Just as a reminder, this was written for a professional newsletter, so it has that spin. Can't wait to hear what you think!
Adoption Ghosts: A Personal and Professional View
By: Faith Eidson, LCSW, IMH-E® (III)
In infant mental health circles, we often talk about Selma Fraiberg’s concept of “ghosts in the nursery.” Each one of us carries these ghosts with us into our intense and complicated relationships with our babies. I think of these ghosts as the people, experiences and relationships that affect us on many levels as we work to build the strongest bond possible with our infants. We often focus largely on ghosts from long ago, most often from childhood. In the world of adoption, however, I believe there are much more recent ghosts for adoptive parents that can be just as powerful. Like our ghosts from relationships past, our “adoption ghosts” can affect us covertly and creep into our relationships with our children without us even realizing they are there.
The Bonding Process Ghosts
Expecting a baby is such a magical time. For many adoptive parents, it comes after a long road of praying, wishing and hoping for a baby. Often following years of grief and loss, waiting for your baby this time is a big leap of faith. As adoptive moms, we don’t know when or how our babies will come to us. Depending on the type of adoption one is pursuing, one might get months, years or simply hours to prepare for the new addition. There are many fears. What if we never get a baby? What if she isn’t cute? What if I don’t love him as much as I thought I would? What if he is drug exposed? The immense number of unknowns makes expecting this baby particularly unique. I had all of these fears when expecting my son. Once we were matched, meaning his birthparents had chosen us to parent him when his birthmom was 7 months pregnant, the hardest unknown of all became clear – would he be mine? My relationship with my son began in a precarious place. I desperately wanted him, but he wasn’t yet mine. I knew I needed to bond with him, but at what cost? I had already lost two babies to miscarriages. Previous loss, whether through pregnancy or other failed adoptions, is a common experience for adoptive parents. Protecting my heart had become second nature. It seemed impossible to open my heart fully to this growing miracle knowing that his parents may decide against placing him in my arms.
When my son, Jackson, was born, we received no information. In fact, ultrasounds had told us he was a girl. So, until he was 2 days old and our social worker was allowed to pick him up from the hospital, we did not even know he was a boy. We then had to wait 2 more days for the legal paperwork to be signed. Again, we desperately wanted him, but he was not yet ours. We saw pictures and we began the process of bonding. We allowed ourselves to fall in love with his beautiful brown eyes and his chubby little cheeks. I cried every night, so afraid that something would take him from me…and he wasn’t even yet mine. What normally is a time of drinking in your newborn, feeding and changing him, squeezing his cheeks and smelling his sweet smells was instead a time of incredible anxiety and fear for me. While Jackson was being loved and cared for by a foster family, I was doing the hard work of falling in love with a baby who was in somebody else’s arms.
When my son was finally placed in my arms, I loved him. I have no doubt about that, but he still did not feel like my son. The only word that can describe those first few hours with him is “surreal.” I waited so long to hold my baby, to feed him, to rock him and to kiss his sweet cheeks. I could not yet believe that he was mine. I found the quiet moments in the middle of the night with him were my free moments. These were the times I could soak him in without anyone else watching and wondering and maybe even judging. I could feel conflicted. I could allow my heart to open up to these big and indescribable feelings that he evoked in me. I could cry. But mostly I could just stare at him and fall in love with him. Finally.
I look back often on my early bonding experience with Jackson. The ghosts are still there. I still wish I hadn’t been so anxious, so fearful. I wish that I could have immediately fallen in love like I’ve heard so many other parents describe. Then, I agonize over how all of that could have affected him. Did he sense my hesitancy somehow in the beginning? Did he know I loved him so much it hurt? Did he even know I was his mom? I had so many expectations of how I would feel when my baby was placed in my arms and I didn’t meet them. Did I meet his expectations? Was I what he needed? I will probably never know the answers to those questions.
Grief and Loss Ghosts
“Adoptive parents, their child and their child’s birth parents do indeed have a shared fate. Had any of them had their first choice in life, they would not be together in the adoption triangle.”
Glazer, E.S. (1990). The Long Awaited Stork . p.115.
The term “adoption triangle” refers to the three major players in any adoption scenario – the birthparent(s), the adoptive parent(s) and the baby. In most adoptions, each person in this triangle carries a loss into his/her relationships with each other. My son’s birthmom carried Jackson lovingly in her womb for 9 months. She made sure to take care of her body and she made an adoption plan for him so that he could have a mom and a dad and a stable home. She gave birth to her precious baby boy, then spent two days with him in the hospital. She kissed his feet, memorized every inch of his face, fed him his bottles, changed his diapers and lovingly whispered in his ears. Then, on that second day, she handed him to a nurse and left the hospital without him. She said goodbye. Every time she sees him now and has to say goodbye, I see that grief take hold. Her eyes fill with tears. And my heart aches for her.
Jackson carries his own loss. He learned the rhythm of his birth mom’s voice, the movement of her body, and, after he was born, the smell of her skin. I have no doubt he found warmth and comfort as she held him close and snuggled his sweet newborn body. And then after 9 months in her womb and 2 days in her arms, she was gone. His mother left him. While she did not abandon him, I do believe his “felt experience” was one of abandonment. His first mom let him go. No matter how great his “forever” mom is, I don’t believe I will ever fully understand the power of that loss for him.
As for me, I came to this adoption with a lot of grief. I grieved my two babies lost to me before I ever had the chance to hold them in my arms. I grieved the loss of confidence in my body, confidence that it could do what I needed it to do. I think, just as heartbreaking, I was grieving my loss of control. I don’t believe that many adoptive parents start out their journey to parenthood with the hopes of adopting. Many of us begin by taking the “normal” path and trusting in some way that our family will be built that way. When we realize it won’t, we have to shift our thinking. We have to open our hearts to a new path. A “Plan B” if you will. Infertility teaches a hard lesson – we never really had any control in the first place.
I can see these ghosts weaving their way in and out of my role as Jackson’s parent. When Jackson is sad, especially if it is due to something I did, I have a gut reaction that is deep and painful. I worry that each time he is sad, his grief is getting bigger. I find myself wanting to protect him from any more pain and sadness in life. After all, hasn’t he already experienced enough? Yet, isn’t pain and sadness a normal part of development? There is much to be learned in those hard times, even for babies and their parents.
I remember when Jackson was 4 months old and this ghost showed up in a normal parenting milestone for me. It was time to move him to his crib and to start helping him learn to sleep on his own. I knew I had to let him cry for a little bit, but I agonized over this big step. He had already experienced a separation so great that I couldn’t imagine it myself. How could I ask him to separate from me? I knew I needed to try this as I had another baby on the way and needed him to be able to fall asleep on his own, but those ghosts haunted me. Many parents worry about harming their babies. I agonized about harming my baby more, and so it has gone with many decisions I have made in parenting Jackson. I find myself facing these ghosts frequently. I’d like to think that being an Infant Mental Health Specialist has allowed me to notice these ghosts so they do not guide my every move, but I wonder about the adoptive families we work with. Are they as aware of the potential harm these ghosts can cause?
I have witnessed other adoptive parents dealing with their own grief at the expense of their children. For example, keeping the adoption a secret from their children because “it may hurt them.” I often wonder where this comes from - their worry that their child will be sad or their worry that if the subject of adoption is open will their own grief be exposed, too? I also wonder if this is the way that they try to take back some control and, if so, what will the cost be to their child? I have watched parents have a difficult time setting boundaries with their children because they never want their children to be sad again. I don’t know that they always realize this is their reasoning. Consequently, these children lose their footing. Without boundaries, how do they know how to stay safe? Ghosts can be sneaky and quiet, gently weaving their way into our relationships with our children.
The Urge to Be Perfect…in Their Eyes
My son did not come to me by chance, as it feels like my daughter (who was born to me) did. Two people who loved him more than life itself sat down, looked at our pictures and the letter we wrote and then decided to give us the biggest gift one can imagine – their son. They basically said to us, “You are perfect for our baby. Please take care of him.” The job is so big, the responsibility so powerful, it’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it. I do truly believe that all moms want to be the best moms they can be. However, not all moms feel like they have another mom to answer to. When I make decisions or when I have rough moments with my son, I think to myself, “What would T (his birthmom) think?” In my darkest moments, I wonder if she would still want me to be his mom if she knew how angry I had gotten or how overwhelmed I was. Maybe she would not think I was the best mom for my beautiful son. The thought is almost too scary for me to even entertain. It isn’t just Jackson’s birthmom that I consider. I think about his birthfather and his birthfather’s parents. They are also involved in Jackson’s life. They say things to us all the time about how wonderful we are. In fact, a recent note from Jackson’s birth-grandparents suggested we were a “perfect family.” That is a hard description to live up to! I almost feel accountable to all of them. All moms have moments they are not proud of. As an adoptive mom, I have the added layer of feeling like they wouldn’t be proud of me, either, and that hurts. After all, if not for those people, Jackson would not be my son. So I want desperately to be good enough for them. I always want them to have peace in their decision to place Jackson in my arms. If I think I am not good enough in a particular moment, the guilt becomes a large part of my emotional experience.
The Guilty Ghosts
There are many reasons a mom feels guilt. For me, it is usually centered on not engaging in the perfect parenting I always envisioned for myself. Like many adoptive moms, I had the experience of wanting and trying for my babies for a very long time. I spent that time fantasizing about the mom I wanted to be, the mom I knew I would be. I saw other families forming so easily and taking it all for granted and I swore I would do it differently with my babies. So, when Jackson came along, and I inevitably made mistakes, I was really hard on myself. I felt like such a failure. I also felt guilty for not living up to my expectations. After all, I wanted this so desperately, and now I had my baby - why couldn’t I just be happy?
There is another powerful experience that evokes guilt in me – the grief I see in Jackson’s birthmom’s face every time she has to say goodbye to him. I see the same grief in his birth-grandmother’s face when she sees him. I watch the tears well up and I know that they are feeling grief as a result of one of the greatest joys of my life – becoming Jackson’s mom. It is a very difficult experience to know that you became a mother because another mother had to let her baby go. It is heart-wrenching. I believe it is natural for adoptive parents to feel some guilt and sadness because of this, especially if they have ongoing relationships with the birth family and have opportunities to experience their grief on a regular basis.
All of these ghosts can show up in a single, normal interaction between my now-toddler son and me. For example, one day I had to confine Jackson so I could go clean up a mess. When I came back to “rescue” him from his pen, he was so angry with me. He refused to allow me to calm him. He ran from me crying. He shot angry glares my way. He did not hesitate to show me the full force of his rage. In that moment, I remembered his whole life flashing before me. I immediately worried that he was behaving this way not because I was his mom, but because I was his adoptive mom. I began worrying that my early ambivalence lived on in our relationship. I wondered if the fact that he had experienced abandonment as an infant affected his ability to be separated from me and I felt intense guilt for not thinking of that sooner. All of the previously mentioned ghosts converged in this one interaction and overwhelmed me. I spent the entire evening worried and full of anxiety. Thankfully, with Jackson, I stayed present for him and he came around and we repaired this small snag in our relationship. However, I spent time after he went to bed going over the interaction in my mind and in my heart. I so desperately wanted to be his perfect mom, and this particular experience proved that I very much wasn’t. I took time to process this and put these emotions in their place. The next morning, the ghosts were safely tucked away and Jackson and I carried on in our usual way. I wonder if all the adoptive parents we work with as infant mental health specialists are able to do this? What a gift it would be for them to have someone sitting there during these difficult interactions, allowing them to speak about these deep and powerful fears. As we know, when the ghosts are lurking in our subconscious, we have no way to acknowledge them and their impact on our relationships with our children. Until we can acknowledge them, these ghosts can be guiding interactions with our children in ways we don’t want them to. Being present to hear a story, to listen for the ghosts, and to hold an adoptive family’s many feelings is a special skill that I believe many infant mental health specialists hold.
I could not end this piece without acknowledging the beautiful ways in which adoption has touched my life and Jackson’s life, as well. Ghosts don’t always have to be scary. There are always angels as well. Because I spent so long waiting for my cherished baby and because I see the beauty in how he was placed in my arms, I do believe our relationship is unique and special. My connection to him is intense and fierce. Jackson has so many people who love him and would protect him with their lives. We do not go one week in our home without hearing from one of those people. They are desperate to be close to us, close to him. He has brought all of us together in love. Adoption changed our lives. It showed us the rainbow at the end of the storm and it showed us what can happen when strangers come together around the love they have for one very special little baby. Yes, adoption complicates things, but when it is entered into with love, trust, openness and the best of intentions, adoption is a beautiful thing.