“Adoption Loss is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful”
— The Reverend Keith C. Griffith, MBE
Adoption. The word conjures two distinct images for most people. Either you view it as a joyous, good-willed, altruistic means of building a family, or as a shameful, coercive, traumatic tearing apart of a family. Perhaps you are somewhere in between.
Adoption is one the few events in life that causes enormous grief for all parties involved, along with enormous joy. But unlike death, it is a grief that is not or cannot be publically acknowledged.
It begins with the intense, personal and shameful grief borne by the prospective adoptive mother or father. Many couples or singles choose adoption because of infertility issues that cannot be resolved with current medical treatment. But in many cases, after suffering the exhausting rounds of infertility courses with no success, couples are left with this unresolved issue and no means to address it or mourn it. They may feel somewhat less than functional in their male/female roles, inadequate to their spouse/partner, and may suffer from low-esteem. They also internally grieve the child they can’t conceive, as real to them as a stillborn.
The second victim is the woman who is pregnant and either can’t raise the child herself, faces societal or religious pressure to give up an ‘illegitimate’ child, or lives in a culture that actively preys on vulnerable, poor families to augment a thriving black-market baby brokering business. She loses her child either by willingly or coercively relinquishing to adoption, or worse, having her stolen under some nefarious scheme. Either way, this loss is something about which the woman is actively encouraged not to speak; she is told to ‘move on with her life’ and forget the child she had, and often held and cared for. If she marries subsequent to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, she must often keep her secret from even her spouse and later children. No one sends her sympathy cards or offers her murmurs of condolences.
I fell into this ‘second victim’ category by relinquishing a daughter to adoption in 1978 (when I was 18), through the active coercion of a Catholic Social Services agency. I never imagined the hole it would leave. No one told me or warned me of the lifelong repercussions, nor did they allow me a period to grieve this loss or discuss it at length. The damage done to my psyche and sense of worth led me into an abusive marriage and left me emotionally drained and unable to connect with people.
It was not until I was 33 and engaged in therapy following my husband’s death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that I began to address the loss I suffered at 18. It was the first time I was able to connect events from that long-ago sorrow to the current, violent end to my marriage and my husband’s life. And ironically, in going through the traditional steps to acknowledge my husband’s passing — the memorial service, scattering of ashes, sympathy from friends and family — that I was able to really see and understand the deficit of grieving I experienced as a young mother separated from her child. The healing became complete in 1997 when I finally found my then 19-year old daughter and joyously reunited with her. The closure that event and our on-going close relationship has brought is immeasurable. It was the closing of the coffin on that dark, shame-ridden past; it was shedding myself of the guilt and helplessness, and saying goodbye to that sad, powerless young woman.
But not every woman reaches that closure. Many are still locked inside their own mental prison; afraid to reach out to lost children and unable to resolve their grief. They still believe that society would never permit them that mourning. And maybe they’re partly right and much still needs to be done to eliminate the shame and stigma still surrounding out-of-wedlock birth. As an enlightened, educated society, we would like to believe this attitude doesn’t exist anymore. But witness the numerous abandoned infants, often in tragic locations and with fatal result. These are not always acts committed by callous, unfeeling monsters, but by women at their wits’ end, brought to desperation by overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame.
Finally, the third and perhaps most important victim of loss is the adopted child/adult. From the moment an adoption is finalized (and often sooner), the child is taken from his mother and handed over to a completely new set of parents, often with a stop in a temporary foster care home until finalization.
We now know that the mother-child bond is an extraordinary one, forged even before birth. Ample evidence shows that we identify using all of our senses with the individual who bore us — sound, smell, taste and touch are crucial factors in early infant development. We share genetic material that irrevocably links us with our parents. And suddenly this bond, this link, is severed with the simple act of giving a child over to another set of parents to raise. This event is generally cause for joyous celebration on the part of the new welcoming family, extended relatives and friends. And the new little arrival is expected to be happy as well. However, this is too often not the case.
Many of these children remained with their mothers in ‘orphanages’ or mother-baby homes for extended periods until they were adopted out, so the bonding is that much more developed and intense. Particularly poignant is the loss suffered by children involved in intercountry adoption. I speak to that experience myself. In addition to relinquishing a child to adoption, I was also one of over 2,000 children sent from Ireland to the US for adoption between 1940-1970. Almost all of us were required to remain in the Irish mother-baby homes with our mothers for a minimum of a year (and often up to age 5). Varying reasons have been given for this requirement, including government flight regulations concerning infants and an unwillingness on the part of Catholic agencies to make children available for adoption in Ireland, lest they fall into the hands of Protestant couples, who were generally the only ones who could afford to adopt at the time. They looked to the US market, where there were thousands of Irish-American, Catholic couples eager to take in ‘Irish orphans’. Often these couples had been languishing on Catholic Social Services waiting lists and saw the Irish scheme as a way to circumvent a 7-year wait requirement.
In the early days of this exportation, children would frequently arrive in groups and would not only be met at the airport by their enthusiastic new families, but also by an eager press, who snapped pictures of ‘adorable Irish orphans’ accompanied by heart-tugging stories (ironically, Archbishop John McQuaid of Dublin, who was the principle architect of the adoption scheme, demanded that there be no press in conjunction with these adoptions — evidently, this message didn’t make it to the NY media). What a maelstrom to confront as a newly-arrived, immigrant 2-year old who’s just lost his mother, his culture and country, and every sight and sound that has grown familiar to him in his brief life!
Most pictures of us at the time we arrived show frightened, round-eyed children with stricken expressions. Our passport photos are not the usual going-on-holiday snaps showing a happy, grinning traveler. We look more like deer caught in the headlights.
And now, having faced this trauma of separation, we are again asked to sublimate our grief. We are given no vent to this loss. In fact, any acting-out behavior shown during this first arrival and initial adjustment period is now popularly labeled ‘attachment disorder.’ When an under-educated adoptive parent is confronted by an angry, fretful child, crying inconsolably, there are sometimes dire consequences. More than a few cases have been reported of adoptive parents returning children to agencies, simply because they could not cope or help assimilate their child to his new environment. Or worse, have resulted in the death of children at the hands of adoptive parents unable to cope and frustrated that little Vladimir seemed unable to ‘adapt’ and lashed out at his older siblings or parents. This post-traumatic stress and its attendant symptoms is also often mistaken for fetal alcohol syndrome or written off as a result of the birthmother’s poor healthcare or habits.
I was one of the lucky ones who had largely understanding and open-minded adoptive parents who did everything in their power to help my brother and me (also from Ireland) to adapt and feel comfortable in our ‘adoptive’ skin. I am also fortunate to have found my own natural mother, now living in England, and enjoy a relationship with her as close as that with my birthdaughter (3,000 miles notwithstanding). But when I view the low points of her life and see the sadness in her eyes, I understand too well the price of her loss. This sweet, spirited woman breaks my heart every time she ends a phone call in her lilting Wexford accent with, “I am so, so happy to have found you. And now that I’ve found you, I’ll never let you go again, my darling baby.”
So little is known about the long-term results of adoption and many people tend to view adoption as ending with the arrival of the new, warm bundle of joy. But it is a lifelong process and those of us who have lived the experience, particularly in an intercountry or transracial arrangement, are now able to speak to that experience. A generation of babies and children from Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere around the world are now adults with voices. We have stories to tell and lessons to share.
I’ve witnessed firsthand the loss my adoptive mother experienced, unable to bear a child of her own. I’ve seen it reflected in her eyes each time she looks at me and sees someone else’s daughter, and I’ve seen it in her inability to connect with my brother or I on that intuitive gut level that most mothers have. I’ve seen it in my birthmother’s eyes as she mentally counts all those missing years she and I didn’t have, and most crucially in myself, in losing my firstborn.
Adoption loss represents uncharted territory that is desperately in need of study and a re-thinking of traditional methods to coping with or responding to that grief. There is opportunity to learn from the victims of this loss and develop appropriate strategies among professionals, family members and communities that would allow these victims to mourn, close and heal their loss.