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Birthday Part 2

Updated: Mar 16

I always have a pit in my stomach when I'm waiting for my adoptive parents to call on my birthday. I'm much too old for presents, but phone calls are a family tradition. This year, they forgot the 15-hour time difference between us and nearly missed calling altogether. I could have reminded them or set a time, but I didn't. Instead, I spent the entire morning like a petulant kid on Christmas Eve, lurking near my cellphone in an impatient funk. I was both annoyed and relieved because the mishap confirmed a self-pitying suspicion and a painful bite of truth: My adoptive family was never great at celebrating me.


Finally, around midday my time, my messenger chat box rang with a video call request. I answered. My adoptive parents were driving back from a night visiting their biological children, cruising the stretch of highway between cities in the dark, squeezing in a video call in the idle moments of their drive. I felt the sting of being an afterthought but didn't say anything. We had a short conversation. They asked all the wrong questions, and we talked more about my husband than me, as usual.

I'm not sure what it was, but I find they are so far removed from my personality and worldview that I prefer to talk about anyone but myself anyway. Phone calls with them have proven to be more and more like an awkward networking hour rather than a call from the people who have known me the longest.


I suppose that's on par with most of my experience. Every birthday was a stark reminder that my own family didn't even know me. By now, it really was an act of networking, where I had to put on the right persona and express the proper interest to establish the right relationships. It was never relaxing, and I never felt seen. In my mind, every gift carried so much weight and endless unspoken demands to conform. I can't think of a single present I got on my birthday that felt like it really 'fit' me. Plenty of gifts aligned with who my adoptive family wanted me to be: Polly Pockets, costume jewelry, matching bright pink heart-patterned sweatpants sets, doll clothes, and, one year, an easy bake oven. I can remember feigning interest in the collection of items they lovingly presented to me every year, trying to find something positive to say about toys that I reluctantly played with in the isolation of my bedroom before I shoved them to the back of a drawer somewhere. I don't remember much about the gifts. I just remember constantly feeling sulky about my birthday presents and then ashamed for being sulky, knowing my parents had tried to give me their best. It was hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment after I spent months asking for things that excited my interest, like toy building sets, roller skates, outdoor gear, mechanical contraptions, art supplies, and the like. One year, when I was around ten or eleven, they actually did buy me an art kit, but it was one of those showy 'all-in-one' kid's kits with a wide variety of inexpensive items - quantity without any quality. I remember opening it with such excitement, only to have it quickly fade to dismay. The markers were already dried out when I opened it, and the paint was entirely liquid with barely any pigment. I grabbed some computer paper to sample the kit with, but after a few minutes of streaking paint and scratching markers, put the kit away and never used it again.


My parents cited this as why they weren't going to buy me hobby supplies for future birthdays.


I distinctly remember hitting middle school and gradually shifting my gift requests to the things I knew they would prefer I show interest in - American Girl Dolls, books, etc. I made a genuine effort to engage with these things. However, they all eventually ended up on the shelf, judging me from their lofty showplace. My family didn't seem to get the hint, though. For my 14th birthday, my oldest brother - who recently graduated from college and was making his first regular paychecks- got me a gift for the first time: a Rapunzel barbie doll. I remember thinking, "he knows I'm a teenager, right? I'm 14. He knows that, right?" even as I turned my head so I could hid the look of disappointment, my mouth gushed "Oh, wow, thank you!"

I put the barbie doll in the corner of my closet and never touched it. That was probably the first time I fully realized that nobody in the family really knew how to celebrate me. They had been happily giving me gifts and throwing birthday celebrations that they thought 'their' little girl would like. Even when I had advocated for my own interests, they simply didn't understand. After that, I used my birthdays to ask for replacement socks, a pair of headphones or something small, like a sketchpad, to try and keep expectations manageable.


When I finally hung up the phone after my adoptive parent's birthday call, I was relieved that adulthood meant there were no longer off-color gifts to feign interest in. I left my phone on the counter, next to the bouquet of flowers my husband had brought me just before he deployed. A small pile of packages was next to them - the very packages I had fought so hard to get to the post office to pick up. They contained three books. One, "Motherhood" by Sheila Heti, the other, "Sister Outsider" by Audre Lourde, and "The Intergenerational Trauma Workbook" by Lynne Friedman-Gell PHD and Joanne Barron PSYD. I did not mention these gifts to my parents when they asked about my birthday plans. I knew my interest in the concepts and the reasoning behind these books would be too contrarian to their worldviews. But now I was alone. They wouldn't walk in while I was reading them. I owed no explanations as to why I was itching to dive into all three. I had no thank-you cards I had to write, it was just me and my birthday gifts. I let my fingers linger on the covers, and decided to start with "Motherhood" first. I melted into the couch to read the author's wry and honest reckoning with childlessness. I soon understood why I had gravitated towards it - I found my own pains echoed in her words. Her tentative wisdom soothed my own soul, and the push-and-pull morality she explored was more meaningful than any conversation I could have had with my own mother figure. The longer I read, the more I realized: my birthday was motherless.

I had no mother to call on my birthday.











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1 Comment


Hi Rae


I love your writing as it is straightforward and deeply honest. How I have longed to say these things that you have said so well. Funny thing is I too have endured all of these same things. Except for the video call, as my generation just had telephones.


I am so glad you have found the miracle and support of books and your own writing.


And you and I will be working together as you coach me. I am thankful for you and your gifts.


I wish you all the best as you discover all of your own truths. Such a journey.


Yours truly, Lim

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