In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be any unplanned pregnancy nor infertility; there would be no child abuse, and adoption trauma would not exist. Every expectant mother would be fully prepared to parent in every way, every babydaddy would voluntarily start child support prior to birth, and every child welfare worker would be a Powerball lottery winner.
That is not, however, the world in which we live. And given the imperfections of life and the stressors of disrupted parent-child attachments, adoption trauma is a Very Real Thing that deserves wider attention than it commonly gets.
In the world in which we live, a multitude of life crises contribute to the reasons that adoption exists. Inadequate birth control and grinding poverty can become a devastating combination. Parents abused as children often become abusive parents themselves. People who are addicts routinely choose their next fix over their kids. Children of single moms are forced to grow up without the security of a full-time father. Abusive adult relationships became a danger to children whose parents will not seek help. Teen parents with inadequate family support find themselves expecting again (and again) far too often. Homeless families find long-term stability and financial assistance hard to come by. And American kids are warehoused in state foster care because the number of parentless youth far outweighs the supply of adoptive parents open to adopting children who are other than healthy white newborns.
There are those who wrongfully claim that money is the answer to all of society’s ills, but nobody has enough money to fix all the issues in the paragraph above. For the children of parents who cannot or will not parent the little ones born to them, adoption is an option by which the needs of children can be met through an alternative parent or set of parents, provided the original parents agree to forever surrender their parental rights and forfeit their parental responsibilities; this is what we call “voluntary adoption” and the existence of this option is why America no longer has foundling homes and orphanages as drop-off centers for unwanted children (like other, third-world countries.)
Adoption can be voluntary, but trauma is not
It’s a common misconception that children adopted “through the system” at an older age are more prone to adoption trauma than are babies placed for adoption privately. In fact, adoption trauma can potentially impact any adoptee, whether his or her adoptions was public or private and whether he or she was adopted in infancy or later in life.
Adoption, too (even the best of them) can be marred by trauma. The separation of a child and his or her original parents is always a traumatic loss, even when it occurs under the “best” of circumstances, and this is why all the joys of even the most open of adoptions cannot cancel out the grief of this “primal wound.” (Once you’ve been separated from your first family, many adoptees reason, what guarantees that the next one will always stick around? And even if they do, there’s no promise you’ll feel as if you fit in, right? Or that they’ll treat you as they should, or understand your needs more than their own?)
This is why many adopted persons struggle with a lifetime of loss, anger and/or sadness, even if they had the very best of adoptive parents and every other advantage life could offer. Adoption trauma is a very real and yes, normal outgrowth of a jarring alteration in the primal tapestry, and this truth must be acknowledged, for birthparents and adoptive parents often also feel the weight of adoption trauma, sometimes for years afterwards.
The legal system generally compounds this trauma, too, through the cold legal language of the paperwork and through laws that fail to uphold open adoption contact agreements and refer to the birthparents’ loving choice as “termination” and refuse even adults adopted decades before access to the unfalsified records of their own births, even in cases of compelling medical crises.
The American concept of voluntary adoption is not without its problems, of course, and it is a constant struggle for ethical adoption providers like Abrazo to remind society of the vital and necessary differences between social services and free market industries. But herein lies one of the most painful truths: even in the best of stories, life– from before birth through marriage to death– life is filled with trauma, and nobody ever gets out unscathed, adopted or not.
Every living person is a survivor of birth trauma, on some level. Moving from the safety of the womb to the risks of the outer world is a journey filled with trauma. Childhood is filled with trauma, from bullying at school to child abuse and romantic loss. Sex can be a traumatic experience when it’s non-consensual. Marriage is traumatic when it is threatened by violence or infidelity or divorce. Death is often traumatic for those who succumb to it as well as those who witness it. Adoption trauma is a reaction to the stressors of adoption, and the resulting behaviors and coping skills can prove extremely challenging for both children and parents, alike.
So if there’s trauma in adoption, then why do it?
Here’s the short answer: because more often than not, adoption still proves to be the lesser of the evils. There can also be devastating trauma in abortion, in maladaptive parenting, in child abuse, in family violence, in poverty, in child abandonment, in institutionalization, in foster care, in kinship placements, and in any other number of alternatives that befall children for whom adoption is not the outcome.
The adoption system, while admittedly imperfect, is still capable of providing children with parents who cannot, will not or should not parent and provide for them, with substitute family systems can can and will, and as long as adoption spares any child/ren the scourge of growing up without a stable family unit, then the more we should all dedicate our resources to promoting and improving the concept and its process, in the best interests of all children for whom adoption may ever become necessary.
And while we’re at it, let’s make an industry-wide project of educating the public about adoption trauma, and quit sweeping it under the proverbial rug. Let’s better prepare birthparents and adoptive parents for the impact of adoption trauma before and after placement, and let’s work together to raise public funding for adoption trauma research and treatment and advocacy. Let’s do more to support adoptees who are already suffering from the effects of adoption trauma, and de-stigmatize this condition so that those who are dealing with it feel less isolated and find more reason for hope and healing.
Towards this end, Abrazo is putting our money where our proverbial mouth is! Abrazo will make a cash donation to the Attachment & Trauma Network for every posted comment in response to this piece, so tell us what you think, and help change the world of adoption trauma as a result…