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Adoptee Perspectives on Adoption

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Association Representing Mothers Separated from their Children by Adoption (SA) Inc
(ARMS) Annual General Meeting

Adelaide, August 31 2002

Where to start

It's hard to know where to begin with a subject as vast as this - for every 1000 adoptees there are as many individual perspectives - but it is certainly possible to pull out some of the key themes. I'll try to represent some of these themes, largely from my 6 years at PARC but also drawing on my experience of being an adoptee.

The average adoptee lives a life quite separate and distinct to the other parties to an adoption. That's an obvious statement, but is, I believe, often forgotten by both the natural and the adoptive parents. The adoptee's reality is based on remembered and unremembered truths, on gains and on losses. For some adoptees, their adoption is central to their lives and the way they know themselves. For others, it barely registers as a significant event. This is hard to believe, but it is true. Only a quarter of adoptees embark upon a reunion with their natural mother or father. Three quarters, therefore, live their lives without reconnecting. Perceptions about the degree to which these adoptees are in denial vary!

At PARC, our largest single client group are female adoptees, with us having had more than 27,000 contacts with adoptees over the past 11 years. Our total occasions of service for telephone counseling are 46,000, with 19,000 of this total being adoptees, roughly twice the number of natural parents. Similarly, adoptees in face-to-face counseling make up just over 50% of our clients (or 2,700 out of a total of 5,300). We don't collect figures as to whether these adoptees are male or female but our general guess is that some 60% are female.

Sadness and loss

In general, adoptees contact us to talk about searching and how to manage the resulting relationships with birth and adoptive family members. Adoptees often find it hard to say to what degree they are interested in seeking a reunion, particularly if this isn't something that they have been encouraged to talk about in the family within which they have been raised. They may ring ostensibly to seek medical information but, in the course of subsequent contact may begin to tell a tale of sadness and an inability to explain the causes for this sadness. This is delicate work - the reality of an adoptee's life is generally that they have had little context for this sadness - after all, aren't they just like everybody else?

Grief and loss for adoptees is complicated. On face value, they have had everything to gain by adoption. They were removed from a situation of uncertain parentage, possible economic hardship, prejudice and stigma. They were given to a handpicked family who desperately wanted a child and could provide for their needs. It was assumed that, out of the various parties to the adoption, the adoptee would have the simplest road to travel.

In our work at PARC, however, we have been able to unravel the very complex layers of loss described to us by adoptees. We have learnt of the struggle to establish a sense of identity, the lack of which can manifest itself in many ways - anxiety, fear of abandonment, rootlessness, insecurity, difficulties in maintaining lasting relationships, poor self image.

The lack of security and feelings of having been abandoned may create fears of future abandonment and may make relationships unsafe territory. An adoptee does not necessarily consciously grieve the separation from their natural mother (an important point for many adoptees is that it is impossible to grieve what you don't remember - this is debatable), but may be fearful of losing love and approval, affecting the way they behave in the adoptive family, in friendships, at work and particularly in sexual relationships.

Adoptees often describe their lifelong struggle to fit in, sometimes feeling that they do not belong within the family that raised them. Their sense of identity can be fragmented. The more robust adoptees may believe that they invented themselves and that their uniqueness is something of worth. Fragile adoptees may experience this lack of connection as isolation.

In theories about the impact of adoption, there is a belief that the adoptee may be inherently damaged by the loss of the early relationship with his or her natural mother. Nancy Verrier, in her book The Primal Wound, comprehensively explores the effects of this separation in a way that many adoptees have found helpful and descriptive of their experience but which, for others is labelling and gives adoption as an 'excuse' for things that go wrong in their lives. The Primal Wound examines the correlation that has been found between adoption and drug abuse, depression, suicide, incarceration etc. Verrier speaks of the original 'abandonment' of the adoptee leading them to expect further abandonment and informs their ability to trust and to enjoy healthy adult relationships. She states that this leads to testing out behaviour and feelings of rejection, insecurity and a nameless loss. Verrier describes this damaged adopted child at the time of separation from the mother as being 'hopeless, helpless, empty and alone':

'the severing of that connection... causes a primal or narcissistic wound..which manifests in a sense of loss, basic mistrust, anxiety and depression, emotional and/or behavioural problems, and difficulties in relationships with significant others' (Verrier 1993)

Verrier's thinking is, I believe helpful in some aspects but by no means defines the whole adoptee population. The majority of adoptees do manage to complete their education, form and maintain relationships and integrate their adoption into their life. This is not, however, without distinct difficulties and challenges. The fear of abandonment, fierce loyalty, issues with guilt and struggles to maintain a robust sense of self pepper the adopted population. Adoptees learn to be well-defended on certain issues and to be vigilant about what others expect of them.

For transracial adoption, there are the additional losses of cultural identity, loss of opportunities for reunion and perhaps even the lack of accurate information about their date of birth or the name of their mother.

Gratefulness, guilt and juggling

Perhaps one of the greatest losses for adoptees is the loss of the ability to feel secure and free from the burden of gratefulness. Adoptees have suffered at the hands of society's assumptions that they are almost certainly better off adopted than raised by their birth family. It is difficult to imagine a way that this could be definitively known.

Adoptees in reunion have a lot to manage. They have to find a way of explaining to their adoptive family that they wish to seek out or to accept contact from their birth family (usually the mother, although fathers are also highly important). This may be accepted easily, with their family supporting the decision and allowing the adoptee to talk about the feelings the decision promotes. The adoptee, however, will be on the look out for a more complicated set of responses from the adoptive family - emotional blackmail, regret, hidden tears, a sense of betrayal.

The adoptee is a keeper of secrets. For them, the secret commonly pertains to their feelings or wishes about the reunion; the true extent of their interest may have been kept even from those closest to them. Adoptees are good at guilt. Guilt often accompanies them into the reunion and is an uneasy companion when they are trying to establish relationships with birth relatives and maintain existing relationships within the adoptive family. Guilt often exists even when the adoptive parents give their blessing to the reunion and where there are no obvious impediments to it succeeding.

For this reason, and more often because feelings about adoption are rarely voiced, the adoptee's degree of excitement or longing is often unspoken and unacknowledged. The extent of this varies, from a minimizing of the impact of the reunion to a refusal to tell the adoptive parents that the contact has occurred at all. There are adoptees who have long-term, fulfilling relationships with their birth family but who have never told their adoptive family that the reunion has occurred. Whilst the secret in this case - namely 'I quite like the people I'm related to' - would not appear to be earth-shattering, its magnitude for the adoptee is huge and affects their ability to embark upon their search or to enjoy the contact once it occurs.

Adoptees in reunion have to decide whom to give the primary role of mother or parent. The pecking order shifts and changes. They will be asked to explain why they spend Christmas here or their birthday there. They won't know what to do about Mothers' Day. They will need strategies for how to manage the naming of grandparents and who gets to be at the hospital first. They may feel the need to divide their time equally or, more often, to give the adoptive parents priority because of history, or habit, or loyalty, or because they feel less guilty that way. It's not so much about whose 'claim' is greater, as it is about the pressure on adoptees to somehow justify what they feel or want out of these relationships.

Adoptees' relationships with their natural mother

Adoptees tell us that they experience pressure from both - all - sides. Their natural mother also may make demands, based on her needs, her grief or her beliefs about how the relationship should progress. Many adoptees are completely at a loss as to how to meet their natural mother's demands; they do not feel the same level of grief or of connection. They may have expected her to be made happy by the reunion and may have a whole range of reactions to her less-than-happy times, times when the loss of the baby and all those years become overwhelming.

Many natural mothers are angry about what happened to them at the time of losing their baby - something I don't have to tell this particular audience. The anger may be directed against their parents, the father, social workers or 'the system' generally. Adoptees who enter into a reunion with an angry mother often report difficulties in the relationship, particularly if they are expected to share their natural mother's anger. The anger produced by the terrible experience of loss and the unjust way in which the loss was created is fierce and very real. It is also, however, inaccessible to the vast majority of adoptees. Adoptees who are able to feel the anger for themselves are usually those who have had an unhappy adoption or who were abused within their adoptive family. For these adoptees, their natural mother's loss adds to their own regrets about having been raised in a family that hurt them.

Anger is a difficult place from which to begin to build a relationship. Adoptees in this situation report that they feel that they are being asked to choose between the reality that they have always known and a 'truth' which is new to them. In most cases, adoptees will choose the familiar.

Many mothers who contact us to talk about contacting their adopted son or daughter want to know whether adoptees are generally angry with their natural mother. The quick answer to that is that, no, adoptees are not usually angry. They have usually found some way of making sense of the natural mother's lack of choice or have realized that the social context of the day did not allow for a different outcome. They do not believe that their mother walked away without a backwards glance and frequently state that they have sympathy for her, even if they do not wish to take up contact. A small number of adoptees do feel that they were abandoned and use this belief to justify keeping the natural mother at arms length.

The information that adoptees have available to them as they grow into adulthood is often scant and inaccurate, if it exists at all. In adoptive families where adoption is talked about and where adoptive parents have had some basic information about the natural mother, available to them at the time of the adoption, the adoptee may have been given a picture of the reasons for their adoption. The stories told to adopted children are often very similar - tales of a mother alone, a lack of choice, of her love for her child. In families where adoption was not discussed, the adoptee has to piece together their possible story from community attitudes and what they pick up along the way. In all cases, imagination and fantasy plays a huge part. Many a young adoptee has imagined themselves daughter of a filmstar or son of a soccer player.

One of the major struggles for adoptees in reunion is adjusting to the major change that it brings to everything that they have known in their lives so far. Gone are the fantasies; gone is the illusion of the adoptive family being their only family. The adoptive family and their place within it is all that the adoptee has known until this point. They are often protective of their adoptive parents and their siblings, needing to reassure them and receive reassurance in return that the reunion doesn't mean the end of their family or their closeness to one another. Birth family members would be wise to acknowledge these strong bonds - asking after siblings, referring to them as 'your brother' or 'your sister', taking cues from the adoptee about terminology - as to ignore or dismiss them cannot fail to damage the adoptee's trust of the new relationship in some way.

In mentioning terminology, I must state that the recent debate over the appropriate term for the natural mother - natural mother, birth mother, mother, biological, first etc - has paid little attention to the wishes of adoptees. Adoptees are rarely comfortable with using 'mother' for their natural mother, generally feeling that this term best describes the mother that has raised them and needing some term to distinguish between the two mothers. This is not a sign of dishonour but is merely a ready example of the juggling I spoke of earlier. Needless to say, natural mothers who insist on being referred to as 'mother' or 'mum' may find some resistance in the adoptee.

Reunion is something of a courtship. There are invisible rules and guidelines. The parties may be easily offended or hurt. Feelings run high or are hidden away. Ultimatums and pressure for too much too soon often lead to a rejection. There is often one party who calls the shots and holds the other party to ransom to some degree.

For mothers attempting to understand the general attitude of adoptees to reunion, it's important to remember that many adoptees feel the need to exert some control over the pace and nature of the reunion. The question of choice over adoption has plagued natural mothers and adoptees alike. Adoptees sometimes talk about being the one with absolutely no choice in the arrangement and frequently describe feeling like 'eternal children' in reunion (being referred to as the 'adopted child' doesn't help!). This may explain their need to maintain control over the reunion in many instances.

In conclusion

Reading back over these pages I can see that I have written a whole collection of generalizations, which I guess I can justify by saying that they are all true, if not for all adoptees. To really do credit to what adoptees feel about their adoption and want from reunion would take up at least a large book. To perhaps understand the adoptees better, perhaps do some reading or take a journey in cyberspace to find adoptees in chatrooms and other forums. Remember, though - they can only describe the view from their own window.

Sarah Armstrong Senior Manager, PARC 27 August 2002
Visitor Comments (3)
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Sean Brame - 9 months ago
0 0 1
Hello Sarah, I have just read your writings for this subject, and as 40 year old father of 3 boys, you have stated some very insightful thoughts. I am adopted myself and realise mentally what you are writing but you've actually put some of my thoughts and the resulting feelings in writing. Overall you have covered, what I think anyway, around 60 up to 80 percent of issues surrounding adopted persons. I would just like to thank you for observation and I guess dedication. #1
Lizz - 9 months ago
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Just fpund out that my daughter placed a baby for adoption about four years ago. My concern is that this baby has an older sibling and younger sibling and the parents are married. They married only 2 months after the baby was born. While they were both young 18 and 19 a the time of the adoption, I am worried that my grandson will have tremendous grief and feelings of rejection when he finds out. The adoption has remained an open adoption. THis couple also adopted an African american baby 6 weeks after they adopted my grandson, who is Mexican American, white and native american. Any clues on how he will feel? #2
Asif - 1 year ago
0 1 1
A good article for adopting parents. Helps to understand reactions from adopted children. While I understand focus on adoptees, adopting parents go through their own challenges. While adoptees are struggling within themselves, it reflects on their own life, attitudes, commitments to life and family who has adopted them. It is difficult and challenging to understand that despite best care provided to adoptees, that they do not seem to be able to respond as belonging to the family. In many ways it is emotional and scarring to the relationship between adoptee and adopted. Adopting parents are human after all! #3
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