Understanding Hidden Grief: The Impact of Adoption The number of children placed for adoption has markedly decreased over recent years. In Ireland, the historical shame of becoming pregnant outside of marriage has given way to a broader social acceptance and many children are now successfully raised in single parent families. Despite this trend, a small number of women who become pregnant continue to place their child for adoption. While difficult to quantify (‘informal’ adoptions within families are not always recorded), the number of Irish children formally ‘available for adoption’ is less than 100 each year. Because of declining numbers, the ‘supply’ of children does not meet ‘demand’ and many couples in Ireland adopt from overseas where social norms and economics mean that there are more children placed for adoption. Upwards of 10% of couples who wish to have a child experience fertility problems; adoption is an avenue to allow them become parents.
Formal Adoptions: For our purposes, adoption refers to the legal process of becoming a non-biological parent. There are several stakeholders involved including birth parents, the adopted child (sometimes an older person), adoptive parents and the extended families on ‘both sides.’ The state are also directly involved in the process through Social Workers who ‘assess’ potential families and the legal system where the adoption becomes a legal and binding contract.
Experiencing Loss: Across the adoption system the issue of loss looms large and in some cases this can be classified as a form of ‘hidden grief.’
Birth Mother: The birth mother who has relinquished a child experiences loss. Birth mothers carry a child to full term and subsequently allow the child to be placed for adoption. While a variety of circumstances underpin this decision, the altruism of offering a child a better life is seldom a ‘guilt free’ decision and this loss can be experienced over many years (for some people, over a lifetime).
Person Adopted: An adopted person can sometimes feel as if they don’t ‘belong’ and wonder what life would have been like if they had grown up with their biological parents. In some cases it results in a damaged ‘sense of self’ – which may not be fully understood or even explored. This plays out in several ways. Adopted people can have increased fears around abandonment – sometimes avoiding relationships in order to lessen the pain of rejection. Rejection is part of normal life (first love break-ups, fading friendships etc.) something that we all experience. However, an adopted person may have experienced rejection at a very early (pre-verbal) stage and relationship difficulties can cause feelings of rejection to be triggered or even multiplied. Depression and anxiety along with difficulties in maintaining healthy balanced relationships – can be a negative outcome of hidden (unexplored) grief. These feelings can be consciously felt or unconscious - something that’s ‘present’ but we are not fully aware of. The underpinning causes can difficult to detect and work through.
Adoptive Parents: Adoptive parents are at the ‘receiving end’ of the process and are seldom considered to have experienced loss. In a simplistic view of adoption, they are seen as the ‘winners’ in the process. Having weathered a lengthy medical journey and a subsequent intense assessment by social services (to check their suitability to adopt) – the ‘baby’ arrives and it’s a time of unbridled joy. For many adoptive parents that’s certainly the case. However, new parenthood is filled with stress and anxiety – something that can be difficult to share at a time when the world expects adoptive parents to be full of joy. While the adoption process and becoming a ‘new parent’ is self-evidently stressful, sometimes hidden losses are more difficult to articulate. For women, there can be loss associated with not experiencing childbirth, the shame which can accompany a physical inability to produce a child ‘naturally’ (both for women and men), the ending of a family bloodline and so on. Adopted children can also present with a variety of mental health issues (both as children and in later life stages) which are not easy to understand nor deal with. With the whole world telling an adoptive parent they were ‘lucky’ to get a beautiful child – the topic of loss or grief is often hard to discuss and becomes hidden.
Birth Father: The birth father may experience loss if the decision to adopt was made without his consent. In some cases a birth father may not even know that their child has been born or subsequently adopted and can experience profound loss, grief and/or guilt if he later comes to learn this.
Adoption Benefits: Adoption can benefit all parties. It facilitate the birth mother to make a difficult choice – potentially offering a better life to a child. With the right placement, an adopted child can grow up in a warm and loving family and achieve their full potential. And many childless couples (or couples who wished to have more children) have been incredibly enriched by a new family member.
But some individuals (even those in a loving family environment- whose lives appear normal and otherwise fulfilled) can experience grief that’s hidden, difficult to understand and navigate. In what is sometimes termed disenfranchised grief, hidden thoughts cannot always be openly acknowledged or publicly mourned.
This in no mean suggests that every person who is part of an ‘adoption story’ will experience the feelings described above. As a counsellor in this area, the role is to assist people to come to term with loss and contradictory feelings that can be difficult to name or fully understand. The therapeutic process allows clients to work through these types of conflicting issues and arrive at a manageable point of acceptance. If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised, contact the Fairview Therapy Centre.