Canadian Council of Natural Mothers' Library

The Primal Wound:
Understanding the Adopted Child

Nancy Newton Verrier

This book was one of the first to examine the effects of adoption on children through their lifespan from the point of view of the psychological damage done by separating mother and child at birth. The author is an adoptive mother who has also had her own child. The experience of both adopting and then having her own child caused her to reflect on the differences between the two ways of ‘building’ a family. As a counsellor herself, she noticed the large over-representation of adoptees in mental health care. She wondered why, if adoption is such a good thing, so many more adopted children and adults need mental health care.

In her opening chapter, she presents her theory that the separation of mothers and children at birth or soon after causes a ‘primal wound,’ from which it is difficult for any child to recover completely. She presents the recent research which demonstrates conclusively that mothers and their infants bond while the child gestates in the mother. She notes the conclusive research showing that babies can distinguish and prefer their own mother to other women. Newborn babies, in fact, are not ‘blank slates’ upon which any family can write its history and heritage.

Verrier examines the theories about when to tell a child they are adopted, commenting that “Adoption isn’t a concept to be learned, a theory to be understood, or an idea to be developed. It is a real life experience about which adoptees have had and are continuing to have constant and conflicting feelings, all of which are legitimate. Their feelings are their response to the most devastating experience they are ever likely to have: the loss of their mother. Just because they do not consciously remember it does not make it any less devastating. It only makes it more difficult to deal with, because it happened before they had words with which to describe it (preverbal) and is, therefore, almost impossible to talk about.” Children know, she maintains, that they are not being brought up by their mothers. The rest is how we deal with that fact. Denying that these feelings exist, lying or keeping secrets are all destructive. Infants experience the loss of their mother as abandonment, and this fact is inescapable in infant adoption.

Verrier goes on to examine the growth of the child’s sense of self in the face of having lost their mother while that mother is still experienced as a part of themselves. While children may attach to adoptive parents, they cannot re-create the bond that grows in utero with their first mother. Babies grieve this loss, and because most adoptive parents do not understand that the baby is grieving the loss of the most significant person in their lives, they do nothing to empathize with the child or acknowledge the loss. Indeed, for many adoptive parents to acknowledge the infant’s loss is to acknowledge that they can never be that child’s only parents. Their denial sets the stage for the infant’s difficulty in integrating and accommodating separations and losses throughout life.

The often used reasoning that “she gave you up because she loved you” has two major difficulties:

1. It is not true-most mothers lose their children to adoption because they are poor and unsupported, and see or are lead to see no alternatives to adoption. It is not their love that causes the loss; it is society’s construction and infertile couples’ relative wealth and power.

2. It creates for the child the equation that when we love people or things, we lose them. In Part 2 of the book, Verrier takes up the second of these, that this explanation continues to impair the basic trust in relationships that all people must feel in order to successful form productive adult relationships. She shows how this and other effects of mother/child separation play out across the lifespan of the adopted child and adult. This section is most helpful for mothers contemplating ‘an adoption plan’ (losing their children)-it spells out possible effects experienced by most adopted children. This is not information shared by adoption broker, agencies and lawyers, who are not paid unless and until the mother has succumbed to their prettier views of adoption.

Part 3 of the book addresses healing and begins with the honest statement that psychologically it is in the best interests of the child that he or she not be separated from his or her mother. Verrier believes that open adoption may solve some of the knowledge questions of the child as he or she grows, but it does not lessen the pain of separation from the mother at birth. After Verrier’s chapter on the need to recognize what the best interests of children are, she goes on to address how to assist children who must be raised in adoptive families to acknowledge and overcome the dreadful loss they have experienced. She has comments both for those who take infants and those who take older children. In this regard, she gives five cardinal rules for parents who take someone else’s child to raise:

· Never threaten abandonment · Acknowledge the child’s feelings · Allow the child to be himself or herself · Do not try to take the place of the child’s first mother; you can’t · Understand that you cannot take away the child’s pain; he or she must work through it themselves

The next chapter of this section describes the healing that can and usually does take place in reunions of mother and child. Adoptive parents’ fears about reunion are discussed, but fundamentally, reunion of an adult adoptee and his or her mother is between the two of them. It is not a statement of the relationship that the adoptee has with the parents who raised him or her. Nor is there any role for adoptive parents beyond what the mother and adult adoptee choose to give them.

The conclusion of the book raises the political implications of the information in the rest of the book and relates adoptee issues to those of children conceived through embryo and sperm donation and surrogacy arrangements. In the light of information presented in this book, we must fundamentally consider whether we will disregard harm to children throughout their lifespan just because adults want something.

Verrier states her case very strongly and presents information from the research base where she can find it. Some people dispute her conclusions, finding that she has overstated her case based upon the research available. However, one is then led to ask why there is not more unbiased research to confirm or disconfirm her thesis. Research in adoption has long been basically about asking adoptive parents how things are going. Perhaps it’s time to begin random prospective studies from the points of view of many more than just those who benefit by the institution.

This book is essential reading for mothers prior to their decision to raise or not raise their own children and for parents contemplating raising someone else’s child, however they obtain that child.

ISBN 0-96336480-0-4
Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press, 1993


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