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what adoptees wish adoptive parents knew

Adoptee Roberta Holland: Happy Birthday

It’s Adoptee Month at In honor of National Adoption Awareness Month, spend November reading a variety of adoptee voices here. All essayists have responded to this prompt: what I wish adoptive parents knew about parenting an adoptee.

what adoptees wish adoptive parents knew

Today’s voice belongs to Roberta Holland.

Happy Birthday

adoptee rebecca holland on adoption

You weren’t there, but you say I was born.

You weren’t there, but you say I was loved.

You weren’t there, but you say I was a gift, a pink, shiny newborn, given away in love. Love, not pain, not fear.

You weren’t there, but you say my birth was happy, a day to be celebrated, a day no one mourned.

I mourned. Deep below my fontanels, I mourned, an antiseptic coldness seeping into my tiny bones as I whooshed out of my mother, out of the womb, out of her orbit, into the void.

The snap of loss, of a connection breaking, imprinted on my every cell like a permanent birthmark. An unshakeable legacy you can’t wrap with a pretty bow.


When I’m a toddler, blowing out candles on a Raggedy Ann birthday cake, my eyes are watery and I don’t know why. We will blame it on the smoke, and not the sting of memory, for what can a baby remember?

When I’m in elementary school, surrounded by friends in an ice cream parlor, I dive under the table as the wait staff sings “Happy Birthday.” We will blame it on my shyness, and not my feeling that something is wrong.

When I’m in high school, then college, I am sucked into a darkness meters below the sheen of parties and pub crawls. We will blame it on who showed up, who didn’t, too much alcohol, not enough alcohol, and not the undertow of sorrow that permeates this day always.

When I’m an adult and become muted, go still on my birthday, don’t blame it on a lack of presents or festivities. It’s not the celebration that matters. Don’t blame it on vanity about getting older. It’s not my age that matters.

If I Don’t Seem Grateful…

I can name what matters now. That first birthday gift, the gift I could never return, the gift of me, the rupture from who I was supposed to be, the tumbling of the dice as I was given to a new family. That gift of adoption, a gift born of loss, can’t be repackaged no matter the love, the festive decorations. It’s a black arm band encircling my heart, a pang I’m not supposed to feel.

Reaching out to my tribe of adoptees, I only need mention my birthday and they get it. The care emojis and the empathy flow, a salve on the wound. Communal pain eased by acknowledgment. They know the truth; that my birth and death are conjoined twins. The death of another life, not better or worse, but different, first.

So, remember, you weren’t there, but I was. If you notice my watery eyes as I blow out the candles, give me the space I need to breathe, the space I need to grieve, the anniversary of my joyless birth.

About Roberta Holland

Roberta Holland was adopted domestically as an infant through a closed adoption in Washington, D.C. Now living in the Boston area, Roberta is a freelance writer, biological mother of two, and partially in reunion with her birth family. A version of this essay was featured on the Adoptees On podcast in remembrance of the many adoptees lost to suicide.

Adoptees on Adoption 2022

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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3 Responses

  1. I’ve seen this play out in the stories in my home. My girls are still young and yet we see the hurt deep through the smiles. Thank you for sharing so that those of us walking with our children can have a better chance for understanding and creating space for grief and celebration both. Your writing is beautiful and moving. “Black arm band encircling my heart” – thank you for helping us feel it with you.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Adi. I think understanding that birthdays can illicit complicated feelings, even if your children can’t name why, can avoid some frustration. My mom always made a big to-do about my birthday when I was young and I think my ambivalent reaction sometimes inadvertently wounded her. I’m glad you’re holding space for all your children’s feelings! That is a wonderful gift.

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