I was adopted when I was 4 months old in a closed adoption through a domestic agency. My adoptive parents told me about it early, framing being adopted as better in many ways than living with biological parents. Anyone could have a baby, after all. They’d chosen me. They’d always wanted a child, and my birth mother was extremely young. She’d attempted to care for me and then chosen to terminate her parental rights.
I spent the first two decades of my life feeling like a regular member of my family. The topic of adoption came up on occasion, usually because of my own curiosity, and my parents were comfortable talking about it. They answered my questions honestly and thoughtfully.
If there was a part of me that yearned for something — a hole that was difficult to fill — I didn’t connect that with being adopted. I struggled with anxiety and trust, and that worsened as I grew into adulthood. But I was certain I wanted to have biological kids — to create them, to grow them, to birth them. I didn’t know why I needed that, or why I was lonely and struggled to trust others. I just knew I needed to fill this hole, to find this missing piece.
My first pregnancy was hard, though, and everything was new — both for me and my mother. Neither of us had been pregnant before. I resented my mother’s interest in my experience and frequently held it precious and close to me, refusing to share, acting defensively and even unkindly. What now seems so natural and understandable on her part felt invasive and controlling to me. This was my baby, my birth experience, my life. A well of anger inside me seemed to grow and deepen. And after I gave birth, that anger transformed into a fierce attachment to my newborn son. I barely let my mother, or anyone, hold him.
I still struggle to explain my emotional response to seeing him for the first time, to feeling a bond like that. It was a tidal wave, taller and more powerful than falling in love. Like I’d missed something my entire life and just then realized it.
“Having a biological child can bring up the original loss experienced by an adoptee,” says Susan LaVigna, a clinical social worker in Olney, Md., who works with many adoptees. “Adoption is a lifelong process, and becoming a parent adds a layer of complexity as it causes adoptees to revisit, or consider for the first time, the losses that go along with adoption.”
I felt the grief over that loss as I got to know my baby, and it complicated the intense joy and connection he brought me. This love I now experienced — had my birth mother not felt the same? Did that make me less worthy of love?
Melissa Guida-Richards, an adoptee and mother, remembers that same complex spectrum of emotions.
“I felt an almost blinding amount of happiness, but also sadness,” she says. “Holding my kids and breast-feeding them created such a strong bond between us that I struggled again with how my own mother could carry me for nine months and then let me go.”
For many adoptee moms, this grief is new, something they don’t understand until they become pregnant themselves. New ways of thinking about their adoption often heighten the myriad emotions experienced during pregnancy and birth.
Ellie Edelin’s pregnancy was filled with an intense anticipation and healing.
“I love my [adoptive] family immensely, but my heart often aches for a family I have never met,” she says. “It is a life I had no say in being a part of. I believe all adoption is rooted in trauma. Being separated from your family, the person who you grew inside, is trauma. You miss that heartbeat, that smell, that undeniable bond. For me during pregnancy, all I could think about was that I was about to meet my first blood relative.”
Some adoptees cope with the added nuance of international adoptions, with no real opportunity to search for their biological family or find out important information related to their medical history or cultural background. As a domestic adoptee, I was able to meet my biological father and learn about my family, which informs the choices I make regarding my children’s medical care. It also helps me navigate religious and cultural paths as a parent.
But adoptees from other countries frequently encounter dead-ends in their searches, and their medical and cultural histories may feel out of reach. This can make medical decisions difficult and impact an adoptee’s sense of cultural or racial identity when they become a parent.
“I yearn for a large, extended family that can help teach my children their culture as Latinos,” Guida-Richards says. “I missed that growing up and I often worry that I’m not Latina enough to help them learn their culture since I was adopted into a white family.”
Acknowledging this thorny array of emotions allows us to move forward as adoptees and parents. And the powerful experience of having our own children can sometimes even bring us closer to our adoptive families. As I relaxed into the role of mother, I watched my parents become incredible grandparents. Their devotion and patience with my son eased my anxiety, and their excitement and support made me realize how much I loved them and wanted them in our lives.
Many adoptees find a similar sense of healing in their parenting experience, though some don’t have that same need for closure. Kelly Hufnagel considers adoption to be a simpler, more positive part of her life.
“My parents were very open about my adoption growing up,” Hufnagel says. “I was always treated as part of the family, never different from my sister, who is their biological child.”
Hufnagel considered adopting a child herself, but she and her husband decided the financial burden was too heavy. She enjoyed her pregnancy, and her only concerns related to adoption and parenting are of the medical variety.
“When we meet with my son’s pediatrician and questions are asked about family medical history, I do feel bad that my son only has half of his medical history,” she says.
Most mental health practitioners agree that whether adoptees struggle with their experience, and the degree to which they do so, is highly variable and based on the age at adoption, the nature of the adoption (open vs. closed), the number of caregivers they had between birth and final placement, the type of care they are given by their adoptive family and more. And the effects on their parenting likely relate to how adoptees process those experiences.
“The range of impact on parenting can go from quite minimal to quite significant, based on many, many factors,” says Alison Gardner, a clinical psychologist in McLean, Va. “However, adoptees often experience an added layer of appreciation, gratitude and connection to their children.”
As my son grew older, and I had two more biological children, that ache inside — that grief I didn’t quite understand before — shrank to a shadow of what it used to be. My connection with my children is profound and healing, and it has allowed to me to trust and love my husband and adoptive parents more deeply, as well. We joke that I’m never lonely now, and I never question whether I’m lovable or loved — not with these kids always wanting a hug, always needing their mom.
There is no part of me missing now, no hole to be filled.
Hannah Grieco is an educational advocate and writer in Arlington, Va.