Adoptee view: What can a tiny baby know?

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In her preface to The Primal Wound, Nancy Newton Verrier states her naivetée when adopting her daughter. She was like most others; undermining and discounting the very child that she was promising to love and care for. She believed that her own adopted daughter would never know or be negatively impacted by being adopted. After all, what can a tiny baby know? They are too young to remember any of it. They just need love.

Admittedly, I too, even as an adoptee, thought this way. It was my perception that adoption does not have much of an impact on those adopted at infancy because, what does a baby know? Though I personally have spent a lifetime dealing with depression, fears of abandonment, relationship struggles, anger, low self-esteem, somatic complications and a myriad of other issues, I never related them back to being adopted. I just thought I was not very valuable or worthy, but didn’t see the link. I didn’t see what now seems so obvious.

As a result of my research, I, among other scholars in this relatively new field of attention to the psychological and physiological impact of adoption, will argue that the relinquishment or separation of child from her birth mother is a traumatic event that deeply impacts the adoptee, creating special needs that must be addressed throughout the adoptee’s life.

I will often use relinquishment and adoption in somewhat synonymous terms. Understanding the definite differences between the two, I will continue to refer to adoption as a trauma recognizing the true trauma is at the point of relinquishment. However, subsequent actions do have the potential to exacerbate that trauma experienced.

Adoption is a trauma that happens to a child. The child is torn away from her biological mother, placed in the arms of strangers and is left with questions, doubts, fears and anxiety with no way to verbalize, express, mourn or contextualize those feelings. Though the common misconception is that a child won’t remember any of it many psychologists believe, with evidence to support, that children remember their birth and the following events, including relinquishment and adoption, up to the age of three.

At this age the only tools a child has to deal with this trauma is through crying or reaction to physical touch and anger. These tools can manifest in overt expression or a marked lack of expression. A baby may cry in response or rarely cry and be perceived as a good and peaceful baby, when in reality she is hurting. She may respond by recoiling from human touch or may become too attached to the sensation and have difficulty learning boundaries. A child may express her anger through yelling, kicking, screaming, crying or withholding emotional expression.

Every adopted child, allow me to reiterate, every adopted child falls into one of two categories. She either acts out and is difficult or is quiet, adaptable and compliant. Of course the degree to which each adoptee acts out or becomes compliant is individual.

Some who act out will go to the extreme of running away from home, threatening their adoptive parents, rebel academically and even attempt suicide. A 2001 study shows that of teens in grades 7 through 12, 7.6% of adopted teens had attempted suicide compared with 3% among their non-adopted peers. The compliant child may become a model citizen in school as well at home or she may just kind of fade into the background, trying not to be noticed or cause trouble. Either way they are both reactions to the trauma of being adopted.

The child who acts out, is, in essence, attempting to initiate some form of rejection from parents, teachers, peers and others in order to prove that she is unlovable or she finds herself rejecting these same people prior to being rejected by them. This type of child is obviously troubled and it is easy to identify as needing help. However, parents and therapists often try to counsel the child into acting more appropriately, instilling tough love or even unknowingly furthering the child’s abandonment issues by sending them to boarding school, camp or other such institutions. Rarely do adoptive parents and counselors see this behavior as a reaction to her adoption trauma. They are never truly treating the source of the wound.

For the compliant child the situation can actually be much more devastating. As a compliant child who is either not causing problems or actually well engaged and visibly successful, she is not seen as having any problems at all. Parents see this child as well adjusted to life, including being adopted, and with no outwardly troubling signs of concern, this child is often overlooked and not given any form of counseling or assistance in dealing with life or emotional wounds. It is difficult for anyone to see that the child who is often referred to as, “mature for her age” or “pleasant and articulate,” is actually in equal distress to the child who is acting out. Both are hurting, both are devastated by the trauma of relinquishment and both have no way to articulate, understand, contextualize or grieve the loss they have endured.

These two behavior types present themselves at various ages, though adolescence is the most common time for them to reach their strongest levels. Additionally, some may actually experience both behavior types, switching from one to the other depending on their environment or transition back and forth throughout maturity. Also noteworthy is that no matter the age of adoption, infant through teen, all adoptees essentially suffer from the same issues.

Relinquishment in the adoption process is a traumatic experience to a child. I am working with the definition of trauma as defined by the 2000 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders where a person experienced an event that threatened their physical well being and that person responded to that event with fear, helplessness or horror. It is important to recognize that in adoption the birth family and the adoptive family are allowed to choose, however to the child adoption is something that happened to them. When I shared with my adoptive mother that I was studying adoption and its related impact, along with her warmth, support and encouragement came the words I knew she thought, but never thought I would hear. She said, “What does a baby know?”

She had spent some time talking about my adoption and sharing a little bit of added information I don’t recall previously knowing. After being relinquished I lived in a foster home with an elderly couple for two weeks prior to my being placed. I had yet another piece of the puzzle and another incident of attempted attachment and abandonment in my life. She went on to say how she didn’t think a baby would know any better and that all I needed was a loving home. “What does a baby know?”

This line of thinking was not her fault; it was the prevalent school of thought regarding adoption and was widely professed by the “experts” of the time.

In speaking with friends and acquaintances alike about my studies I find I am often challenged in the legitimacy of my work. I share my findings regarding the two behavioral patterns and am met with the challenge that, “every kid goes through that.” I am met with resistance from people who claim that I am finding an excuse to be a victim and dismiss ownership of my behaviors. Explaining about the bonding of mother and child on a cellular level and the evidence of an infant recognizing its own mother at birth, I am challenged with skepticism and, as if we have all learned the same response, “What does a baby know?”

Research shows that, at birth, a baby is able to recognize her mother’s voice. Within a few days of birth she will recognize familiar faces, voices and smells and be drawn to them. With research showing that babies do have a memory, in contradiction to long held beliefs, it becomes unreasonable to assume that a baby would not remember or recognize (at a visceral and thus almost imprinting level) the loss of her mother upon separation.

I have not undertaken an exhaustive study in the area of what newborn babies are aware of immediately following and the days after birth. Therefore, I will not try to answer, “What does a baby know?” However I will answer, “What does an adopted baby know?” She knows her mother, she knows her loss, sadness and hurt, she knows that those who hold her today may be gone tomorrow and that she will be the only one left to pick up the pieces that no one seems to think are broken.