Every adoption is simultaneously a triumph or a tragedy for most or even all of the particpnats. The New York Times op-ed by Elizabeth Spiers demonstrates this fact (“I was adopted. I know the trauma it can inflict.” E. Spiers, Dec. 6, 2021, p. A23). Whether there would have been greater tragedy without the adoption of a child is something we can only guess at, and out guesses are different for different individual cases.
Spiers tells her story and describes her own emotions about her childhood and her adult meeting with her biological mother. No one else can possibly know her experiences and her emotional reactions, and I would not dream of arguing about what she feels. (What would be the point of doing that, anyway? I only bring it up because there will be some people out there who castigate me for what they see as denying lived experience.)
However, there is one part of Spiers’ narrative that is not a description of her experiences and feelings, but a speculation on why she feels as she does. I had hoped that this particular speculation had fallen under its own weight when deployed in the past, and I am shocked to see it printed in the New York Times.
The speculation I refer to is the idea that babies “bond” to their biological mothers during gestation, and as a result they later suffer from “relinquishment trauma” if adopted or fostered. This idea was put forward in the 1990s, not by “researchers” as Spiers suggests, but by authors like Nancy Verrier, whose book “The Primal Wound” has served to distress many adopted individuals and adoptive families. Verrier, and her colleagues at the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH) have held that separation of a child from its biological mother, even on the day of birth, causes an intense and lingering sense of loss and difficulty with social relationships.
This speculation, repeated by Spiers in her NYT piece, contradicts much that is known about emotional development. It also fails to consider alternative explanations for cases where adopted individuals do suffer from a sense of loss, loneliness, and difficulties with relationships. These facts and the existence of alternative explanations need to be considered before anyone accepts the idea of a “relinquishment trauma” affecting adopted individuals.
Here are some specific points that contradict Spiers’ claims about “relinquishment trauma”, a factor which, if operative, would presumably affect all adopted children:
I. The great majority of adopted children do very well.
II. When there are problems that can reasonably be associated with adoption these are usually seen in late-adopted children. Much research on this point was done after the closing of the notoriously dreadful Romanian orphanages in the 1990s.
III. Attachment behaviors, in which infants and toddlers show their preference for familiar people and seek them when distressed or frightened, are not apparent until at least six months after birth. Newborn babies have been shown to recognize the smell of their mothers’ milk, but they do not show fear and distress when cared for by other people, as they will do in later months.
IV. Feelings of loss and distress in adopted individuals can be explained without appealing to “relinquishment trauma”. Most adopted people will learn at some time that they are adopted and will either learn or imagine the circumstances of the adoption. Those circumstances are never pleasant and may range from the deaths of one or both biological parents to extreme youth or poor health or drug involvement of the biological mother to abandonment of the mother by the father and her own parents. It is possible, though less likely, that the biological mother simply did not want any children or had reason to reject this one as a child conceived through rape or incest.
Learning (or imagining) and processing any of these possibilities can place a serious psychological burden on adopted individuals. Feelings of loss and the need for comfort are likely to follow—especially if adoptees are told that they must be affected by “primal wounds” or “traumas” that are offered as explanations for feelings that have much more evident causes. Mental health professionals who stress “relinquishment trauma” as a reason for adoptees’ psychological distress should consider iatrogenic effects they may be creating. The New York Times opinion editors might also give some thought to this problem.