Internalizing Adoption

by Barbara Free

     Most persons are taught to internalize and accept various facts about themselves, to incorporate those things as parts of who they are, such as their height, their sex, their color, their handedness. When people have a chronic condition, disease or disability, whether it be asthma, arthritis, paralysis, addiction, or something else, they are generally advised to face that, accept it as part (not all, but part) of their personal identity, so that they can deal with it in an appropriate way. Not to do so is often called denial and is not considered healthy.
     A huge exception to this way of thinking is our culture's attitudes about adoption. When there are adoption connections, people are overtly taught not to internalize them, not to incorporate those facts as part of their self-image. Let us examine these attitudes as they affect various members of the adoption triad, and as such attitudes contradict themselves, particularly in closed adoptions.
     Birth fathers—who still receive the least recognition as even being part of the triad—are told either that they "should" feel a lot of guilt and shame over not marrying the birth mother and/or supporting her financially (even if he is denied any further contact with the birth mother or child), or he is told "Since you are not really involved, it should have no meaning to you; you should have no feelings at all. It might not even be your child. Just forget it and go on your way." Many birth fathers spend years alternately denying their feelings and feeling guilt, shame, sadness, and grief over fathering a child they did not raise.
     Birth mothers who relinquish have been told, "You'll forget all about this; you'll go on with your life as if it never happened. And be sure not to tell anyone, not even your husband or therapist, because they'll know what you're really like, that you're defective, and then you'll never find anyone. And you might as well forget you ever had this chi1d, because you'll never see that child again, or know if it is alive or dead. It's better this way. Someone else will raise your child, some deserving couple who can make him acceptable." In the past, to "make it easier to forget," birth mothers were not allowed to see their babies, and in many instances, not allowed to be conscious for the birth, nor even told the sex of the baby. The actual reason was to make it harder should the birth mother ever decide to search for her child, and presumably, snatch him back, whether the child is three or 30. Until a few years ago, the term birth mother did not exist—these women were distinctly told not to think of themselves as mothers in any way, not to internalize that as part of their identity.
     Adoptive parents, on the other hand, were told to internalize an identification as the child's "true" and "only" parents, and to pretend there was no difference between their experience and that of biological parents and children. They were encouraged to keep the child's origins a secret (what little information they had). The conflicting message here was that the child was somehow tainted and only by adoption and pretense could he/she be considered a "real" person. The adoptive parents' grief over infertility (if that was the reason for adoption), their longing for the physical experiences of pregnancy and birth, were barely acknowledged, and were supposed to be completely resolved by the act of adoption, never to be felt or discussed again. Of course, should this couple later have a biological child, people would make remarks like, "This one is your real child," negating the previous statements about adopted children being no different from children to whom one gave birth.
     These attitudes trivialized everything from the child's biological inheritance and pre-adoptive existence, to the adoptive parents' need for support in accepting infertility and the validity of their adoption experience. It also denied the variety of feelings and experiences in adoption for everyone involved, the parents' joys and fears, the birth parents' hopes and sorrows, the child's confusion and adjustment to life with the adoptive family. Even when the child is with the adoptive family from the day of birth, he/she must adjust to hearing new voices and heartbeats, and to not hearing his birth mother's voice and heartbeat any more.
     Finally, the adoptee has been told, "You are no different than if you were your parents' biological child. Your genetic inheritance is unimportant (unless there is a ‘defect')." Yet the child grows up knowing that there are differences, in looks and personality if nothing else. Again, being told there are no differences trivializes his/her very core of identity. Additionally, the child may be given messages such as, "Your mother must have been a slut to have you and she didn't love you, because she gave you away. And your father, if she even knew him, just disappeared. But, no matter, you were rescued by these good, moral people, who will love you in spite of your origins and then your origins won't matter." The child does internalize these messages that he/she was undesired, unloved, defective, and has "bad blood."
     Around puberty, many parents get very concerned about the child's supposed predisposition to promiscuity ("like your mother") and may become very restrictive, particularly with a girl. The adoptive mother, who has never been encouraged to deal with her own grief and anger over infertility, may become jealous of the daughter's potential fertility. Certainly, this is not true of all adoptive parents, but even the most careful of adoption agencies cannot predict which adoptive parents will have these issues, especially if the agency itself fostered such attitudes.
     The adoptee, who was formerly encouraged to internalize an identity as the "true and same as biological offspring" of the adoptive parents, now finds that was a false identity. In cases where the adoptee did not learn of his/her adoptive status until late childhood, or even into adulthood, he/she may feel even more confused and betrayed. Fortunately, that has rarely been the case in the last generation, and is not the case with cross-racial adoptions where the adoptee obviously looks very different from the adoptive parents, ensuring that at least that issue is addressed.
     By failing to address the profound issues that all members of the adoption triad have, and by not encouraging them to internalize, accept, and even celebrate these parts of their identities, society and professionals discount, these persons as whole and unique persons. In truly open adoptions, this is far less likely to happen, because the birth parents' existence and identity is known and acknowledged, the adoptive parents do not pretend to be the only parents this child ever had, they are less likely to feel threatened by contact with birth parents, and the child gets to grow up knowing who he/she looks or thinks like. The situation can be celebrated rather than denied. This does not mean the individuals involved will have no problems, or will happily incorporate their triad status into their identities without struggle, but it does set the stage for being able to do so in healthy ways.

Excerpted from the July 1999 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 1999 Operation Identity