Fear of Abandonment is Real

Stephanie Drenka and genetic family

I went looking for a topic for today’s blog and found this story by Stephanie Drenka. She writes that – “I was struck by the pervasiveness of adoptive parent-focused stories. Where were the adoptee perspectives ?” The photo is from when when she was reunited with her biological mother, two sisters, and a brother.

She notes that “abandonment issues do not end in adulthood. Though I haven’t experienced divorce, I can imagine it might be similar. If a woman’s husband leaves her, even after remarries the perfect guy, she may always deal with a persistent fear that he will leave her as well. Fear of abandonment is real, and has to be acknowledged in order to resolve it.”

I have personally witnessed this issue playing out in a loved one and it had not been resolved previously. It came out at a very inopportune time but never-the-less had to be dealt with in its extremity.

Stephanie notes – Even the most well-adapted adoptee still faces moments where the trauma resurfaces. For me, that meant small things like every time a doctor would ask me for my family medical history or now, post-reunification, not knowing when I will be able to meet my biological sister’s new baby boy. And adds – I won’t go into the trauma experienced by birth mothers and families, because that is not my story to tell. Suffice it to say, from my personal reunification experience, adoptees are not the only ones who struggle with the aftermath of adoption.

She says – I love my (adoptive) mom and dad to the moon and back. They are my role models, biggest supporters, and best friends. I feel blessed to have them in my life– but please don’t presume to tell me that I was “lucky” to be adopted. Like many adoptees, my parents told me that I was special. While meant with good intention, being chosen is a burden. It puts pressure on us to be perfect and grateful. It can be incredibly emotionally taxing and negatively effects your self esteem in the moments where you can’t live up to that perfect picture. These expectations can prolong mental illness without treatment, because it may seem like asking for help is being ungrateful.

Choosing to adopt is an expensive proposition and as Stephanie notes – one mostly related to white privilege. I agree with her stated perspective – Can you imagine if the money people spent on adoption services went instead to supporting single mothers or low-income parents? Or what if adoption profits were used to benefit adoptees themselves in the form of post-adoption services like counseling, genetic testing, mental health treatment, or birth family search costs?

She ends her own essay with this – The truth about adoption is that there is no Truth. Adoption is many different things for many different people. It is love, loss, grief, abuse, hope, despair. It can sometimes be celebrated, but should always be examined through a critical and compassionate lens.

My Past Does Not Dictate My Future

I was very sad to learn that this kind of governmental judgement takes place.

“I was adopted into a foster home in the 80’s. My babies were just taken from me and are being adopted out. I keep hearing how they will be fine and have great lives and how they won’t experience the same life I have had.”

The first commenter acknowledged – “Sadly Child Protective Services does think that if you grew up in the system, you will not be good enough to be a parent.”

Yet another put forth a different perspective –

I am a former foster care youth that aged out of the system and became a foster parent. It is a lot of hard work to be a parent, especially a parent with trauma. It is something I am aware of and ‘show up and work on every day!’ But that doesn’t mean that we will not be good enough to be good parents or can’t be good parents. Does it mean we have to work harder and be aware that we have trauma that a lot of people don’t?! Yes! But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t incapable, it just means we actively work every day to be different then the generations before us! Child Protective Services asked me very extensively about my past and trauma, and I had to prove in a lot of ways how I have worked on it and that I am aware of it and continue to be aware of it. And work on my trauma and triggers as they arise. Now that doesn’t mean that former foster care youth and other people with trauma aren’t at higher risk for having Child Protective Services involved or their children removed. Because unfortunately, many of the kids I grew up with in the foster system are still in some way involved in the system or dead, it is a hard trauma to break out of. But honestly I feel like a lot of that, comes from the fact that everyone in my life, told me I would never be any better than my parents, or better then my genetics. We need to start telling these children with trauma that our pasts do not dictate our futures, we get to control them. We get to be better. And we need to help them do that. Before their inner voice turns into this message of ‘I’ll never be good enough, so why try to be better?’.

It is a tough world out there for a lot of people. Not every one has the same experience. Here is one that turned out “better” than “worse,” and still . . .

After finding my biological family and meeting my sisters, I definitely had the better life (theirs was full of switching homes, being raised by different people, drugs and addictions, and poverty). I was raised as an only child and had college paid for by my adoptive parents – up to my masters degree. They also helped me and my husband buy our house. Does adoption still affect me? Heck yeah it does. I have horrific abandonment issues, anxiety and depression.

This experience is also VERY COMMON among adoptees –

I was adopted at birth. My adoptive parents were great, and I didn’t deal with a lot of the issues I’ve seen mentioned by other adoptees (favoritism, neglect, abuse, doing the bare minimum, etc) I love them very much and consider them my parents. I would imagine my childhood is what most adoptive parents think they will provide, and birth moms think they’re giving their child up to.

But I still have always had this very deep sense of not belonging or fitting in anywhere. Feeling that everyone will leave me, I can never be good enough. I don’t ever feel “home”. I always thought there was something wrong with me, and despite my best intentions or efforts I still just couldn’t do it “right”.

And I do agree with this person –

I was adopted into an amazing family, always loved and cared for. Had a good life and am a privileged adult. I have a good relationship with my biological family too. However, I despise adoption. It affected me in negative ways regardless of my “good” adoptive family and upbringing. It also has the ability to greatly affect our children and future generations. The trauma gets passed down. Nothing about adoption is ok. It should be a crime to separate families simply because there is money to be made from a demand greater than a supply. We need to overhaul our system so that adoption is nearly non-existent, like it is in other countries.

The outcomes are always unique and individual. No need to not all or even so –

I was adopted within a year of my birth. I had crappy adoptive parents. My life became significantly better after I was kicked out. I worked extremely hard to pay my way through college and live on my own. Life got even better when they stopped talking to me permanently. My biological kids are amazing and so is my marriage. However, I still sit and wait, expecting it to all fall apart. I don’t feel deserving.

One last perspective –

I was adopted at birth and have felt “lost” my whole life – empty – and have struggled. I’ve never felt complete and have always had bonding issues even with my own children. It’s like I love mentally but emotionally it’s a struggle to feel. If that makes sense. I’ve went through years of counseling, when I was in my 40s. I’ve worked my DNA, so I know who all my people are. I have a good relationship with my birth dad and some biological siblings and I now feel complete. But the love side of me, the connection…. I still don’t have it and probably never will.

I have often described my own adoptee parents (yes, both were adopted) as “good” parents but strangely detached. I blame adoption for that.

Being A Supportive Spouse To An Adoptee

The person described in today’s story could have been my father. The difference is that he married another adoptee. Both of my parents grew up knowing they were adopted all along. They had this in common but their perspectives on having been adopted were very different. My mom yearned to know the truth of her adoption. My dad acted content with his lot in life. I suppose that these two adoptees found each other, fell in love and had the support of one another until death did part them, kept the loneliness at bay. Still, my mom did communicate to me her feelings about having been adopted because my dad was not able to empathize with her feelings.

Today’s story –

My husband is adopted. He was adopted at birth and has always known he was adopted. That’s about as much communication as he has ever had with his parents about it. His mom told me once “I just let him know he could ask me whatever he wanted to know and that was that.” Since he’s not a very big talker, he’s never really spoke much at all about his adoption with his parents. I’ve always come from the place of it being his life experience and however he wants to go through life with it, is how I will support him.

We have 4 kids. He’s an amazing dad and husband. I often wonder if I’m being a good enough wife in supporting him. I’ve read about how much trauma even the “good” adoptions have and my heart just dies inside for my husband. He has no desire to look for his biological family and says “I have a mom and dad.” I completely support him in that. Is there anything more I can do? Of course it would be easier to just keep going on with my life and not put any thought towards his mental health, since he’s always seems fine. He’s such a people pleaser (especially for his parents, which I’ve now learned is typical with adoptees). I never want him to put on a happy face for us, if he is hurting inside and I could see him doing this.

Is it actually possible to not care at all or to not feel feelings at all about being adopted? To have a happy childhood and feel no trauma and grow up and never have any of it affect your life? Because so much of what I’ve read says otherwise.

The first response was (I get this about men as well) – It’s totally possible he had a great childhood and doesn’t have any trauma, and it’s also possible he is hiding it inside, since men are socially conditioned to be that way. It’s a tough call. I can tell you it’s possible because that’s me. I have no adoption associated trauma. I’m in therapy; my therapist has tried to “get it out of me” and I’m always open to having the discussion but she closed that door once she concluded there wasn’t any trauma to work on. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I can see you truly care about and love your husband and want what’s best for him but forcing the issue may make him drive it deeper into the closet. This is a really tough and delicate situation.

And I do agree with this perspective (BTW my parents were about 8 months old and had spent time with their original mothers before they were adopted back in the 1930s) – You can experience trauma as a newborn and not remember it. It’s not always something you feel. It can just be something that affected you and you’re not conscious of it.

This could be true of my dad as well – he could have dealt with it a long time ago and just doesn’t feel the need to bring up the past. He may be in a healthy place and bringing up that trauma back up would retraumatize him because he thought he had come to peace with it. (My dad used to caution my mom against opening up a can of worms with her own yearning.)

From a voice of experience – I am the spouse of a domestic infant adoptee. I don’t think it’s your place to push, just be supportive. My husband was “fine” until he was not. It was a very, very slow process and I saw things a long time before he discovered them on his own, things like how his behaviors, such as people pleasing and his emotional response to perceived abandonment, the way his adoptive parents treated him, etc. He slowly came out of a fog, and it has been a long and painful process. That being said, not everyone has the same experience. Additionally, if he is in a fog, its something he has to process on his own. I think it could be extremely and emotionally damaging for you to spin this into any sort of realizations (if they exist) that he isn’t emotionally or psychologically ready for. Just love him, don’t push, and support him.

Epigenetics and Abandonment Issues

An adult adopted woman wrote – My biological daughter is 30, married with 1 child and she is struggling so much with similarities to abandonment issues that I had all my life. Her self esteem is very low, she does not feel she’s worthy of her husband, sees him as being the better person as a father and in their relationship a better husband than she is a wife. I see her trying to sabotage her relationship which reminds me of myself doing the same because I always thought people would leave me because I’m not good enough. I had to leave them first (I find this remark interesting because I am the child of 2 adoptees and I have always been the one to leave a romantic relationship) or make them leave me to prove my point to myself. She has no abandonment experiences. She’s always been loved and cherished by her father and I. I am thinking it’s epigenetics like you’ve talked about.

Our children and grandchildren are shaped by the genes they inherit from us, but new research is revealing that experiences of hardship or violence can leave their mark too. Unlike most inherited conditions, this was not caused by mutations to the genetic code itself. Instead, the researchers were investigating a much more obscure type of inheritance: how events in someone’s lifetime can change the way their DNA is expressed, and how that change can be passed on to the next generation.

This is the process of epigenetics, where the readability, or expression, of genes is modified without changing the DNA code itself. Tiny chemical tags are added to or removed from our DNA in response to changes in the environment in which we are living. These tags turn genes on or off, offering a way of adapting to changing conditions without inflicting a more permanent shift in our genomes.

If these epigenetic changes acquired during life can indeed also be passed on to later generations, the implications would be huge. Your experiences during your lifetime – particularly traumatic ones – would have a very real impact on your family for generations to come. There are a growing number of studies that support the idea that the effects of trauma can reverberate down the generations through epigenetics.

A lot of epigenetic research requires a proof by elimination and looking at what may be the most consistent explanation. Many of the times when trauma is thought to have echoed down the generations via epigenetics in humans are linked to the darkest moments in the ancestor’s personal history. The idea that the effect of a traumatic experience might be passed from a parent to their offspring is still regarded as controversial by many people.

The consequences of passing down the effects of trauma are huge, even if they are subtly altered between generations. It would change the way we view how our lives in the context of our parents’ experience, influencing our physiology and even our mental health. Knowing that the consequences of our own actions and experiences now could affect the lives of our children – even long before they might be conceived – could put a very different spin on how we choose to live. Despite picking up these echoes of trauma down the generations, there is a big stumbling block with research into epigenetic inheritance: no one is sure how it happens. 

A recent paper has revealed strong evidence that RNA (rather than DNA) may play a role in how the effects of trauma can be inherited. Researchers examined how trauma early in life could be passed on by taking mouse pups away from their mothers right after birth. The model is quite unique. It mimics the effects on dislocated families, or the abuse, neglect and emotional damage that you sometimes see in people. Different lengths of RNA molecules were linked to different behavioral patterns: smaller RNA molecules were linked to showing signs of despair.

The science of epigenetic inheritance of the effects of trauma is still in its early stages. It is suggested that if humans inherit trauma in similar ways to the mammal experiments, the effect on our DNA could be undone using techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy. That there is a malleability to the system. Healing the effects of trauma in our lifetimes could put a stop to it echoing further down the generations.

More about the research and results are described in this article – Can the legacy of trauma be passed down the generations?