Shame and Secrecy of Adoption Trauma
Shame and Secrecy Trauma of Adoption
From research on trauma, its effects on individuals, and healing trauma, we know that the lasting effects of trauma are reinforced if the individual is unable to respond to the trauma by taking positive action, but is instead immobilized into passivity, silence, and repetition of the trauma. It is also recognized that there are different types of trauma, some being an isolated event, while other traumas are developmental, or chronic. Terry Kellogg uses the term “process trauma” to describe repetitive traumas that happen over a period of time, and he uses the term “sanctuary trauma” when discussing traumas that happen in a setting that should be safe, such as a family, church, or school. Although there has been some recognition that trauma may be associated with relinquishment and adoption, adoption has not been looked at from that particular perspective, particularly for birth parents or for adoptive parents. When loss and even shame have been discussed in connection with adoption, few have acknowledged that the results of loss, secrecy, silence, and shame are trauma.
The trauma of relinquishment and adoption for the adoptee has been seen as centered on the experience (not process) of losing the birth mother and being placed with strangers. Occasionally, this has been extended to include the infant’s sensing before birth that he/she was “not wanted,” and/or the experience of growing up in an adoptive situation. This viewpoint seems to place blame and shame on the birth mother for relinquishing the child, or possibly for both wanting to and not wanting to, and even on the adoptive parents for not being the biological parents. The popular current view is that these traumas are permanent, unhealable, and would not have occurred had the birth mother just kept the child. The adoptee is, therefore, not only entitled, but possibly obligated, to either completely deny that there was ever any trauma, or, on the other hand, to be forever angry at the birth mother and anyone else who happened to be involved in the relinquishment and adoption. Such a view keeps the adoptee in a bind, unable to heal from the loss, and serves to keep birth mothers silent, hiding the shame of relinquishment (shame assigned to them by this view), in addition to the pain and grief of having lost their child. It also ignores the birth father’s own loss, and the adoptive parents’ grief and loss, both at not having the biological child they wanted, and at not being the adoptee’s biological parents, and even further, not being able to heal the adoptee’s trauma.
Although birth mothers who have written about their experiences (speaking out and thereby reducing the shame) have acknowledged the traumas of their pregnancy, relinquishment, and separation, very little professional study or writing has looked at the specific traumas involved or how trauma continues to be reinforced over time, through secrecy, silence, shame, sorrow, and society’s attitudes. Many people, including some professional therapists, and celebrities who are not therapists but who pretend to be, even believe that birth mothers ought to continue to feel shame and sorrow, and that shaming is beneficial to society at large. They think that shame prevents pregnancy! What little “professional training” on adoption that has been available has ignored the birth parents’ trauma or need for healing, and, to a large extent, ignores even the continued existence of the birth parents. Material on trauma, grief, and loss, almost never mentions adoption at all. It has been truly unspeakable.
For adoptive parents, the trauma of not being able to give birth and raise a birth child, has been minimized and denied by focusing on the “solution” of adoption. Little has been said, except in adoption reform circles, about the traumas of not having the dreamed-for child; the loss of privacy of medical attempts at producing a child by various means; the invasiveness of having to disclose their financial, social, medical, and sexual histories to adoption agencies; and the on-going void of raising a child in a closed adoption system where they know little or nothing of their child’s heritage or needs. The only trauma really admitted to for adoptive parents, by society at large, has been the “awful” possibility of birth parents re-entering the adoptee’s life, whether in the adoptee’s infancy or forty years later. This possible trauma is also related to the portrayal of birth parents as shameful persons who don’t deserve to exist. This belief has led to the story that the birth parents died in a car wreck, resulting in the adoptee’s birth and placement.
These ideas and suppositions about adoption concerning all members of the triad do a great disservice to the individuals involved and to the societal need for the existence of adoption. In this article, we will focus on what some of the traumas are, how they get reinforced, how they can be healed and to what extent, and how trauma might be reduced in future situations.
In the past, books about adoption did not mention trauma. Pictures of smiling babies from advertisements for adoption, and supposed quotes from birth mothers saying how thrilled they were to be giving their babies to wonderful adoptive parents are reprinted now in some recent books as examples of how adoption was marketed. “Everybody Wins!” states one such ad. No admission of the possibility of trauma or grief for anyone is ever admitted, and due to the secrecy and silence that the birth parents and their families would maintain forever, no one would ever see any loss or sorrow. “Superior babies for adoption” was the actual slogan on the stationery of a maternity home and agency in Kansas City called The Willows. The secrecy and silence was actually thought to prevent any lasting trauma, because the adoptive parents could pretend the baby was theirs (hiding their own shame and sorrow), the adoptee would then never know the difference, and the birth mother could pretend she’d never had this child and would never be heard from again. The idea was that if everything looked okay on the outside, it must actually be okay. Millions of adoptive parents, adoptees, and birth parents can attest to the fact that this is not true, of course. Agencies and persons working in adoption in those days were, for the most part, well-meaning in all of this, and were not mean-spirited, but certainly were naive about trauma and about the connections between birth mothers and their babies. In that time, even doctors seemed not to understand that babies could hear their mothers’ heartbeats before birth. Books actually stated that newborns were deaf! As for the adoptive parents, they were full of hope that adopting a child truly would relieve their grief and trauma over infertility, that this child would be the fulfillment of their dreams, and that the child would love them as much as they wanted to love the child. In many cases, the child really was a fulfillment of their dreams, and there was much love between parents and children. Yet, the child’s job was not to heal the parents’ trauma and sometimes that was a disappointment to all. Biological parents also sometimes have children to fulfill a particular wish of their own, so we are not saying this happens only in adoption, but we are stating that it is a set-up for further trauma and shame, whether in adoptive or biological families.
When a young woman became pregnant in the ’50s, ’60s or early ’70s, either in the context of a relationship or under less happy circumstances, such as a one-night encounter, rape (including date rape. which was not named nor recognized in those years), or incest, the fact of an unplanned and unexpected pregnancy was not welcome news. Even within a marriage, it might be a cause of great anxiety. It was a trauma. Obviously, this was more true in some families than in others, and there were cultural differences influencing that.
For some women, the trauma was “resolved” by hasty marriage. For some of those women, indeed, that was the action needed to heal the trauma, and she went on to have a good marriage, a good birth experience, loving family support, and she was able to acknowledge the situation and talk about it. For others, of course, the marriage was not satisfactory, the family was not supportive, and neither parents nor child had a positive experience. Many young women agreed to relinquish their babies just to avoid this, in fact. The mother’s or father’s parents may have compounded the trauma with messages of shame and anger, with the pretense of “premature birth,” or claiming an earlier “secret marriage,” or just silence about the whole situation. These secrets and lies produced more trauma and shame. Everyone reading this can picture at least one friend or relative whose story fits this description.
Women who did not get married had to seek other “solutions” to their traumas. The traumas were not resolved, just sent underground. Although abortion was not legal in this country under most circumstances in those years, wealthy or influential families could arrange for safe, confidential abortions, and other desperate young people might seek out unsafe ones. The illegality, the secrecy and shame, and the medical danger of these situations compounded the trauma. One may recall the book or the movie Blue Denim. No formal or informal counseling was available to help the young woman make a decision or heal the trauma, and in many instances, she was forced into the decision by parents or boyfriend or his family. Again, she was left with trauma, reinforced by silence and secrecy.
The other alternatives were that she carry the pregnancy, give birth, and either relinquish the child or keep the child although remaining unmarried. In either case, she could not rejoice in the pregnancy, a normal way of dealing with the physiological and emotional changes taking place, nor could she share her situation with society at large. She had no way of gaining society’s approval, a basic need. Being outside of society’s approval is traumatic for many; being outside family and friends’ approval is more so. To keep the child might permanently remove these sources of approval for her. Relinquishing the child appeared to minimize or at least put a time limit on the overt loss of approval, if she agreed to secrecy and silence, which, of course, reinforced the shame and trauma. This was denied with statements such as “You’ll forget it ever happened. Never tell anyone. We’ll never speak of this and it won’t matter.” Of course, it mattered very much, or there would not have been such need for secrecy and silence.
Leaving the community, frequently to go to an “unwed mothers’ home,” required lies, secrecy, and silence to cover up the shame of the real reason she left. Then she might be isolated and shamed in such a home, forbidden even to tell her last name, or given a false name, and not allowed contact with friends, certainly not with her baby’s father. Although family and prospective adoptive parents might be told she was receiving counseling, this silence-secrecy-shame regimen was traumatic, not helpful. She was cut off from her psychological moorings. Frequently, she was told by staff and medical personnel that she was not fit to have children and could only be redeemed in God’s eyes by making this “noble sacrifice” of relinquishing her child. For every woman who says her stay at one of these “homes” was supportive and not degrading, there are literally hundreds who will say it was traumatic for them. A positive birth experience was not possible. They were powerless at that point.
Some research has shown that birth mothers who did have some say in where they lived, whom they told about their pregnancies, and how they gave birth, or even how they relinquished, did feel less traumatized and were better able to have a satisfactory life afterward. Those women who followed the “rules” of never telling anyone, not even best friends or spouse, seem to have had more difficult lives in terms of self-acceptance and self-esteem, relationships, and decision-making. In other words, the actions of telling and taking responsibility for the decision of relinquishment, difficult as it was, helped heal the trauma to some degree, and reduced the level of shame.
In the past, after relinquishing her child, a birth mother was left with her grief for her missing child, for the life she might have led, for the family approval she needed, or thought she previously had, and for her previous self-image. To a great extent, this is still true, even in most open adoptions. Allow a birth mother to tell her story and the grief is obvious, whether she relinquished last month or fifty years ago. This grief is normal, although few Birth mothers have had any way of expressing that grief to others. Even in open adoptions, her grief is normal, not pathological. If she has support, people who listen and do not judge, people who help her maintain social and other links in her life, she is better able to be in charge of her own life. She is far less traumatized. Again, silence, secrecy, and shame reinforce trauma. Many spend years in therapy for depression and various other diagnoses, but never mention being Birth mothers, too afraid of being shamed once again. In my own life, several times adoptive mothers would say (not knowing I was a birth mother), “Well, what can you expect of a girl who got pregnant and had to give up her baby? I’m sure she slept with everyone and used drugs. What can you expect of such a person?” I never knew whether to shock them by telling them I was “such a person,” or keep quiet. I do know I was always glad I had not confided in them earlier. Now I see it as their loss, not to know that birth mothers are just like anyone else, that we are the woman in the same pew at church, the room mother at school, the neighbor planting flowers.
If a birth mother decides to search, she has no doubt been told that she must wait until the child is an adult, so as not to “disrupt” his life or his adoptive parents’ lives by the reality of her existence, so she has forever lost the chance to know him as a child. She may have been told she will never have the right to search. She has no way of knowing that the adoptive parents might even benefit from knowing her, which could help them understand the child better. Joyce Pavao, author of The Family of Adoption, says that an adoptee might be better off being reunited as a teenager, while still living at home with the emotional support of the adoptive family, who can help with the reunion, rather than in early childhood, when he’s trying to leave parents, not get another set. Also, the adoptive family might be in a better position to find a qualified, caring therapist to help with the changes, and they could pay such a therapist. We are perhaps too fixated on the ages of eighteen and twenty-one for all adult “privileges,” when an individual’s needs concerning reunion might come at a much earlier age, or not until later.
So now the adoptee is an adult, the birth mother and/or birth father have learned that it is possible to search, legally. In some states and in some cases, this may be fairly simple and not horrendously expensive. New Mexico is such a state, thanks to the past efforts of people like Sally File and other early O.I. members. In other states, she may face many legal and financial obstacles, open hostility and repeats of the original shaming messages from family and from professionals, and the possibility that her child has died, or that he/she refuses to have contact with her, even when found, either because of the adoptee’s own fear, or the adoptive parents’ fears and objections. She is already is a position of begging, asking the legal system or a searcher to help her find her own offspring. Unhealed trauma from the pregnancy and relinquishment surfaces again. She is breaking the code of secrecy, silence, and shame. This can be healing in and of itself, as she takes action, but she also runs the risk of being shamed all over again by family, friends, and outsiders, as well as the risk of finding that she is still not allowed access to her now-grown child, or even worse, that her child has suffered in some way. Learning that one’s child had a less than happy adoption experience is painful to any mother, who wishes she could have prevented it, even if she knows she had no power, no choice, and no opportunity to have done anything better. How does she heal and help her child heal? Where does she get support for that?
If she is able to reunite and it is a positive process, she may still face criticism and ostracization from expended family, both her own and the adoptive family. Her parents, siblings, and even spouse may still be threatened by the existence of her child, or by the thought that someone outside the family (or even in the family) might “find out” that this normal woman did a normal thing like having sex and getting pregnant twenty or more years in the past. Some will support the original search or first meeting, but then will say, “Well, you found out he’s okay. That’s the end of that at last. Now you have closure and you can get back to your regular life and forget about this.” Many people do not understand the right and the need for developing a real relationship with the adoptee and with the adoptive family. It is not acknowledged that these families were forever joined when the child was adopted. Even in many supposedly open adoptions, there is a reluctance to admit this, as if the adoptive parents cannot be “real” if the birth parents are in any way honored or treated as if they were also the child’s parents at some time in his life, and that they still have a right to love the child, even if they are not raising her or making decisions in her day-to-day life. Much trauma could be prevented by celebrating and honoring birth parents instead of trying to diminish their importance.
The traumas for adoptees are, of course, not as easy to detail as those for birth parents, because, as fetuses and infants, they are not verbal and do not have self-awareness. Therefore, although we can substantiate physical trauma from inadequate nutrition, lack of prenatal care, traumatic injury to the mother, birth injuries (including those caused by anesthesia or doctors in a hurry), or post-natal neglect or abuse, it is much harder to really assess the impact of a mother’s stress level, her thoughts and emotions prior to the child’s birth, and the impact of being separated from her at birth. We cannot measure what secrecy and shame did to her hormones and how that affected the child. Today, we are sensitive to the trauma of the baby not hearing that same heartbeat or voice again, or to being isolated in a hospital for some hours or days before being taken home by adoptive parents, or put in foster care. The truth is, in former days, even babies born into a normal marriage were separated from their overly-anesthetized mothers in the hospital, until mothers collectively and individually forced changes. We do know that in cases where the mother died in childbirth, the infant may have had a difficult start, but usually made normal family and other human attachments, The true situation was acknowledged and the child’s life celebrated, even as there was grief for the mother. With relinquishment and adoption, the birth mother’s very existence may not have been acknowledged, much less her memory honored. We don’t have any objective measurement of the impact on the child, but common sense tells us it is negative. It is normal for babies and mothers to have absolute fusion at first, developing appropriate boundaries as the child matures. Adoptees did not have that. Nancy Verrier, in The Primal Wound, explores in great detail the possible traumas for the adoptee, using adoptees’ art as part of the evidence of this early trauma. The problem with subjective evidence is, of course, that our society tends to acknowledge only “facts” which can be given numbers, or tangible evidence. Obviously, some adoptees suffer more trauma than others, and a baby whose adoptive parents help with the birth is likely to suffer far less than an institutionalized child from Eastern Europe. While there is no doubt some correlation with the mother’s well-being and the baby’s, and the adoptive parents’ influence and their own trauma, it is extremely difficult to measure any of this, or even to identify all the variables that influence the situation. Birth parents and adoptive parents may have great difficulty with Verrier’s book, and may feel that somehow they intentionally or unintentionally damaged the child in permanent and dreadful ways, just by relinquishment and adoption. Some adoptees will find a great deal of validation in this book, while others, defensive or one or both sets of parents, may dismiss Verrier’s assertions completely, declaring they have no problems at all. A therapist who works with adoption issues needs to be familiar with this book, because clients will be reading it, and it does contain a great deal of important information.
Society has assumed that a relinquished child was unwanted and unloved, a false assumption in nearly all cases. An adoptee is traumatized by internalizing this message. This assumption has served the purpose of devaluing birth parents in an attempt to elevate adoptive parents, but the impact on the child is surely that he or she feels devalued and defective, and even the adoptive parents get a message that they must be less than ideal themselves, in spite of the “heroic” behavior in adopting this child. Part of the bond between adoptive parents who internalize this shaming concept, even if not consciously acknowledged, and adoptees who have also internalized the message, is “We’re together because they’re less than biological families.” All the stories of being “chosen” and “special” may only serve an conscious defenses if this is the underlying belief. Because such beliefs are largely unconscious, it is difficult to assess trauma, but the possibility of such trauma has been tacitly acknowledged by past advice to keep the adoption a secret from the adoptee and from as many others as possible, and the elaborate efforts to match a child and adoptive parents in looks and ethnicity. Since it was assumed that the birth mother was unmarried, she must be defective, promiscuous at the least, which was thought to be hereditary in nature; therefore, the child was also defective and the only possible redemption or cure was through the adoptive parents’ ability to maintain the secrecy and lies that this was their biological child. Some religions even today teach that adoption can change a child’s genetic makeup! But if the adoptive parents are also “defective” (infertile), their only hope is through the child. This is all enormously shaming and burdensome for everyone involved, and it creates a situation of trauma-bonding, whether the persons involved are aware of it or not. Adoptive parents do not mean to traumatize their children in any way, and most probably never say aloud to the child what their fears and fantasies are, although they may say them aloud to others, and the child no doubt overhears it, and feels betrayed by both birth parents and adoptive parents. He or she will not articulate this, and probably is not even aware of feeling betrayed, but the vague discomfort, the feeling of never quite fitting I, of never being sure of any relationship, has its roots in this. Phrases such as “put up for adoption,” “given away,” or worse, give a message to the adoptee that “I was not good enough to keep, and they were not caring enough to keep me, and I am on probation forever with my adoptive parents, and maybe with everyone else.”
If a family could truly maintain the secret of adoption forever, some would argue, the adoptee would never find out, would not be traumatized, and all would be well. But the child “knows” at the deepest level from birth, when they don’t hear their birth mother’s heartbeat or voice any more, when they don’t see their face mirrored in their parents’ faces. In the past, many adoptees were in a foster situation for weeks or months before being placed with adoptive parents, so they went through the loss more than once. Because they couldn’t talk, society assumed it didn’t count. Nearly everyone now acknowledges that it does count.
The secrecy of adoption really cannot be maintained, anyway, and the trauma of learning of it later in life is compounded by the adoptee’s sense of betrayal in finding that others had this information and withheld it from them--silence, secrecy, and shame creating trauma where it need not have happened. This attempt at complete denial rarely happens today, but there are still cases out there. The trauma of finding out late seems as intense in adolescence as in middle-age. The struggle to re-make one’s core identity in mid-life is traumatic. This also happens some times where a stepparent adopted a young child, and the child was never told. Even if the child needs to be protected from contact with a biological parent, the child has a right to know the truth. Secrecy never helps the adoptee in the long run.
For any adoptee to have no information about birth parents, or only negative and possibly false information, the knowledge and understanding of adoption can be traumatic. The authors of Dear Birth Mother discuss the deficits that each member of the triad has in not knowing about each other. The adoptee spends time on unanswered questions of origin, energy that would otherwise be devoted to the process of growing up and forming an identity. The “whys” may be as important as the “whos” for adoptees, and are often the most inaccurate and damaging information he/she has. “She gave you away because she didn’t care,” is not truthful, and does nothing to make the adoptee feel better about himself or the world in general. Even in reunion, some people make cruel remarks. One adoptive mother that we heard about stated to the birth mother, “I’m sorry that you had to be the vessel that God used in order for me to have my son.” Aside from the traumatic effect upon the birth mother, this attitude had certainly been conveyed to the son all his life, that his birth mother was merely a vessel, not a real mother. The message to many adoptees, consciously or unconsciously, is, “They didn’t care about you, their own child; they were defective. We care about you, not even our own child; we are better.” The child, in his mind, adds, “I must be grateful, and careful, because they took me, even though I am from defective people. I am ’posing’ as their child.” Some children believe that if they make mistakes, there may be some “lemon law” which could result in the adoptive parents getting rid of them. These messages and thoughts are often not articulated, so it is difficult to assess the depth of trauma, and it is not right to label all situations as equally traumatic. Certainly it does not mean that every child must stay with birth parents or be forever irreparably damaged. Many persons are damaged by being raised by birth parents, and the vast majority of adoptees have loving families with healthy attachments, including children removed from dangerous situations, and children adopted from deprived, overcrowded orphanages and placed in other cultures. The traumas of changing environment, culture, and language are only now being acknowledged and addressed.
The value of minimizing the impact of trauma by helping the child maintain culture, language, and identity is still not recognized by many professionals, let alone all adoptive parents. Trauma in the foster system is just now getting attention. We must remember that ideas of what is helpful and what is harmful change from time to time. Just as it was once thought best for adoptees and adoptive parents to have no information about the adoptee’s birth parents or background, or to even keep the adoption a secret, now we’ve moved toward more and more openness in adoption. In the past, babies were kept in foster care for several months, to “test” them and make sure they were of normal intelligence before placing them with the adoptive parents, lest they get a less-than-perfect product. Not so long ago, it was thought best to have the birth mother sign away her rights before the child was born, lest she change her mind and disrupt the agency’s plan. Now we have debates over how long after the birth to wait before she signs, and how long she has to change her mind. We even have some advocating she take the child home for at least a month “to be sure,” which would put the child in the position of being disrupted, just as in the old days of foster care prior to placement. That resilience and healing of trauma happens even after terrible events is amazing and to be celebrated. That healing does not always happen, even with help, must be admitted. Silence and denial will not help, but will compound trauma.
If the adoptee, now an adult, decides to search for birth family, there is risk of new trauma. The adoptee sees current open adoptions, sees single mothers keeping their children, and wonders, “Why did my mother relinquish me in a closed adoption?” It is difficult for today’s young adult to understand the very different social norms and pressures of times past. The adoptee may or may not find support for a search, either from family, friends, or professionals, and may be told to maintain silence and secrecy, or that there is something wrong about an adoptee wanting to search. Sometimes, a sibling tries to dissuade one from searching, frequently citing possible hurt feelings on the part of the adoptive parents, calling into question the searcher’s “loyalty” to the adoptive parents. Sometimes, indeed, the adoptive parents are resistant, but often an adoptee assumes this without asking, and carries shame unnecessarily. For many, there might be emotional support and permission to search. The adoptee must take the risk of finding out the truth about this, as well as the risk of finding out the truth of their origins. Individuals are all entitled to know the truth about themselves.
Persons who search nearly always look first for the birth mother, because she is easier to find (particularly since, in the past, she was encouraged not to list the father’s name), and because a mother is easier to visualize. She did, after all, really carry this child and give birth. She had a physical connection. The adoptee may find the birth mother and be able to make contact, may have a glorious face-to-face reunion, and build a beautiful relationship that heals trauma for everyone involved, over a period of time. Or he/she may have an intense, emotional reunion which appears to be healthy at first, and then falters, because the persons involved have mistaken intensity for true intimacy. Intensity in initial reunions is not intimacy, but more likely is a recognition of the familiar in each other. Initial reunion does not automatically heal trauma. All parties may be disappointed, especially if they were expecting an immediate and perfect bond. Because one or more persons in the complicated relationship of reunion may not have good personal boundaries, there may be some new trauma, and people may have feelings of invasion or abandonment, and betrayal.
Another possibility is that the birth parent has not healed from the initial trauma of pregnancy and relinquishment, and cannot deal with reunion at all. She may be terrified, especially if she has followed the “rules” and has never told anyone. She may not have told even her spouse or other children. She may even have some degree of amnesia for the details of the pregnancy and birth, as her mind’s way of protecting her, or from anesthesia and tranquillizers. The adoptee who does not understand the birth parent’s trauma from the past may be traumatized anew by a birth parent’s refusal, or procrastination, of reunion. They may or may not have anticipated this possibility or its impact on them. In turn, they may be told, by people trying to protect them, “She’s no good, anyway, and never loved you. We told you so,” or, “You were wrong to find her. You should have let her keep her terrible secret.” If you are the “terrible secret,” such remarks are not affirming. Adoptive parents and siblings may think such comments are actually supportive, or they may not intend to be supportive. Positive, nonjudgmental support is critical in minimizing or healing trauma, yet it is often in short supply. Support groups and informed professional therapists may be extremely important to the adoptee who searches, but many professional therapists know little or nothing about adoption or the long-term issues related to adoption, and may tend to tell them not to search, or to label their thoughts and needs as depression, prescribe the latest antidepressant or anti-anxiety drug, according to what the adoptee’s insurance will cover, and never look at the real issues, or see the need for healing chronic trauma, and for helping the adoptee achieve a satisfactory reunion.
What about the traumas for adoptive parents? We’ve been led to believe that although infertility may be stressful or disappointing, it can all be healed and erased by “simply” adopting a child. Society discounts the trauma of not becoming pregnant, year after year, sometimes enduring remarks from others about being “selfish” by not having children, or receiving all sorts of advice from uninformed people. Many have experienced miscarriages and stillbirths, each one separate trauma, a loss of a child of their dreams. Dee Paddock, a therapist and public speaker, speaks eloquently of these traumas in her presentations, including carrying a child to term, only to have that final pregnancy end with the sudden death of the baby.
Sometimes there are accusations by family, even doctors; there may be guilt and shame over past sexual behavior, or even a past abortion or relinquishment. The couple may openly or secretly blame each other for the infertility. If one of them has previously had a child, the other may feel even more cheated. More than one man has had an affair in the hope of fathering a biological child, and plenty of women have secretly conceived a child by someone other than the husband. With DNA testing, the truth about who is the biological father sometimes comes out. Both the lengths people go to and the secrecy, and later breaking of the secrecy, are traumatic for all concerned. While there are people who choose to adopt rather than give birth, or choose to add additional children to the family by adoption, the most common reason for adoption remains infertility on the part of adoptive parents.
In today’s medical scene, additional trauma is possible, through long fertility work-ups, surgery, fertility drugs, in-vitro fertilization, donor insemination, donated and implanted eggs, and miscarriages of those assisted pregnancies. There is a loss of privacy and boundaries of all sorts, even of their sexual relationship and financial status. Finally, a couple makes the wrenching decision to accept infertility and adopt. All of the above procedures have cost enormous amounts of money, and the adoption process may be even more expensive. In our culture, to lose money or use up one’s financial resources is traumatic, because we place such a high value on money.
A recent article in Time details the trauma of couples who thought they were dealing with a legitimate agency and had paid thousands of dollars, thought a baby was being born which they would adopt, and then discovered it was all a scam—there were no birth mothers and no babies, only a woman who had taken their money. These couples’ grief was real, even though the babies were not. Not many therapists are trained or prepared to help such people heal their trauma. There are, of course, also situations in which a birth mother really does change her mind, either before or after the birth, and the loss of the hoped-for infant is traumatic for the adoptive parents, though few try to force her to give them the child, or sue the agency, though it does happen.
All of these traumatic situations mentioned for adoptive parents are supposedly magically healed, or at least diminished, if and when a couple (or an individual) adopts. No wonder they are terrified of losing the child. They are terrified because they have already been traumatized, over and over. This leads easily to the desire for closed adoptions, in an attempt to keep the birth parents from ever coming back into the picture, and to foster the illusion that the adoptive parents are the only parents the child has ever had, since society tells them a child can have only one set of “real” parents.
Some adoptive parents will proceed to have normal parenting experiences and everything seems fine. Some will have to deal with transcultural or transracial adoption, helping their children through that as well. Some discover that their child has already suffered trauma. We hear now about attachment disorder in children who did not have normal bonding and parenting experiences in institutions or previous homes. Their pain and difficulty can in turn be traumatic for adoptive parents, who endure criticism, conflicting advice, and the loss of their “dream child.” People confuse “bonding” and “attachment” and see pathology only in the child. They may also recognize only one style of attachment, and see pathology in anything else. This is also true for many parents adopting older children, who may have suffered various traumas. Parents may not have adequate emotional support or training for themselves or for the child, let alone really good professional help. Such problems have existed in adoption for a long time, but it was not recognized. It may have been the real bit of truth in the fears and negative attitudes about adoption in general in times past. Currently, children are advertised in the newspapers, displayed on the Internet, or taken to “adoption picnics,” and no one wants to talk about how traumatic these happenings might be, not only for the children, but for the adults, who just want to be parents.
Terry Kellogg, therapist and writer, uses the terms “sanctuary trauma,” “process trauma,” and “sanctuary process trauma” when talking about physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuse. By “sanctuary,” he means that the abuse (trauma) happened in a setting that should have been safe for a person, particularly a child, such as home, school, or church. By “process trauma” he means that it happened over a period of time. These terms would apply to most of the trauma associated with adoption. In Trauma and Recovery, Dr. Herman uses the term “complex PTSD” to describe this kind of trauma. The traumas to the birth mother, and to the birth father in many cases, happened within their families, schools, churches, doctors’ offices, and the “homes” that were touted as safe havens for pregnant girls. Even now, George W. Bush advocates (including in a personal letter to this writer) “a chain of maternity group homes.” They happened over a period of time, from then even until now, and were reinforced by secrecy, silence, and shame. The process traumas to the adoptee happened with the agencies, doctors’ offices, homes, and families given the authority to “serve” these very children. The adoptive parents entrusted their lives and hopes to agencies and doctors who sometimes shamed them with invasive questions, who sometimes have them false hopes and false information, and who sometimes rejected them because they were deemed not good enough (rich enough, white enough, or religious enough).
Patrick Carnes states that trauma bonds may be bad or good, depending upon the outcome and consequences, but that trauma bonds are always about survival. He cites such situations as combat units, and prisoners of war who formed lasting bonds. He also cites abusive families, where the children bonded in ways that siblings in healthy families do not need to do. Some will say that trauma is too strong a word for adoption situations, particularly for the adoptee who is adopted into a loving, healthy family. Let’s look at what trauma means. Trauma is what happens to one or what is done to one. It is then interpreted by the person into thoughts, and feelings, which in turn affect behavior. Trauma affects all aspects of a person’s life. The term “trauma” may best be equated with scarring. Everyone acquires some scars in life, both physical and emotional (Neosporin commercials notwithstanding), and not all scars are debilitating. They may be seen as landmarks of the journey of life. Some scars do need treatment. Treatment, whether physical or psychological, does not mean that it is then as if the injury (trauma) never happened, but it does mean it no longer needs to be the major focus in one’s life. Where adoption is concerned, facets of adoption may still be a focus, if the individual becomes active in the field, but healing indicates that the shame and trauma are no longer determining one’s outlook and behavior.
We are by no means advocating that every person with adoption connections needs long-term intensive therapy. Obviously, many have led quite contented and fulfilling lives without any outside help. We are saying that anyone with adoption connections who seeks therapy has a right, perhaps even an obligation to themselves, to make sure that the therapist acknowledges the importance of their adoption issues and validates their need for knowledge, their right to dignity and self-respect, and their capacity for wholeness.
In previous excerpts, we discussed possible traumas in the various members of the triad. How do we heal those traumas, or is the situation hopeless? There are many ways of healing trauma. We will discuss some methods and approaches here, but this is not to be considered an exhaustive guide to therapy. In Waking the Tiger, Levine states, “To move through trauma, we need quietness, safety and protection similar to that offered the bird in the gentle warmth of the child’s hands. We need support from friends and relatives, as well as from nature. With this support and connection, we can begin to trust and honor the natural process that will bring us to completion and wholeness, and eventually peace.” One of the most important things to remember is that you must give yourself the time to heal, and the permission to do so in the way that suits you. Levine states later “It is difficult enough to deal solely with the symptoms of trauma without the added anxiety of not knowing why we are experiencing them or whether they will ever cease. Anxiety can crop up for a variety of reasons, including a deep pain that comes when your spouse, friends, and relatives unite in the conviction that it is time for you to get on with your life. ... There are feelings of hopelessness, futility, and despair that accompany being incorrectly advised that the only way your symptoms can be alleviated is through a lifelong regimen of medication or therapy.” Many birth mothers, and adult adoptees as well, have not talked about their adoption experience with anyone until they happen to attend a support group while in the process of their search. Many birth mothers have never met another birth mother that they know of, and are overwhelmed to find several at a support group meeting. Many adult adoptees have also never knowingly met a birth mother, and are surprised to find them to be normal persons, who speak of their unending love for their relinquished offspring. This is a healing experience, even though support groups are not designed to be therapy groups. There is validation in meeting others who have experienced the types of trauma, and in meeting some with a degree of healing from those traumas.
One acknowledged technique for healing trauma is to revisit the scene of the trauma, either in person or through a guided imagery or psychodrama, and change the outcome, at least in one’s mind. This is best done with a competent, trained therapist. Do not be afraid to question any potential therapist about training, and do not feel you must participate in any such exercise before you are ready. Revisitation, whether through imagery or in reality, help “rewrite the script” and also validate that the traumatic events really did happen. Sometimes, when there are secrets, a person doubts their own memories and experiences. A birth mother might go back to the house where she became pregnant (or the setting, if other than a house), the unwed mothers’ home, the hospital where she gave birth, or the agency or office where she signed relinquishment papers. She might also return to places that were sources of comfort, such as a friend’s house, a particular church, a park where she found peace, or any place where there was acceptance rather than shaming. For birth fathers, it might include the place where he learned of the pregnancy, or where he and the birth mother last saw each other. Some of these places hold painful memories, but it is powerful to return and tell oneself that the shame and secrecy are over. This helps unlock that “freeze reaction” that may have been in place all those years. If visiting in person, it is best to do it with a supportive person, whether spouse, friend, or even the person with whom you are reunited.
For adoptees, even though they have no conscious memories of birth or relinquishment, visiting these same places, and also foster homes where they lived before adoption, may bring about healing and understanding. The healing is about the person taking charge of the present by confronting the past. Birth parents can own their sorrow, regret, anger, and grief and powerlessness, can honor themselves for surviving the traumas. Adoptees may he better able to empathize with birth parents’ experiences after seeing places in person, or by seeing pictures of the birth parents taken around the time of the adoptee’s birth. “You were just a little girl,” one birth son said, upon seeing a picture of his fourteen-year-old birth mother. Both felt healed by this realization. The goal of revisitation is to integrate the past experiences into one’s life, not a cathartic purging. Persons must honor their sad experiences and place them in a larger context.
If a therapist is using guided imagery, hypnosis, or psychodrama to help the process, they need to be careful not to “lead” the person in their thoughts or feelings, or take them deeper or faster that feels safe to the client, since part of the goal is for the client to feel safe again. It is also important not to shut down or stop the person’s own process by touching or comforting too quickly, but rather to affirm the person’s strength, courage, and value before the session is over.
The value of visitation is less obvious for adoptive parents, but revisiting the hospital where the adoptee was born, or the agency where they received their child, may be healing for their bond with the adoptee, or may help forge a bond with the Birth parents. One needs to be aware that revisiting does not, in and of itself, address the relational aspects of the traumas. The secrecy, shame, and required silence interfered with normal family communication, even if it had been normal prior to the pregnancy. Whenever there are things family members don’t know or can’t talk about, it affects their feelings about each other, in ways that are deeper than their awareness.
Having the written documents concerning the adoption will be helpful to many. These include the relinquishment papers, original and amended birth certificates, court records, medical and social work records, and pictures of everyone if possible. It might also be helpful to have copies of letters the birth mother wrote during her pregnancy. Unfortunately, scared birth grandparents often burned letters and papers to avoid “being found out.” If the birth mother kept a journal, reading it may be healing and validating, even though it resurrects the pain at first. Since birth mothers frequently were denied copies of papers they signed, they may be surprised at what the papers say, or don’t say. Some adoptees report they never really felt like they had been born until seeing their original birth certificate and hospital records.
Now that several states have “open records” laws, one might assume that persons can now get all of their records. In fact, most states still have closed records, the new open records laws provide access only to the original birth certificate and only to adult adoptees, not to birth parents, even though the birth parents provided the information on the original birth certificate. There is still much suspicion and fear on the part of society in general, and records-keepers in particular, toward people wanting to reunite.
Joining an activist group may be healing for many triad members. Some support groups are politically active, though by no means all of them. Working toward change means owning one’s own status in the triad and taking recognizable action, using that energy that has been bound up in trauma, and in protecting secrets. This means risking the disapproval of family, friends, and society, and while that may mean the risk of further trauma, it also enables the person to recognize his/her strength and courage, and provides a possible opportunity for approval and affirmation. Many people will not disapprove. Through bearing witness with one’s own story, one takes responsibility for one’s own recovery.
Telling the story may start as a fragmented account of certain incidents, before all the memories surface, and before a person can see it as a process, and the trauma as an ongoing chronic process. Unexpressed grief begins to come out, and the person needs support and encouragement to grieve at their own pace. Therapies or techniques that try to uncover traumatic memories and “heal” them or dismiss them with a “blitz” approach, are irresponsible and potentially dangerous. Herman states “Reclaiming the full range of feelings allows the person to reclaim the lost parts of self. Mourning is the only way to give due honor to loss; there is no adequate compensation.” While this may seem to apply more to birth parents than to adoptees or adoptive parents, they also have grief or loss of relationships, decisions made through lack of knowledge or understanding, and presumptions and fantasies about birth parents. In support groups, all triad members are able to discover their common bonds, which is healing.
Healing and transforming trauma is not the same as erasing it. As Levine states, “Transforming trauma isn’t a mechanical ritual that traumatized people can perform and then sit back and complacently expect results.” A person must feel safe with themselves and in their surroundings before doing this kind of therapeutic work.
A therapist can help a woman reframe her life experience of the years following her pregnancy and relinquishment by helping her see how her actions and behavior reflected her strengths as well her fears, how they hindered or aided her healing and development as a person. It is imperative that she learn to reframe the guilt and shame as sorrow and grief, so that she can nurture herself instead of continuing to blame herself or others. It is equally important for other triad members to reframe their anger, shame, and blame as sadness, loss, and grief as well, in order to heal. There must be recognition and acknowledgment of the traumas and importance of trauma in life. We use the term honor the trauma to mean we acknowledge the reality of it and the impact on us, the fact that it is parts of the threads of the tapestry of who we are. That is not the same as wallowing in it, being overwhelmed by it, or believing we cannot heal.
Speaking on panels about our adoption experience is an excellent way to do this, where we are in charge of what we reveal and to whom. A good rule to follow is to start small, and gain some affirmation and confidence in telling one’s story. Don’t start with an audience of 400, for instance. Writing is another way, either through one’s personal journal, by sharing a story in a support group newsletter, or writing one’s story to friends. Some will go on to write and publish articles or books; some will just want to be able to put their story in writing so they can see it themselves.
Society, by and large, would like to ignore the fact that adoption, even open adoption, has some degree of trauma inherent in the situation. Nobody wants to be adopted rather than raised by healthy Birth parents, and no birth parent is eager to relinquish, and nearly all adoptive parents would rather give birth. This is not to say that the way to avoid trauma is to never have any adoptions; it is to say that we need to acknowledge that adoption is at best a way to minimize trauma and hardship for everyone involved. People involved in adoption need to be open about the facts. Even when the situation is less than ideal, people can deal with reality. Support the others involved in your adoption, and get support for yourself. Honor yourself and others. Remember that all parents make decisions regarding their babies and children, so one need not feel guilty about doing the best they knew how to do at the time, even in someone is not pleased about it years later. Encourage continued contact among all involved, if possible and appropriate. If someone is endangered by contact with another, obviously, that changes the situation. Don’t have shameful secrets, bu do honor everyone’s right to privacy.
For prospective adoptive parents and Birth parents, get involved in some kind of support group at the outset and stay involved, either through the agency or in the community. Joining groups for support or therapy is an important way for many to get affirmation and take charge of themselves and the situation. It must be pointed out again that adoption support groups, unless led by a professional therapist and designated as therapy, are not therapy groups and not designed to directly deal with trauma. Support groups need to make that clear at their meetings. They also need to make clear that although they have a policy of confidentiality, they cannot guarantee anyone’s absolute adherence to that, nor to anonymity. For therapy, one needs a professional who understands long-term adoption issues and trauma. Birth parents looking for a therapist should ask about credentials and experience, and the therapist’s attitude about birth parents. They need a therapist who will respect and affirm them. Adoptees looking for a therapist may encounter someone who tells them they should be grateful to their adoptive parents, forget about looking for birth parents, or than even mentioning the Birth parents will be hurtful to the adoptive parents. This attitude is not respectful and does not foster the adoptee’s right to make their own decisions about search and reunion, and does not give adoptive parents credit for being emotionally healthy people who can have an open relationship with their adoptee. Adoptive parents may look for a therapist to help them with issues concerning the adoptee, or with their own issues around search and reunion. A helpful therapist will assist people in opening their family to new relationships, will encourage open and honest communication, and affirm the adoptive parents’ worth and validity as parents. The therapist will help them see the adoptee’s search and reunion as a positive reflection of their job as parents, not as a negative comment. A good therapist can help both adoptive parents and adoptees look at search and reunion from a perspective of abundance (“It is always possible to love more people”) rather than scarcity (“Love is a limited-quantity substance to be hoarded and not shared”). Of course, they must believe that themselves.
Do not hesitate to change therapists if the first one does not seem to fit you. A new approach called life coaching, rather than therapy, may be helpful for many. Since health insurance is not likely to cover what you really need, investigate what seems best for you.
In learning to take care of ourselves emotionally and learning to have healthy relationships, we may have to limit contact with persons who just don’t “get it” about adoption, or who are critical of our needs and efforts to heal the traumas related to adoption. If search is part that, we need to go about it in a healing way. Do not search in the hope that it will magically heal trauma, but know that the act of searching helps heal, no matter the outcome. Search to learn the truth, not to find magic or fulfill your fantasy. Take it slow and easy, remembering that your goal is to learn the truth, to find out about yourself as well as the other person(s). You want to build a real relationship with the other person if possible, not just an intense, one-time reunion for the TV cameras. Remember that you will not find your fantasy, but you will find reality, and you can deal with that.
Connect with people from all parts of the triad, not just your own role, so that you can gain a better perspective of what the person for whom you are searching may have experienced. Do not drop these connections when you have “completed” your search. Reunion is an on-going process, just like other relationships.
Do not be intimidated or seduced by offers of medications which may mask trauma, delay healing, dull awareness, lower your expectations, and even cause additional trauma. This is not advice to forego medication for your arthritis or headaches or diabetes. It is a caution not to see mood-altering medications as the solution to trauma. That includes self-medication with alcohol, marijuana, excessive caffeine and sugar. Psychoactive substances of any sort may distort perceptions and may cause further trauma. It is important to realize in all of this that, for the most part, one person or group of persons did not set out to traumatize another person or themselves; trauma was the result, not the intention.
Finally, honor yourself for surviving trauma, and honor the others in your life. Learn to change possible future trauma to “crisis,” in Joyce Pavao’s words, and learn to transform it so that you can prevail and triumph. The real goal of all healing it to help us become that persons we were meant to be.
Excerpted from the April, July and October 2001, and January 2002 editions of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2001, 2002 Barbara Free