It happens every year on this day. . . “Happy birthday to you! Make a wish!” My family sings as I blow out the multi-colored candles that are slowly melting onto the cake, leaving perfect little circles of wax stuck to that exposed layer of whipped cream topping.
It’s easy to slice through the whipped cream, but the knife hits frozen vanilla ice cream next, then those cookie crumbs that every kid (and adult) hopes to get the most of, and into the chocolate layer, landing on the cardboard cake platter that’s been frozen for too long.
Who Remembers Carvel Cake?
That first bite is nostalgic, bringing me all the way back to the very beginning of my Chapter 2 which started when I was six months old, after being adopted from India. I had a Carvel Ice Cream store 20 minutes away growing up, but we only went in once a year. As soon as you opened the door, it smelled like frosting. I always ran right to the cake catalog and flipped through the pages as if my parents were going to get me a custom Carvel Cake that year. Of course, I settled for the classic circle cake with that artificial blue frosting border that turns your entire mouth blue, but I got to pick the color of writing gel they would use to write “Happy Birthday Maya!” and that felt special enough.
The next year we got the rectangle version of the same cake, after convincing my mom we needed the cake that fed 20 for our small party of six or so.
The year after that it was the limited-edition heart-shaped cake, which wasn’t my favorite because it had that Valentine’s Day red frosting border which I swear tasted more like chemicals than the traditional blue frosting, but I made a wish and ate it anyway.
And as I got older, and all my friends went dairy-free, the ice cream cakes turned into the personalized tiny cakes Carvel made for those really watching the serving size recommendation. It wasn’t long after this that I realized how much more ice cream cake could be. It was already my “favorite,” but the world of ice cream flavors and crunchy fillings and decorative borders was out there just waiting for me to discover. I started dreaming of a brownie batter ice cream base layer with Oreo crunch separating it from the chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream on top. Imagining homemade whipped cream spread around the sides and those multi-colored nonpareil sprinkles tossed around like confetti. The idea of ice cream cake only went so far with Carvel, and it was time to explore the magic beyond.
Birthdays come with society’s idea of what celebration should look like—spend time with your family and friends, laugh, eat your favorite meal, open presents, celebrate with cake, and don’t forget to make that wish when you blow out the candles! Don’t get me wrong, I am here for all of it, even the uncomfortable party hats that make your head look like it’s detached from your neck because the string around your chin is too tight.
But I am also here to appreciate and hold space for the moments on our birthdays that have us wondering about birth family and the complexities of family as an adoptee.
I want to share an ice cream cake recipe with you. But as I do, I’ll use it to explore the trauma that’s brought to the surface for many adoptees on their birthdays.
Chocolate Layer – My Birth Family
What you will need: cake pan, plastic wrap, 1.5 quart container of chocolate ice cream (or your favorite flavor)
The idea here is to cover the inside of the cake pan with plastic wrap and dump your first chosen flavor of ice cream into the pan. Spread it out evenly and let it set in the freezer.
I was adopted from India, so when I think of the “chocolate layer,” it reminds me of my birth family. I am brown, they are brown, and this ice cream is brown! There is never a birthday that I don’t think about my birth family. I love my birthday, but there are always a few moments during my special day that feel heavy. I always wonder if my birth mother remembers me this day and then I think how on earth could a woman forget about giving birth—but that still doesn’t convince me that she is thinking about me. There is that was my birth a good memory or really hard and one she’s worked her whole life to forget about thought that comes up. And then there is the fantasy of how we would have celebrated together. I always get through this wonder by reminding myself that whatever we would have done, it probably wouldn’t have included an ice cream cake. But then in my 20s, I realized how much of my life she had missed. Not just the big moments, but she doesn’t know my favorite juice or my favorite number or that I took trampoline lessons. She doesn’t know about the nightmares I had, or that I love to bake. It was on my 20th birthday that I decided to write her a letter, listing 21 things that every mom knows about their kid. I didn’t have an address, I don’t even have a full name, but the process of writing to her was healing. I was finally able to share parts of me that I really wanted her to know, the parts of me that make me everything that I am.
I encourage you to write. I encourage you to light a candle. I encourage you to honor your birth family in whatever way feels good for you. Give space to all those feelings wondering about the unknown and the “what ifs.” Acknowledge the parts that hurt and honor them. I celebrate my birthday because it was the day I survived.
Vanilla Layer – Adoptive Family
What you will need: 1.5 quart container of vanilla ice cream (or your favorite ice cream)
You probably understand this layering process, but after the chocolate layer has set, and you press your crunchy fillings into it, drop the vanilla layer into the cake pan and spread out evenly. You know the drill—freeze it until it sets.
My parents are vanilla. My extended family is vanilla. Most of my friends are vanilla. And I love vanilla! You can’t be mad at a scoop of vanilla ice cream with hot fudge on top, can you? My birthday is full of all the special people in my life. It always consists of a family dinner and then smaller gatherings with different friend groups. It is filled with text messages and phone calls from old friends and those surprise delivery boxes at my door usually filled with celebratory food like edible cookie dough or cupcakes from the place across the street. I put my favorite outfit on and let all the love in. It’s the one day when I try to drop people pleasing and let those people show me how much they love me.
The most important thing to remember about your birthday is that it is your day. You get to decide how the day looks and flows. You get to decide what to eat and who you will see. You get to choose how you process feelings today, and no one gets to question that. Of course, as I write this, I am reminded of how uncomfortable it is for some adoptees to make decisions (me included), but I’ve had too many birthdays worrying about everyone else around me, so I’ve decided the 24 hours that define my birthday are all mine. Guilt takes a break, the need to take care of everyone around me takes a break, and when I can allow myself to really let them go, it’s the most magical 24 hours that ever existed. Give yourself the gift of making your birthday yours. Make memories with your chosen crew, eat what will make you happy, honor your birth family in whatever way that means to you. I celebrate my birthday because it’s a day that I am reminded of all the love that surrounds me.
The Middle: Cookie Crumble
What you will need: 10 Oreo cookies, 1.5 T melted butter
Put the cookies in a bag and mash them up, add the melted butter, put them on a parchment lined baking sheet and into the oven at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.
The middle reminds me of all the love surrounding me. It brings together family and all its complexities. Maybe your birthday hasn’t been a day you celebrate, maybe your traditional birthday celebrations changed as you added more people into your circle or said goodbye to unhealthy vibes. Maybe your birthday brings you back to that moment when you were born or the picture your mind has always painted of the moment your birth mother handed you to your mom. Maybe it’s another day when you try to please the people around you instead of noticing what you need. Maybe it’s a day that just feels off and like you need a weighted blanket wrapped around you with your favorite Spotify playlist on in the background as you cry.
Show up to your own party. Let all the feelings join your party, but if you can, try not to let them control your party. Give yourself a gift, give yourself a break, give yourself a minute to feel the love radiating towards you. Tell those who want to celebrate with you when that works for you. Maybe you need the morning to reflect, maybe you need breaks throughout the day. It is all welcomed. Advocate for you, make the day you survived the day that also allowed you to thrive.
Who Remembers Carvel Cake?
I am my own ice cream cake. You are your own layer cake. We get to decide how we celebrate the wonderful, unique, extraordinary selves that each of us are. Ask yourself what you need, ask your adopted child what they need. Make space for the moments that need your attention, and don’t forget to MAKE A WISH.
For a full and detailed recipe on how to make an ice cream cake, follow the link below.
This recipe is unbeatable!
Written by Maya Rogers-Bursen
Boston Post Adoption Resources