Friday Thoughts- Why My Son Needs to Know His Birthday

We made it to Friday! Honestly, I’m always kind of surprised when Fridays roll around and I’m still in one-piece. However, I’m less surprised than I was a year ago. Although the boys are getting older and with that the  calmness and wrangling of their energy in certain situations has made life a little more relaxing on my end.

I felt my first bittersweet moment in the realization that they were getting older the other day. It happened this week when Aram lost his first tooth. Out of all things, learning to walk, learning to talk, even weaning! Nope…A missing tooth.

Samuel still has all of his baby teeth, but is now hoping to join his brother. He will run to the mirror each morning and check each tooth for mobility. We had to reassure him that each person loses their first tooth at the time they are supposed to.

Where Samuel is from in Ethiopia, birthdays are not really celebrated, nor is an exact date known. Many people can give you an estimate based off of the crop seasons, but it just isn’t a big deal. So, Samuel came home without an exact birthdate. One was estimated after interviewing his family and medical examination. However, the Ethiopian (Ge’ez) calendar is much different than the Gregorian calendar we follow (for instance, it is the year 2006 there) and the medical examinations are sometimes very off due to stunted growth from lack of basic micronutrients as well as parasitic infections. One of the best ways you can estimate a child’s age is by teeth or by other developmental milestones or markers. Most children come home estimated age younger than heir biological age (a tell-tale sign is after a few months of addressing nutritional deficits the child goes through puberty likely delayed by the lack of readily available nutrients in the body). Samuel’s teeth indicate he is probably around his estimated age that was assigned to him in the orphanage (or possibly slightly younger, which is very unusual). With Samuel, I didn’t think knowing his exact birthday was a big deal because like in Ethiopia, our family isn’t really big on celebrating birthdays, either.

I started viewing it differently when I picked up a book for the boys, Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad

This was the first page of the book:IMG_7729

Henry Brown wasn’t sure how old he was. Henry was a slave, and slaves weren’t allowed to know their birthdays.

I started realizing it isn’t about the actual date, it is what a birthday represents in our country.

Frederick Douglass, was an American slave that later became a leader of the abolitionist movement. He spoke about how and why slave owners would deliberately attempt to dehumanize the American enslaved people:

  • Newly born babies of slaves would be separated from their mothers as infants.“Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. For what reason this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.”
  • Feeding slaves like animals. ““It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied.”
  • Deliberately withholding literary/educational materials from slaves so they could not learn to read or write because, “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”
  • Not allowing slaves know their age or birthdate. “I cannot remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.”

I understand that birthdays in Ethiopia may culturally not be something many pay attention to, but Ethiopian or not, my child is an American-  specifically a black child in America, who will, God-willing, grow into a strong black man. And my child is going to know his birthday.

So, regardless of whether or not we receive a concrete date of when Samuel entered this world, there will be no over-explanation about the mystery surrounding the exact date. Samuel will always be informed about his cultural practices, and why his story, like everyone else’s, is unique. However, we will not dwell on the fluidity of the date on his birth certificate. This is his to take ownership of, this is the date that represents so much of his past, present and future, and honors those who came before him in this country that were not given the dignity of having this day to call their own.

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  1. vanessa 21 September, 2013, 09:46

    I know of some Orthodox Christians (and Coptic Christians are similar) who completely ignore birthdays, but will celebrate Name’s Days. (The feast day of the Saint after which they were named.) I wonder if that’s the case for the Coptic Christians in Ethiopia, or if neither day hold significance…

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  2. Mary 22 September, 2013, 05:02

    I love your blog and respect your parenting, so I don’t mean this in a critical way, but do you think that ascribing the fact that slaves didn’t know their birhdays to be the reason why Samuel needs to know his to be imposing on Samuel an unfortunate world history that doesn’t have much of anything to do with him? Samuel is not descended from slaves. Many other ethnic groups around the world have been enslaved at one point in history. If you had adopted a white child, would he need to know his birthday because slaves couldn’t know their birthday? Or is the connection here that race relations are still a major issue in this country because black people were enslaved before, so being black in this country means that someone must bear the burden of the fact that black people were once enslaved here?
    I am probably overthinking it, but I’m curious about your reasoning. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Jamie Lynne Author 22 September, 2013, 09:11

      Hey Mary! As an American I think it is important to understand our history because it directly relates to the present (how we have evolved into what we are now). There are lingering effects of some of the most atrocious parts of our past. Samuel is African American regardless of when or how he came to the US. He will be viewed as a black male in the US and all that that entails. In the US not knowing your birthday was a way to dehumanize a person. We don’t want to forget that. So, my kids need to know their birthdays. With Aram that was easy to do. With Samuel, it was more complicated. We now understand that that day, regardless of whether or not it is exact, is a date to take ownership of.

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  3. Denise 21 October, 2013, 05:16

    I completely understand why you want to take a very deliberate action to ensure Samuel knows his birthday as an American.

    I’ll respond only to your comment that he is first viewed as a black male in America–and all that entails. It is true for each of us that we have to combat the stereotypes and prejudices and say, “This is who I am. These are my values. That is not my story. This is my story,” until those whom we have allowed to remain in our lives see our individuality and not the stereotype for those that look like us.

    Samuel will learn the historical error of slavery and its part in American history, understand our continued collective struggle to achieve the ideal of equality in diversity, and experience, first hand, the misfortune of being treated in accordance with the stereotype for black males–even by other black males–and see how it must be set right. I hope he shrugs off the preconceived notions and moves beyond these obstacles with relative ease.

    I do think that our society is learning to toss away the boxes that we once used to quick-sort and make snap judgments about others based on color. It may be wishful thinking, because I am raising an African American male as well. I do know there is IMMENSE pride in saying that one is not descended from slaves; it sets you apart in a good way it–immediately resetting expectations. Samuel will have the pleasure of saying, “That is not my story. This is my story, “ to those who take the time to get to know him.

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