Have you ever noticed whose voice is typically missing in most adoption plans? It’s the adoptees voice.
Adoption professionals do a lot of talking, whether for the purpose of educating clients or providing guidance. Adopting parents are given ample opportunities to express their expectations, desires and fears. Placing parents are also urged to have input in the decisions they are making (although some find that freely sharing doubts rarely seems welcome.)
Nearly everyone gets a speaking part. The adults all get to talk about what they think or feel or hope will be best for the child. A “good match” is seen as one in which there is a consistent and mutual investment in communication. A “bad match” is one in which communication is sporadic or stilted.
And yet, the adoptee’s voice is lost in the clamor, for the one party rarely heard from during adoption planning is the adoptee. Whether because the adoptee is not yet born or because he or she is being “sheltered” from adult discussions, the arrangements for a child’s adoption rarely involve the adoptee’s voice.
Instead, the adults (birthparents, adoptive parents and adoption professionals) all seek to speak for the adoptee, yet all from their own perspective, based on their own best intentions and yes, biases.
These are painful truths both to write and to read, so please consider this a gentle trigger alert, if you choose to read on…
The Adoptee’s Voice, As a Baby
Ideally, mother/child bonding begins during pregnancy, as a mother hopefully becomes attached to and protective of the fetus. Likewise, the fetus becomes familiar with and dependent upon the mother. Research confirms that newborns recognize the sound and smell of the biological mother after birth, and this is why breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact is considered so essential for newly-delivered mothers and their babies– regardless of whether a future adoption is being planned or not.
(Enterprising adopters have also asked about recording their own voices to be played for the fetus in the womb, but adoption ethics prevent pre-surrender bonding between a fetus and would-be adopters, for obvious reasons.)
A baby or child being adopted, if they had the ability to say so, would likely express apprehension about losing their first mom– even (and sometimes especially) if abuse or neglect had occurred. The ability of any child to bond with substitute parents or caregivers is determined largely by the opportunity they have had to form secure attachments to the first. That may seem counterintuitive. so read it again: the ability of any child to bond with substitute parents or caregivers is determined largely by the opportunity they have had to form secure attachments to the first. So give them every opportunity to complete that vital task, first.
Dr. Michael Trout was a renowned birth psychologist, formerly of the Infant-Parent Institute. He strongly advocated for babies in the process of being adopted to be given as much continued physical access to the biological mother after birth as possible. Abrazo’s director attended a 1993 training in which he advised that an “optimal adoptive launch” would entail an adoptive couple moving the baby’s birthmother in with them for the first few weeks or months after placement. Why? To give the baby the continued comfort of her presence, empowering him/her to bond with the new caretakers without trauma complications.
In a perfect world, adoption would never be necessary. In reality, however, the world is not perfect. Adoption is just the next best alternative for children in need, in some cases.
Adoption Optimized for Adoptees
For newborns to be abruptly separated from the only mother they know is traumatic— no matter how loving or experienced their alternative caretakers may be. This is a painful reality of any infant adoption. If every baby being adopted had a say in the matter, science tells us he/she would want ongoing access to his/her birthmom for as long as possible. The comfort of strangers is simply no substitute, however nurturing they are. Hurried placements are rarely to any child’s benefit. They’re about accommodating adult needs, instead.
Granted, prolonged contact with a child being placed is not something every grieving or emotionally-distanced birthmom will tolerate. When asked about this, Dr. Trout suggested that the least the adopters could do for the new baby who’s being unavoidably separated from the bio-mom would be to keep a unwashed garment she had slept in for the child, and play recordings of her voice as a comfort for the baby. (His expert input is why Abrazo requires adopters to stay in the birthmother’s town and continue visits for days after placement, rather than rushing ICPC clearance or accomodating adopters’ travel plans.)
Newborns, infants and children going through the adoption process are not blank slates. Each does experience separation, loss and grief, even if they do not have language with which to express it. While it makes adults understandably uncomfortable to contemplate this, honoring the adoptee requires patience with and sensitivity to the needs of each child in the midst of such a huge transition– and afterwards, too. (Which includes raising adoptees with access to their birthparents, safeguarding their right to their own truth, and honoring each adoptee’s role in our community over the years to come.) After all, adoption is only truly optimized when the adoptee is given a say.
Why Adoptee’s Voices Get Silenced
Historically, foundlings, orphans and adoptions were considered urchins who should be thankful to have been taken in. Often, an ignorant public believed they were born of inferior stock or “bad blood.” They were expected to “accept their lot in life,” to not ask questions about where they’d come from, and to not make trouble for their adopters. Many adoptees grew up in homes where their adoptions (and birthparents) were never even mentioned, leaving a clear impression that there was something wrong with them and/or the families from which they’d come. This created enormous shame and secrecy, which in turn gave rise to family conspiracies, depression or anxiety, and maladaptive identity formation.
Even today, grown adoptees are treated like children, and indeed, referred to still as an “adopted child.” In Texas, adoptees of any age are denied access to their own rightful birth records and original birth certificates. Those who were once adopted are still too often denied the right to decide who should or should not have access to their adoption stories. Adults who affirm or dispute the benefits of their adoptions are challenged by adoptive parents, birthparents, adoption professionals and even other adoptees desperate to have their own perspectives validated.
Any birthmom’s greatest fear is that the adoptee may hate them for having chosen adoption. Most adopting parents’ greatest fears are of the adoptee telling them “you’re not my real parents.” Many adoptees grow up acutely aware of a perceived need to accommodate others’ expectations, for fear of being abandoned (again). The adoptee who finds his or her voice is often terrified that speaking their truth may cost them everything, yet the freedom of finally being able to express themselves feels like oxygen to one who was drowning.
All adoptees deserve a speaking part, at long last, even if/when what they have to say isn’t what others hope to hear. And they need to know we’re all really listening, too. Only by hearing adoptees out (without interruption) is there any hope of making adoption any better for the next generation, or at least atoning for the sins of the past.
This November is National Adoption Awareness Month, but at Abrazo, we’re renaming it National Adoptee Month. Join us in making a concentrated effort, all month long, to listen to the adoptees’ voices, and to learn from them, for a change.