Bits of wrapping paper confettied the living room floor. The computer-generated, hand colored “Happy Birthday” banner hung crooked above the door. Chocolate cake crumbs scattered across the table looked like ants at a nightclub, clustered and crusty. The festive state of the house was a façade over the face of the battle brewing, and the elephant in the room was getting ready to lead the brigade.
Every year, like clockwork, on or around my older daughter’s birthday a proverbial elephant parks its big ol’ gray butt in the middle of our living room. Every year we hope it won’t show up, but it always does. Every year we hope it will be smaller than last year, but it never is. Every year the elephant in the room fouls the air we breathe, replacing the sweet aroma of frosting with the stench of my daughter’s fears. Her fear of abandonment. Her fear of rejection. Her fear of not being loved.
Like any other Wednesday evening, I stated our family rule, ‘No Facebook until your homework is done,’ in my older daughter’s general direction. But this was not any other Wednesday evening. This was the Wednesday evening that followed her birthday. Her seventeenth birthday and my words were a declaration of war. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize it at first. All I saw was her usual glazed-over internet eyes coupled with an almost imperceptible Facebook-fodder-smirk which I took to mean:
a) she didn’t hear me.
b) she heard me and will close out of Facebook any minute now.
c) she heard me and is choosing to ignore me.
Each was a possibility depending on the day, and most days the situation could be resolved without the need for animal control to wrangle the elephant about to be unleashed, but not this time.
I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I chose to believe her non-action reaction meant she heard me and would close out of Facebook any minute now.
So I waited… and waited..and waited some more. After about twenty (more than generous) minutes, I reiterated my request with a little more conviction. As I said, “Close out of Facebook and finish your homework,” I also maneuvered the computer mouse to the X in the upper right hand corner and clicked.
BOOM Facebook was gone.
BOOM My daughter’s glazed look disappeared.
BOOM My daughter’s smirk dissolved.
Uh-oh. I braced myself.
“You. Don’t. Love. Me! You’ve never loved me because I’m not your real daughter!” she trumpeted, every word punctuated with her spitting on me.
The elephant was awake. The elephant was poised. The elephant was ready to charge. The elephant was my child.
As her saliva misted my stunned features I realized her annual birthday tantrum had begun. The elephant dung had been flung.
You see, my daughter joined our family by adoption. Even though she has been in our arms, our home, and our hearts since she was 36 hours old, she still has deep-seated fears: Fear of abandonment. Fear of rejection. Fear of not being loved. Her adoptive status is the elephant in the room and it rears its ugly head every year on or around her birthday.
Why her birthday? you may wonder. Her birthday is an annual reminder of the fact that her birthparents are not parenting her. To her, this means she was abandoned. Her birthday is an annual reminder of the fact that she was adopted. To her, this means her birth parents rejected her. Her birthday is an annual reminder of the fact that she feels an intense loss. To her, this means she was not loved.
My daughter’s first experience on planet Earth was loss. Yes, her birthmother made a loving and responsible adult plan for her child, but on a cellular and unconscious level, my daughter feels a profound loss, seventeen years later.
Even though my husband and I had nothing to do with this plan other than to say, “Yes, we’ll come to the hospital and love this baby,” my daughter feels a profound loss. Even though my daughter doesn’t want to have a birthday tantrum every year, she does because she feels a profound loss.
This birthday was the first time my daughter was close to the same age her birth mother was when she gave birth – a fact that was not lost on her. This birthday was technically her last as a “child” in legal terms. Many changes were coming and she knew it. This birthday my daughter took her annual tantrum to the next level. All her grief, panic, and trepidation fed the elephant until it knew no bounds. Fortunately, I took my elephant-taming-Zen to the next level, as well.
I stood stock still in front of her as she screamed, “I HATE YOU!” with every fiber of her being. She was not going to bait me into abandoning her. I endured as she F*bombed me repeatedly and continued to spit on me. The sting of her saliva punctuated by the cold air conditioned air. She was not going to torment me into rejecting her.
I held my ground as she physically pushed and shoved me. She was not going to anger me into telling her I didn’t love her. Through it all, I didn’t abandon her or reject her or tell her I didn’t love her. On the contrary. I simply repeated, “You are loved. You are wanted. We will never go away from you.” Over. And over. And over.
Eventually she calmed down. The screaming quieted, the cussing stopped, the spit dried up, and the pushing and shoving turned to hugging. The charging elephant morphed back into my sweet, scared, sorry daughter. Intellectually, she understands the concept of her adoption, but emotionally, not so much.
More than likely the elephant will crash her next birthday (and the one after that, and the one after that, and so on) by parking its big ol’ uninvited gray butt in the middle of our lives again. But when it does, I’ll be there, by my daughter’s side, until she has nothing to fear.