any effort at reunion, including helping search, giving than whatever information they have, agreeing to meet birth family, and encouraging search and continued relationships after the initial reunion. There are times when it might even be appropriate to help financially with a search if the adoptee needs and wants such help. The gift of openness and information benefits not only the adoptee, but also the parents and other family members, who can relax when they don’t need to keep secrets, and perhaps they can even accept the adoptee more fully for all that he/she is, not having to pretend “he’s just like us.” Just as couples who have to adapt and adjust the customs and traditions of their families of origin in order to have their own holiday traditions, adoptive and birth families can adapt, adjust, and accept each other. Before we can open our hearts, however, we may need to open our minds, in terms of deliberately focusing on doing what’s difficult, and before we can open our minds, we may have to open our fists, unclench our teeth, and let go! These actions are gifts of ourselves as well as to each other; far more precious than all the material items we could want or could purchase.

Excerpted from the January 2013 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2013 Operation Identity