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Column: Barbara Sumner

As a child, my family saw the musical Oliver. For days after, my adopting mother hummed and sang the theme tune:

Consider yourself one of us
Consider yourself at home
Consider yourself one of the family ….etc etc

The song is a bit of an earworm. I’d forgotten it and the memory until recently when I heard it on the radio.

If you’ve seen the film (or read Dickens), you’ll know that being ‘one of us in Oliver was conditional on acting the part. You had to abide by their code of thievery and obey Fagin, the orphan master.

It makes sense. Like Fagin’s gang, we humans are tribal.

We gather with those who share our values. We’re always on the lookout for casual signifiers of belonging.

When we have kids, family and friends scan the scrunched face of your newborn for resemblance. His father’s nose, her mother’s eyes. When we pull out baby photos of close family and compare them, we recognise the child as one of us.

But does it work the other way?

For a pre-verbal baby, it’s all about smell and sounds. Studies reveal that the basis of bonding is the mothers scent..

Familiar odours wired into a babies brain affect nerve pathways and brain development. One researcher found that in the first few hours after birth, a baby identifies her mother by her smell.

In another study, day-old babies recognised their mother’s voice. They connected pacifiers to tape recorders. One sucking pattern turned on their mother’s voice, while another activated a strangers voice. Guess which sucking pattern the babies used?

So how does this all work for a person removed from their mother for adoption?

In The Primal Wound, Nancy Verrier says there’s an assumption a baby knows nothing. Any deprivation can be overcome by the adoptive parents. But for the infant, absence of her mother is the same as death. She goes through a withdrawal process as her most basic need for connection goes unmet. The loss of the original mother becomes imprinted in the child’s psyche and cells.

Growing up adopted in a stranger family I’ve experienced first hand how deep that loss and grief runs. How everything from smell to sport was wrong. And how the things we ignored, such as lack of family resemblance were the unspoken arrows of daily life.

It’s not easy for the adopting mother either. They also are grieving the child they could not have. They lack hormone bonding. They miss out on that recognition and satisfaction a new mother feels, despite the trials and exhaustion of birth? No one comments on how her baby looks like her. No one expects her child to be like her in any natural way. Instead, she must work extra hard to imprint her culture on the little stranger. While convincing herself that her experience is no different than for a biological mother.

This is the dirty secret of stranger adoption. Adoption is rarely a first choice. It’s not the same as biological parenting. No matter your parenting skills or commitment, this is not the child you would have had if you could have your own.

You won’t read that in pro-adoption literature. You cannot expect the adopted person to become the child you could not have.

I believe it does something to the adopting mother, creating an atmosphere of rote caring. The mother working hard to be seen to love the child she has no connection to.

In “Blueprint, How DNA Makes Us Who We Are,” Robert Plomin, concludes that babies are not balls of clay. Plomin is a behavioural geneticist. He says babies are not shaped by their parents after birth.  You arrive with imprinted traits from your biological parents.

His research proves that nurturing has little effect on the person you become. Children take after their first parents, not their adoptive parents. From cognitive skills and interests to personality traits. They even resemble their first parents in non-genetic traits. Television watching for instance and likelihood of getting divorced. “This comes as no surprise to first parents who meet their lost offspring. But it’s heartening and reassuring to have our impressions supported by scientific research.”  https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/sep/29/so-is-it-nature-not-nurture-after-all-genetics-robert-plomin-polygenic-testing

So how does an adopted person cope with this? They fake it.

The fantasy of the happy adoptee is ingrained in our society. It becomes the job of the adopted person to prove this story true. To salve the wounds of the adopting parent’s infertility. To act as if they are the missing child, to bend and fold and adjust themselves to fit into the adoptor’s family. As if they have no other mother. As if they are indeed one of them.

Of course, someone will jump up and say “I had good adoption. That was not my experience.’

I’m happy they got lucky. But that’s the point. They were fortunate not to experience abuse in addition to what every adoptee already endures.

Because adoption itself is inherently abusive. To say I had a good adoption is like saying I had a good car accident or a good mugging. Of course, some are worse than others. But they’re all bad things. Every adopted person has experienced separation trauma and had their rights violated. Even if they are not ready to acknowledge it. Adoption itself is the trauma.”

I’d describe stranger adoption as a state of suspended animation. You learn early that your inner need for authenticity will never be met. So you split that part of yourself of. And go through the motions. In adoption circles, this is the ‘good adoptee syndrome’. Your real self packed down tight while you smile and wave at the world.

The idea of being a stranger within your family is not limited to children and parents. In my experience, the wider family feels it too. You are a cuckoo in their extended family nest, treated with suspicion, your provenance a mystery.

Throughout history, humans have distrusted outsiders. We’ve always had city walls and borders and the need to identify ourselves. We’ve always had this innate sense of the good us versus the untrustworthy them. Just as Charles Dickens characters understood.

In the absence of blood ties, the only signifier of being one of us is your behaviour. So be a good adoptee, play your part and all will be well with the world.

ref. Consider youself one of us – https://www.barbarasumner.nz/blog/2019/1/15/consider-youself-one-of-us