Holidays and Adoption: Complicated for All

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     In the United States, “the holidays” can mean the entire period from Hallowe’en to Valentine’s Day. Many with adoption connections both long for and try to avoid this entire time of year. It is also the season of shorter, colder days, less noticeable in New Mexico’s climate, but still a contrast to long, warm, sunny summer days. How can one look forward to holidays and at the same time dread them? There are a variety of reasons, some of which relate to individual histories or preferences, and some of which are related to adoption issues, both from childhood and the present.
     Starting with adult adoptees, they might, both as children and as adults, have longed for connection with birth families during the holiday season, wondered who those people might be and what they might be doing, wondered if birth family thought about them, and may have felt lonely for them, even in an unconscious way. Adoptive families might or might not have been aware of the adoptees’ thoughts and feelings, and might have felt threatened if they did know, or might have experienced the same thoughts and feelings but did not share them. If a person was adopted after infancy, they might have memories of holidays with birth family, and those might be happy or sad memories. Again, it is likely they didn’t share those memories with adoptive families. The shadow of these unexpressed thoughts and feelings has a subtle effect of dampening holiday joy without anyone being aware of it.
     In adult life, adoptees may have wanted to search for birth families, may have been in the process during the holidays, either openly or secretly, or may have been newly reunited around that time. Those things could also affect one’s experience of the holiday season. After reunion, celebration of the holidays can get very complicated, especially if one has ongoing contact with birth family. Should one focus on birth family or adoptive family, or try to balance both? And what about one’s spouse’s or partner’s family? What if there is now another generation? Do the kids celebrate with up to four sets of grandparents? Should they alternate years? Every family works to find their best solution at a given time, and sane arrangements work better than others. Some single adult adoptees try to just opt out by not celebrating at all, or by leaving the country during the height of the season if possible. However, the stressful thoughts, emotions and memories find their way into people’s heads no matter where they are.
     For birth parents, there is another set of feelings and memories. Due to the nine-month nature of pregnancy, birth mothers were either pregnant during the holidays or had recently relinquished. In some cases, they got pregnant during the holidays, or actually gave birth during that season. In any case, there are bound to be some powerful memories of the holidays connected to pregnancy and relinquishment. Some of these will be different for birth mothers than for birth fathers, obviously, but in no case are these apt to be really happy memories.
     To give a couple of personal examples, this writer felt very alone and abandoned on Thanksgiving of that year, as supportive friends were out of town visiting friends, and parents (who were not supportive, at that time) were not around. Keeping up a good appearance and coping as best I could, I spent the next month baking cookies, shopping as much as finances allowed, and decorating a rather large Christmas tree which the landlord had generously and lovingly provided. Dreaming of future Christmases with a spouse and children helped make that one a little more bearable, and it was not the worst Christmas of my life, by any means. There was some comfort in the knowledge that the growing child was apparently healthy, that his adoptive family was waiting already, and that spring would bring a new start. Nevertheless, I experienced profound sadness and grief over not being able to keep this child, of being at home with family, however dysfunctional they were, and the whole idea of secrecy and hiding.
     Years later, after being reunited with this son, reading Carol Schaefer’s The Other Mother brought back all the feelings and memories. Our sons were born within a few weeks of each other, so her story of that same Christmas was almost unbearably familiar. Certain Christmas tree ornaments were kept over the years, partly as a reminder that that Christmas really did happen, that there were sweet memories as well as sad ones, and even as a way of keeping alive the hope of finding him again. Now those same ornaments are reminders that there were kind and caring people and that life continues. He has seen those ornaments and been told their significance.
     Many years and many holidays have passed, countless thousands more cookies baked, stockings hung and grandchildren have been present to celebrate. Yet there is usually a moment when the memories of being alone and unwelcome returns, suddenly and like a flood. Rather than try to deny the feelings or dwell on them, acknowledging them, sitting with than for a while, and then moving on to the present seems the best way to deal with them now.
     For adoptive parents, it might seem on the surface that holidays would bring mostly happy memories of having adopted a child, of celebrating with that child and with others who rejoiced in the adoption, and feelings of being a family at last. While this is certainly often the case, there may also be memories of longing for that child, or any child, for years previous, memories of miscarriages or stillbirths, of anxiety over whether the birth mother would really relinquish the child. There may be hurt memories of relatives who slighted the adopted child over genetically related children, and later issues of the adoptee searching or wanting to, or spending the holidays (or some portion of them) with birth family. For any family whose adult children spend time with a spouse or partner’s family, there is a necessary adjustment of priorities and the need for sharing with a wider family, but the added dimension of birth families is difficult for some adoptive families, particularly those who have not been comfortable with the idea that the adoptee had another family all along, known or not. They may or may not be open in discussing their thoughts and feelings with the adoptee, with other family, or with close friends.
     Additionally, spouses, subsequent offspring, and other extended family members, may realize that there is some kind of underlying sadness going on and may or may not know exactly what it’s about or how to handle it. A birth parent’s other offspring, either as children or adults, may not know about the relinquished one, may not understand their parent’s sadness or overcompensating cheerfulness and need for a huge celebration every year. Birth grandparents may be unable to discuss the past or make amends to the birth parent, even if they want to do so. A spouse may want to deny that another child (or adult) exists somewhere. Siblings of birth parents may not know of the relinquished relative, while siblings of the relinquished one may sense that there is a secret but have no idea they have another sibling. Families with international, intercultural adoptions may wonder whether to also celebrate holidays of the adoptee’s culture or religion of origin.
     There are no overall best answers to the dilemma of holidays and adoption issues. Many reunited adoptees find themselves juggling adoptive family, birth family (or two) and spouse’s family. Some have chosen to alternate, some have chosen to just include everyone in one big get-together, and some have chosen to ignore the whole thing and take a trip. Children with “extra” grandparents generally see it as fortunate if the adults are okay. “More grandparents, more people to love me, more presents,” is how many of them express their feelings about it. They seem no more confused than children in other families where they try to sort out various aunts and uncles, cousins and parents’ friends.
     It may be helpful for adoptees to confront and accept their own mixed feelings about having more than one family, their yearnings and hopes. Birth parents may want to anticipate some moments of sadness and have a plan for them in terms of setting aside a little time for themselves, of having someone in whom to confide, and placing limits upon themselves so that they do not dwell for hours or days on sad memories or feelings that deteriorate into wallowing in self-pity. Allow the feelings to visit but don’t give them permanent free rent in one’s head, is one way to put it.
     Adoptive parents may be surprised at their own feelings of sadness, believing that the fact of adoption (acquiring one or more children) should wipe out any sad memories of past holidays. They may also not welcome the adult adoptee’s need to connect with birth family, and may even be surprised at their own feelings about this. Acceptance of their feelings, but a conscious decision to support the adoptee, get to know the birth family if possible, and not pressure the adoptee into “taking care of” adoptive parents’ feelings will almost certainly result in more harmonious relationships for everyone involved.
     Finally, it is important to realize that holidays are a time of heightened emotions and expectations for nearly everyone, whether they have adoption connections or not. Aside from commercial hype and children’s hopes for various gifts, there is a societal hope for love and joy in general as well as in one’s family. Two now-classic movies that illustrate this are National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Both are comedies, but each has an underlying theme of yearning for the perfect holiday where loving families are together. The reader can no doubt think of other films with similar themes. That’s why they have become classic—nearly everyone can relate to the yearning for perfect holidays which never turn out that way. So, indulge yourself a little, and do what you can to help others, both within and outside of your family. Do something new this year, and give something (not necessarily material) to someone else who isn’t expecting it. You may experience a new joy and they may as well.

Excerpted from the January 2012 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2012 Operation Identity