By Nancy Verrier, MFT
Adoption is a difficult enough trauma for any child who is taken away from his or her first mother. That child is primed to be welcomed into the world, protected, and nurtured by this mother with whom he has been physically, emotionally, and spiritually connected for nine months. Every sensory aspect of the child expects her, knows her, wants her. Therefore, when an infant is whisked away and placed in a nursery away from mom and then placed in the arms of another woman, it is disorienting, confusing, and terrifying.
Try to picture, then, the infant who is placed in an institution such as an orphanage instead of getting the full attention of another “mother,” even the “wrong” mother. How does that infant feel? What happens when the child is deprived of the kind of nurturing that any infant needs, which is pretty constant? Then after being in this place with many other children and a lack of sensory stimulation, she is placed in the arms of another mother and whisked, not just to another town or city, but to another country where there is a different culture, different food, different smells, different sounds, and often a different language. What then?
Why do we insist on believing that babies and children are oblivious to these changes in their environment? Is it because it is easier for us if we hold on to those beliefs so that we can then ignore the signs that our children are in trouble?
Many children, who were not infants and had become familiar with their post-natal life, were sent from England to Australia and New Zealand. Although these are countries where the language is still English, the English spoken in other countries will be different to that with which the child is familiar. These things matter. Babies can hear in the womb. So in addition to the tone of the adoptive mother’s voice being different from that of the first mother, so too are the “dialect” and accent of the people who now surround the child different from those they were exposed to for a few years after birth.
Young children are exquisitely attuned to their senses. Before we begin to use intellect to discern this from that, we depended upon our senses, much like other mammals do. We know well the first five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. When these senses are familiar, we feel safe. If they are different, it sends alarms throughout our bodies. Besides these senses, however, there are two other senses which may be affected by being in orphanages or by having some kind of disorienting event happen. These are the proprioceptive sense and the vestibular sense. As a child, did you feel the need to go round and round in circles, run back and forth back and forth through the house, beat your head on the side of the bed or other behaviors which may have alarmed your mother? If so, perhaps you were having trouble with these last two senses.
Here are the short versions of their definitions: Proprioceptive sense is the sensory information we receive from our muscles, joints, and body parts. Close your eyes and raise your hand. Do you know without looking where your hand is? A child with deficits in his proprioceptive sense may not know. Vestibular sense is the sensory information we receive from our middle ear related to movement, balance, and our change in head position. Are we sitting, standing, kneeling, jumping, running, etc.? Depending upon certain changes in environment or other disruptions in a baby’s or child’s life, these senses may be disturbed. Most people have no idea that they even exist, let alone how to deal with them. Some schools in American are just beginning to address sensory perception issues in the classroom. Many schools are not, just as they didn’t address dyslexia for many years.
Some adoptive parents who take their child from one cultural environment into another are sensitive to the issues which may be present for their child, but many others are not. As they step onto the plane to take their child to another country and culture full of different sounds, sights, tastes, and so forth, they have no idea that their child is going to be vastly affected by these changes. Yes, children are resilient, but they are also sensitive to change.
One of the most difficult environmental changes is living with a non-biological family, where there are no genetic cues to communication. Adoptees call this “genetic confusion.” In addition to sensory deficits, there are genetic deficits. The child doesn’t see himself reflected anywhere in the family. This isn’t just about physical features. It is also about stance, gait, tone-of-voice, mannerisms, gestures, talents, interests, and communication styles. Often a child can be looking at his mother but not have the faintest idea what she is saying. The more he gets berated for this, the more difficult it becomes as the child gets more and more frustrated and afraid. Finally, he just tries not to be around her. This culminates in adolescence when the child can’t identify with the same-gender parent and gets frustrated and angry. She doesn’t know why she is feeling so unhappy and simply blames her parents for her discomfort. This causes a great deal of turmoil in adoptive homes during this time of life. Because it is often when the child is about ready to “leave the nest,” sometimes these wounds are never healed. Neither parents nor children understand what has happened or why. Or that it is nobody’s fault! They are just different from one another.
One of the issues I hear from transracial, transnational adoptees is their parents’ refusal to understand that ignoring their ethnicity and saying things like , “You are my child and I just love you. I don’t notice that you are (Korean, Black, Latino, etc).” Because….other people do and the adoptee has to deal with this in school and other aspects of society. Having parents make statements like this leaves the child feeling as if he/she can’t bring up the subject and get support from the parents. It doesn’t help to hear the parents disparage others by saying things like, “Well, those people are just idiots,” or “don’t pay any attention to those people,” because the adoptee has to pay attention and needs to find ways to deal with this issue. Parents can be supportive by empathizing with their child’s feelings about it and helping them find methods of dealing with it in ways that help, rather than ignoring the issue. These are some of the issues that come up in families with transnational adoptions which usually don’t occur in domestic, same-race adoptions. However, many of the issues that these adoptees deal with can be found in all adoptions, including the problem with identity.
What can be done about these fractures in the family and in the adoptee? It often takes the separation from the parents for the adoptee to finally become more authentic, instead of trying to adapt to a family where he may have very little in common. He can then begin to explore his more authentic self. What style of furniture does she really like? For whom does she really want to vote? How does he feel about his religious or spiritual life? How much does he/she want to know about his or her original culture? Because he has been adapting for so many years in order to survive, the problem is that it is very difficult to know the answers to those questions. He is used to surveying the environment for answers, rather than looking within. He calls himself a chameleon! Blending in (but not really fitting in) is his specialty. However, that isn’t going to work if one wants to have genuine relationships with other adults. Becoming aware, authentic, and accountable are the keys to genuine connections with other people and with oneself. Whether one wants to live in his country of origin or his adopted country, finding the true self is necessary to a full and happy life. I have some suggestions for facilitating this process in my second book Coming Home to Self. The main thing is to become exquisitely aware of what is going on within you.
Some adoptees are worried about how their adoptive families are going to deal with the more authentic self after having become used to the adaptive self. If the parents are set on having their adopted child be “more like the rest of the family,” then they may be disappointed. If they are ready to embrace a more authentic person in the family, they will be fine with it and enjoy the more real person. Whatever the case, it is the responsibility of everyone to become as authentic as they can be. This is the only way to “feel comfortable in their own skin” and able to be with anyone anywhere and be content and peaceful.
~Nancy Verrier, MFT~
Author of The Primal Wound
and Coming Home to Self