In our society adoption is usually viewed as a problem-solving, not a problem-creating, event. Adoptive parents can parent a child, birth parents are relieved from the responsibility of parenting that same child, and the child ends up with a family. However, the emotional realities for all members of the adoption “triad” (adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents) are far more complex, and far less idyllic, than is implied by this common stereotype.
For adoptees, these realities often include emotional consequences that are rarely acknowledge or discussed. Some of them are as follows:
Profound Loss. When an infant is separated from the mother in whose body she was carried, the infant has a deep, pre-verbal body experience of loss and abandonment. Nancy Newton Verrier, MA, an adoptive mother and well-known author on the psychological effects of adoption on adoptees, calls this loss the adoptee’s “primal wound”. Furthermore, under the “closed” adoption system most commonly practiced in the U.S. there is no exchange of information or contact between the birth family and the adoptee.
In a closed adoption situation the adoptee grows up totally cut off from contact with, or information about, her birth family. Birth parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, as well as information about ancestors and family characteristics (e.g.-artistic or musical ability), medical information, ethnic and cultural heritage, are all missing. Most adoptees grow to adulthood never having laid eyes on or touched a blood relative. So in addition to the actual body experience of loss, adoptees experience a tremendous break in connection with their personal past.
Denial of the Loss. Our society has in general denied the losses experienced by the adoptee. Imagine if someone lost her entire family and all family records and possessions (heirlooms, pictures, etc.) in some monumental catastrophe. We would expect the person to be devastated and grieve, and would offer support and condolences. Yet does anyone say to an adoptee, “I am so sorry about your loss?” At best, the adoptee’s pain is tacitly acknowledged by the tentativeness with which the issue is raised with her (if it’s raised at all).
Shaming. Adoptees are often told that their reactions to their adoption are wrong. These reactions can include confusion and questioning (“Why did she give me away?”), anger at birth or adoptive parents, or a desire to address the loss by obtaining information about the adoptee’s origins. For example, adoptees who are searching for information or contact with their birth families are often told that they are being “selfish”, are maladjusted or are hurting their adoptive parents. (“You wouldn’t be searching if you really loved your adoptive parents”.) When adoptees ask questions, even well-intended explanations can confusion or shame. (“Your birth mother placed you for adoption because she loved you”, equating love and abandonment, or “You should be grateful you were lucky enough to be adopted by such a caring family”, equating a need for information with ingratitude.)
Lastly, the status of being adopted can itself be a source of shame in our society, reflecting the old stigma regarding promiscuity and “bad blood” which surrounds adoption. Some adoptees recall being taunted as children with such statements as, “They (the adoptive parents) aren’t your real parents: your real parents gave you away”. All forms of shame isolate the adoptee by discouraging her from expressing needs and feelings.
Secrecy And Lies. Sometimes families pretend, either to the adoptee or to the world at large, that the adoptee is a birth child. They keep the fact that the adoptee is adopted secret. Like any secret, it is shaming and “crazy-making”. Lying to the adoptee (which many years ago was a recommended practice in the field of adoption) results in an ever-increasing spiral of lies. Multiples lies about the child’s birth, medical history, resemblance or lack of resemblance to adoptive family members, etc. must be told by the family.
The secret must also be maintained by a conspiracy of friends and neighbors, since at least some outsiders are aware the adoptive mother did not carry the child. If the adoptee’s status is disclosed to her but held secret from others, the adoptee may be forced to lie to keep the secret. And like shame, secrecy isolates adoptees. Sometimes shame results in adoptees keeping the fact of their adoption secret: they “pass” as birth children of their adoptive parents.
Legal Discrimination. Under the adoption laws of most states, adoptees are effectively considered to be minor children throughout their lives. At the time of the legal proceedings terminating their connection with their birth families, they were infants and of course had no voice. However, they also had no legal counsel, and no laws which anticipated that there would be a time when they would be able to speak their needs. How would most adults feel if a court legally stripped them of their identity, and all future contact with or information about their family, without their consent and without legal representation? This is precisely what happens to every adoptee. Yet when adoptees reach the age of majority, most states either prohibit adoptees from obtaining information about themselves entirely, or impose expensive, time-consuming and burdensome conditions on the process. Alex Haley searched all the way to Africa for his roots, but adoptees are told they shouldn’t search beyond the face in the mirror.
Healing. The mixture of profound loss, denial, shame, secrecy, lies and legal discrimination is a familiar one for adoptees. What are some of the elements of healing for adoptees?
One of the most powerful elements of healing for adoptees is connection with other adoptees. To borrow the slogan of a popular laundry detergent, getting a connection from others “Gets the Shame Out”. Whether that connection is in person, through books, TV, or on-line adoption websites, express the reality of your experience and being heard by a person who understands and relates is powerful and healing. It is wonderful to realize, “I’m not the only one who feels/thinks this way.” Fortunately, the adoption reform/recovery movement has made great strides in recent years and there are many organizations, support groups, books and films available for adoptees.
For some adoptees, “opening” their closed adoptions by obtaining information about their origins and/or seeking contact with their birth families can help their feelings of loss and strengthen their sense of identity. The issue of adoptees searching for their birth families is still highly controversial. It carries risks for the adoptee as well as for others involved. The risks for the adoptee include the possibility of a second “rejection” by the birth family, an “unsuccessful” reunion, the inability to find any information, finding false information, etc. However, adoptees who have had what might be described as unsuccessful searches may feel more empowered by having more knowledge about themselves, even if it is limited or painful.
Therapy, whether individually or in a group with other adoptees, can also help. Issues such as, “If I have myself, my needs, or my desires, then I am being disloyal to my parents and hurting them”, are common to anyone seeking therapy and can be worked through. Whatever kind of therapy the adoptee chooses, it is important that issues faced by adoptees are understood and appreciated by the therapist, and taken into account in viewing the person as a whole.
Becoming active in the adoption movement, working for new legislation for adoptee’s rights, and reforming the practice of adoption can also be empowering and healing for the adoptee.
Adoption is a complex and life-long process for all of those involved with it. No one parents or releases a child without it greatly affecting their lives. No adoptee ever stops being an adoptee. Today, there is movement in this country towards more open adoptions, although others are pressing strongly for more closed adoptions. There is no easy answer to the problem of children being born to parents who are unable or unwilling to parent them (or in some egregious cases, being born to mothers who were pressured or forced to release them for adoption). Given the wounds which we have inflicted on adoptees with our closed system of adoption, and the wealth of knowledge we have about the effects of loss, shame, secrecy, lies, denial and discrimination, it seems we should be able to find a better way.