Probably the most popular thing I have ever written is the blog on the 7 Core Emotional Issues in Adoption. It has been on my site since 2014, but I still regularly get emails from people who found that blog and just wanted to share with me that they felt seen by what I had written and often that they were able to make new connections between their behaviors, feelings, and past experiences. (I should probably update the image on that blog which feels very 2014 in design).
As we started hunkering down to shelter in place, I watched carefully the reactions of adoptees – adults and children – and how those were different from non-adoptees. While we have observed regression in children across the board, many young adoptees are responding positively to more time with family and having to navigate fewer relationships. Cocooning is very helpful during adoption adjustment, but several families are now re-thinking “normal” and how to integrate what is working now even when restrictions are lifted. Adult adoptees and birth parents on the other hand may find they are struggling with restrictions and isolation. Recently, I was asked to lead a discussion for the Indiana Adoptee Network
and we talked about many ways this pandemic is touching on the Core Emotional Issues in Adoption.
Adoption in itself can be a trauma, not to mention the traumas that may have led to needing adoption or the traumas that may have occurred while waiting for adoption. It is not surprising that a child placed in the care of strangers who may not look like anyone else he or she has ever seen and may speak an entirely different language feels afraid. *The more fear one has experienced, the more likely one is to react with fear to experiences in the future.* There are many things to fear in this pandemic, but adoptees and birth parents may find that they have more fear reactions than others. A common fear for both adoptees and birth parents is searching for each other and finding a grave; with so much death right now that fear has only been magnified. One birth mother shared that she was afraid she would not even be notified if something happened to her child.
In adoption, major, life-altering decisions are made for the adopted person and sometimes for the birth parents, often without their consent. It is no wonder that those impacted by adoption often have a need to control certain things. This can play out differently for different people and may be recognized in anxiety disorders, dysfunctional relationships, eating disorders, etc. Some who control their environment are finding it distressing right now to not have access to the cleaning products they usually use. Some may find they are very resistant to restrictions because it feels like control. In our discussion though it was agreed that trying to control things can be exhausting, especially as this pandemic is teaching us that there is almost nothing in life that we can truly control.
Just like with fear, all subsequent losses are a reminder of past losses. No matter the details of the adoption, the age at which adoption occurred, or whether there are “memories” of the birth family, loss is a major component of adoption. Loss of the birth/first family can be extremely powerful even if the child was placed with the adoptive family at birth. Loss of culture can complicate identity issues, particularly in transracial adoptions; however, this loss may not be able to be fully grieved until children reach adolescence and sometimes even adulthood. Loss of country, language, etc. can be involved in international adoptions.
Each subsequent loss is more powerful and may be experienced more powerfully than others might expect. During this pandemic, we are grieving several losses: places we wanted to go, trips we had planned, people we miss, changes in employment, and deaths. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but those with a history of loss may be feeling especially fragile right now.
Adoptees and birth parents both carry guilt and shame for different reasons. The shame experienced when rejected by a potential date is nothing compared to feeling rejected by one’s mother. Some believe that their behavior was the cause of rejection or abandonment. Some believe that they do not have value and were not good enough a or cute enough. This is too heavy of a burden for anyone, especially a child, to bear in my opinion. Birth parents often carry guilt or shame for not parenting. Enduring feelings of guilt may lead to a greater likelihood of experiencing guilt in the future. One specific concern right now is the potential to unknowingly spread COVID-19, causing someone else to fall ill or even die.
While these are separate ideas, they can play out very similarly. Even when we know that an adoption plan was created out of love and with the child’s best interests in mind, it doesn’t mean that the adoptee (child or adult) doesn’t feel rejected or abandoned. Birth parents may have experienced rejection or abandonment by others in their life as a result of events surrounding pregnancy and adoption. Rejection and abandonment are fears both birth parents and adoptees have in search and reunion. Often when an individual feels he or she has been rejected or abandoned in the past, they are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop with the next person. While they may rationally understand why friends and family members do not want to see them while social distancing, it can still feel like rejection or abandonment.
Many times it is relationship or marital issues that cause adult adoptees to seek out counseling services initially. Often adoption issues are the cause of relationship issues
, but sometimes they simply exacerbate the concern. One reason for this is that it is often not until late 20s-mid 30s (depending on a variety of factors) when we are neurologically developed enough to fully process all the complexities and impacts adoption has had on one’s life. Feeling cut off from close relationships – friends and family members – may be especially painful for adoptees and birth parents.
“Where do I fit?” Is a question that many adoptees ask again and again from a very early age. Even in same-race infant adoptions, children seem to innately understand that genetics contributes to who they are and what they will become. When adopting across country borders or racial lines or at an older age, the question of identity becomes even more complicated. If we have used a job or an activity or a social group to help define identity, feeling cut off from those things may be extra distressing. We were also able to discuss how holding on to things that feel like a part of one’s story can lead to hoarding-like behaviors when there is a greater need for identity development.
Indiana Adoptee Network is open to all members of the triad (including those outside of Indiana). In place of the conference this year, they are hosting a series of Friday night “Happy Hour” online events.