Thursday, November 8, 2012

Do Mothers Think of the Children They Surrendered to Adoption?

I just found an interesting study that sought to test theories mentioned in the works of Brodzinsky (one of the most famous adoption researchers in the U.S.) and Lifton (one of the most famous adult adoptees / adoption psychologists in the U.S.) that counteracted the "Happily-Ever-After Myth," as these researchers call it.  This myth purports the assumption that closed adoption helps adoptees, original parents, and adoptive parents "move on."  It's the old adage  "out of sight, out of mind" sort of thing.  Lifton, Brodzinsky, and many others have been saying for quite some time now that secrecy and "forgetting" solves nothing--original mothers do not forget their surrendered children.  This study sought to test this empirically.

Adoption presents a phenomena known as "boundary ambiguity."  Although the researchers do not mention it explicitly in their article, "boundary ambiguity" exists quite extensively in reunions as well.  "Boundary ambiguity" refers to the idea that  someone may have a role within the family, but because of how a given family system may define its boundaries, it is unclear as to whether or not this person is "in" the family or "out" of the family.  Family systems are often defined by one's consistent physical presence in the family unit; when psychological presence defines your family membership, it can be difficult to assess whether one is "in" the system or "out" of it.  The researchers asked, are adopted children psychologically present with their original mothers even though they are not physically present?  Do original parents "forget?"

Per this research, the answer to that question is, "no."

Qualitative interviews with 163 original mothers who surrendered infants to adoption revealed that every single original mother in the study, whether the adoption was open, semi-open, or closed, thought about her surrendered child regularly, and not just on holidays or special occasions.

"[A]dopted children are psychologically present to their birthmothers, not only on special occasions but also as the birthmother goes about her routine, day-to-day life."

While adopted children were still psychologically present with their original mothers regardless of the level of openness, or closed nature, of the adoption, more positive emotions were experienced when thinking of the adopted child the more open the adoption was.  One implication for adoption practice was to include in adoption counselling that mothers will think of their surrendered child and that painful emotions may arise.  In other words, it is not acceptable to tell original mothers, "go home and forget."  This is something we should have figured out long ago.  Or at least have listened to Lifton in the 70's when she first said it.

In 2010, shortly before she died, BJ Lifton theorized that the subconscious of adoptees, original mothers, and adoptive parents each housed a "kingdom" (I call it her "Ghost Kingdom theory") where the "what ifs" of life and representations of other "triad" members are held in time.  In the Ghost Kingdom lives the surrendered baby, the young mother who surrendered her child, the biological child that could have been born had infertility not existed, etc.  Lifton explains, as she in her psychoanalytic tradition explains so beautifully, what may be happening on an unconscious level.  According to the research I've investigated here, the thoughts of the adopted child in the mind of the original mother are also quite conscious.  It seems that families of all kinds are present with one another in many ways, whether on the heart, the mind, or woven together through the shared human experience.



Fravel, D., McRoy, R. G., & Grotevant, H. D. (2000). Birthmother Perceptions of the Psychologically Present Adopted Child: Adoption Openness and Boundary Ambiguity. Family Relations49(4), 425-433.

Lifton, B. (2010). Ghosts in the Adopted Family. Psychoanalytic Inquiry30(1), 71-79. doi:10.1080/07351690903200176

NaBloPoMo/NAAM Day #8