Adoption: transcending bloodlines takes years of emotional work

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

Adoption often is hailed as a perfect solution. It gives the child the parents he needs and the parents a child to love.

“But while adoption meets real social and personal needs, it simultaneously denies the child’s and the adoptive parents’ deeply held, unrealized wishes,” says Elinor B. Rosenberg, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry. “If those wishes remain secret and go underground, they can have serious consequences for everyone involved.”

Adoptive parents wish they could have borne the child they are raising, she explains, and adopted children wish the parents who bore and raised them were the same people.

“Acknowledging the power of those wishes and accepting those losses are important if adoptive families are to forge the bonds that transcend bloodlines,” Rosenberg says.

Author of a new book, The Adoption Life Cycle, Rosenberg is a clinical therapist at the U-M Center for the Child and Family. She also is the mother of two adopted children.

Adoptive parents face a set of emotional tasks that are rarely acknowledged publicly. “Before they adopt, adoptive parents must acknowledge that they are infertile, confront their grief, and then recognize that being infertile is not the same as being incapable of raising a child.”

Once they decide to adopt, “adoptive parents must say goodbye to the idealized, fantasized biological child they had planned for so long,” she adds, “and get ready for the real child.”

When they bring the baby home, some adoptive parents are surprised to find they feel guilty about the birth mother and, as a result, feel obligated to be ideal parents.

Disclosing the news of the adoption to their child is another major hurdle. “Disclosure triggers the most difficult and deep-seated issue—`Will this child still love us when he or she knows the truth? Is this relationship really permanent?’

“The lack of bloodline leaves the question open. Disclosure is the first time it is asked, but it will be asked and answered again and again over the years,” Rosenberg says. “For many families, it takes repeated emotional separation, negotiation, and reattachment before the belief in permanence feels well established for both parents and child.”

Adoptive parents also have to recognize that no matter how the news of the adoption is presented, it will be unwelcome to the child, who “just wants to be regular, like everyone else.”

School-age adopted children often compare their families with other families—“a thinly veiled comparison to the fantasized birth parents, which may hurt the adoptive parents.”

They also may test their adoptive parents with serious misbehavior. “Unconsciously, they create situations where they can be rejected and possibly abandoned, in an effort to master the original trauma of the adoption. Or they may think they were given away because they were bad babies, thus being bad is their destiny,” she explains.

Sometimes adopted children “wander” and attach themselves to families that have kept the children together despite having gone through very hard times. “These attachments to other families also may trigger uncertainty and anxiety in the adoptive parents about the child’s love for them,” Rosenberg says.

Some adoptive parents may add to the child’s difficulties by unconsciously insisting that he or she measure up to the idealized biological child of their fantasies. “These adopted children feel they have disappointed their adoptive parents, internalize the view of themselves as failures, and then feel guilty and rebellious.”

When adopted adolescents leave home, all the problems of separation that non-adoptive families go through at such times are even greater for adoptive families. “The parents often discover that their adopted children have a very tumultuous launching into the world. It is normal for them to take longer to leave the nest,” Rosenberg says.

If the child decides at this point to search for the birth parents, the adoptive parents may feel rejected.

Some adoptive parents feel deep in their hearts that they have “a borrowed child on borrowed time.” Those parents may have a hard time maintaining ties to the grown child because they “may not feel they have a right to ask the grown child for help or support, so they distance themselves from the child,” Rosenberg explains.

When grandchildren arrive, the adoptive parents may reexperience the issue of their infertility and desire to maintain a family bloodline all over again. “They may envy their adopted child at the same time that they are grateful for the grandchildren. Once again they must reckon with these complicated issues.”

Adoptive parents and adopted children can help each other, Rosenberg says. “They must confirm each other’s sense of being different instead of denying it. Also adoptive parents can assure their children that they were good babies for whom an adoption plan was made out of love and concern, while the children can assure their parents that they love them despite their wishes for birth parents.”


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