The Primal Wound – Abandonment

A friend (who is an adoptive parent) recently suggested I read “The Primal Wound” by Nancy Newton Verrier. I have read numerous books about adoption, but most focused on search and reunion processes because I began reading as I was seriously considering my search (again) a couple of years ago. While Verrier’s book includes information about search and reunion, the core of the book is about the impact abandonment has on babies. I marked significant passages in the book and will likely write several posts about my reactions to those passages. I have not spoken much about the “wound” that I experienced as an adoptee, but I hope doing so now will give me peace in the matter and serve as a reminder to all adoptees that someone understands. Here goes…

The adoption process – a beautiful, loving experience – always begins with an abandonment. Those are not the exact words in Verrier’s book, but that’s how I interpreted what I read. Abandonment. It’s a word we don’t like to throw around much in relationship to adoption, which is why my adoptive parents took great pains to explain to me that only a mom who loved me so much could actually give me to another family. Turns out, they were right. My natural mom made her decision because she believed I would be better off with a two-parent family. But the abandonment occurred nonetheless.

As a kid, I intellectually acknowledged this loving natural mom who gifted me to my family, but emotionally I couldn’t help but process the feelings of it too – I was abandoned. Period. At times, I was so concerned about being abandoned again that I was basically paralyzed. I cried every day of first grade because I was afraid my parents wouldn’t pick me up from school. Literally cried. And made myself sick because I was so worked up. I waited anxiously every single day for a car I recognized because that was another day I would have a family. My adoptive parents never gave me any legitimate reason to question whether they would be there, but I questioned it anyway and likely drove them crazy trying to find solutions to my angst.

Verrier explores the power of the abandonment from an interesting perspective – it’s based on the bond a baby feels to her mother. A bond that is deep and strong regardless of whether the baby ever saw the mother or was held by the mother. The 40-week pregnancy experience is the source of the bond and allows the baby to know its mother’s smell, voice, touch, and, interestingly, allows it to pick out it mother’s face from a gallery of photos within minutes after birth (see page 5 referencing work by Dr. David Chamberlain). I wouldn’t have understood this idea prior to reuniting with my natural mom, but I get it. I get it because there is something about her voice that is soothing and washes peace over me – and it happened the very first time we spoke. We both wonder if it’s because of the countless hours she spoke to me while she was pregnant.

In my experience, abandonment is real. And it doesn’t go away. I still have abandonment anxieties that are played out in my every day life. For example, I have very few friends. That is driven, in part, by the fact that I am an introvert, but a piece of it is because I don’t allow myself to engage with people I don’t trust to keep me in their lives for a long, long time. Another example is in relationships. I have sabotaged several dating relationships because I was going to be the one doing the leaving. I knew it at the time, though I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but I didn’t feel like I had other good choices. Now, I am married to a great guy who, even in our toughest times, has never talked about giving up, but I have talked about throwing in the towel several times so that if he says “yes” it was really my idea. Intellectually, the whole thing is bizarre. If abandonment is so bad, why would I be willing to do it to someone else? But that’s just the thing. Abandonment isn’t about intellect. It’s about emotion. Emotion that comes from a child, a baby even. And that isn’t logical. And it’s all about self-preservation.

If you are the loved one of an adoptee who is dealing with these issues, please be patient with him/her. And if you are an adoptee and are experiencing these feelings, please know that other people have experienced them too. The wound is legitimate. And it’s okay to talk about it.

My Brothers and Sister

I spent the last week at Camp Manatawny, a Christian youth camp in Douglasville, PA, working with 7th and 8th graders. On Thursday night, the campers participated in a talent show and some family and friends came to watch. I was mesmerized by one particular family interaction – between a young man and two of his older siblings (a brother and sister). The older siblings looked to be between 5 to 10 years older than their brother, but that didn’t negatively impact their interactions at all. They laughed, hugged, and talked the entire evening, and even cried when it was time to leave. I talked with the camper the next day and found out he’s from a family of 10 kids and that the brother and sister who visited live close to him. As I was wondering why their departure would still be so hard for each of them, he added that he loves his brothers and sisters so much that even though he knew he would see them in a couple of days, it made him cry to see them leave because he enjoys being with them as much as possible.

I’ve been thinking about why this family scene was so captivating to me, and I think I finally determined the “why.” I have an older brother (Shawn, who is a member of my adopted family) and he is the best older brother I could ever imagine. From the time I was brought home, he watched out for me, played with me, talked with me, and made sure I was never left out of any activity – even if that meant taking me to Friday night high school football games in Seneca, SC when he was 17 and I was 10. While our relationship has matured (no more fighting over room in the backseat of the car), it still carries the elements of concern, conversation, and play that it always did. I am lucky to be his “little sister.”

But the “why” doesn’t stop there.

I have two younger brothers and a younger sister (who doesn’t yet know about me). I think as I watched the camper with his family, I realized something I have lost by being adopted – the chance to be the “big sister.” I wasn’t there to help my brothers and sister as they were growing up – to play with them, give them advice, help keep them out of trouble with our parents, etc. I will never have the memories with them that I have with Shawn because we didn’t grow up together. And now, we are all adults and the forging of our relationships will be much more complicated.

Perhaps without having Shawn as my role model, I wouldn’t have been a very good “big sister” anyway. I don’t know. But I do know this – I am a “big sister” and I am proud of my “little brothers” and even my “little sister” who I have never met. And I’m thankful God saw fit to let me have a fantastic big brother and I hope I can be 1/10 as good for my younger siblings as he has been for me.