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Adoption Secrets and Surprise Parties

by Laura on March 6th, 2013

I hate surprise parties. Specifically, being on the receiving end. Oh, the mere thought creates a wave of anxiety in my stomach.

I hate the idea of having a surprise party thrown for me, and I have no real, true idea exactly why. In middle school, my best friend and mom organized a lovely (surprise) birthday party for me. My mom was so proud to have amassed my friends; a difficult task with families inevitably on summer vacation during my August birthdate.

I was devastated. Beyond mad. With hot tears streaming down my face, I pleaded with her not to have to say at the party. Before she drove away, I demanded, “How. could. you?”

I felt betrayed, but couldn’t put into words what in the world I felt betrayed by. Intellectually, I knew I should have felt happy. My mom was beyond confused. It was supposed to be fun. … What’s the big deal?

My guess is that it’s a combination of factors, especially the “minor” detail about me being a control-freak. But there’s more to it, and it has to do with secrets and lies.

The idea of people I love … colluding behind my back … tricking me, lying to me … for the purpose of something I’m supposed to then celebrate and yes, be grateful for? Ummmm, I call shenanigans.

For this adoptee, all of those secrets and lies, even for a fun surprise party, weeeelllll … it hit a little too close-to-home. Surprise parties, for this adoptee … are an adoption trigger.

Secrets and lies

To be clear, my adoptive parents never out-right lied to me. They were told to love me unconditionally, as if I was their own, and everything would turn out just fine.

They gave me as much information they had received from the adoption agency. But, secrets are inherent closed adoptions, no? I picked up on it from childhood.

Even the accepted, seemingly “open-minded” adoption narrative, told to so many adoptees, “Your birth mother loved you enough to give you up, and now we love you,” wasn’t the whole, true story. In fact, the agency lied to my first mom, and to my adoptive mom.

The sickness caused by secrets and lies goes bone deep in adoption.

The Whole Truth

I was reminded of this recently when I (attempted) to comfort an adoptee friend through a terrible time. Tired of keeping quiet about the pain caused from her adoption, she has decided she wants needs must-have-in-order-to-heal, the whole story of her biological family.

The result has been … Her first mother is rejecting her. Hard. We’re talking cold, mean-spirited, “I wish I never met you”– rejection. “Stop asking these questions, or our relationship is over”–rejection.

This woman, this adoptee, who is so loving, so helpful to others, has been rejected. Why? I don’t know exactly, but perhaps it’s because her first mother can’t/won’t/is too broken to process her pain. The secrets of the sex, the pregnancy and the relinquishment have been so deeply repressed, its roots have become so inter-twined with her very notion of herself, she is unable to reveal it.

Or at least set aside her need for the secret to remain kept … for a just moment. To tell it to her daughter, (let me repeat) to her daughter. Her. own. child.

It just breaks my heart.

Situations such as these remind me that there is more work to be done in overcoming the stigmas of our parents’ and our parents’-parents’ generation when it comes to premarital sex and the “happy-clappy adoption narrative” where each party puts the adoption behind them and lives happily ever after.

We need to rethink the society-induced and organized-religion-propagated guilt and shame associated with both sex and adoption.


She just mentioned sex and adoption in the same sentence! Shhhh … those are things we just don’t talk about.

Future Surprise Parties

In my personal life and in my adoption (family preservation) advocacy life, I am trying to be more open-minded, less prone to judgment and secrets.

It turns out, there may be surprise parties in my future. My young daughter recently told me she’d love for me to throw her one. I explained that in order for it to be a surprise, she can’t know that I’m planning it. “That’s okay. If I find out I’ll just pretend I’m surprised.”

That’s fine with me, just as long as she’s not planning one for her momma.


From → Adoption, Expat Mommy

  1. This really makes me wonder for all my 4 adopted kids. Three of my kids are extremely challenging. And people often mention well that's probably the attachment issues, being adopted older, etc., etc. I've long stopped asking why they are the way they are. Because they were adopted internationall, I'll likely never have the answer. I don't know if it's better for them to have answers or to live happily in some fantasy of why their biological parents gave them up. I only know I'm a mom because someone did.

    • Laura permalink

      I know. International adoption is a "whole other ballgame," and adoptees often experience different issues as compared with domestic adoptees from the closed adoption era, like me.
      You know, I don't know your kids, and I'm not a psychologist. Plus you're the mom who knows her kids best. Some adoptees never want to search, and while that's hard for me to understand, as long as the person processes their adoption and finds peace–I believe adoptees don't necessarily have to find their biological roots. I'm curious, have you had any type of dialogue with your kids about their cultural, ethnic, biological origins?

    • Julie permalink

      If I may comment on Marie's note. I am an international adoptee who is now a mother of 2 boys (both biological…amazing after being adopted). Your comment on what people mentioned I sense could all be true to an extent. But as Laura mentioned you are their mother and know them best. I was very difficult for my folks. I think they thought they were gonna get a grateful little girl and she would forget she ever came from Colombia or the daily reminder she doesn't even look like us. As an adult I know I will likely never get answers. Other countries just often don't keep records like you hear they do in the states. I smiled at the fantasy part because that's all I could do when my adoptive parents found it so threatening my curiosity in my roots.

      I can only suggest to be open and honest. If you're able find out anything you can…even if its just a shred of paper with a word. Acknowledge they may be different physically looking but how precious and unique that is. Especially if you have girls.

      I think the worst lines are parents going well your mother loved you enough to make such a hard decision to give you up & many times adoptees roll their eyes and think well & I'm supposed to be grateful you bought me from the market?

      I give you great respect for adopting internationally. Always feel free to tell them their adoption stories. If they're in their teens they may go mom but deep down we all want to be ok with who we are. A foundation. :-)

  2. I feel so bad for Adoptees who have first parents who do not want to validate, share, explain..(whatever you want to call it) with their relinquished children. I have discussed with my daughter (a first mother) the importance of her being the best parent she can be to her (relinquished) daughter, and that means possibly delving into painful territory. She has to be able to share these things with her daughter like I share with her about my own decisions, mistakes, regrets…etc. regarding my involvement in this adoption or any issues she or my other children might have.

    I hope it helps them to someday come together.

    • Laura permalink

      You are so right. It is painful, it is tough, but at least when we share our stories, or secrets, openly–we can help shape what the truth is. And by this, I don't mean lying. I mean, for example, a first mother explaining, and speaking from deep within her heart, how and why the adoption took place. Given age-appropriateness, of course, it can be very healing and validating to hear the truth, even if it's painful.
      I agree, I too, hope that your family situation helps everyone be more open–for the benefit of your granddaughter.

  3. I have always struggled with surprises. They make me feel extremely nervous and out of place. You've validated so much for me.

    Thank you for taking time to write such amazing stuff, and for being a friend.

    Love you

    • Laura permalink

      I know, right? It's so crazy the moment we "come out of the closet" with some of these adoption triggers, we realize we are not alone. I'm glad to call you "friend," as well.

  4. Hi Laura,

    Although I'm not an adopted child, (more like an orphan with parents who weren't available) I am terrible with surprise parties. My reason is because it puts me directly in the spotlight. I become the center of attention and I've never been comfortable there. When I was in 3rd grade, I was going around telling my peers, "My parents are getting a divorce." It pissed my mom off but I didn't know I wasn't supposed to tell. Anyway, about halfway through my 3rd grade year, I had to transfer schools. The teacher, bless her heart, decided to have my classmates make going away cards that they would give to me on my last day. She asked me to run errands for her so she could plan the surprise. I found this very bizarre because she always had lots of volunteers and I preferred hiding in the background. Adults scared me. Later, I'd see classmates hiding pieces of construction paper when I looked over at them and other times I heard them whispering. On the last day I was surprised all right. It was pleasant but also scary. I remember as I left on that final day, hurrying out the door to catch the bus, I forgot to say thank you to my teacher. For years, my rudeness haunted me. I was always told to say thank you.

    Anyway, I can't wrap my mind around the mind of the adopted but I can to some extent understand. Having that frayed sense of belonging is confusing and heartbreaking.

    Great post as always.

    • Laura permalink

      "Having that frayed sense of belonging is confusing and heartbreaking."
      Yes! I think anyone who has been through trauma and has come out on the other side to heal (as opposed to denial and repression) … has an expanded capacity for empathy. So, yes, thank you for putting yourself in the mind of the adoptee!
      This notion of 'center of attention' has always intrigued me, and I'm glad you brought it up. I loved performing as a dancer, loved loved loved it. But, at the same time, I *hate* being the center of attention! Go figure.
      I think more people don't like the idea of a surprise party than we realize, but in the end they are able to appreciate the effort of the party-throwers. I, for one, never forgot that experience!

  5. I got in *huge* trouble over this. I don't like surprises, either. At. All. My first mother and my husband planned for her to surprise me (!) for a visit on my birthday (!) last year when I had met her once, in real life, for two days. In theory, it sounds great. Having her make the effort to fly across country and meet me and spend my birthday with me. Yes. But it was my *birthday*, a day my first family had ignored previously (which hurt). She wasn't ignoring it then, but to find her wrapped in a box in the garage was rather hard for me, nonetheless. Birthdays are emotionally difficult for me in general. Finding my fmom in a box on my birthday was an uncanny experience when she'd been absent for the 41 prior birthdays (excepting my actual day of birth). I ask myself, would it have been different if it *hadn't* been my birthday? It probably would have been less fraught, but I don't know. I was frozen inside. I don't let people into my sanctum sanctorum until I feel very, very comfortable with them, so I put on a smile. In my innermost spaces I can be a maelstrom; I don't unleash it unless I know what's going on, and unless I feel safe. I was a deer in the headlights.

    I am an adoptee, however, so I am a consummate actress. I was kind and welcoming. I was a good host, I think. I hope so, anyway. But when my fmom returned home after her visit, she told me that I was disappointing in my lack of warmth. I very well could have been cold. I own it.

    I definitely drew back for a few days to analyze my feelings after she left. It was hard. I didn't want to hurt her, but it was not easy for me to figure out what I was feeling. This was the first time she'd been in my home, met my children, seen my schedule. It was huge. And it was my birthday, too, a trigger for the depression I fight. I was terrified that I'd fall back into the pit.

    My husband thought I'd love the surprise, which is odd, but since he's never really surprised me with anything, I guess he didn't know. I don't blame either of them for not knowing.

    I felt bad that my fmom was disappointed in my response afterwards, but there's not much I can do except apologize. I think to outsiders it does seem strange how uncharacteristically blank I was. But I cannot blame myself, either. I have gone over it a thousand times, and it goes back to me wanting to have control of my fmom's first visit to my house, and not wanting to be out of control, and *especially* not around my birthday.

    The funny thing is that I would never have showed up unannounced on anyone's doorstep. At one point, my fmom feared that I would show up at my fgrandmother's funeral, if she died. It would mortify *me* to out myself at such a gathering.

    It's sad when people don't meet each other's expectations, especially when we mean well. Reunion and relationships are very, very difficult; the best we can do is love each other and listen.

    • Laura permalink

      Man oh man, I can totally empathize with your experience, and actually, I see no reason that you should feel like you ought to apologize for your polite but cold behavior! Geez! As I read your comment, all I could keep on thinking was, where was these people's *emotional intelligence*? Where? What were they thinking? Your first mom hadn't been with you for decades (decades!) of birthdays … and now Surprise! She was a present in a box! I just sit her typing and shaking my head …
      And for her to fear you going to your own grandma's funeral — and then to surprise show up to see you, after she barely got to know you! Wow, wow.
      I am so sorry. I feel for you, I am sorry this happened. I hope you can process this experience as well-meaning-people not thinking very clearly, and not understaning post-adoption issues. But still, I'm sorry.

  6. Lee H. permalink

    I met my original dad this past year. I was born on his birthday which also happens to be Valentines Day. He did not even know he has a daughter until I was 13, and until I was 27 he was not even sure it was really true. He and my husband were planning a surprise visit from him just a week before our birthdays. I would give anything to get to spend time with my dad…I would drive hours just to have lunch or coffee with him. We are really tight. Luckily, I got wind of it and explained to my husband why I thought it would be so hard. I just don't like my birthday. It IS better to share it with my dad who I love so much, but he was not there. It was a sad day for everyone I am now realizing. He did come a week early and we did plan something simple with a few friends, no gifts, a coming out party for my dad of sorts. The fact that it was about things other than my birthday (introducing him) made it easier I know. The focus was not on my being born. That made it ok and actually enjoyable. I got to show my dad off!

    I think a surprise around any other day would be ok with me…just not that event or that day….Mirren, the whole box thing would have sent me into a tailspin!!!

  7. My husband and I have just filed our divorce and we have a son who is about 9 months. My ex and I separated soon after I found out I was pregnant and basically I was a single mother for all this time. Still, I am literally petrified with an idea on how to explain my son where his original dad and I would appreciate the advice of moms who were divorced.

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