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4 Things to Know During National Adoption Month

What you might not know (or realize) about adoption.

Key points

  • Some adoptees are deep-down angry. That's okay.
  • All—yes, all—adoption is rooted in loss.
  • There's no "one size fits all" experience in adoption.
  • Not all foster or adopted children are able to attach, and there’s a biological rationale for that.

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter came home from school and shared a conversation with a classmate that went something like this:

“Guess what, Mom? You know this girl, Francis? We were talking in biology class, and she said she doesn’t want her body to change with pregnancy, and made the comment: ‘There are so many kids needing homes. I’ve decided I’m going to adopt my children.’"

Jade rolled her eyes in her typical teenage fashion and shook her head. “I looked at her and said, um, you know I’m adopted, right?”

Curious to learn how the rest of the story unfolded, I encouraged her to continue. “Did you say anything more?” I asked. “What did you tell her?”

Our daughter is a high school junior. She was adopted at the age of 26 months from a Chinese orphanage and has a brother who was also adopted as a toddler from China a year and a half later. We recalled both of their formative years. How attaching did not come “naturally” for her early on but deepened and grew over time—and how for her brother, attachment to me (and other females) continues to be an issue. She talked about the continued manifestations of her brother’s orphanage neglect on our family, the behavioral challenges in school, and how the fallout of his developmental trauma has wreaked havoc on so much of our lives.

“There are just so many things people don’t know about adoption.” She continued, “It drives me crazy when people say, ‘Oh, I’ll just adopt.' They have no clue!”

We chatted more about the sub-optimal conditions existing in the world. Poverty. Neglect. Physical and mental health challenges. All the things that create the conditions for adoption to take place. “It’s not like it’s all positive,” Jade said. “Like, I know deep down I will always struggle with certain things. It’s important that people know that—before they say ‘I’ll just adopt.’”

Important Takeaways

1. Some adoptees are angry. Deep-down angry. And that's okay.

I, like many expectant adoptive parents, bought into the “they will be so grateful to be part of our loving family” narrative. Overshadowed by my compelling desire to grow our family, I gave scant thought to the visceral experience of pain and abandonment my children experienced in the earliest moments and subsequent years leading up to their adoptions. It was only many years later, when things began to feel a bit “off,” that I began to realize this.

All the love in the world and all the rhetoric about adoptive families opening their arms, hearts, and homes cannot replace the loss of a birth parent, a birth family, or a culture. To blow past this important reality is to reject a valuable part of one’s personhood. It also forces me to confront certain aspects of my children’s lives I may never share, and that’s hard.

Our children’s histories are their property and their birthright. They’ll always remain a part of who they are. Family life will always look different and feel different than growing a family biologically, and that’s okay.

2. There is no "one size fits all" experience in adoption.

In many cases, children and families adjust extremely well to the adoption experience. Bonding occurs quickly and children assimilate into the family culture without complications or problems. Sometimes it just takes time, patience, dedication, and additional personal and/or financial resources to help the process along.

Too often, however, the bonding process doesn’t happen at all. Despite doing all the right “things,” these families can harbor (often secret) lifelong feelings of shame, guilt, and resentment. One adoptive mom recently described this experience as “sharing my home and my life with a boarder—like in a hotel—with absolutely no emotional connection.” Another mom shared: “It’s sad. It breaks my heart that I went into this adoption with all the love in my heart and my child is simply not capable of receiving it.”

3. Not all foster or adoptive children are able to attach—and there's a biological rationale for that.

The biological basis of human connection has been demonstrated by significant research over the years, with John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth leading the stead in their understanding of attachment—and problems that occur when attachment is disrupted.1 Brain scans have further demonstrated how children deprived of nurture in infancy can incur irreversible damage—approximately 20 percent less gray matter volume in the visual cortex (the areas associated with the visual emotion regulation) than in the neurotypical population.2

Imagine that you’ve never learned to swim. In fact, your whole life you’ve watched people drown—thrashing and terrified and gasping for air. Now some well-intentioned person tells you: “Just jump in the water!” You can’t. You’re petrified for your life. No amount of coaxing can make you un-see and un-unlearn what you’ve experienced, even if you try.

That’s how attaching can feel for a child whose life began with abandonment, abuse, or neglect. Love is felt not as a warm life preserver, but as a hard concrete brick that threatens to take you down and submerge you. While maybe not consciously, you “know” what happens when you swim—you drown.

There’s no doubt children need forever homes and that families are the best place for kids to thrive. But adoption is complicated.

4. It's complicated...

In my 14 years of parenting my children, I have seen all ends of the spectrum—from well-adjusted, thriving, happy families to situations where the child never healed. Families have been torn apart. Some primary caregivers (the target of the adoptive or foster child’s rage) have been abused, threatened, or hurt by their child. Not the “happy ending” they’d hoped for when opening their lives and their homes.

I love my children more than the world, but I know they will carry the pain of their pasts with them forever—and no amount of blithe determination or love will change this. Therapeutic parenting is hard. Even with two parents with mental health degrees, a good school system, and resources in place, it never seems to be enough.

Developmental psychiatrist John Bowlby was right when he stated: “If we value our children we must cherish their parents.” Let’s own the reality that trauma changes people. Let’s pour resources into changing the systems that perpetuate it, and do what we can to keep families together whenever possible. Adoption is a complicated solution to a complicated issue, sown in hardship and pain. When families and communities do what they can to heal (and this requires resources), everyone wins.


[1] Bretherton, Inge. The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.

[2] Shimada, Koji et al., Reduced visual cortex grey matter volume in children and adolescents with reactive attachment disorder. 2015.…

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