Adoption, like politics, has often been viewed through polarized lenses that generate passionate emotions and fiercely held beliefs that may or may not be helpful and healthy.
The first view, usually espoused by adoption agencies and prospective parents waiting to adopt, is bathed in love and ethereal light, basking in the hope and promise of the joy of connecting an unwanted baby with a new “forever family.”
Sure, the new family is formed out of loss and often infertility, but “love is what makes a family, and love is all you need.” The hope is that nurture will trump nature, often accompanied by an expectation that any adoptee’s primary emotional state should be one of perpetual gratitude.
The second view, held mostly by awakening adult adoptees and birth/first parents who willingly or unwillingly surrendered their child for adoption, experience relinquishment and adoption as a lifetime of adaptation, grief and lament over irretrievable loss and trauma.
Sure, adoption usually provides children with a stable, loving home, but that does not always fill the void of loss in human hearts or the longing for genetic connections. According to a Minnesota study, the lament leads adopted adolescents to attempt suicide at four times the rate of non-adopted peers. An adopted adult friend of mine took his life this past spring.
In his book “Journey Through Grief,” Kenneth Haugk creates what he calls the hope-lament quadrant, labeled with combinations of low to high hope and lament on the horizontal and vertical axes: No hope and no lament results in detached stoicism. I see this particularly in male adoptees who live busy, distracted, sometimes addictive lives in order to avoid confronting deep and uncomfortable truths and feelings – but women are not immune.
Hope with no lament produces naïve optimism. This mindset is often found in adoptive parents of infants and younger children, who have not yet developed the capacity to grieve the deep loss of their mother, nor the abstract reasoning skills to attempt to process mind-blowing messages like, “She loved you so much, she gave you to us so that you could have a better life.”
It also shows up in adult adoptees who train themselves to subvert their sense of loss and stick religiously to the “I’ve had a good life and it would be disloyal to say anything else” script.
Lament with no hope brings unrelenting despair. This is where many mothers who were coerced or otherwise traumatized by relinquishment of their child dwell.
Adoptees who through reading and therapy connect with deep loss, or experienced subsequent abuse, divorce or other trauma in their adoptive family can also become stuck here, sometimes with dire consequences.
Hope and lament together create a state of faithful suffering. Really? Is this the best, healthiest option? A therapist I know says, “The healthiest adoptees and parents by birth and adoption never completely ‘get over it.’”
This is because they stay engaged with their emotions and aware of the impact of early, even preverbal trauma. A greater understanding of trauma’s effects on the human brain, along with therapeutic options like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and Brainspotting appear to be offering new hope for processing grief and loss faster than conventional talk therapy.
Perhaps adding a third axis, low to high sense of personal agency and empowerment, would enhance the quadrant to form a more complete model.
The reality is that now, during National Adoption Awareness Month 2019, most of us who have been “touched by adoption” live in a state of limbo, migrating between stoicism, hope, lament and the place of tension in which we, like the rest of humankind, struggle to learn to receive and give love in reasonably healthy relationships.
Anyone who has lived the experience will tell you that the journey involves some unique, sometimes overwhelming challenges along with hope and blessings that come with being forced by personal truth to seek and process answers to life’s most fundamental questions:
Where did I come from? Where do I belong? Why am I here? Where am I going? What is love, and am I worthy to give and receive it?
This holiday season, if you know or encounter someone who has been “touched by adoption,” encourage their hope, honor their lament, and appreciate their courageous forays into and out of limbo. It could change or save a life.
Rich Uhrlaub, M.Ed., serves as president of Adoption Search Resource Connection. He was adopted and raised in Denver by devoted parents and connected with birth family members in 1995. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.