Abandonment: The Dark Side of Adoption

Shame arises when adoptees are start to believe that, on some level, something about them drove their birth mothers to give them away.

Stephan Petryczka November 29, 2017
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I didn’t think much about being adopted when I was young. Or, rather, I didn’t think there was anything to be thought about. This was my family, and that was that. To suppress my curiosities about my origins, I invented a story in which my parents had been killed in conflict overseas. I couldn’t bring myself to think it was possible I’d been given away by choice.

I had my first bout of depression when I was about 13 and I’ve struggled with it ever since. I began to feel sad. I knew early on that it was due to loneliness. Whenever I grow sad, I feel heavy and disconnected; these are feelings that have always been there. I spiral inward in these moments. I feel as though I’ve got no one to call and that’s when I realize no one is calling me. My parents seem to forget about me. Would this be the case had I not been given away? When these feelings come, I wish for a connected home life where I could be rejuvenated and consoled the way my friends are when they call home.

A photo of me at an orphanage, around 6 months old.

A photo of me at an orphanage, around 6 months old.

In my twenties, I realized I had attachment issues related to being abandoned at birth and being subsequently adopted.

I’ve read cursory reviews of research on the psychological effects of abandonment. Some studies say that if another family scoops you up early enough, the impact on your development is minimal. But if a child is negatively impacted, researchers anticipate that the child will have trouble with intimacy and trust. This means adoptees may find it more difficult to relate to adoptive family members, romantic partners, or friends. Other studies say it’s lifelong trauma and that you may never recover. Those studies claim that children who are voluntarily placed for adoption share symptoms with children sent away from war zones without their mothers and children whose mothers are rejecting, narcissistic, withdrawn, alcoholic, drug-addicted, or imprisoned.

There is shame that stems from acknowledging your abandonment, which I didn’t let myself feel until I was 25. The shame arises when adoptees are start to believe that, on some level, something about them (i.e. behavior, capabilities) drove their birth mothers to give them away. Adoptees internalize the shame and (what they perceive to be) their mothers’ rejection. In response, some test the limits of newer relationships to see if they might be abandoned again. Others acquiesce, sometimes to the point of withdrawal, so that they will not lose their adoptive family. Those that acquiesce sometimes develop a decorative facade (a false self) to mask their thoughts and feelings.

My response to adoption was to acquiesce, and my sister’s was to test the limits. Whereas my sister exploded and exclaimed that our parents were not our real parents when she was upset, I never uttered such words. But no matter how you frame it, abandonment leaves a weighty mark on a child. The global emphasis on family values weighs down on the open wound day in and day out. It’s not possible to forget that your birth mother let you go on your birthday, on Mother’s Day, on Thanksgiving. Family and friends will try to avoid talking about it on these days, perhaps when you need acknowledgement the most. In trying to protect you from talking about it, they’re making it your responsibility to take care of yourself for something you’ve never been responsible for. It might not always be appropriate to initiate a conversation around abandonment and adoption, but relatives ought to open themselves up to the idea that adoptees benefit from acknowledging their feelings, especially on the holidays.

Despite all this, I believe anyone can mostly overcome anything with some pointed effort. I say “mostly” because, well, some parts of life can’t change; some problems will never be completely resolved. It brings me to tears to think about others that continue to struggle and feel isolated by abandonment. I’ve made enormous strides in processing and making peace with the circumstances that have brought me to today. The most important steps in getting the ball rolling are to look the facts in the face and, when the going gets tough, remember that you are enough to keep going. And employ the mantra: it’s not your fault. Really, don’t judge yourself, practice saying this aloud: it’s not your fault.

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Stephan Petryczka

Stephan was born in Ukraine, adopted by an American family, and raised outside of New York City. After meeting with his biological family last summer, he has taken steps toward becoming involved in the greater adoptee and orphan service communities. Stephan recently began coordinating programs for the FRUA young adult group. He is currently studying for his Master's of Urban Planning at New York University.


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