If you struggle with this emotion, please know this: adoption guilt is really a thing. (And adoption guilt can be a really big thing for some folks who are afflicted with it.)
You won’t find many adoption agencies addressing this, because (quite honestly) most of us who work in adoption still want to believe that child-centered adoptions really can make things better for everyone in the end, and the concept of adoption guilt doesn’t fit into that, somehow?
Yet ask any group of birthparents, adoptive parents, and even adoptees what the words “adoption guilt” mean to them, and you’re likely to rouse an in-depth (or even heated) discussion of the very mixed emotions that people feel when their lives have been touched by adoption– for better or worse.
See, that’s the thing about adoption guilt: it doesn’t mean an adoption turned out badly.
Sometimes, it just means that someone once involved in an adoption later struggles with hindsight.
(And that, in itself, may not be a bad thing, either, if it leads to new growth?)
Adoption guilt can have many layers, and one’s awareness of it often grows over time. It seems that our ability to face adoption guilt expands exponentially, as we accrue empathy, wisdom and/or maturity.
Adoption guilt is different than buyer’s remorse or garden-variety adoption regrets. Adoption guilt is typically fear-based, and it is often characterized by the nagging sense that one’s participation in an adoption was inherently flawed, and therefore lacks any means of being repaired for the common good.
But there are things you can do about it– so take this as a bright-shining beacon of hope.
Who gets adoption guilt and why?
Adoption guilt can affect birthparents who placed a child or children for adoption voluntarily, those who were coerced or forced into placing involuntarily, and even those who didn’t place but have come to realize or believe that perhaps they should have?
Parents who choose to place are often susceptible to adoption guilt because their relatives, friends or society fail to understand the selflessness involved in a truly child-centered voluntary adoption. Many birthparents fail to find the post-adoption support and validation they deserve, and end up second-guessing the choice(s) they made and/or blaming themselves for any negative outcomes of it. Some parents who place sometimes feel guilty about regretting an adoption that even the adoptee may perceive was a good thing.
Parents whose placement decisions were involuntary may fault others for rendering them powerless and see themselves as victims as well as their children. And some parents who planned to place but reneged– like those who didn’t place but wish they had– may feel beset with adoption guilt at the realization of what opportunities their child potentially missed out on in life.
Parents who adopt may struggle with adoption guilt, as well, particularly when they witness the pain of a birthparent’s relinquishment, or an adoptee’s sense of abandonment. Adoptive parents who later become unexpectedly pregnant may suffer adoption guilt thinking that their changed fertility status was a betrayal of the birthparents, or knowing how many other couples wait to adopt with no hope of ever overcoming infertility. Some adoptive parents suffer adoption guilt as they learn about the trauma of adoption loss, while still others quietly regret having adopted the child/ren that they did and suffer tacit guilt over this painful truth.
Some parents who adopt feel guilty about the lengths they went to pursue the outcome for which they’d hoped, which may have been excessive or unethical, while others are felled by adoption guilt at realizing their child/ren’s birthparents were actually better equipped to parent than they understood at the time of the placement. It’s not uncommon for parents who adopted to worry that they are not living up to the birthparents’ expectations, or to feel inadequate, or blame themselves for an adoptee’s developmental challenges or for their adopted child’s social or academic shortcomings.
And sadly, adoptees too can suffer from adoption guilt. Sometimes, adoptees feel guilty that they are not sufficiently grateful for having been adopted, or for fearing they cannot live up to their adoptive parents’ expectations, for harboring a deep-seated longing for (or indifference towards) their birthfamily, or for having grown up with far greater opportunities than their birth-siblings who were not adopted.
So what’s an adoption guilt grappler to do?
Whether you are an adoptee, a birthparent, an adoptive parent or someone else who grapples with adoption guilt, the first step to dealing with this burden is to recognize that it exists, to know that it’s real, to understand that what you are feeling is normal, and to realize the load can be lightened.
It’s important to be able to talk about it with somebody you can trust. Whether that somebody is an adoption therapist, another adoption triad member, a support group or even just a friend or relative, it helps to be able to say “hey, I’m really struggling with this” and to have someone you trust just hear you out.
Keep in mind that adoption guilt is a feeling, and every feeling is subject to change, once we learn to understand them and reframe our thoughts in a manner that may be more productive and healthier for us.
Some therapists prescribe positive mantras or thought-stopping exercises. (A Stuart Smalley skit on SNL years ago referred to the value of eliminating “stinkin’ thinkin’“, and while this was a punchline to a joke, it can be important to self-identify our own negative internal messages and replace them with positives, ie., changing a thought like “I was wrong to think adoption was right” to “I did the best I could with what I knew at that time.”)
Self-love is an essential antidote to adoption guilt, as is the ability to forgive (others, as well as oneself.) Adoption may be an imperfect solution to age-old child welfare issues, but any adoption constructed of loving intentions has within it components of which to be proud– even if there are also elements of the experience which one wishes that one could change.
It may be a normal instinct for those who suffer adoption guilt to seek to make amends, and if that helps you, then go with it, but seek to pay it forward, not backwards. (Overcompensating someone you may feel was wronged years ago is unlikely to effect genuine and lasting change now, for example, but contributing to changes in the law or supporting organizations that back adoption reform just might?)
The late Dr. Wayne Dyer believed that the only two useless emotions are guilt and worry. “If you believe that feeling bad or worrying long enough will change a past or future event, then you are residing on another planet with a different reality system,” Dyer wrote in his book Your Erroneous Zones.
This is fitting advice also for those who suffer from adoption guilt. Being steeped in guilt merely keeps you obsessed with the past, rather than motivating you to change your tomorrows.
Recognizing your own self-worth (adoption or no adoption) and forgiving the limitations of past actions, events or choices has the power to free you from the burden of adoption guilt, so let go and release yourself to pursue an even brighter future– for you and for those you love.