Birthdays are a time of celebration and joy, a time to reflect on the blessings of the year past and the adventure that lies ahead in the coming year. For many, as we age, birthdays seem to creep up too quickly and the years rapidly speed by.
I have always loved birthday celebrating with my children. Over the years we have had small family celebrations and big parties with friends! There have been cakes…oh so many cakes….crocodile, helicopter, castles, hearts, ice cream, pavlova, swimming pool, caterpillar and piñata are some of my most memorable ones. We’ve been bowling, arcade gaming and jumping castle-ing….we’ve had art parties, garden tea parties and science parties!
But 3 years ago we started a journey that has had more downs than ups and trauma has changed so much of how we now live and celebrate and birthdays are NO exception. I am beginning to see that I have been naïve at times with my understanding of why and how severe trauma changes a brain to a point where happiness is so hard to find. Unfortunately for us our year seems to roll from one ‘trauma memory’ time to the next with little down time in between! We are just catching our breath from Christmas and now birthdays are upon us….in fact the day after Christmas the anxiety started to build with anticipation of the impending birthday.
This year we had talked about how we might make this time different to the past so as to avoid the pitfalls of last year that saw the entire day spent screaming, crying and our little miss spending the day being rocked like a baby. This year we talked about moving the celebration to a completely different day later in the year, but as the actual birthday started to approach I found myself wondering if this was just delaying the difficulty of the day given that all the anxiety was still evident. We removed calendars and reminders of dates throughout the house in a bid to ‘forget’ the date but I hadn’t banked on highly intelligent, hyper vigilant kids who have an innate way of knowing everything and only discovered the flaw in my plan when miss 6 announced one morning that it was 11 sleeps until her birthday!
We seem to have hit the jackpot in having to celebrate not 1 but 2 trauma birthdays within a very short space of time….our little ones birthdays are a few days apart. This year we feel like we have had one win and one fail!
Birthday 1 went like this. The day started like any other, just an ordinary day. We got up and the little people headed to vacation care for the day – there was an excursion planned and we decided that this would help to take the mind off the day and past memories. I must admit, I struggled a bit with my own feelings of ‘but this isn’t how to celebrate a birthday’. The day went well and even though I had expected a phone call to say the wheels had fallen off, it didn’t come! The plan was to pickup, bring little people home for showers and then ‘spring’ the birthday dinner as a surprise….mind you, a very calm surprise, family dinner, presents and a very simple understated cake! At this point I can hear some of my fellow carers saying ‘NO’ surprises don’t work, these kids need lots of warning BUT let me clarify this by saying that for our little ones we have learnt that they operate much better under ‘the less notice the better’ theory! Too much notice for them is too much time for their overactive brains to contemplate every possible problem. My plan was going well, we had kept the celebrations hidden as a plan to get through showers etc without incident….. and then it happened! Miss 8 was digging in about something and I said ‘come on we just need to do this and then we can have dinner and celebrate your birthday’…..as I saw the reaction to those words I was trying desperately to pull them back into my mouth. The anger and tears started, then the violence, then the shut down! I tried talking, empathising and calming but the mere mention of the word birthday was enough to destroy the rest of the evening. I went to bed feeling defeated and saddened that presents still sat unwrapped and cake uneaten. I was angry that the day that is your one special day had again been stolen from my precious little girl.
Birthday 2 was for the child that has been a little less reactionary but this year had displayed great levels of anxious behaviour in the lead up to her birthday. We kept her day very low key and managed to open presents, have family dinner and eat cake….WIN! The biggest problem on this day was with birthday 1 child trying to destroy every ounce of happiness for birthday 2 child! She was jealous and unhappy that her sister should celebrate and have some joy. Again we empathised with her and named her feelings, telling her we got that she was jealous that her sister was getting the attention and was actually enjoying her day. We gave her the option to join in or opt out…mostly she opted out.
The birthdays are now over and done with for yet another year but I have been left saddened that our little ones who have missed out on so much continue to do so. I struggle with feelings of anger that trauma is the big stealer for our children. They deal initially with the physical aspect of living in an environment that is not ideal for them and once they are removed many people believe that they will be ok, they are with a loving family and they can get on with living life normally. But talk to anyone who has lived with children who have suffered early childhood trauma and we will tell stories of trauma impact years and years later…no matter how much work we do.
I now have another whole year to contemplate how we may celebrate next year and find some happiness in that celebration.