Primal Wound Author Speaks on Adoptee Challenges

Nancy Verrier is an adoptive mother, therapist and author of the groundbreaking book The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child.  In a session at today’s Adopt Salon conference in Los Angeles, Nancy shared some reflections almost twenty years after publishing one of adoption’s landmark works.  In the following interview (that I did some years back), Nancy shares her views on a variety of adoption’s “hot topics,” but all emerge from a basic theme:  adoption creates “different kinds of relationships” and some unique challenges for adoptees.

MA:     I’m reminded of a speech by actress Tyne Daly at the end of a TV movie (which was about another kind of parenting change-of-course) about how she had planned a trip to Italy but ended up in Holland instead… and how it wasn’t until she stopped pining for the Sistine Chapel and gondolas that she was able to notice and appreciate the unique pleasures of Holland—a different kind of place.


NV:     I have talked to a lot of adoptive parents and many of them are so open to hearing this.  They just really want to know what to do for their children, and they can hear me when I say, “You know, you’re never going to take the place of that birth mom.  You have to have a different relationship.  And if you have a different relationship, it relieves the child of having to guard that so tightly, and you can have a real relationship with him or her.”


MA:     So if the adoptee senses that you’re trying to come in and replace the birth mother, it’s like they —


NV:     —hang on for dear life.  Yes.  I sensed that, and I finally came to the understanding myself that I couldn’t take her place.  I mean, we’re told we’re taking that place, we’re the mothers, we’re it, that’s what we’re told.  And at that time, when we adopted our daughter, I believed it.  And when I finally came to the conclusion years later that this wasn’t happening and this wasn’t going to happen [me replacing her birth mother], I didn’t ever say anything to her, but there was a sense that she had that my attitude had changed, and it made it much easier for us to relate to each other.


What I hear so many times from adoptees when they have reunited, it’s that feeling of “Ahhh.…”  There’s something about feeling relaxed around the birth mother, where they did not around their adoptive mother.  And I can see it in my own daughter, I can see her relaxing in the presence of her birth mom.  She and I have a wonderful relationship, but it’s different.  And it’s different from my other daughter’s relationship with me.


MA:     Your biological daughter. 


NV:     Yes.  I mean, there’s just a level of comfort that does not exist for my adopted daughter.


MA:     See, and my feeling is if we could just admit that, say it out loud, then the adoptive parents are in such an incredible position to really love their child, actively.  If they can get that piece, then they can’t help but feel empathy for their child’s experience of loss and separation. 


One adoptive mother I know, whose sons feel allowed to talk about all their feelings, including sadness about losing their birth mothers, puts it this way:  “I don’t lose standing.  I gain standing.  I emerge a hero in the eyes of my children.  I emerge as trustworthy, stable, sure.”


NV:     Yes.  Because the child feels understood.


MA:     And then he trusts you.


Breastfeeding in Adoption

MA:     This brings up a subject that I find I have some feelings about, which is adoptive mothers breastfeeding.  I think it’s fine for a mother to want that, as long as she’s alert to whether her baby wants it as well, and to follow his lead.


NV:     Yes.  There are some babies who will look right in the eye of their adoptive mom, and they will have a lot of eye contact, and there are some babies who will not look at their adoptive mom.  They’ll turn their face away every single time.  So I think it probably would be the same thing with breastfeeding—some would and some would not.


MA:     It’s funny, I’m passionate about the benefits of breastfeeding, both for the bonding aspects as well as the biochemical ones, such as the immunological and amino acid components of breast-milk.  But coming from my adoptee perspective, I feel like the bottle is more honest.  Less invasive of that primary relationship that you mentioned, that the baby may feel she needs to protect.  And there is still plenty of closeness and comfort and eye contact that can be done while bottle-feeding.


NV:     Well, that’s true.  This also relates to the issue of accepting that this baby did have another mother, another primary bond that needs to be respected and honored.  I’m working with some adoptive parents who are trying very hard not be so possessive and who can talk about the birth mother with their child, and can empathize with that loss.  And they get so much more out of their kids, I mean their kids will open right up and talk and talk and talk.  But then there are certain ages where they will not acknowledge that there’s anything different at all.


MA:     Like what ages?


NV:     Oh, like adolescence.  If they’ve had therapy previous to that time, they sometimes can say something, but if parents all of a sudden realize that their kids are incorrigible or something and try to get them into therapy, the kids think this has nothing to do with adoption.


MA:     A talk I gave recently was entitled “Affirming the Adoptee’s Reality,” and I spoke about how important it is to begin to lay this foundation early, of empathizing with this baby—”I know I’m not the mom you expected”—because otherwise it can become hard to get through the defenses they can build up.  For myself, even by age seven or eight, when my mother sat me down to give me the “You’re Adopted” talk, and she started talking about how much she and my father loved me very much and so on, I just felt like, “yuck.”  That door inside me had slammed shut.


NV:     Yes, you have to acknowledge that from the beginning.  And I can tell adoptive parents that we—and I can say “we,” which helps a lot—we don’t have the right energy for these kids.  They do not feel comfortable with us.  They do not feel mirrored by us.  We cannot mirror them, we cannot.  Because we don’t look like them, we don’t act like them, there’s nothing about us that makes them feel as if they’re being reflected.  And we have to know that, and have to realize that this baby is missing something essential that’s part of one’s self-esteem.  Because how does a baby gain self-esteem?  Part of it is through how the mother treats the baby, but part of it is in that mirroring, the good self reflected back:  “I’m okay.”  It’s like the Ugly Duckling—why did the Ugly Duckling think he was ugly?  Because he wasn’t like anyone else in the family.  He was a swan living in a family of ducks.


Affirming the Truth

MA:     And also what I believe happens with adoptees when their parents won’t affirm for them the truth, that they have lost a crucial connection, is that they also become disconnected from their own inner truth, which is so devastating.


NV:     Yes.  When adoptive parents say, “I don’t know why my kid lies,” I say, “Well, look—she is living one of society’s biggest lies:  You belong in this family.”  It’s very confusing.  A lot of things that felt like inner truth to her is denied on the outside, in the family and in society in general, and so she begins to be very confused about “What is truth and what is not?”


MA:     I see lying as one way of “acting out” that inner experience.  When I was young I used to lose things, and throw good things away—perfectly good things, like my camera case once, just threw it away because I didn’t need it at that time.  And then I got into shoplifting.  So, as I see it, I was acting out my experience, relative to myself—feeling lost; relative to my birth mother—having felt thrown away; and finally, ultimately, relative to my adoptive parents, having felt stolen.  Of course I can understand rationally the very valid reasons for my adoption, and yet there is still that primal, and very real, part of myself that felt all of these primitive things.


NV:     Absolutely.  I was talking to some people who wanted to know, “Why do adoptees steal and then lie about it?”  And I say, “Well, those are sort of two separate things, but they’re also connected to the same idea:  Having felt stolen, and the lies that we perpetuate about who they are and where they belong.”


Postscript from today’s session: one participant asked about exactly that — she has a 10-year-old daughter who steals, and Nancy said that she might ask the girl, “Hmm, do you think maybe there’s a part of you that feels like you were stolen”? Nancy made a great point that is a new one for me (who’s thought deeply about adoption, and my adoptee experience, for twenty years): it’s easier to feel that you were stolen than to feel like you were the baby who was given away.


Wow. Yes. Nancy remains as exquisitely relevant today as ever.



About Marcy Axness

I’m the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering’s expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I’m delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I’m happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on! As a special gift to Mothering readers I’m offering “A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool.”