"Nine Belated Birthdays"

We adopted a nine-year-old girl who had never had a birthday party. When she turned 10, we decided to redo all the others to create happy memories with our family for her early years.

Healing adoption trauma through a special birthday event

My daughter was nine years old when my husband and I adopted her. She was abused and neglected during her first four years, and then bounced around foster care for the next five. She’d lived in 12 homes before ours.

Amazingly, she was still willing to give trusting and loving us a shot.

It was — and still is — hard work for all three of us, but she’s attached. We’re a family. We love each other. We’re her parents and she’s our baby.

My daughter is 12 now and in middle school, but doesn’t seek the same level of independence as her peers. She wants to be a little girl. She finally has a mommy and daddy who truly love her, take care of her, and keep her safe, and she isn’t ready for this chapter of her life to close. She missed out on too much.

Birthdays are especially challenging for her. They remind her that she wasn’t always ours, and make her think of all of the hard times she had before us. She often tells us that she wishes we were her first parents, in addition to her last.

One morning last summer she began sobbing and saying that she wished she were only six, and an idea popped into my head. We missed out on her first nine birthdays. Her tenth birthday was the first one we were part of, and it was the first birthday party she’d ever had.

I decided to redo all of the others.

I had her first birthday party all set up when I picked her up from camp that afternoon. I decorated with free printables I found online. I gave her a birthday crown to wear. We sang “Happy Birthday” and ate mini-cupcakes. We talked about the milestones children usually hit at that age and what her first birthday would have been like if she had been with us then. We played “Ring Around the Rosie.” We even gave her gifts to unwrap! (They were possessions she already owned: a playground ball and a book.)

We continued the birthdays over the next couple of weeks, celebrating as a family at dinnertime. Each party had a theme, from Dora the Explorer to cowgirls to high tea.

As I prepared for each party, I wrote my daughter a letter describing how we would have celebrated with her if she’d been with us, and what I thought she would have been like. In each letter I included photos of children of that age who look a little like her; my daughter has very few photos of herself from before she joined our family.

Some of the celebrations were hard and filled with tears. During her fifth birthday redo party, she shared that she was sad because it was the first birthday she spent in foster care. She knew that must have been a really difficult one for her.

Her ninth birthday redo was especially heavy because she was in the midst of a traumatic situation that year.

I tell her all of the time that the only way to process the hard stuff is to deal with it. These birthday redo celebrations have helped her with healing adoption trauma. My daughter now has a file folder in her brain of good memories from these family parties — plus dozens of photos! I hope the positive memories will outweigh the negative over time.


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