book tour: the primal wound
Lori the Open Adoption Examiner (and of Weebles Wobblog) has launched a new adoption cross-triad book tour. Beginning with the controversial landmark book The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier, this first tour seeks to highlight the adoptee voice, often absent or marginalized from adoption discourse.
The Primal Wound was a milestone in the adoption field when first published in 1993. Written by an adoptive mother and psychotherapist, the book (the author’s academic thesis) was the first to explore in depth the psychological impact on the adoptee.
The seminal theory is that the separation of birth mother from her baby will inevitably be experienced by the child as abandonment, which is responsible for numerous problems adoptees face regarding loss, trust, identity, rejection and shame. The author refers to the trauma of abandonment as the primal wound.
Truth be told, The Primal Wound is not an easy read. Nevertheless, it should provide for thoughtful discussion about adoption, particularly with all members of the triad represented. So read on, and join in the discussion. Please be mindful of other views, thoughtful in discourse, and respectful in tone.
My questions for discussion are listed below. But first I wanted to provide some context and my general impressions of the book.
When The Primal Wound was released, most U.S. adoptions were still closed. There was no focus on “child-centered” adoption. Rather, professionals in that era facilitated private closed adoptions often shrouded in secrecy and shame. Subtle coercion was not uncommon. Young pregnant women were frequently shuttled off to “homes” and expected to forget about the child they birthed yet never saw or held. Documents were sealed, and adoptions – and children – were often hidden as shameful family secrets.
The author’s daughter was born the same year as me, in 1969. Adoptees in my generation came out of these closed adoptions. They had no information about their birth parents or biological families; some weren’t even told they were adopted until later in life. Many spent years trying to reconcile who they were without this critical information, then years more searching for birth family and basic information about their heritage.
I think it’s safe to say that back then adoption professionals and adoptive parents did not yet appreciate the complexity of the adoptee experience. There was a great deal of ignorance and lack of empathy. Perhaps the most valuable contribution of the book is this focus on the child – i.e., the acknowledgment that adoptees experience profound loss by not growing up in their families of origin and parented by their biological parents, and that loss will need to be grieved. Comprehension of this concept alone would go a long way towards understanding the type of empathy and support adoptees may need.
By exploring the adoptee psyche and giving voice to this overlooked perspective, The Primal Wound validated the profound loss experienced by the adoptee. The book opened eyes, highlighting the need for necessary attention and support that had been previously lacking.
In addition, some problems adoptees encounter as described by the author are common, especially to adoptees of that era, and may manifest in anyone feeling such unresolved loss so acutely. The book provides insight into how and why certain issues might emerge as well as what type of support could be beneficial.
Moreover, I believe the book convincingly explains why an adoptee’s search for his or her birth family is normal and healthy and should be encouraged. Finally, I think the book contributes to the understanding that when adoption is in fact necessary, openness and ongoing contact with birth family should be the goal for the benefit of the child.
In spite of its significance, however, I think the book suffers from the author’s tendency towards broad over-generalizations that may not necessarily be helpful to cultivating appreciation of the complexities of adoption today. Whether she is discussing adoptees, birth mothers, or adoptive parents, the author’s attempt to make broad statements widely applicable to every person in every instance not only rings false but also undermines real understanding.
Now for the controversy. While I believe the book is of monumental significance for its focus on the adoptee experience, I question the author’s core premise that every child will experience his or her placement as “abandonment.” (“No matter what the … reasons she had for relinquishing him or her, the child experiences the separation as abandonment.” p14). Verrier believes that separation will be experienced as abandonment regardless of the birth mother’s involvement in the baby’s placement or the child’s life. Without question, separation is inherently traumatic. Since I am not an adoptee, I am not qualified to describe the impact of separation on the child. No doubt there is profound loss by both mother and child. My issue is with the theory that every child will invariably view even the most careful placement and ongoing involvement and participation in his or her life as “abandonment.”
Describing the adoption experience, the author explains that after separation (or “abandonment”), the child is then handed over to “strangers.” The child, she says, will inevitably view the adoptive mother as “an impostor, a substitute mother” (p14), the “wrong mother,” to whom s/he may never bond. The author states that the powerful connection between the child and birth mother will serve as a “barrier” to the adoptive mother’s ability to bond with her adopted child (p162), and describes the adoptive mother as a “hindrance.” According to the author, the severing of ties between child and birth mother will prevent the child from ever bonding to (or trusting) any mother.
The author points to abandonment to explain a litany of problems experienced by adoptees — e.g., depression, anxiety, fear of rejection, inability to trust, lack of identity, problems with intimacy and shame. Using psychological constructs, she says these problems will manifest in a variety of ways. While it is true that adoptees may experience a higher incidence of certain problems such as anxiety and learning disabilities and also represent the highest population in residential drug treatment, I don’t believe this type of broad generalization or victimization is helpful to advancing understanding of the root cause of any behavior. The author suggests that due to the effects of the primal wound, adoptees will never become well-adjusted or highly functional adults without years of therapy.
A counselor we saw before we adopted our daughter cautioned us against attributing every problem she may experience to her adoption. I do think it is helpful to be aware of potential issues she may encounter, so we can apply preventive measures and early intervention. But I wouldn’t want her to grow up thinking there is some sort of “pathology” related to her adoption. Moreover, our job as adoptive parents is to help our child develop into an integrated whole individual with a strong sense of self. A huge part of this for us includes ongoing involvement with her birth family.
Another over-generalization concerns adoptive parents. The author mistakenly presumes that all adoptive parents are ignorant about the reality of loss experienced by the child and further believe that their love should be good enough (p53-4). This is exactly what the author herself believed when she adopted her daughter 40 years ago. She also presumes that most prospective adoptive parents have either failed to resolve their infertility or have purely altruistic intentions that should be re-examined. She believes most adoptive parents are ill prepared to understand or feel empathy for their adopted children. At the time of her writing, that may have been true. However, much has changed since then, thanks in part to The Primal Wound.
Questions for Discussion
1. Does a fully open adoption, which includes an ongoing relationship between the biological mother and her child from birth, change the nature or impact of the primal wound?
Even in the most fully open adoption, there is no doubt real loss for the adoptee. Yet as I wrote above, I question the author’s core premise that every child will invariably experience his/her adoption as “abandonment” by his/her birth mother, particularly where there is active involvement in placement and ongoing participation in the child’s life.
I believe that open adoption provides an opportunity for expectant parents to make very thoughtful and careful decisions about placing their child when an adoption plan is necessary. Real openness further provides opportunities for ongoing and meaningful involvement in the child’s life, from those first early formative days and weeks to critical points in the child’s development and into adulthood. This includes the ability to answer significant questions as well as the opportunity to express love and affection as an extended family member.
In our own adoption, K painstakingly interviewed many prospective families to determine the “best match” to place her unborn child. If she was unable to parent her child, she wanted to choose the best parents possible. Aside from keeping her baby safe, she viewed this as her main task. She took a great deal of time and care with her decision. She had support and guidance. After birth, she had time and space to revisit her decision. After placement, she spent a lot of time with Baby J, holding and feeding her, talking to her, expressing a great deal of affection and love for her child. Moreover, K and her family continue to be involved in Baby J’s life. That is hardly abandonment.
Openness provides not only access to critical information about family history, but also enables the child to learn firsthand information about his/her family of origin and placement. While the author dismisses this as a mere intellectual pursuit that will not satisfy the emotional need to be parented by one’s biological parent, I believe this information is helpful to the child’s understanding of his/her story, which is critical to integrating one’s sense of “self.” While I can (and do) tell my daughter about her first mother and how she came to be with us, I expect she will have other tough questions some day. Our child will always have honest and complete answers, both from us and from K herself.
Openness provides opportunities not merely for limited contact through occasional letters, photos and annual visits (as the author suggests), but for ongoing involvement in the child’s life. In our adoption, K and her family are an integral part of our extended family. We have regular ongoing contact, which we are committed to maintaining. Our love for our daughter unites us in a uniquely beautiful bond. We share exciting developments and special occasions. K will always be welcome in our home as family. Our daughter will always know K, even when she is not present.
Of course an ongoing relationship does not eliminate the sense of loss in adoption. Adoption is rooted in loss – the child experiences the loss of not being raised in his/her family of origin, and the birth mother experiences the loss of parenting that particular child. I am not naïve enough to believe that openness can diminish that profound loss which must be grieved. But I question whether an adoptee would feel “abandoned” by a birth mother who remains connected and involved with love and care. I believe that a healthy, honest and open ongoing relationship is beneficial to the child’s well being and provides healing opportunities for everyone in the triad.
2. As a birthmother I was drawn to Chapter 10 and the discussion of the ‘Cardinal Rules for Adoptive Parents.’ I think if my role had been reversed and I was an adoptive mother, as much as my former birthmother self would like to be recognized, I do not think that I would consciously do this. […] I would ask both adoptive mothers and birthmothers what their thoughts are on this.
The author lays out five “Cardinal Rules for Adoptive Parents” (p135), including one specifically for the adoptive mother, “DO NOT TRY TO TAKE THE PLACE OF THE BIRTHMOTHER.”
I do not believe it is possible to take the place of the birthmother in a child’s life. Our daughter’s birthmom and I have different roles. Of course we both love Baby J and want the best for her. We will both do whatever we can to ensure her safety and well being. We are both her mothers. She is our daughter. But we are not co-parents and there are some important distinctions.
K shares with Baby J much more than her pregnancy and birth. She shares genetics, biology, family ancestry, health history, living relatives, intuitive recognition and tremendous love. Their bond will be everlasting.
By virtue of being the person chosen to parent Baby J, I am her nurturing mother. She is attached to me, and I believe in our brief but intimate time together we have bonded rather well. I can give her so much — love, attention, affection, trust, confidence, opportunities. Yet I am well aware that I can never provide Baby J with what K can. I will never be the woman who carried her in my womb for nine months, feeling her kick and turn from the inside before gently pushing her into this world. I will never share that biological link to her family ancestry or her living relatives. I will never share her genes or health history. As much as I love my daughter, and as attached as we are, that bond is something I can not create or replicate, nor would I try to.
K provides a critically important role in Baby J’s life because she is all of those things and more. She provides what I can not. Yet K is unable to care for our daughter as her parent. I have been empowered by K to be this little girl’s mother. In this way, K and I complement each other in fulfilling our daughter’s needs. Because I accept this and am not threatened by K’s significant and unique role in Baby J’s life, I embrace it, cherish it, and will do my best to protect it.
3. Verrier presumes that most adoptive parents are ill equipped to handle the emotional complexities experienced by adoptees. Did/do you feel well prepared to address the sense of loss that your child might experience? How did you prepare yourself? How do you help/plan to help your child resolve his/her feelings about his/her adoption?
As I said above, I believe that when the book was published there was little focus on adoptees or child-centered adoptions. Today, with numerous studies on adoptees and the movement towards open adoption, there is far more awareness of the complex issues surrounding adoption and their impacts on members of the triad.
In my own experience, we did a lot of self educating and counseling before we even considered adoption as a way to build our family. Both were necessary to ensure that I resolved my own feelings of loss so I could focus on my child and what s/he might need. First I saw a grief counselor, then my husband and I saw a counselor together. I spoke to various friends and colleagues about their adoption experience. I talked with adoptive parents about challenges they encounter with children at different ages. I read numerous books, dozens of articles, and hundreds of blogs, all written from varying perspectives in the triad. I began attending monthly educational meetings with adoptive families and birth family members, where I gained invaluable insight about the impact of adoption on birth parents and children firsthand.
Through this education, I decided that I wanted a fully open adoption for the benefits it can provide to all members of the triad, and our child in particular. I came to believe that real openness was a central way in which we could integrate our child’s family of origin into her life — not just her story and history but our every day life. By maintaining as strong a connection to our daughter’s birth family as possible, we hope to provide opportunities for her to address and process any sense of loss she may feel.
Our daughter is just six months old, so these issues may arise in the future. I think it is inevitable that she will experience some form of loss simply by virtue of not being parented by her biological mother and father. As her mother, I view it as my job to help her process those feelings, to get her the support she needs, to provide opportunities to access her birth family, and to help her integrate these different aspects of her life and story for her ultimate well being.
One way in which I do this is to make her story part of our every day life. By “normalizing” her adoption, I hope to help her understand and accept her story, and also to provide the tools with which she can talk about her adoption some day. When those tough issues arise, I intend to provide her with the freedom and opportunity to explore her emotions and to communicate her feelings and needs.
As noted above, we are committed to maintaining an ongoing relationship with our child’s birth parents and their families. I hope she can ask her birth mother and birth father questions to learn for herself why they made the decisions they did. She will also be able to feel their love and affection as extended family members. And she will be able to look to their families for information and love as well.
Finally, I will continue to educate myself about issues in adoption from varied sources and perspectives, always learning how to anticipate and support her needs in the future. We have been fortunate to find a wonderful support network upon which we can draw, should we need to connect her with other adoptees or adoption professionals.
Adoption is by no means perfect. But when it is necessary, I think every one involved has a responsibility to each other and especially to the child to acknowledge the loss as real. In this way, we can provide opportunities for healing.
To continue to the next leg of this book tour, please visit the main list at The Open Adoption Examiner!