Does Society Reinforce Adoptees’
Feelings of Abandonment?

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC, LADAC

     A great deal has been written and said about adoptees, particularly adult adoptees, feeling that they were abandoned or rejected by their birth parents, and some adoptees frequently express such perceptions. Many books, such at The Primal Wound and Journey of the Adopted Self, propose that adoptees not only have these feelings, but that they are correct perceptions, and that the adoptee may never heal from these feelings. As a therapist, and admittedly as a birth parent who never felt I was rejecting or abandoning my son in any way, I have begun to wonder how much of these perceptions (which are thoughts, upon which feelings are based in individuals beyond infancy) are truly there from birth on, and to what degree they are reinforced, even promoted, by society and the adoption world.
     I realize this may be a controversial question. In former times, society held that it was best to keep adoption a secret, perhaps even from the adoptee, and that such secrecy would result in less, or no, trauma to the adoptee as well as to the adoptive parents. No thought was given to birth parents’ trauma, other than telling a birth mother to tell no one and she would quickly forget she ever was pregnant or had this child. We now know, of course, that such secrecy resulted in more, not less, trauma to everyone involved.
     There are still a few out there, even a few adoption agencies, who would recommend not informing the adoptee of his/her adoption, or waiting until age seven or eight or even later, and then mentioning it only briefly, with no information about birth parents. There are certainly still those who believe birth parents should have no information, no contact, and no possibility of search or reunion even when the adoptee is an adult. There are many, even some adoption search facilitators, who do not believe in open adoptions, or in open records. Most of our society still thinks adoptions are or should be, completely closed, at least during the adoptee’s childhood, and they believe, mistakenly, that adoptions were all closed for the last several hundred years. Organizations such as American Adoption Congress, Concerned United Birthparents, ALMA, and Bastard Nation, have worked for a whole generation or more now, promoting both access to records and openness and honesty in adoption. Legislative changes happen slowly, but societal attitudes happen even more slowly.
     In many adoption support groups, adoptees, particularly those who are newly considering search, or whose initial hopes of reunion did not meet their expectations, express disappointment, anger, and sometimes self-pity, which comes out as saying they feel (or are afraid of) “being abandoned and rejected again.” One must ask what they mean by “again.” Who has told them they were abandoned or rejected by birth parents? It is true that in some states, particularly in the past, the papers a birth mother had to sign to relinquish her child (or which were signed for her by parents or even forged) stated that she was abandoning, even abusing her child. Many young women were not even allowed to read what they were signing, and others were so heavily medicated, or in such a state of shock, that they were unable to read or understand what they were being asked to sign. Birth fathers in those days were rarely given any option or even notification, about losing parental rights. In other states, the relinquishment papers were more objective. For instance, in New Mexico, the paper I signed merely stated, “I hereby voluntarily relinquish custody.”
     Most adoptees who perceive that they were rejected by being relinquished have not seen copies of the relinquishment papers, so they have internalized their perceptions from what they have been told by adoptive parents, agency personnel, and by society at large, including written material, stories about adoption, by movies, and by what they have heard others say. Reluctance of adoptive parents or other relatives to discuss the adoption reinforces the idea that adoption is some really negative condition, and that either the birth parents were horrible, unfeeling people, or that the adoptee was somehow so undesirable that the birth parents could not bear to keep him/her, and only the adoption agency/adoptive parents saved the child’s life by rescuing him/her. Given the alternative between a self-concept of being undesirable or a projected concept of birth parents as unloving and unfit, most would go for the latter.
     This is not to deny that a newborn infant, adopted even at birth, misses that familiar heartbeat and voice of the birth mother, and at a very deep level has some feelings of loss. In the past, after hospital births became the norm, all newborns were routinely taken away from their mothers and stuck in nurseries, with sane resultant feelings of loss, however unconscious. Only by mothers’ assertiveness is this different even today. Hospitals seem bent on separating parents and babies for any reason they can find, even though countless studies have shown that babies, even premature babies, need that parental presence, the touching, the talking, all of it. For a baby being adopted, there is no getting around the fact that this infant must make an abrupt shift in bonding, whether it happens at birth, at three days, or at six months. How that is interpreted to the child, and by the child, the rest of his/her life, is another matter. Even in the animal world, babies must sometimes be nurtured by some animal (even a human) other than their mother, in order to survive. Adoption among humans will always need to be a possibility, although we hope not an extremely common occurrence, and not something lightly entered into by adaptive parents, birth parents, or intermediaries such as agencies and states.
     While it is ludicrous to say that adoptees have no different issues in life than do those who are not adopted, whether adopted at birth or sometime later, such as through the foster system, it may not be particularly helpful for society to portray adoptees as helpless victims of being relinquished. It was not correct or helpful to portray adoptees as “lucky” to be adopted by wonderful adoptive parents, putting a burden on the adoptee of feeling grateful to the adoptive parents, and the adoption system, at all times, a burden not put on other people. It is also not helpful, it seems to this therapist, to portray adoptees as pitiful victims who are forever damaged, and somehow therefore forever entitled to be angry at birth parents and, to sane lesser degree, at adoptive parents, adoption agencies, doctors, or anyone else. In some adoption conferences, some sessions have been devoted to allowing, even encouraging, adult adoptees to express anger and rage at birth parents in general, as if all birth parents were responsible for this adult adoptee’s unhappiness. This does not seen to be a very healthy attitude to reinforce, and not therapeutic in the long run, not that brief conferences are a suitable venue for therapy.
     Although any individual is entitled to whatever feelings they have, society in general tells us what feelings can be expressed where. Screaming and crying, for instance, are not considered appropriate while standing in line at the grocery store, even for those two-year-olds who want the candy bars they see. Certainly it is not considered acceptable for adults. Expressing feelings of sadness, anger, resentment, fear, and grief certainly is appropriate in a controlled therapeutic setting. It is interesting that adoptees are allowed to say things like, “Gee, I’m glad my adoptive parents raised me and not my birth mother,” but a birth parent is never allowed by society to say, “Gee, I’m glad I didn’t raise my child.” Adoptive parents have sometimes disrupted or canceled an adoption for various reasons, although this is somewhat frowned upon unless the adoptee is violent, disturbed, or in some sort of trouble. In general, however, adoptive parents are expected to be grateful for having the child to raise, enormously loving and patient, and terrified of any encounter with birth parents. The idea that the adoptee was abandoned and rejected by birth parents and rescued by adoptive parents reinforces these expectations and perceptions concerning both adoptees and adoptive parents, while discounting birth parents’ feelings and continued existence.
     A last question for the reader to ponder is whether any person with adoption connections is really well-served by the perceptions of abandonment, rejection, rescue, and perpetual anger, or is it possible to find a more positive way of dealing with one’s life experiences, including being adopted, having to relinquish a child, losing a pregnancy, adopting a child, or having a relationship not turn out the way we had hoped. Society, as a collective entity, may promote certain attitudes, but we as individuals can choose our own attitudes at any time.

Excerpted from the October 2007 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2007 Operation Identity