As we know, all adoptions come from loss. It’s a sad thought, but a truism nonetheless. Many adoptions also come from traumatic early years. And every one of those situations is heartbreaking! So when we hear of adoption dissolution (that is, a child is adopted, then the adoption is dissolved when it can’t be made to work) it’s easy for those of us already hurting for the child to jump on the judgment bandwagon. Some of us get angry! Most of us can’t understand how an adult could possibly give up on an already traumatized child. I asked a handful of questions of a group of mothers who have experienced adoption dissolution. This series will open our eyes (and hopefully our hearts) to the maternal view of this horrific reality.
THIS IS THE EXPERIENCE OF MARY
Why do you call yourself a “survivor” when it is the child who has been traumatized?
My husband once was a “survivor” of working with an emotionally unstable co-worker. He started to fear for his own safety and questioned his own mental and emotional health although my husband was fine. Parenting a traumatized child is similar, if not worse. Although our son (we’ll call him Tony) was a young 4-year-old, he was not innocent. Tony targeted family members with an anger that I had previously not witnessed out of a child and rarely seen even from adults. Our son was also clever enough to show the anger to one family member, but in such a way as to hide it from others. One typical example of this behavior was picking him up from preschool. He would run and hug me in front of his teachers, but then he would immediately put his head down and show an angry face to me once he had his back to the teachers. But this is just one example. You have to imagine this kind of abusive thinking occurs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It doesn’t take long for a parent to feel threatened by this kind of behavior.
How could you possibly expect me to feel anything but anger for you when you gave back a child who really needed you?
We adopted Tony from South Korea. My husband and I invested years and tens of thousands of dollars to complete this adoption. We had our hearts and intentions set on growing our family. We never even conceived of the idea of relinquishment until it became a necessity for all of us to survive. We did not give him back to South Korea. Instead, we had to face the reality that we became birth parents who search for adoptive families. This was not an easy decision to accept.
Our adoption agency hinted at social and mental problems, and hid a lot of his problems. So, we did not prepare for all the services that he would need. We did not prepare our older son, also adopted, for these problems. Tony, just like every child, needed (and needs) parents, but by the time we could realize his needs, he had already developed an intense hatred for our family and for himself. As parents, we had to make the decision that he needed a clean slate with a family that knew of his problems in advance.
You’re an adult – how could a little kid be so hard to love, discipline, etc.? They’re just children, right?
Especially when children are young, it is easy to say that traumatized children can learn to love and grow to be healthy adults with a loving family. The reality is children are not innocent. Traumatized children have experienced such poor treatment in their lives, but they do not have a stable, loving home to compare. As a consequence, they act out by hurting others.
Why didn’t you seek help sooner so that you could keep your family intact?
We sought help as soon as we could. Our adoption agency did not disclose that he had a genetically-related hearing problem, but we started suspecting a hearing problem when we received a brief report from the U.S. Embassy in South Korea that he had a language delay. I was working at a university that also operated its own audiology clinic, so I was fortunate to be able to ask questions and schedule an appointment even before our son came home.
Unlike many physical issues, attachment issues do not manifest immediately. Now that I look back, I can tell that Tony was exhibiting some poor behaviors, but it is difficult to see. When we first brought Tony home, he would do things like not play, although he had lots of toys, but then he would smile from time to time. By the time he left our home, he didn’t play at all and he intentionally wore an angry expression all day long, and refused to eat.
Were you adopting for the wrong reasons, and that’s why it didn’t work? Were you seeking to gratify your own need to be loved, rather than to love and care for an innocent child?
My husband and I sought adoption for the right reasons. We had adopted our first son in 2010, and wanted our children to have siblings. We both grew up in stable, loving homes and had good relationships with our siblings.
At what point did you realize that the situation was beyond anything you could do? Did it take a while to get to that understanding? How did you choose dissolution?
As I stated earlier, it took us several months to discern whether our son’s problems stemmed from hearing, previous neglect/abuse, genetics, etc.. His behavior became progressively worse, so we didn’t just wake up one morning with a sudden epiphany. For example, when he first came home, he cried for three hours because I attempted to brush his teeth. But as an adoptive parent, you want to be flexible and let the child learn that you are safe. Several months later, Tony let us brush his teeth. Think you’re making progress, right? No! Tony then started another odd behavior by staring at one moment and then avoiding eye contact the next moment. Later, we would find him with wet clothes although he was potty trained. Again, as parents, we chalked it up to “just an accident.”
Eventually, we realized that his behaviors were intentional and were becoming more extreme and frequent. He was urinating on himself at night. And then he started entering his brother’s room at night and staring at him for long periods of time. He stopped eating, and would grunt during dinnertime. He would push his infant brother when he though no one was looking. He would intentionally put his clothes on backwards. He sabotaged family events by looking disparaged and angry.
As this downward trend spiraled out of control, my husband and I had to take increasingly drastic measures to protect the physical, emotional, and social well being of other children. After eighteen months of Tony in the house, my husband and I were worn down. We started to realize that our family had rapidly become dysfunctional, and that Tony needed to live with another family for all of us to grow and live.
Did your adoption dissolution make it impossible for you to trust or love another child? Did it cause you to give up on motherhood?
No, not for me. If anything, I feel that I am a stronger parent. I value the fact that my other children thrive. When I see their creative games and artwork, schoolwork, their friendships, I am so happy and proud of them. It is only because they are attached to a family, that they can accomplish these things. When my other children make mistakes or when my 2-year-old has a temper tantrum, I don’t get so upset. I don’t let my standards down, mind you. It’s just that I let [the children] know that their emotions are real and valid, but that they can address a problem in a more positive manner.
We assume you felt completely alone. How are you getting past that? Where do you go for help?
I am very fortunate that my husband is supportive. We were true partners in adoption, and unfortunately, dissolution. We are still partners in healing our family. I’ve been to a few therapy sessions, and that helped to make me understand I wasn’t alone. I also found a Facebook group of other adoptive moms who shared the same heart-wrenching experience.
If I experience adoption dissolution, how can I hope to love and trust again? How can I move forward with my life?
Dissolving an adoption meant sacrificing my dreams and hopes of a family that I worked hard for. It is not easy to move forward because there is a lot of guilt and grief associated with dissolution. If you can make this extremely difficult sacrifice, you have to trust yourself and know that you are a loving parent. This sacrifice can only be made out of a tremendously deep love.
Is there anything else you would like us to know?
There are lots of parts of dissolution that are unfair. There is nothing about it that feels good. But I knew that I was doing the best for Tony and the rest of my family. It’s unfortunate that some parents are called to make this hard decision. It takes a lot of personal strength, sacrifice, and love to make the decision to dissolve an adoption.
We are hopeful that Tony will learn to attach and become a healthy adult. We selected his new family carefully. I must tell you that like birth parents, many relinquishing parents who dissolve still feel a desire to let these children know that they were loved although they needed to live in another home. All too often, I hear about new adoptive families who cut off any communication with the first adoptive families. Perhaps they fear that we will take the child back, but this is hardly the case. We just want the child to know that we loved them enough to set them up with a family where they could thrive.
Read the next part of this series here.