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Lifelong Issues in Adoption

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Adoption is a lifelong, intergenerational process that unites the triad of birth families, adoptees, and adoptive families forever. Adoption, especially of adolescents, can lead to both great joy and tremendous pain. Recognizing the core issues in adoption is one intervention that can assist triad members and professionals working in adoption better to understand each other and the residual effects of the adoption experience.

Adoption triggers seven lifelong or core issues for all triad members, regardless of the circumstances of the adoption or the characteristics of the participants:

1. Loss

2. Rejection

3. Guilt and Shame

4. Grief

5. Identity

6. Intimacy

7. Mastery/control

(Silverstein and Kaplan 1982).

Clearly, the specific experiences of triad members vary, but there is a commonality of affective experiences which persists throughout the individual's or family's life cycle development. The recognition of these similarities permits dialogue among triad members and allows those professionals with whom they interface to intervene in proactive as well as curative ways.

The presence of these issues does not indicate, however, that either the individual or the institution of adoption is pathological or pseudopathological. Rather, these are expected issues that evolve logically out of the nature of adoption. Before the recent advent of open and cooperative practices, adoption- had been practiced as a win/lose or adversarial process. In such an approach, birth families lose their child in order for the adoptive family to gain a child. The adoptee was transposed from one family to another with time-limited and, at times, shortsighted consideration of the child's long-term needs. Indeed, the emphasis has been on the needs of the adults--on the needs of the birthfamily not to parent and on the needs of the adoptive family to parent. The ramifications of this attitude can be seen in the number of difficulties experienced by adoptees and their families over their lifetimes.

Many of the issues inherent in the adoption experience converge when the adoptee reaches adolescence. At this time three factors intersect: an acute awareness of the significance of being adopted; a drive toward emancipation; and a biopsychosocial striving toward the development of an integrated identity.

It is not our intent here to question adoption, but rather to challenge some adoption assumptions, specifically, the persistent notion that adoption is not different from other forms of parenting and the accompanying disregard for the pain and struggles inherent in adoption.

However, identifying and integrating these core issues into pre-adoption education, post-placement supervision, and all post-legalized services, including treatment, universalizes and validates triad members' experiences, decreasing their isolation and feelings of helplessness.

Loss

Adoption is created through loss; without loss there would be no adoption. Loss, then, is at the hub of the wheel. All birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees share in having experienced at least one major, life-altering loss before becoming involved in adoption. In adoption, in order to gain anything, one must first lose--a family, a child, a dream. It is these losses and the way they are accepted and, hopefully, resolved which set the tone for the lifelong process of adoption.

Adoption is a fundamental, life-altering event. It transposes people from one location in the human mosaic into totally new configuration. Adoptive parents, whether through infertility, failed pregnancy, stillbirth, or the death of a child have suffered one of life's greatest blows prior to adopting. They have lost their dream child. No matter how well resolved the loss of bearing a child appears to be, it continues to affect the adoptive family at a variety of points throughout the families love cycle (Berman and Bufferd 1986). This fact is particularly evident during the adoptee's adolescence when the issues of burgeoning sexuality and impending emancipation may rekindle the loss issue.

Birthparents lose, perhaps forever, the child to whom they are genetically connected. Subsequently, they undergo multiple losses associated with the loss of role, the loss of contact, and perhaps the loss of the other birth parent, which reshape the entire course of their lives.

Adoptees suffer their first loss at the initial separation from the birthfamily. Awareness of their adopted status is inevitable. Even if the loss is beyond conscious awareness, recognition, or vocabulary, it affects the adoptee on a very profound level. Any subsequent loss, or the perceived threat of separation, becomes more formidable for adoptees than their non-adopted peers.

The losses in adoption and the role they play in all triad members lives have largely been ignored. The grief process in adoption, so necessary for healthy functioning, is further complicated by the fact that there is no end to the losses, no closure to the loss experience. Loss in adoption is not a single occurrence. There is the initial, identifiable loss and innumerable secondary sub-losses. Loss becomes an evolving process, creating a theme of loss in both the individual's and family's development. Those losses affect all subsequent development.

Loss is always a part of triad members' lives. A loss in adoption is never totally forgotten. It remains either in conscious awareness or is pushed into the unconscious, only to be reawakened by later loss. It is crucial for triad members, their significant others, and the professional with whom they interface, to recognize these losses and the effect loss has on their lives.

Rejection

Feelings of loss are exacerbated by keen feelings of rejection. One way individuals seek to cope with a loss is to personalize it. Triad members attempt to decipher what they did or did not do that led to the loss. Triad members become sensitive to the slightest hint of rejection, causing them either to avoid situations where they might be rejected or to provoke rejection in order to validate their earlier negative self-perceptions.

Adoptees seldom are able to view their placement into adoption by the birthparents as anything other than total rejection. Adoptees even at young ages grasp the concept that to be "chosen" means first that one was "un-chosen," reinforcing adoptees' lowered self-concept. Society promulgates the idea that the "good" adoptee is the one who is not curious and accepts adoption without question. At the other extreme of the continuum is the "bad" adoptee who is constantly questioning, thereby creating feelings of rejection in the adoptive parents.

Birthparents frequently condemn themselves for being irresponsible, as does society. Adoptive parents may inadvertently create fantasies for the adoptee about the birthfamily that reinforce these feelings of rejection. For example, adoptive parents may block an adolescent adoptee's interest in searching for birthparents by stating that the birthparents may have married and had other children. The implication is clear that the birthparents would consider contact with the adoptee an unwelcome intrusion.

Adoptive parents may sense that their bodies have rejected them if they are infertile. This impression may lead the infertile couple, for example, to feel betrayed or rejected by God. When they come to adoption, the adopters, possibly unconsciously, anticipate the birthparents' rejection and criticism of their parenting. Adoptive parents struggle with issues of entitlement, wondering if perhaps they were never meant to be parents, especially to this child. The adopting family, then, may watch for the adoptee to reject them, interpreting many benign, childish actions as rejection. To avoid that ultimate rejection, some adoptive parents expel or bind adolescent adoptees prior to the accomplishment of appropriate emancipation tasks.

Guilt/Shame

The sense of deserving such rejection leads triad members to experience tremendous guilt and shame. They commonly believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with them or their deeds that caused the losses to occur. Most triad members have internalized, romantic images of the American family that remain unfulfilled because there is no positive, realistic view of the adoptive family in our society.

For many triad members, the shame of being involved in adoption per se exists passively, often without recognition. The shame of an unplanned pregnancy, or the crisis of infertility, or the shame of having been given up remains unspoken, often as an unconscious motivator.

Adoptees suggest that something about their very being caused the adoption. The self-accusation is intensified by the secrecy often present in past and present adoption practices. These factors combine to lead the adoptee to conclude that the feelings of guilt and shame are indeed valid.

Adoptive parents, when they are diagnosed as infertile, frequently believe that they must have committed a grave sin to have received such a harsh sentence. They are ashamed of themselves, of their defective bodies, of their inability to bear children.

Birthparents feel tremendous guilt and shame for having been intimate and sexual; for the very act of conception, they find themselves guilty.

Grief

Every loss in adoption must be grieved. The losses in adoption, however, are difficult to mourn in a society where adoption is seen as a problem-solving event filled with joy. There are no rituals to bury the unborn children; no rites to mark off the loss of role of caretaking parents; no ceremonies for lost dreams or unknown families. Grief washes over triad members' lives, particularly at times of subsequent loss or developmental transitions.

Triad members can be assisted at any point in the adoption experience by learning about and discussing the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Kubler-Ross 1969).

Adoptees in their youth find it difficult to grieve their losses, although they are in many instances aware of them, even as young children. Youngsters removed from abusive homes are expected to feel only relief and gratitude, not loss and grief. Adults block children's expressions of pain or attempt to divert them. In addition, due to developmental unfolding of cognitive processes, adoptees do not fully appreciate the total impact of their losses into their adolescence or, for many, into adulthood. This delayed grief may lead to depression or acting out through substance abuse or aggressive behaviors.

Birthparents may undergo an initial, brief, intense period of grief at the time of the loss of the child, but are encouraged by well-meaning friends and family to move on in their lives and to believe that their child is better off. The grief, however, does not vanish, and, in fact, it has been reported that birthmothers may deny the experience for up to ten years (Campbell 1979).

Adoptive Parnets' grief over the inability to bear children is also blocked by family and friends who encourage the couple to adopt, as if children are interchangeable. The grief of the adoptive parents continues as the child grows up since the adoptee can never fully meet the fantasies and expectations of the adoptive parents.

Identity

Adoption may also threaten triad members' sense of identity. Triad members often express feelings related to confused identity and identity crises, particularly at times of unrelated loss.

Identity is defined both by what one is and what one is not. In adoption, birthparents are parents and are not. Adoptive parents who were not parents suddenly become parents. Adoptees born into one family, a family probably nameless to them now, lose an identity and then borrow one from the adopting family.

Adoption, for some, precludes a complete or integrated sense of self. Triad members may experience themselves as incomplete, deficient, or unfinished. They state that they lack feelings of well-being, integration, or solidity associated with a fully developed identity.

Adoptees lacking medical, genetic, religious, and historical information are plagued by questions such as: Who are they? Why were they born? Were they in fact merely a mistake, not meant to have been born, an accident? This lack of identity may lead adoptees, particularly in adolescent years, to seek out ways to belong in more extreme fashion than many of their non-adopted peers. Adolescent adoptees are over represented among those who join sub-cultures, run away, become pregnant, or totally reject their families.

For many couples in our society a sense of identity is tied to procreation. Adoptive parents may lose that sense of generativity, of being fled to the past and future, often created through procreation.

Adoptive parents and birthparents share a common experience of role confusion. They are handicapped by the lack of positive identity associated with being either a birthparent or adoptive parent (Kirk 1964). Neither set of parents can lay full claim to the adoptee and neither can gain distance from any problems that may arise.

Intimacy

The multiple, ongoing losses in adoption, coupled with feelings of rejection, shame, and grief as well as an incomplete sense of self, may impede the development of intimacy for triad members. One maladaptive way to avoid possible reenactment of previous losses is to avoid closeness and commitment.

Adoptive parents report that their adopted children seem to hold back a part of themselves in the relationship. Adoptive mothers indicate, for example, that even as an infant, the adoptee was "not cuddly.'' Many adoptees as teens state that they truly have never felt close to anyone. Some youngsters declare a lifetime emptiness related to a longing for the birthmother they may have never seen.

Due to these multiple losses for both adoptees and adoptive parents, there may also have been difficulties in early bonding and attachment. For children adopted at older ages, multiple disruptions in attachment and/or abuse may interfere with relationships in the new family (Fahlberg 1979 a,b).

The adoptee's intimacy issues are particularly evident in relationships with members of the opposite sex and revolve around questions about the adoptee's conception, biological and genetic concerns, and sexuality.

The adoptive parents' couple relationship may have been irreparably harmed by the intrusive nature of medical procedures and the scapegoating and blame that may have been part of the diagnosis of infertility. These residual effects may become the hallmark of the later relationship.

Birthparents may come to equate sex, intimacy, and pregnancy with pain leading them to avoid additional loss by shunning intimate relationships. Further, birthparents may question their ability to parent a child successfully. In many instances, the birthparents fear intimacy in relationships with opposite sex partners, family or subsequent children.

Mastery/Control

Adoption alters the course of one's life. This shift presents triad members with additional hurdles in their development, and may hinder growth, self-actualization, and the evolution of self-control.

Birthparents, adoptive parents, and adoptees are all forced to give up control. Adoption, for most, is a second choice. Birthparents did not grow up with romantic images of becoming accidentally pregnant or abusing their children and surrendering them for adoption. In contrast, the pregnancy or abuse is a crisis situation whose resolution becomes adoption. In order to solve the predicament, birthparents must surrender not only the child but also their volition, leading to feelings of victimization and powerlessness that may become themes in birthparents' lives.

Adoptees are keenly aware that they were not party to the decision that led to their adoption. They had no- control over the loss of the birthfamily or the choice of the adoptive family. The adoption proceeded with adults making life-altering choices for them. This unnatural change of course impinges on growth toward self-actualization and self-control. Adolescent adoptees, attempting to master the loss of control they have experienced in adoption, frequently engage in power struggles with adoptive parents and other authority figures. They may lack internalized self-control, leading to a lowered sense of self-responsibility. These patterns, frequently passive/aggressive in nature, may continue into adulthood.

For adoptive parents, the intricacies of the adoption process lead to feelings of helplessness. These feelings sometimes cause adoptive parents to view themselves as powerless, and perhaps entitled to be parents, leading to laxity in parenting. As an alternative response, some adoptive parents may seek to regain the lost control by becoming overprotective and controlling, leading to rigidity in the parent/adoptee relationship.

Summary

The experience of adoption, then can be one of loss, rejection, guilt/shame, grief, diminished identity, thwarted intimacy, and threats to self-control and to the accomplishment of mastery. These seven core or lifelong issues permeate the lives of triad members regardless of the circumstances of the adoption.

Identifying these core issues can assist triad members and professionals in establishing an open dialogue and alleviating some of the pain and isolation that so often characterize adoption. Triad members may need professional assistance in recognizing that they may have become trapped in the negative feelings generated by the adoption experience. Armed with this new awareness, they can choose to catapult themselves into growth and strength.

Triad members may repeatedly do and undo their adoption experiences in their minds and in their vacillating behaviors while striving toward mastery. They will benefit from identifying, exploring and ultimately accepting the role of the seven core issues in their lives.

The following tasks and questions will help triad members and professionals explore the seven core issues in adoption:

List the losses, large and small, that you have experienced in adoption.
Identify the feelings associated with these losses.
What experiences in adoption have led to feelings of rejection?
Do you ever see yourself rejecting others before they can reject you? When?
What guilt or shame do you feel about adoption?
What feelings do you experience when you talk about adoption?
Identify your behaviors at each of the five stages of the grief process. Have you accepted your losses?
How has adoption impacted your sense of who you are?

Credits: Deborah N. Silverstein, Sharon Kaplan

Visitor Comments (18)
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Drc - 1 year ago
0 0 5
Glad I found this site. I never thought my feelings could be traced to my history. I withdraw a lot. I feel isolated n very lonely. I'm divorced w one child. I exposed her to both families n explained what happened to me. She's teen now. She seems ok. But since I am a little alienated from birth family she feels awkward w them a little. This recent visit w mom got to me. It hurt all three of us. But we each have own perspective. I feel healed in many respects but fear of intimacy and loneliness affect me a lot. Always have but I thought I was just shy. Cause my "adoption" was within family n I knew everyone it didn't seem like big deal. I've always been a loner tho. Hard to make friends. Harder to have a healthy romantic relationship too. All the therapy I've done n no one mentioned how the "adoption" itself could subconsciously affect me. I feel better now after reading this. I don't feel like it's my "fault" so much. Understanding may help me deal w my loneliness. #1
Rich - 3 months ago
0 0 2
very interesting article. I am married with two children 9,7 and a beautiful wife. right now we are struggling in our marriage and I have recently been diagnosed with ADHD- which has greatly impacted my relationship. I recently met with a therapist and she asked me about my life and I mentioned I was adopted. I never knew if abandonment and the impact that it has had on my life whether consiously or sub-consiously. I have a high need of approval, fear of loss, tremendous guilt and rejection issues. These are all starting to come to the surface as I am in a crisis mode in my marriage. I am relieved to be reading this type of information #2
Drc - 1 year ago
0 0 3
My birth mom gave me up to my dad's sister. I thought she was my birth mom till a cousin told me at age 12. I knew birth parents but thought they were aunt/uncle. At 14birth parents took me in. I had no choice. By that time they had 4 more kids together. I was oldest of 6. Lived there till I turned 18. At 20 I lived w them for about 1 year then stayed on my own. Never fully bonded w birth family. Relationship w aunt/mom wasn't same after I lived w birth family. Dad n his sister have now passed on. I'm 40 now. Kept contact w birth family but we act like nothing ever happened. Siblings n mom are very close. I have kept distance. I invited mom to stay w me for a while like she does w siblings. They live together sometimes. They always help eavh other emotionally financially. I wanted to extend but after 1 month I wanted mom to go. I feel belittled by her. I think she's critical towards me. She says she's not. #3
David - 3 months ago
1 1 3
As an adoptee, now in middle-age, I'm totally offended with the assumption that adoptees are all "handicapped" with these seven issues! I've shared the site with several friends, also adopted, who also find your contentions over-broad and a little prejudiced--as if adoption is something that leaves all parties crippled emotionally. Shame on you for painting us all with your broad brush dipped in sorrow, shame, and brokenness. Unlike this site, I completely acknowledge that there is a wide range of adoption experience: my history is my own, and I can't assume it is universal. But for everyone who has struggled with their adopted status, there are others who have found whole-ness, inclusion, and emotional security by being adopted. #4
Stephanie - 1 month ago
0 0 1
I am a adoptive parent of our son now age 17 1/2. We adopted him at age 15 and had him in foster care since age 13. He lived with his father on and off since the age of five, that is when his mother dropped him off at his house and did not return. He appears to have bonded with me but has not with my husband. He recalls the relationship he had with his father and grieves the loss very much. He does not remember his mother therefore I believe that is why he has bonded to me. If he had his choice he would change his name back and live with his father for ever. The article is correct; he did not choose this the adults in his life did. Our journey together has not been easy, in fact every day there has been at least one new challenge. I look forward to the day he can return to his father and change his name back to who he knows he really is. I look forward to the day his birth mother meets him and sees what a beautiful child she allowed me to care for while she was away. #5
Nadia - 11 months ago
0 0 2
As a middle-aged adoptee, what resonates here is a desire to know my family history. While I am curious and interested in my family background, I am a still a whole person without it too. I am also totally on board with th statement: "Adoptees are keenly aware that they were not party to the decision that led to their adoption." This is logical, because I was a baby, and perfectly acceptable to me. Rejection, intimacy issues, self-esteem, grief/shame,loss, are not negative ramifications that have affected me as a result of being adopted. Perhaps my mastery and control were influenced. I was not a rebellious or defiant child (or adult), but I have sharp analytical skills and will question things beyond the average person. I am tenacious in an academic sense and this has turned out to be one of my strongest suits. #6
Lisa Ann - 4 months ago
0 0 1
To mik, #3 below: Your wife may be experiencing feelings that you will leave her at some point in the future. This can be due to an adoptee's issues with abandonment and rejection. In an effort to maintain control over that situation or in an effort to subconsciously 'get it over with' she may be trying to (pre-emptively) make it occur on her own timeline by rejecting you now. Don't take it personally - she may very well Not mean what she says. Instead of recognizing what we adoptees are feeling sometimes and talking about it or placing it in a proper perspective, we panic and instead of handling our fear in better ways, we force our greatest fears into being the reality. Just hold her tightly and reassure her that you Will Not leave her, over and over if necessary. No matter what happens - remain steadfast in your resolve not to let her push you into leaving. Encourage her to talk about her fears with you or a professional trained in treating members of the adoption triad. #7
Deborah - 1 month ago
0 0 0
This is a very interesting article. Thank you for posting it. I wish their were more studies about adoption. Everyone only the best outcome for all parties involved especially the children. I am a birth mother it seems like we are vilified by society. I feel there should be a way for birthparents to know how their child is doing. This could be done anonymously. It is really sad for everyone that feelings could not be shared. I think it is very selfish for adoptive parents to cut the birthmother off completely. I realize in some situations it is best. But that is assuming all parties involved are telling the truth. There are some very underhanded tacts that are used to remover a child from the bio parents. Someone will post that is not true. I have learned through our adoption system trust no one. You will be lied to lied about and you may not find out the truth until years later when you start searching. #8
malynda - 1 month ago
0 0 0
I dont think you can lump everyones experiences together. Everyone has baggage. Some are better at hidding then others. You dont give up your love for a child. Thats why when i hear people say that i. I correct them. I say i placed my child for adoption. I placed her with a woman who loved her as much as i do. I did it so that my daughter could have a better life then i had. I put her first not thinking of myself. I loved her enough to put her ahead of me. Having her taught me that. For the first time ithe first time in my life i actually that of someone else besides myself. Shes the reason i became clean and sober she is my angel and if it wasnt for her i would be dead. I had to do right by her. I love her and so does her adopted mom. Who actually reminded me of my mom #9
jasmine - 7 months ago
0 2 1
this is the biggest piece of bull ever, i am an adoptee aged 16 and you class us as if we're a different species, who all experience the same thing. I can truthfully say i do not suffer from any of these "7 core issues" which adopted children suffer from, and am so grateful for everything. I know for a fact I have had a better life, welfare and family than a majority of my friends with biological parents. People debating on whether to adopt or not, it's the best thing you could possibly do. Is it not worth sacrificing your doubts of a sentimental good relationship with a biological child, than billions of orphans who will grow up only to live by themselves once chucked out of an orphanage? #10
Walt - 3 weeks ago
0 0 0
Why did the state of MN take away my "basic right" to know who I am? I watch the ads on TV about searching for your family history and wonder what they would think if they were told they could not. Do I have any brothers or sisters? #11
Christine - 9 months ago
0 0 0
I was adopted into a family with three adoptees before me. The parents then went on to have two natural children. I was sexually abused from a very young age by a grandfatherly neighbour. While it was never discussed, even when it became knowledge to my adoptive family at 28, I always felt my family must have known. So to be told you are "special" in one way yet have this happen, caused huge confusion to me. I then found my birth parents when I was 20 who had married and had three more children. 32 years on, I am only in contact with my birth father even though I often attempt communication with my birth mother. Even now, her rejection really hurts. I try to understand how hard it must have been for her to be forced to give up her child but grapple with her refusing contact now. Having said all that, I have a good life, three amazing children and a very supportive husband -but not the father to my children. Even with all this life experience, I feel very blessed. #12
a - 5 months ago
0 0 0
i have a dear friend who was adopted as an infant. his adoption was closed, and the identity of his birth mother is a mystery. i feel like i can never say the right things. i see that he is hurting, but i can not do anything. reading this site has helped me understand a bit better what he is going through. #13
DMG - 9 months ago
0 0 0
I am very glad I found this site. I am a 38yr old female adoptee. I found my birthmother and her family in 1998. It was a wonderful reunion and they are a very loving family, as are my adoptive family. I was raised an only child and when I found my birthfamily, I found out I had a brother (not sure if he is a full-blooded brother or half brother and we will never know w/o DNA testing). Our relationship was never perfect. He is 6 yrs younger than me and we have little I feel in common. Recently we have not been getting along due to him dating my ex's sister (the ex dumped me and I was devastated)-but my brother continues to date his siter and hang out with my ex which hurts me deeply. I am VERY angry with my brother for this but for other reasons too that I am still trying to figure out. He has always "grated on me" and I always thought we should get along great, because we are related. Not so much and not sure how to deal with these feelings? Any ideas? Thanks! #14
mik - 9 months ago
0 1 0
Thank you for this insight. I am 42 and my wife of 2 years is 38, we've known each other for 6 years. We also have my step daughter, her daughter who just turned 13. When we were dating, we both decided, by design, to not rush into me meeting her daughter. We dated for a year before I met her daughter, and when I did, I was smitten by her. She was 6 and the spitting image of her mother. My wife is adopted. She grew up with another adopted older sister, and then their parents became pregnant twice. So the affluent family had 2 adopted, and 2 on their own, all girls. The 2 adopted have had a tumultuous relationship. Jealousy and meanness abound. My wife, out of the blue, told me I needed to move out. I'm crushed and looking for answers why?! That's why I'm here. I feel like there are some deeeep psychological wounds and trauma that prevent my wife from experiencing real intimacy. Thanks for shedding some light on the situation #15
Bronwen - 9 months ago
0 0 0
Thank you so much for this site. My family and I are currently dealing with all the issues recorded here. I am hoping they will help my son understand some of his feelings as they have helped my husband and I understand our own Many of our problems during his growing up are also explained here. Thank you once again. #16
Guest - 1 year ago
1 1 1
I knew about the stages, but it didn't hit me until I read this.It definitely spoke to me.I was so confused, distrusting,ashamed and angry.I was placed in 1970,close adoption when no one spoke of the "secret".My daughter got pregnant at 16 and we are now in the middle of adopting her son.I know what this feels like from both sides.A lot of loss and happiness.Kinda creates confusion. #17
Cathy L - 1 year ago
2 1 0
Oh my goodness, this article explains so much I didn't know about. It's very clear. It has helped me to understand some of my husbands "odd" behaviour. #18
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