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An Unexpected Birthday Surprise

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IMG_0548Last week, my youngest child turned one-two-three-four-five-SIX. Six. Six requires two hands, after all, as Saskia’s godfather pointed out when I emailed the photograph of her with the count displayed across her fingers.

She’s wonderfully set for six. This girl is rocking kindergarten. Although I feel no pressure to have her read or write, she’s begun to do those things and of course, these new skills excite her and the rest of us, too. Her ability to hurl through air—gymnastics, not flight—amazes me. She’s got awesome, patient friends she loves, hugs too hard, cries out “Not Fair!” to all too often but then hugs again. Her One Direction-loving, screen-loving, chocolate-loving, sassy little self tickles me most of the time and proves a bit hard to calm down at night.

What was different about this year for me was this: I didn’t feel sad. The sadness I’ve experienced other years wasn’t connected to my baby, our caboose’s advancement from infant to toddler or toddler to preschooler; my sadness had more to do with her mother—and I guess, with her. On her birthday, I’m forced (this is a fine thing) to remember her birth and to remember that her arrival into our family is defined by a gift and a loss rolled into one. It’s not about a value—adoption is good or bad; sadness even is positive or negative—it’s about how complex it is to make families. I almost added the word “sometimes” here and then hesitated, because families always embody complexity along with simplicity. Our complexity as a family includes this. My memories of that original birth day, the day Saskia was born include this happy-sad truth that our family grew by more than one and that her first mother’s family grew by more than one, too.

Apparently, Eskimos have something like fifty words for snow. Our family constellation could use something like that to describe our roles, and our connections. Even mother doesn’t get a good divvying up. Every qualification of mother serves up room for judgment, words like biological, birth or adoptive. And what of cousins that are, technically, Saskia’s but not her siblings’—why aren’t there words to describe those relationships with more clarity, rather than somewhat convoluted, breathless explanations? Open adoption is relatively new territory and there aren’t so many descriptors or rules or customs or blueprints. There’s some good amount of winging it.

Every single year it’s amazed me that we’re a year further into Saskia’s life. Every single year the same thing amazes Caroline, her first/birth mom (her other mom). Somehow, this year, for reasons I can’t pinpoint, that amazement felt softer all around. It’s hard to pinpoint why. Is it simply about the passage of time? Is it that over time, we’ve gotten to know each other better? We’ve enjoyed recent visits with Caroline, with a couple of Saskia’s grandparents, her aunt, and two cousins. Since the visit with the fourteen-year-old-cousin Saskia recalls fondly what they played and things they both liked at the toy store. I think it’s one of those older, cool cousin crushes you get (I did, at least), the kind that makes you wish to grow your hair exactly that long and to wear makeup because she did.

I think that as Saskia gets bigger, she understands adoption and she’s pretty matter-of-fact about it. She isn’t more confused by cousins or grandparents from this family of birth than the rest of her labyrinthine family; she is accepting of everyone pretty equally at this point. She knows this tummy fact and remembers it more often than not. She knows she’s loved. She feels entirely loved.

This is this year—and other years may well feel different. There’s only been one time when Saskia asked why she’s here and not somewhere else and the answer was that this worked well for everyone was met with a nod. Either she’ll want to know more or she won’t want to know so much more than that. The fact is she doesn’t have to ask me whether other family members love her, because she can do so directly. And because I know, for a fact, with my own eyes, that they do. Reassurance is a concrete offering.

Maybe we all understand—and trust—our adoption better over time. I didn’t have to wonder whether to call Caroline on Saskia’s birthday, because she called. Saskia was at her friend’s house so we called back. Sure, mostly Saskia said, “Hi Auntie Cece,” and “Uh-huh,” during the phone call with Caroline. That’s because she was busy with her brand-new coloring book.

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This entry was written by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

About the author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, and Salon, amongst others. Follow her on twitter–@standshadows.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

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