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Is Adoption Always Sad?

Our Reader Panel Responds:


The answer is emphatically NO! We adopted our daughter from Belarus when she was almost 3. We have always told her that she was adopted, although she didn't really comprehend what that meant until she was in first or second grade. We answer all her questions as honestly as possible. She knows about her birth mother (who is now deceased). Her bio-sister visits every summer, and we are now in the process of adopting her. They are tied at the heart and it was love at first sight.

Her questions are inquisitive in nature: Why didn't my mom keep me? Did she love me? What happened to her? She isn't so much sad, as curious. We keep all the answers as factual as possible, leaving out inappropriate or horrific elements.

Both girls are happy and well-adjusted children. They are joyful and full of life. Both see the world as an adventure. They love to travel and explore new things. Adoption is a beginning...not an end. Life goes on, love grows, time heals. The future is always there for them. Adoption is rarely sad ... it's all perspective.

I do not believe that adopted children inherently feel "sad" about their adoption. And, I think that it would be a mistake to suggest to a child that he/she might be feeling sad-it is suggestive and may make them think they should feel that way even if they don't. An appropriate question could be, "How do you feel about being adopted?" as opposed to, "Do you feel sadness about being adopted?" The key is developing healthy, age-appropriate communication from the very start.

My son was almost five when I adopted him from Kazakhstan. I talk to him about his birthmother, but it seems either too abstract or not important to him right now. I think, if anything, he misses some of his caregivers and friends from the orphanage.

My son has a naturally happy temperament and does not like to see people feeling sad. It may be a cultural thing, or his personality, or his current age (now 5-½), but in my experience thus far, the literature about grieving and loss in adoption doesn't seem to apply. I don't see any evidence that my son wonders about birth relatives, feels an emptiness inside, or thinks he is missing anything. I'm glad to see someone working with the idea that adoption may not automatically imply sadness.

Our daughter is 5, so there may be much ahead that we haven't experienced yet, but I don't believe that there is an essential "sadness" to adoption, and don't subscribe to the "primal wound" theories. I have read articles and stories by adult adoptees, who attest that not all adoptees are "sad." Our daughter has expressed no sadness in regards to her adoption as of yet. We have talked about it with her since she was a toddler, and, since we have contact with her birthfamily, it is out in the open. We've dealt with it in a matter of fact kind of way. Our daughter talks about her birthfamily in a candid way. We have told her that her birthmother was sad that she couldn't raise her.

I have a problem with experts and others who say we need to give words to our children's sadness-even if they don't know it's there. I don't like the idea of planting the thought of sadness ("maybe I should be sad?"). Of course, we should allow our children to express their feelings, and sadness may accompany the deepening understanding of what adoption means, but we shouldn't tell them it's sad before they have even had a chance to process their feelings to that point. Suggesting this short-circuits their own road to understanding & discovering what adoption means to them. We should tell them how we feel about it and how their birthparents feel about it, but we shouldn't tell them how they feel about it!

There are elements of sadness to any adoption story, but it's not the prevailing theme

Emily was adopted from the Marshall Islands at the age of three weeks. We have an open adoption and work hard to maintain our ties with her birthfamily.

Just over a year ago, Emily suddenly decided that she didn't want anyone to know she was adopted. (Though, because she is Micronesian and we have a transracial adoption, this wasn't exactly realistic…) I wasn't sure where these feelings were coming from. She didn't want to bring any of her birth land handicrafts to preschool for show-and-tell. She didn't want to talk about her birthfamily anymore. Luckily for us, during this difficult and puzzling period, a friend in the Marshall Islands was making us a surprise video of her birthfamily.

I watched it first and then watched it with Emily when she came home from Kindergarten. To put it mildly, she was thrilled. She watched the trip over to Ebeye, she saw her birthmother, her brothers and sisters, and her birthfather. Her family, friends, and neighbors all said "Hello" to her. The pivotal moment came when her birth father looked into the camera and said, "Emily, it is me, Alley. I love you and I miss you." She was jumping up and down on the couch screaming, "I love you too, I love you too!" In that moment, Alley validated for Emily the fact that she was a loved and cherished child, placed for adoption because of circumstances but never, ever, because she wasn't loved, wanted, or valued by her birthfamily. From that moment on, she did a 180-degree turn. She knows she is loved by both of her families. I realize this is an area she will explore again and again, and that her attitude may change from time to time, but, for now, she has peace in the knowledge that she is loved. It was a magical moment and one that I hope will set the tone for Emily regarding her feelings about adoption in the future.

My husband and I adopted my daughter (now almost 7) at birth, and we maintain an open adoption. We see our daughter's birthmother and her parents about once a year, and have seen her birthfather three times in the past year and a half. We have always been open and honest with her about adoption, and we have always made it very clear that we are her forever parents.

Whether adoption always carries indelible sadness, I am not prepared to say, but I do feel that it necessarily carries loss-even when the child is adopted at birth, and even when there is an open adoption.

In the past few months, as she has begun processing information she's had since infancy in more complex ways, our daughter has made comments such as:

"Maybe daddy could marry my birthmother and you could marry my birthfather so we could all be in one family."
My response was something to the effect that, yes, she wishes we could all be together. It must be hard, sometimes confusing, and even sad, to feel that separation; in a way we are all one family. From a 6-½-year-old's point of view, it was a very logical way to heal that separation and reduce the loss.

"Wouldn't it be funny if you were my birthmother and (birthmother's name) was my mother, and I would go back and forth, back and forth."
I explained that that never happens with adoption, though it can with divorce, and gave an example of a child she knows in that situation.

"When (birthmother's name) is old enough, is she going to raise me?"
That was a shock to me, since I thought my daughter had no doubt that we were her parents for ever and ever, something I've said over and over. But I think she was just checking. I assured her that that wouldn't happen, and reminded her about how her birth mother and birth father signed legal papers, and a judge signed papers, and we signed papers, all of which made us her parents forever. We looked at her memory book and went through pictures that included her finalization.

When her cousin, adopted internationally from an orphanage, visited recently from out of state, my daughter asked her, "Are you sad, or angry, that you don't know your birth parents?" Her cousin, almost 8, said that, no, she wasn't sad, though she wished she did know them.

Our daughter has recently said a few times, after getting very upset about something (e.g., her brother took her toy, or we said, "Lights out, bedtime"), that she's angry because her birthfather doesn't see her enough. She seemed to just be saying that as an excuse for the moment-but I believe that she does have some anger, or sadness, about that.
An AF Reader

My kids started asking questions at age three, and they were surprisingly specific. I tried my best to answer the questions in sensitive, accurate, and age-appropriate ways. If my children feel anxiety about being adopted, I'm not aware of it. We often speak about the fact that they were adopted, and about their birth parents and their adoption stories.

Occasionally, my daughter has emphatic reactions to my responses. She wanted to know if her birth parents had taken her to a hospital, as her brother's had. "No," I responded. "In China, people aren't allowed to ask that their children be adopted when they can't care for them. It would have gotten them in serious trouble." "Where did they leave me then?" she demanded, growing impatient. "It says in your papers that a policeman found you in a park," I said as nonchalantly as possible. "Where in the park? On a bench? Was I walking around? Where were they?" My daughter had begun to shout. "I wasn't there," I said, "so I don't know. But I always imagine that they must have been watching you, from behind a bush or tree, to make sure you were all right and that someone nice found you." My daughter was silent for a long time. Finally, she met my eyes and said, "I don't want a policeman to find me. I want you to be there and find me instead and take me right home with you." I told her I wished that I could have been there and done just that.

(I had not intended to be so blunt about how she was found! Yikes!) Two minutes later, while my heart was still pounding and clanging in my chest, my daughter was singing to herself and playing with her Barbies. Occasionally, since then, this articulate four-year-old will ask, in the middle of an entirely unrelated conversation, "You think he was a nice policeman?" We have skirted around a few of the reasons her birth parents might have had for wanting the Baby House to find her a nice home, but my daughter doesn't appear ready to delve too much into that topic.

When our daughters think of their birthfamily (they are bio-siblings adopted from foster care), they do feel regret that it couldn't work out. Their birthparents were not abusive-but were neglectful because of their own troubles. What our daughters mourn, it seems, is not so much their actual situation-they love us and feel we ARE their family now-but the troubles that caused the birthfamily break up in the first place. On the other hand, they've each said to us that they can't imagine not being in our family and wouldn't have wanted to miss out on being OUR children. We tell them that it's good to have two families; it just means that there are more people in the world who care about them!

Because there is no secrecy to our adoption, our daughters will have every right to reestablish a relationship with their living biological parent when they are adults. I don't believe our daughters are actively 'sad'; I think their knowing a future relationship with their absent birthparent is a possibility lets them get on with their childhoods with US as their parents, fully engaged, and most of the time very happy!

Not necessarily, but at certain stages of life, it can take over

This is a very timely question for my family. My son, Seth, was adopted from Russia 9-½ years ago. He "celebrated" his 11th birthday just a few days ago. I put the word "celebrated" in quotation marks because, for him, birthdays are very bittersweet events at this point in time. He is extremely conflicted about his birthday: partly because he realizes that he will be growing up soon, and he's got a Peter Pan complex, but mostly because he realizes very clearly now that his birthday is not just a joyous anniversary of his birth. It is also the very sad anniversary of his separation from his birthmother, who relinquished custody 3 days after he was born. His feelings about his birthmother are confused: sometimes he wishes he could meet her, sometimes he wishes she would come for him, sometimes he's afraid that she will come for him. He also says that he hates being adopted because, if he weren't adopted, he wouldn't have to think about all these things. He desperately wants to have been born into our family. He calls all these thoughts his "worries," and they trouble him deeply.

I am glad to see your magazine tackling this subject, which has been close to my heart for many years. My oldest daughter (of 3 adopted children) has always felt sadness and anger with her birthmom. We have always been honest with her, but we generally followed the prevailing wisdom of the time. At the time of her adoption, the trend was to explain that your child was so loved by her birth parents that they made an adoption plan. Whatever words we used to describe the process were irrelevant. My daughter came up with her own. She was mad and sad with her birthparents; for a long time, she equated love with abandonment, and she talked about how her birthparents "gave me up for adoption." She has come to grips with her past now. She articulates her mixed feelings about her birthparents, she is curious about them. It was a hard road because her sorrow at her loss was very real, even more real than her anger-and what parent does not feel a child's sorrow keenly?

I'm willing to entertain the thought that not all children were as affected as mine have been-and the jury's still out on our youngest since she's only 3. But my experience with my kids has been that there is a deep-rooted sorrow at this loss-and that the sorrow is far more pervasive than anger. It's also been my experience that this sorrow does not need to be debilitating; that, like any grief, once shared, acknowledged, and honored, it heals. I feel that the process of helping my children deal with this grief strengthened our relationship; as adoptive parents, we are the constants in our children's lives, and they realize this. I also think it is important for us to help our children name these feelings, and then help them move on in their own ways and times.

Adoption is not the sum total of our children. It is an important part of their stories-the joy we adoptive parents feel at their birth, placement, and adoption is real and should be honored, but our joy is someone else's loss. By acknowledging that, we allow our children to feel all their feelings, to share those feelings in a safe place, and to begin to develop empathy and an ability to deal with mixed feelings-all signs of emotional health. Any beginning is also an end; my children's "ends" with their birthparents were their beginnings with us. We can't separate it. At times my daughter will feel the sorrow more than the joy, at others, more of the joy and less of the sorrow.

Don't forget that this issue may be magnified in a blended family. My oldest son (4 years) is my biological child, and my youngest child (18 months), who was adopted from Korea, is not aware of the concept of adoption yet. We have been very open and honest with our 4-year-old, and he is very excited about having once been "In Mommy's belly." He recently started to understand the concept of adoption and it was HE who appeared upset and sad for our baby, stating, "Kyle wasn't in your belly, Mommy. Does that mean he's sad?" It was very startling and showed me that, even if my baby himself does not yet show signs of loss, his older brother is doing it for him! And the issue will still need to be addressed.
An AF Reader

Adult Adoptees' Perspectives

I am 35 years old, and was adopted at age 2-½ from Korea. Quite simply, I have never been aware of any longing to find my birth mother. Nor am I aware of any indelible feeling of loss and sadness associated with not knowing her or her life story. I have heard the stories about others who have been driven to find and meet their birth mothers, and, while these stories are often poignant and touching, they don't stir any similar drive in my soul.

I was adopted as an infant almost 35 years ago, and I don't remember having sad feelings about it. I was always proud of being so wanted by my parents. I believed what the adoption paperwork said-that my birth parents were young and not married, and wanted me to be raised by parents who could give me everything that they could not. It all made sense to me. I didn't feel any sort of loss because I didn't grow in my mom's tummy.

As a teenager, I thought a little more about it. I had no less pride in my adoption than before, but I was also very interested in the births of my friends because I felt like I didn't really have one. I knew I had been born, of course, but no one could tell me about that day. Sometimes it seemed strange to me that we celebrated my birthday when nobody celebrating with me had actually known me on that day. However, I loved my birthday, and knew in my heart that my birthmom was thinking of me as I celebrated with my family and friends.

As I approached adulthood, I would write about adoption. I began to wonder about my birthmom more and more, especially as I reached the age she had been when I was born. My writings had a melancholy tone, but not for me; I was sad for her because I was starting to understand how difficult her decision must have been.

I remember when I gave birth to my daughter. After twelve hours of labor, I held her in my arms. I looked at her and my husband and remarked that I couldn't believe someone had done that for me and then loved me enough to let me go. In my eyes, my birthmom was a hero for thinking of me first and herself second. It must have been so hard because there was no way that anyone was taking my baby out of my arms. What a strong young woman she was to do that for me.

Today, as I write this, I wait for my son to wake, which he does often during the night. His birthmom is half a world away, in South Korea, and she is another hero in my eyes. Without her, this incredible baby boy, who brings so much joy into my life, would not be sleeping across the hall, would not wake to snuggle in my arms, and would not grow up calling me, "Mommy."

Just as I felt sadness for my own birthmother, I feel sadness for his because she is not knowing this incredible boy to whom she gave birth. My hope for her is that she can find peace in her decision and can know in her heart that our son is being loved and is being taught that her actions were heroic.
Susan, Wisconsin

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