AAC Conference Part 4: Losses

Ever hear of a book called Primal Wound? I had heard enough to be concerned; so I went to hear the author speak at the conference.  Nancy Verrier is an adoptive mother and psychotherapist who speaks on “the effects of separation and trauma and genetic confusion on adoptees.”

Disclaimer: I have not read the book. However, I think I was able to pick up the essence of the theory. The idea is that adoptees become “dis-regulated” because they are taken from their original mothers at birth. The sounds, smells, and so forth that babies have grown accustomed to in the womb are replaced by different sounds and smells. Verrier says the mother-child relationship is the cornerstone relationship. The child’s loss of that relationship – even though he/she doesn’t remember it – makes it difficult for the child to trust again. The adoptee is fearful of losing relationships. The adoptee fears intimacy. The mannerisms around them in the adoptive family do not reflect their mannerisms. Verrier stated that 7% of communication is verbal. The rest is non-verbal. Children read the non-verbal communication of biological relatives much better than they read non-biological relatives. Adoptees become chameleons, trying to fit in wherever they go. Many are diagnosed as ADHD because they are hyper-vigilent regarding their surroundings, trying to make sure they are not abandoned again. Their imitation of the adoptive parents/family becomes a false self, based on external cues, instead of a genuine self based on internal cues.

Verrier identified a number of common characteristics among adoptees: low self-esteem, self-blame, compliant or defiant behavior, disassociating or daydreaming, and use of drugs or sex to escape the pain. Adoptees are not as sensitive about how their behavior affects others. This is because they believe they don’t matter much. Verrier argued that adoptees can learn to be responsible for their behavior, but it is a learning process that requires validating their feelings, but asking: “How do you think this behavior affects me (or another)?” Verrier also stated that it is hard for an adoptee to become his/her genuine or authentic self while in the adoptive home. (Are you depressed yet?)

I am trying not to be defensive. I am trying to absorb this information and make use of it. I never thought of my children as having “attachment” problems the way that term is usually defined because they had ME from Day One. But, of course, MY Day One is calculated from birth.

I think about my middle child who has exhibited most of the behaviors Verrier described. She has been a chameleon in different situations. She would do whatever it took to be accepted by her peers even if the behavior hurt her. She has also been rebellious and seemingly uncaring about how her behavior affected others.

But then I think about her birth mother. Her birth mother has also exhibited these same behaviors, and she was NOT adopted. It’s her personality. Is it a “primal wound” or genetics? I/we will probably never know. Whatever combination of factors, Skye is learning to self-regulate. She is learning how her past behavior hurt others and herself. She is making conscientious decisions about who and how she wants to be in the future.

And I think about our fully open adoptions. Our four older kids have spent time with their birth families from the beginning. They see their own mannerisms, traits, and so forth reflected in their genetically related families. Doesn’t this put salve on the wound of the loss?

Adoption is about losses. I won’t deny it, though my impulse is to want to fix it or make it go away. Every parent wants to protect his or her children from loss. This is a particular kind of loss we face in adoption. But if we face it head on, and help our kids deal with it, I suspect we are helping them learn to cope with other losses they will experience as time goes on.

I also went to a workshop on infertility and third party reproduction that, again, dealt with losses. The first presenter counsels people dealing with the loss associated with being unable to create a biological child. She called it a “major life crisis.” Thoughts such as: “I am not a real woman if I can’t produce a child” or “Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a mother” are devastating. Infertility treatment takes over her (and his) life – procedures, scheduling clinic visits, not being able to leave a bad job because of insurance concerns, the astronomical cost of $18K per IVF cycle (not including the drugs), etc. Family gatherings where there is a new baby or announcement of pregnancy remind her of what she doesn’t have. Feelings of anger, guilt, blame and so forth affect the marriage. The sense of helplessness and being out of control is often new to highly successful women and men. Outsiders who think they are helping say things like: “Just adopt. There are lots of kids who need homes.” The infertile couple can be pushed into adoption without ever really dealing with the loss… All of this resonated with me.

The presenter encouraged a ritual of some sort to recognize the loss before moving on. She shared a poem that I really like:

“Today I have closed the door of the nursery I have kept for you in my heart.

I can no longer stand in its doorway,

I have waited for you there so long.

I cannot forever live on the thought of a dream we share,

You cannot enter my world.

I have tried to bring you across the threshold of conception and birth.

I have fought time, doctors, devils and God Almighty.

I am weary and there is no victory.

Other children may someday live in my heart but never in your place.

I can never hold you,

I can never really let you go,

But I must go on.

I can no longer live on the thought of the dream we would share.

The unborn are forever trapped within the living.

But it is unseemly for the living to be trapped in the unborn.”

The upshot is that families who acknowledge differences develop empathy and have better communication. I think we’ve done well with that in this family. For one thing, open adoption keeps us honest because we are surrounded by “reminders” – birth families. For another, having this many people in one family who are not genetically related forces the issue. And, finally, John and I are – because of our personal histories – both inclined to face reality and hard truths head on.

I can’t go without mentioning the second speaker at this workshop. She works in embryo adoption. Remember: there are more babies created through third party donors each year than all domestic and international adoptions combined. She talked about the importance of resolving infertility and about the couple who plans on purchasing an embryo owning the fact that this is THEIR choice to bring a child into the world created in this way. They need to be prepared to be their child’s advocate and to meet his/her needs whatever they may be. She pushed for openness in the donor arena – giving children a way to contact their genetic kin. (There is a donor sibling registry now, and 40,000 families are already registered.)

The speaker talked about the huge number of embryos in storage. Half of the couples who created the embryos decide NOT to decide what to do with them, and they remain in storage. The couples who do decide to donate their embryos do so because they believe they have gone through so much to create them that they want their potential children to have parents. The speaker works at an organization where embryo transfer is treated as an adoption. The genetic parents are counseled like birth parents. A home study is conducted on the prospective recipients of the embryo and they meet the donors and get to know each other. Although in many states embryos are considered “property” that is transferred to its new owners, in her practice, there is an adoption decree that finalizes the process… This makes sense to me. Wherever you stand on the beginning of life, if an embryo results in the birth of a child, this arrangement isn’t about a property transfer. These children wind up in the same position as any child who is adopted: they have a different set of genetic parents and deserve the same access to information and relationships.

I’ve said and written before: “adoption exists because life is not perfect. If it were, all women who give birth would be able to raise their children. If it were, the women who wanted to become pregnant and bear children would be able to. If it were, children would be able to live with their original parents and have all their needs met.” (EIIOT Preface) The people who came to this conference were self-selected. Either as professionals or as members of the triad, they are wrestling with personal feelings of loss or trying to make the process and policies regarding adoption better. That’s a good thing. But, I have to remember that the vast majority of folks affected by adoption were not there. And many of them are managing just fine. Adoption is not a bad thing – in my opinion – despite the inherent losses. There is much to celebrate. But it is also important to continue learning so that our eyes are open to what we can do better.

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