Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The nature and quality of love in adoptive families

I’ve been brooding for a couple of week about a conversation I had with another adoptive mom. She had two hard questions for me.

1) “Do you think an adopted child can love the adoptive mom like a biological child can?”

2) “If you had known then what you know now about pain, loss, primal wound, ‘angry’ adoptees, yearning for birth parents, etc., would you have adopted?”

I’ll address the first question now, and blog about the second one later. These are tough questions, and I guess I’m still brooding because I don’t think I did a very good job of answering them in talking to my friend. I’d really appreciate comments, since she reads the blog, and y’all are bound to do a better job than I did!

That first question is a real turn-around of the question I’m more accustomed to hear people ask -- whether PARENTS can love an adopted child as much as/the same way as a biological child. But can an adopted child feel the same love for the mother as a biological child can? Ah, those metaphysical questions about the nature and quality of love!

First of all, I want to clarify the question my friend asked. She was NOT asking whether an adopted child can love the adoptive parents like she loves her biological parents. That’s not the comparison she was seeking to explore, because while a child might love birth parents she doesn’t know, hasn’t met, hasn’t lived with, doesn’t have a history with, that’s very different from the relationship of biological children who live for a lifetime with biological parents. She was making another comparison – let’s suppose a 5-year-old who has lived for the past 5 years with the mother who gave her birth, and another 5-year-old who has lived for the past 5 years with an adoptive mom who did not give birth to her. Is the love the same?

My friend has been reading Nancy Verrier’s Primal Wound, a notoriously difficult read for adoptive parents. Verrier talks about the bond between mother and child, built in the womb, as “primal, mystical, mysterious, and everlasting.” And she argues that breaking this bond is the source of the primal wound. From this she argues that the adoptive mom and adoptive child can never have this magical, mystical bond (of course not, as a definitional matter, if you define the bond as something that starts in utero!).

Verrier writes: “I don’t believe it is possible to sever the tie with the biological mother and replace her with another primary caregiver, no matter how warm, caring, and motivated she may be, without psychological consequences for the child (and the mother). An infant or child can certainly attach to another caregiver, but the quality of that attachment may be different from that with the first mother, and bonding may be difficult or, as many adoptees have told me, impossible.” She goes on to say, “I believe it would be safe to say that most adopted children form attachments to their adoptive mothers. . . . Bonding, on the other hand, may not be so easily achieved. It implies a profound connection, which is experienced at all levels of human awareness.” At a later point, in summarizing her conclusions, Verrier warns, “We know that love is good for children, but in the case of adopted children, parents need to be realistic in their expectations of the adoptee’s ability to accept love freely or to return it.”

Is it any wonder that my friend asked whether there can be the same love between adoptive parents and the child they raise as there is between biological parents and the child they raise?

I think there’s a lot of value in Verrier’s book. But I think she isn’t terribly nuanced. She advances her premise as if it affects ALL adoptees in the same way and to the most EXTREME degree possible. I don’t think I’m in adoptive-parent-denial to say that different adoptees feel the loss of their birth parents in different ways! And while there might well be a “primal wound,” not all wounds are mortal as she might be read to suggest.

I know that the pain and loss and yearning exist and are real – I’ve seen Zoe experiencing it. I don’t know if it’s a “memory” of her abandonment at one day old, or a growing realization of her abandonment as she understands that she had to lose her first family to gain her current family. I’m also not sure whether it matters, so long as I acknowledge the loss as she experiences it.

And I believe that my kids love me, just like I love them. I don’t know if it’s the same or different from the love that starts with a biological link, but I know it is love and it’s enough. I think love is not a biological imperative, but a mutual, reciprocal process of giving and receiving care. Maybe the analogy is to an arranged marriage – you grow into love rather than fall into love?

Even Verrier isn’t quite as hopeless as it might first seem. In the preface, she talks about her adopted daughter and their relationship. She concludes, “Are we bonded? I don’t think that I would be able to write this work if we were not.” So she acknowledges the existence of that primal, mystical, mysterious, and everlasting bond between mother and child in her relationship, while also acknowledging that she can never take the place of her daughter’s birth mother.

I’ve never wanted to “take the place of” my children’s birth mothers. We each have a place in their lives, and those places needn’t be the same. I wouldn’t want to erase the bond they have with their birth mothers – why would I? I have the better part of the deal, since I get to see them every day, watch them grow and develop, enjoy their hugs and kisses, and listen to their “I love you’s.”

So how do you answer the the question? Can an adopted child love the adoptive mom like a biological child can?


Wendy said...

I don't think the love is the same, not to say that it is not as strong. It is different. I like the analogy of the arranged marriage on one level--you do grow to love one another; I don't buy the instantaneous love fest that so many proclaim (maybe with an infant, but not a child with a formed personality). You must get to know one another and form the trust needed to move to deep love--not to say that we don't love and want the best for our children when we see their face, but I am talking the deep love of parent/child).

I agree, I never wanted to replace my daughter's biological mother or her foster mother, they will always be a part of who she is. If the primal wound is real (I loved the book btw), then it would be impossible to do anyway. I don't really understand those who would want too--even if the bio family was not ideal or even healthy. You cannot take away the feeling of loss and love that your child will always hold within for their birthfamily. You can help them learn to live with the reality they face, try to find the answers they seek, and acknowledge the pain/loss they have endured and will always feel inside (no matter how much information is found, there will be loss).

Do I know my daughter loves me, yes. Do I love her more than life, yes. Do I know she loves her foster family, yes. Do I know she holds a place for her birth family that I can never (and should never) tread, yes. I feel she should be allowed that love out in the open, not hidden in her heart. She should never have to protect me from feeling bad or not loved enough.

I don't know if I answered the question, but I do believe the love can be as strong, as deep, and fulfilling; however, it is different and should not be a replacement of birth parent love. It is just another love. There is enough love to go around, no one relationship requires it all.

Anonymous said...

In a sense, I think the questions focus on the wrong issue. To me, the important questions are, "Are my kids better off with me than they would have been in the orphanage?" and also "Can I love and provide for them in the way that is best for them?" I know we all want our love reciprocated by our kids, but adoption isn't all about "me." Adoption should not be about creating a fulfilling life for ourselves. If that happens, it is wonderful, but to go into it for that reason puts unrealistic expectations and pressures on our children. When unrealistic expectations don't materialize, that's when we start seeing adoption disruptions or bitter parents who vow they would never do it again. I don't say this flippantly - it is very difficult to become a parent without some unrealistic images in our minds of how it will be.

I know many people are uneasy when an adoptive parent cites altruistic motives, and we always deny that we "saved" our kids from anything, but if we don't believe we can give them a better life, then why are we doing it? Is just the desire to be a parent going to be enough when times get tough and our kids our dealing with the pain of adoption? By the way, I believe many birth parents go into it with unrealistic expectations that can create pain and bitterness. This experience is not unique to adoption. I have talked to birth parents who say if they had known how it would turn out, they never would have had kids.

Just my two cents...


Anonymous said...

regarding your analogy to arranged marriage, I would also say that every happily married couple I know has told me that you have to work at staying in love. The initial infatuation which generally leads to the marriage in the first place, in a marriage that takes place "because we're in love", disappears. If you work on it, that infatuation is replaced by a type of love that grows based on living and working together. Which is pretty much the same thing that you have with adoption. Successful marriage works on the same terms as successful adoption?

Mei-Ling said...

"I know many people are uneasy when an adoptive parent cites altruistic motives, and we always deny that we "saved" our kids from anything, but if we don't believe we can give them a better life, then why are we doing it?"

You do it because you want to love a child - NOT because you want to be known as a "saviour."

No adopted child should have to feel like they must perform "better" than any other non-adopted child just because they were adopted.

ANY child deserves food, drink and shelter. ANY child deserves a family. That is the basic human need and to place it on a pedestal simply because they were in an orphanage is implying that a child's wants - due to the "saviour mentality" are now actually a privilege because it's no longer being seen as the basic right that THEY deserved as a CHILD.

Any child has the right to a loving family, a caring home, food, drink, shelter. To say that they were "saved" from something that should have been their basic right to begin with is acting like they should be grateful and put on a pedestal that the basic things for necessary survival are, in actuality, a privilege *rather* than a right.

Anonymous said...

Mei-Ling, thank you for your comments but I think you are misinterpreting what I'm saying. I don't think many adoptive parents believe their children should be grateful just because they were adopted. That is more a societal expectation placed on adoptive families from the outside, and most adoptive parents I know work to change that attitude. I am thrilled to have my children and feel like the luckiest person in the world to have been able to adopt. My point is, if we don't feel like we can offer our children a better life than they would receive in the orphanage, we're doing it for selfish motives and not for the good of our children. The welfare of each child should be paramount, and no one should be adopting just because they "want" a child. I think it is this selfish attitude that is more likely to lead to abuses of the system - where someone will try for a child by any means (legal or illegal, ethical or unethical).

I believe altruistic motives for adopting a child do not lead to parents thinking that their child should be "grateful" for what is his or hers by birthright, or that they should somehow perform "better." I'm not sure where this misconception started. I don't understand why people become suspicious if someone adopts because they think it is good for every child to have a family. How is that less worthy than adopting just because you "want" a child? Every child is precious and deserves a loving family, and if the birth family cannot provide it, then someone needs to step in to fill that role - because it is every child's birthright. I adopt because there are children who need families and I have the love and resources to provide that. I never expect to be placed on a pedestal for it. I adore my children - would give my life for each one. If there were no more children in orphanages or foster care, I would not seek to adopt, because that would mean all children were already in loving families. Just because I might "want a child to love" would not be reason enough to remove them from their birth family.


Mei-Ling said...

[I don't think many adoptive parents believe their children should be grateful just because they were adopted. That is more a societal expectation placed on adoptive families from the outside, and most adoptive parents I know work to change that attitude.]

I agree. It's like an unspoken expectation that anything in the adoptive family/environment is better than "any" and "all" possibilities that could have occured in the birthfamily - IF the circumstances that led to the adoption could have been altered or "fixed" somehow. (Yeah, I know that doesn't really narrow it down!)

[My point is, if we don't feel like we can offer our children a better life than they would receive in the orphanage, we're doing it for selfish motives and not for the good of our children.]

That's what some other Korean adoptees would say. It's not the "better" aspect itself I was trying to point out - it was simply that the American standard of what is "better" should not be compared to the Chinese standard of what is "better." Because they're completely different things based on completely different factors.

I mean, better than what? Better than a One-Child Policy that causes infanticide? Better than a Chinese mother in Hunan or Huangzhou who has to relinquish otherwise her home will be taken away because she didn't give birth to a boy? Better than a cultural decades-old preference?

You know how you can turn on the Chinese channel and see local cities, FEMALE women shopping everything, laughing, eating, having a good time? Well, why didn't they end up in the orphanages? What is the "better than" aspect here compared to their daily lives?

Beverly said...

I think the book uses the words bond and attachment wrongly. Two people can bond over a beer, you need one instance and a commonality to bond. They are not attached though from one experience. Attachment forms from many bonding experiences. Call it semantics but I don't think you can judge the quality of one child's love of one mother over another based on 9 months of being in the womb.

Of course I can't stand to hear the other question about parents loving an adopted child more or less either. I mean if a mom has more than one kid she loves those children differently. If love is an act not specifically emotional then you can come to love that which you care for as in take care of, pray for, protect, and see at the most vulnerable time. And in the act of being cared for and loved first the child returns that love.

Maybe the child's love is different, though I don't think mystical at all. Maybe the love for the adoptive mom is more guarded too since the first mom abandoned them when they loved, maybe the a-mom will too. And all that could be totally unconcious(sp?) to the child.

Truly how can you love that which you don't really know. You can be in love with an idea or a picture but is that a susutaining love to bring you through the hurdles of sick nights and disobedience and tantrums? Probably not, you know? I am not discounting the primal wound because who really truly understands how the memories work and re-surface, even in the womb.

I don't have an answer just thoughts but I think G loves me and that love right now is the only love she knows or has because the concept of the birth mom isn't there yet. Will that change? Maybe maybe not. I think if it does it may even be in love with an idea or ideal mom that she truly never knew or will know.

Def an interesting question.

I think humans have a capacity to love and love greatly. That love of two mother's wouldn't be different in one being less equal but totally equal just different.

Beverly said...

Oh and one more thing, G always loves her grammie and grandad better than me when she is in trouble or doesn't get her way, heh.

akindofmagick said...

Two interesting articles today here:




malinda said...

Great discussion, everyone! More, more!

One further point I wanted to make, that I didn't think of until later (story of my life!), is kind of on the "why does it matter?" question -- why might it matter to adoptive parents (and maybe to others) whether the love is the same or different?

I think there's been a real push in parts of the adoption community (a-parents, social workers, etc.) to want to see adoption as "the same as." In the early days, the "same as" idea required not just racial matching but matching by religion (something so many newborns have!) eye color, hair TEXTURE even!

So we hear "it's just another way to build a family" and "I just wanted a child to love." I'm not necessarily saying that's wrong, as long as you can acknowlege the differences in adoption, too.

But I think that "same as" idea is in part based on fear, fear that if we acknowledge difference, there'll immediately be an attempt to RANK the differences. In almost every other endeavor where we recognize difference, there seems to be a human tendency to decide what's better and worse to build heirarchies. We do it with race, gender, ethnicity, etc. That's why so many civil rights movements focus on SAMENESS. That's the whole basis of legal equality doctrine -- blacks and whites, men and women, gay and straight, etc., are the SAME with regard to a particular right (voting, being hired, getting into college, getting married, etc.) so they must be treated the same.

So the fear is that if adoption is recognized as "different from" rather than "the same as" other ways to create a family, adoption will be relegated to second best. And that can't be good for adopted kids or for adoptive parents.

But, of course, adoption IS "second best" for kids, isn't it? First best is to stay with birth parents who are able to care for you and want to do so. Still, no one wants to see the love in adoptive families as second best. . . .

malinda said...

I agree, we meed to be careful when we talk about "giving a better life" to avoid Western-centered assumptions about what a better life is. But I don't hear (many!) adoptive parents saying that.

Oh, yes, that attitude exists -- the "we need to adopt from China to save children from Communism, Godlessness, poverty, etc." crowd IS out there!

But I haven't read ANY commenters here to make that argument. And when the "better life" argument is about lifetime institutional care or lifetime family care, the "better life" isn't really based on false cultural assumptions, it seems.

We can argue about whether those are the only two choices in any given situation, whether the possibility of adoption and the money it brings artificially "orphanizes" children into institutions so that they can be adopted by Westerners, etc., but if we're talking institution vs. family, most societies would agree on what is a better life.

There are really two powerful ideas in adoption that sometimes seem very contradictory. First, we are told that we should not be adopting to "save a child," so altruistic, selfless, charitable motives need not apply! Then second, we're told that the purpose of adoption is NOT to find children for parents who want them, but to find parents for children who need them.

How do we reconcile those two ideas? I think LAH makes a forceful argument reconciling the two. Anyone else want to take a stab at it?

Mei-Ling said...

*wearily raises her hand*

You know what, Malinda?

Sometimes all this debating just makes me want to put my head down and wish that adoption didn't have to occur.

It's too much sometimes. We could debate forever and not come up with an answer that everyone agrees on. It's too much of a grey issue.

Anonymous said...

There are 40.000 international adoptions each year, and thirty million orphans world-wide! I can't help thinking that orphanages need the money that goes on inter-country adoption.

In the instance of AIDS children, there is a charity funded by the international football association, FIFA I think the are called. These orphanages made from light sandstone brick - have house mothers, nad sre very happy places. The administration is carried out by an organisation called SOS children

Anyway, while we may be preaching to the converted here, but please see the link, which has quotes of Nancy Verrier' new book, Coming Home To Self >



Beverly said...

I am beginning to think that only countries of wealth have the "right" if you wanna call it that to gripe about whether adoptees are different or should be treated different or same or or whose culture is best or worse. I think in cases where children are just trying to survive maybe being adopted by family members (grands or aunts/uncles) who are also just trying to survive I think these areguments we make fall flat. And in some poorer countries there are familial adoptions attempted. In brazil before the world games (soccer) the police went out and shot the street children because the government didn't want them interfering with the visitors who were coming. Anyone of those children would have loved a permanent family even out of the country than to be killed in the streets like a dog, not even considered as human.

A child deserves a family and if not the first family(for whatever reason) then whose? If not my family then why not? If the government of a country makes it difficult to adopt within the country or keeps foster families from being permanent then the difficulty arises that permanence is at risk.

Also if only 40,000 orphans are adopted internationally and there are over 3 million orphans, some one some where is not doing a good job taking care of them (not blaming). That is too many children left to state/country insitutions, broken foster care systems, and the street(possibly). I would bet a few of the 3 million would give anything for a permanent family over self care. Just a thought.

But no child should be made to feel grateful for being adopted just as bio children shouldn't be made to feel grateful for being born. We all should be grateful to be alive and in a family but not due to circumstances beyond our control. I think we should focus on the different type of love rather than the try to be the same as type. But then the old "equal but speparate" springs to mind and is difficult to reconcile.

Of course I also think we should give the orphan children a permanent home to grow into a well adjusted (as much as any of us truly are) adult who can complain about losing everything-culture first family and what not.

Trust me I am not discounting what adult adoptees have said or ever written because I watch closely to make sure I can do all for G so that she too can understand how complicated and messy this adoption can be or she can appreciate it for what it is a way to form a permanent family for a child who through no fault of his or his 1st parents (possibly) own wasn't able to stay with them. Oh and neither is either good or bad and I use the term messy in the most loving way. All a POV.

Right now just due to age, we (G & I) don't emphasize the loss part yet though it does come up at times. I want as many positive memories possible so that when the waves of grief come she will have an arsenol of good memories to cope and work through.

I don't feel that adult adoptees should ever feel they should have to defend their feelings of loss or what not but I also don't feel that a-parents should have to defend adoption as a positive experience as much as we can. Of course I also don't think first families should have to defend their grief at loss or reasons behind it.

This comment seems to be rambling but really it is just pouring from the heart. I want to channel Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?" Just kidding sort of.

I just can't help to grieve for the children who will never have a permanent family left to raise themselves in orphanages or streets due to governments limiting adoptions because of saving face or whatever. Of course I am more selfishly greiving over not being allowed to bring G's babysister home from China. She talks about baby sister as if she were real and on her way home.

Anyhoo, Malinda, you can delete if you think this is too wordy or rambling or whatever but it is my heart.

malinda said...

Hang in there, chickadees! I think we're having a really great, productive discussion. All viewpoints are welcome, and I'm learning a lot from hearing lots of different perspectives.

I'm also impressed with the civility of the discussion, and with the fact that everyone is assuming that everyone else is commenting in good faith with the same end in mind -- what's best for kids.

So let's not go off the rails just because we don't always agree with each other! I think the PROCESS of discussing these difficult, murky, complex, potentially divisiveis issues is extremely important, even if we never reach consensus.

I don't even desire consensus -- I just want people to THINK! It drives my students crazy when I say that, but I really do mean it -- I really don't care what conclusion you reach, so long as you reach it thoughtfully!

Mei-Ling said...

Beverly: The first thing I'd like to say - based on my own personal experience - is that I wish adoption didn't have to exist. Even before the adoption happens. Even before the babies are abandoned. Even before all of that. I wish those families did not need to separated. I wish China did not need to have a One-Child Policy.

But realistically I know that will never happen. Kids will always need homes. Having your basic needs met will always supercede any "loss" of language/culture left behind. Being with a family is better than an orphanage - but I still wish that these kids didn't NEED to be in orphanages in the first place.

[But no child should be made to feel grateful for being adopted just as bio children shouldn't be made to feel grateful for being born.]


So I agree with you to an extent even though I recognize that my wish will never come true. At least not within the next few thousand years.

Anonymous said...


I think your final point is something most of us can agree on! Thanks for your patience with all of us confused adoptive parents trying to muddle through the issues.


Louanne said...

The original question makes me think of the news story from last year from Denmark or Holland or somewhere. 2 babies born in the same hospital, same day, taken from mom's right after birth and the tags get switched. The next day the babies go home with their non-birth parents.

Life goes on, moms breast feed, la dee dah. No one knows anything is amiss. Then a year later in some sort of audit it comes out that the babies were switched.

Lawsuits ensue and the parents agree to switch the babies back so they can have their "real" children. WHAT THE HECK??? You didn't know the difference and you have loved and fed and clothed that child for a year. That child has loved you and so on.

Those people didn't magically "know" that the baby wasn't the one that developed in their womb. They LOVED the baby that they took home. And that child loved them.

Now obviously with out children from China you can't make this straight out claim because they don't look like us and we didn't have them from the day of the abandonment, but my point is of course a child can love them the same way.

Or to put it another way - what other love does the child adopted at 9 months know, but the love they have for their adoptive parents? They never lived with the birth parents to know if that love is different.

It's a really abstract question for sure, but you are going to love how you love and no other way.

Lisa said...

I'd like to ask what this author's credentials are other than having been an adoptive parent? I believe in the primal wound, but some of the philosophies sound a bit speculative. As Malinda AND ZOE have many times rightly pointed out, every child's response to their adoptive background is different, so how can this author generalize in such a way about "all" adoptive children's primal wound?
Let's talk attachment - a process, not an event. I do think that some parents have their own issues that can prevent good attachment. There are wonderful, research proven techniques for enhancing attachment after time lost with your child. Is there any research validity to this author's words ? Other than the same thing I have heard for years about the infants who cry a long time when removed from their birth mothers. Who says that means their attachment to their adoptive parent may not be as strong or stronger? Some birth parent can be real butts, just like adoptive parents can be, too. That is how grown children become estranged from their birth parents OR adoptive parents and never want them back. It's human nature for a normal person to gravitate toward those who treat them well, nurture them and love them most.
Don't ask me to read it before judging, and, no, my head is not in the sand.

Lisa said...

OK, I did get some info on her. I read a bit. I still think she is a bit over the top. Reminds me of that professor in California who came to the conclusion on his own that there should be no vaccines given to any children. And he teaches medical students.... scary.

Lisa said...