How Early Life Influences Us: My Roots as an Adoptee

One of the most unique things about Parenting for Peace is it’s the only parenting book that collates, contextualizes, and includes guidelines around the latest research on how powerfully early life influences us.

In other words, how soon parenting begins.


My birth parents, Bob & Liz, 3 months before my birth


For me, all of this is eminently personal: it grows from the ground of my own lifelong experience, beginning in the womb of a mother who knew she would not keep me. Who met a couple who had suffered some steep losses — the death of a baby, a near-fatal miscarriage — and decided she was carrying me for them. Who held me just once that first day in the hospital, and didn’t see me again for twenty-one years.


It grows from the ground of my first six days spent in a hospital nursery, followed by the months and years in a home that was not, shall we say, steeped in “relational intelligence.” Things were pretty chilly. A bit lonely. And it wasn’t that my parents didn’t mean well, or have good intentions. They were short on information and understanding. That’s what I try to do with my book, my private coaching, my speaking appearances — make sure there is lots of information and understanding available about early life influences, so that your best intentions can be realized in practical, effective ways!

Affirming a Child’s Reality

As an adoptee, I grew up with the slogans many well-meaning adoptive parents chant to their children: Everybody else had to take what they got, but we got to CHOOSE you…and the undisputed classic, You were CHOSEN (with the unspoken and somewhat ironic implication, You were SPECIAL).

And then there is the breezy, overly simplistic reference to adoption (and now, increasingly, surrogacy) as “just another way to build a family.”


This is a dismissive characterization of a profound experience that has involved not only the parents’ deep losses, but the child’s loss of the parents who couldn’t keep him. It is usually with the best of intentions, and also because of struggling with their own very mixed feelings about adoption and their own past losses, that adoptive parents will convey half-truths about adoption. They think it will shield their child from the pain of loss that is inherent in adoption, and help instill positive feelings in the adoptee. But it doesn’t. All it does is imbue the child himself with a confused tangle of mixed feelings, and can foster an overly sensitive, “walking on eggshells” family atmosphere.


Far from “just another way,” adoption (as with the modern variation, surrogacy) is a somewhat more complicated way to build a family than nature intended. It calls for extra consideration and care. When we overlook complications and potent early life influences, we risk missing rich opportunities for building family intimacy, which pulses at the heart of peaceful parenting.


Tremendous blessings can be experienced by all the participants in adoption, but we must never forget that most often, those blessings are born of loss — the loss for the birth parents of a child they will not parent; the loss of their dreamed-of biological child the adoptive parents won’t have; and (except in rare cases of truly open adoption) the loss for the adopted child of his or her biological, genealogical, and possibly cultural, connections.

As with any of Life’s significant experiences, when we deny adoption’s losses, we also deny ourselves — and our children — its greatest blessings.


Throughout the 90s and into this century (egads, how old does that make me feel??) I wrote, taught and counseled about how we can indeed invite adoption’s greatest blessings, through consciousness and self-exploration. Helping adoptive parents see the richness and family intimacy that blossoms when they can affirm their child’s real experience rather than “slogan-ing it away” was a big piece of that. Along the way I recognized that these issues of loss, grief, and disconnection are not the sole province of those involved in adoption. They are universal.


The Importance of Beginnings

Here’s an example: over the years I so often witnessed in adult adoptees the deep resonance, recognition and sense of relief when talking about many people’s experience of being a conception that wasn’t intended: somehow feeling, at your deepest core, wrong, in the most basic, existential, yet intangible way — never quite legitimate, never quite enough. Feeling like we have to keep earning and demonstrating our right to be here. For some, it includes going through life apologizing for intruding: “Sorry to disturb you,” “Sorry to interrupt,” “Are you sure you really want me to come to your party?”


Adopted people are certainly not the only ones whose early life influences include conceptions that were not intended. We’re (mostly) the only ones who know straightforwardly that this is the case. Over the years I have met countless non-adopted people for whom it had become clear over the years that their conception was not invited, and who also experience the primal residue of that.


None of this is about blame or guilt or tallying up the wrongs done to us or by us! This is about compassionate understanding of ourselves, our children, our loved ones. The more we can understand about the early life influences that have shaped us — and continue to impel us to behave and respond in ways that may run utterly counter to what we would consciously choose — the more free we become. The more joy we can have. As one therapist used to say to me, “It’s knowing what really happened to us that makes us sane.”


Indeed. Let us all be sane, joyful and free!



I’m particularly inspired at the moment to write about adoption in anticipation of giving the closing keynote address at what promises to be a wonderful conference next month at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles: Adopt Salon Conference 2012 — Mending the Losses, Becoming Whole Again. More info here


Tired daughter by marcalandavis, under Creative Commons license

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