Ever since adoption has come out of the closet, many articles have been written and speeches given in an attempt to find a way around the pain. The advice and opinions vary: Tell your children about adoption early, don’t tell, abolish adoption in favor of guardianships, etc. Although some of these ideas may have merit, none addresses the real issue: Every child who is separated from his or her biological mother will experience abandonment and loss. The key word here is “experience,” because many people would like to believe that relinquishment and adoption are simply concepts, and that the very real pain that results can be overcome by intellectual understanding or legislative amendment.

There exists a great need for legislative action and concern for the rights of adoptees. But few dare give voice to that which they know in their hearts: that the connection between biological mother and child is primal, mystical, mysterious, and everlasting. Far more than merely biological and historical, this primal connection is also cellular, psychological, emotional, and spiritual. So deep runs the connection between a child and its mother that the severing of that bond results in a profound wound for both, a wound from which neither fully recovers. In the case of adoption, the wound cannot be avoided, but it can and must be acknowledged and understood.

A child separated from its mother at the beginning of life, when still in the primal relationship to her, experiences what I call the primal wound. This wound, occurring before the child has begun to separate his own identity from that of the mother, is experienced not only as a loss of the mother, but as a loss of the Self, that core-being of oneself which is the center of goodness and wholeness. The child may be left with a sense that part of oneself has disappeared, a feeling of incompleteness, a lack of wholeness. In addition to the genealogical sense of being cut off from one’s roots, this incompleteness is often experienced in a physical sense of bodily incompleteness, a hurt from something missing.

Any injury to the basic goodness of Self interferes with healthy, phase-adequate ego development, resulting in premature ego development and a reluctance to trust others to “be there.” Recent studies in brain development tell us that one’s environment and one’s perceptions of the environment influence the way in which the neurons of the brain connect. There will be a difference between the environment of security and safety of being with the mother with whom an infant was prenatally bonded, and the anxiety and uncertainty of being with biological strangers (who may also leave at any time). The trauma of being separated from the mother, therefore, results in patterns of behavior, emotional responses, and the sense of Self and others, which will be different from that which would have occurred had there been no trauma.

Separation trauma often manifests in one of two diametrically opposed behavioral patterns: aggressive, provocative, and anti-social; or withdrawn, acquiescent, and compliant. In both cases, the child is wounded, but each responds to the pain and anxiety in a different way. Each holds the same wish for love and acceptance, and each carries the same fears of rejection and abandonment. In neither case is the child operating from her true Self, but from a false self, which she believes helps protect her from further hurt, rejection, and disappointment. Add to that the fact that she doesn’t see herself reflected anywhere in the family, and one can begin to understand the need she has to constantly try to figure out how to be in this family.

One of the greatest hindrances to healing is denial. Yet denial prevails among professionals and even some triad members, as well as in the general population. It is difficult to face the fact that by definition every adopted child is an abandoned child, who has suffered a devastating loss. No matter that the adoptive parents call it relinquishment and the birth mother calls it surrender, the child experiences it as abandonment. Yet, because there may have always been an undercurrent of anxiety and sadness in his life, the child doesn’t realize that everyone doesn’t feel this way and that this feeling is a result of a loss he experienced before he had conscious memory.

It is important to recognize that the adoptee was present when the substitution of mothers took place. The experience was real. That he does not consciously remember the event should not detract us from this truth. It wasn’t a concept to be learned or a theory to be understood; it was a traumatizing experience about which the adoptee may have persistent and ambivalent feelings, all of which may be legitimate. He is not abnormal, sick, or crazy. His feelings are an appropriate response to the most devastating experience one could ever have: the loss of the mother.

This loss cannot be eliminated by intellectual understanding, although this is important; or by legislation, although reform is certainly needed. The adoptee’s loss must be acknowledged, validated, and worked through, so that she can gain a new attitude toward it and begin to gain a sense of Self (who she is), self-esteem (how she feels about herself), and self-worth (how she believes she is valued by others). Only when we set aside our denial … when triad members acknowledge their pain, and when clinicians recognize the differences between biological and adoptive families … can we proceed down the path to healing with understanding, insight, honesty, and courage.