Today is my Mini Me’s 12th birthday. Her big blue eyes have been rolling all week, because I dragged out baby pictures left and right all week. Mini me sighs heavily, simply because a recollection of our connection, is already very real to her. For children in foster care, this day of birth comes with a painful clause in small writing. It is a reminder that their personal past has been erased or deleted. It is a reminder of a history often long gone or wrought with pain.
Birthdays are a celebration of life, it is a mark of importance of the child to his or her family. Foster children have been abused, neglected, or lived with a parent with addictions who is gone, and so this validation of importance is not fed. The violent, or tragic separation or abandonment, of children by their parent or both parents rings loudly on this day. A connection to the happy event of their birth is often not ever born or shared with them. Generally, the day is wrought with mystery, confusion, or even memories of physical pain.
For mini me, however, the glow of my pregnant body 12 years ago is real and familiar. She does not know it yet, but those memories are a source of comfort and security for her young soul. This security is present every day. It steadily deepens, as it should, consistently. Her growth is full of memories of first steps, hospital visits at 2 am, me crying in the preschool parking lot, graduations, holidays, disappointments, losses, heartbreaks and mends, scraped knees, road trips, cooking together, concerts, bedtime stories, mom/daughter arguments, school mornings, the unknown, bullying, grades; the normal parenting dynamic. Her eye roll is right on target.
For children in foster care, on the other hand, like myself as a child, a birthday is a reminder of a physical connection, that feels like it never existed. Often, there is no dusty photo of a pregnant mother. There is no mother, there is no father. There is little or no generational lineage. Often, their own personal histories have been deleted as if life before foster care did not exist. Depending on the age a child enters care, the mother or father may simply be a stranger they feel responsible for during transient visits.
It is like a bad Hollywood movie, where either the “system” has erased your beginnings, or you have pushed the memories so far down, they have dissipated.
For me, I still have never seen a photo of myself before I was in foster care. It is as if I just appeared on the planet at about 5 years old. No baby photo, no pregnant mother..just a whirlwind of confusion. I have read of refugees who feel similar, except that their world is left behind a big ocean, whereas mine was left a borough away. Often new foster families instigate this, by wanting foster children to pretend that other siblings or parents existed or do exist.
This is an unhealthy way to deal with this tragic upheaval. And it can wreak havoc on a developing child. No one deserves their past to be erased, a good one or a bad one. It must be known to be handled emotionally.
For me, my birthday is the same month and day as my biological mother. I was placed in foster care at a young age, after I was found locked in a basement and abused over a long period of time. I was permanently separated from a brother who I cried for, for a long time. My mother had supervised visits with me at social services until she never showed up again when I was 10. Oddly she was pregnant the last time I saw her, and I remember that day, wondering if she remembered me being in her womb.
Sharing her birthday was an ironic twist of fate. For years, I would dread the day because it reminded me of her and because it made me wonder if she thought of me. Those are painful thoughts for a child. Even my name, which is hers, was a reminder I did not want. My face, my features, conjured up a confusion that was often not easy to put to rest.
As years went by my hatred of this day softened, I shared laughs with friends, I celebrated being alive, I celebrated new siblings, new life, new chances. Still, once in a while I would go to a friend’s birthday party, see the baby pictures come out, hear the adults talking, and that old familiar pain would show up.
It took a long time to not avoid those celebrations. I was grateful that as part of the moving on process, I put that emotion on a well-hidden shelf. Only in recent years, since my own daughter was born, have I wanted to celebrate my birthday again or hear the infancy tales of friends. It is the peace of motherhood that helped me to validate my history and to enjoy validating others’ personal pasts.
There are birthday/celebration solutions for kids in care who are placed in good homes. Picking another birthday helps and can be fun, depending on the child. Every child deserves a celebration for simply being brought into the world. And they deserve it without the pain of feeling like the world did not need them or that they appeared out of dust. The good, bad, and the ugly in their past should not be unknown. I believe in open records for this reason. But, there is nothing wrong with finding a new day that brings up positive memories. For decades to come, this new day of birth can help them see their own worth.
When politicians, social workers, teachers, advocates, and journalists debate ways to break the cycle for foster children (refugee children, homeless children, transient unaccompanied children), is there a better way than to let them celebrate themselves?
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