How Early Life Influences Us: My Roots as an Adoptee

One of the most unique things about Parenting for Peace is it’s the only parenting book that collates, contextualizes, and includes guidelines around the latest research on how powerfully early life influences us.

Author's birthparents

My birth parents Bob & Liz, 3 months before my birth

In other words, how soon parenting begins.

For me, all of this is eminently personal: it grows from the ground of my own lifelong experience, beginning in the womb of a mother who knew she would not keep me. Who met a couple who had suffered some steep losses — the death of a baby, a near-fatal miscarriage — and decided she was carrying me for them. Who held me just once that first day in the hospital, and didn’t see me again for twenty-one years.

It grows from the ground of my first six days spent in a hospital nursery, followed by the months and years in a home that was not, shall we say, steeped in “relational intelligence.” Things were pretty chilly. A bit lonely. And it wasn’t that my parents didn’t mean well, or have good intentions. They were short on information and understanding. That’s what I try to do with my book, my private coaching, my speaking appearances — make sure there is lots of information and understanding available about early life influences, so that your best intentions can be realized in practical, effective ways!

Affirming a Child’s Reality

As an adoptee, I grew up with the slogans many well-meaning adoptive parents chant to their children: Everybody else had to take what they got, but we got to CHOOSE you…and the undisputed classic, You were CHOSEN (with the unspoken and somewhat ironic implication, You were SPECIAL).

And then there is the breezy, overly simplistic reference to adoption (and now, increasingly, surrogacy) as “just another way to build a family.”

This is a dismissive characterization of a profound experience that has involved not only the parents’ deep losses, but the child’s loss of the parents who couldn’t keep him. It is usually with the best of intentions, and also because of struggling with their own very mixed feelings about adoption and their own past losses, that adoptive parents will convey half-truths about adoption. They think it will shield their child from the pain of loss that is inherent in adoption, and help instill positive feelings in the adoptee. But it doesn’t. All it does is imbue the child himself with a confused tangle of mixed feelings, and can foster an overly sensitive, “walking on eggshells” family atmosphere.

Far from “just another way,” adoption (as with the modern variation, surrogacy) is a somewhat more complicated way to build a family than nature intended. It calls for extra consideration and care. When we overlook complications and potent early life influences, we risk missing rich opportunities for building family intimacy, which pulses at the heart of peaceful parenting.

My Roots in Adoption | Marcy Axness PhDTremendous blessings can be experienced by all the participants in adoption, but we must never forget that most often, those blessings are born of loss — the loss for the birth parents of a child they will not parent; the loss of their dreamed-of biological child the adoptive parents won’t have; and (except in rare cases of truly open adoption) the loss for the adopted child of his or her biological, genealogical, and possibly cultural, connections.

As with any of Life’s significant experiences, when we deny adoption’s losses, we also deny ourselves — and our children — its greatest blessings.

Throughout the 90s and into this century (egads, how old does that make me feel??) I wrote, taught and counseled about how we can indeed invite adoption’s greatest blessings, through consciousness and self-exploration. Helping adoptive parents see the richness and family intimacy that blossoms when they can affirm their child’s real experience rather than “slogan-ing it away” was a big piece of that. Along the way I recognized that these issues of loss, grief, and disconnection are not the sole province of those involved in adoption. They are universal.

The Importance of Beginnings

Here’s an example: over the years I so often witnessed in adult adoptees the deep resonance, recognition and sense of relief when talking about many people’s experience of being a conception that wasn’t intended: somehow feeling, at your deepest core, wrong, in the most basic, existential, yet intangible way — never quite legitimate, never quite enough. Feeling like we have to keep earning and demonstrating our right to be here. For some it includes going through life apologizing for intruding: “Sorry to disturb you,” “Sorry to interrupt,” “Are you sure you really want me to come to your party?”

Adopted people are certainly not the only ones whose early life influences include conceptions that were not intended. We’re (mostly) the only ones who know straightforwardly that this is the case. Over the years I have met countless non-adopted people for whom it had become clear over the years that their conception was not invited, and who also experience the primal residue of that.

None of this is about blame or guilt or tallying up the wrongs done to us or by us! This is about compassionate understanding of ourselves, our children, our loved ones. The more we can understand about the early life influences that have shaped us — and continue to impel us to behave and respond in ways that may run utterly counter to what we would consciously choose — the more free we become. The more joy we can have. As one therapist used to say to me, “It’s knowing what really happened to us that makes us sane.”

Indeed. Let us all be sane, joyful and free!

I’m particularly inspired at the moment to write about adoption in anticipation of giving the closing keynote address at what promises to be a wonderful conference next month at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles: Adopt Salon Conference 2012 — Mending the Losses, Becoming Whole Again. More info here

Tired daughter by marcalandavis, under Creative Commons license

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8 Responses to “How Early Life Influences Us: My Roots as an Adoptee”

  1. Linda Waugh says:

    Dear Marcy, I am adopted. I am 56. I stayed up half the night trying to figure out what’s wrong with me and found out that people have written books about the problems which haunt me as an adopted person. There are no counselors or psychiatrist in the remote area in which I live. My pain has come to a head now and I need help with it. Can you point me to books which can allow me to heal?

    • Marcy Axness says:

      Oh my, Linda, please forgive my delay in responding to your comment! I don’t have to tell you how much I relate. I have spent MUCH of my adult life unwinding and parsing out my early life influences — both adoption-specific and not — and how they have influenced and shaped me.

      Have you seen my Adoption Insight booklet “What Is Written on the Heart: Primal Issues in Adoption”? It’s a short read and is a good introduction to and survey of the landscape of some of these lifelong shaping forces of separation, relinquishment and adoption. (You can find that here in Shop->Adoption, where it’s right at the top.)

      I have some good titles in the “Cool Links” page under Resources; check out both the Separation/Loss section and Adoption. (Don’t wait too long, though; I’m planning on streamlining / downsizing my website and those will probably go away!)

      Some of the finest healing modalities (in my opinion after decades of this research) can be accessed in distance formats, such as phone, Skype, Zoom, etc., such as Somatic Experiencing, a therapy developed by Peter Levine. I hope this helps. Feel free to get in touch with me directly via the contact form if you have more questions or care to book a consult with me.

  2. Marcy,

    Thank you for writing this important information. We are at the start of the process and are looking at many different aspects concerning adoption. Ours raises many other questions but being able to see information and individuals that have great experiences and knowledge really are helping us understand more. We have a lot to offer both in the world of education and communication backgrounds, but I ( Blakely) cureently am a Head Start Director within a large community. Therefore, it is opening our minds to areas of “what if… they see themselves in a negitive light at an older age.” “What if… they are unable to see past everything that might be an obstacle.” We have been waiting till oir lives are quote more normal to begin the process. We are just greatful to be able to find sites, books, and individuals with information to share just as your site has done. We heard about your book at a training concerning a head start foster parent, and then through a facebook adoption group we just joined! Realized must be one to look more into! Thanks B & B

  3. Mirah Riben says:

    Thoughtful article that makes good points. Would add that in additon to adoption and surrogacy, children of purchased egg or sperm are in the same boat… and, here’s where the second half of your article falls short and contradicts the first half.

    Surrogacy, and all third party redocuctive births are very much INTENDED and so in that sense they differ from most adoptions. What they share is the “another way to form a family” mythology that negates half or all of a child’s genetic connections.

    What I have always found interesting are the men and women who reject adoption and choose an alternative so that the child will be biologically connected to at least one of them, and then so easily ignore the other half!

    Anonymity of all or part of a person’s heredity seems to be the one commonality, more so than how intentional or unintentional the conception was. As you seemed to imply, most non-adoptees can be either intnded or not and most of us never know. Do you suggest it is KNOWING that creates emotional anxt, or just being unintended that causes it even unknowingly? Either way, I think it is a far lesser problem than disreagerding all or part of a person’s DNA.

    • Marcy Axness says:

      Thank you for these thoughtful additions, Mirah. You have always been such an important truth-teller in this realm…one of the first who opened my eyes back in the early 90s. I appreciate your distinction vis a vis the forethought involved in surrogacy and ART situations. This invites us into philosophical and esoteric realms that deserve more posts for sure! I’d suggest that intention doesn’t necessarily equate with ambition — and I’m talking about an attunement and mindfulness toward the creation of the new life. As for your last question, I’d suggest that it isn’t knowing or not knowing whether one was intended that leaves a watermark; as John Sonne once put it, it creates an “unthought known” within a person. And lastly, I think it’s most fruitful not to rate these influences quantitatively (as in which is a greater or lesser problem), but to recognize they all carry their legacies into a person’s complex tapesty…in different ways for different people. Part of the great mystery.

      • Susan Bennett says:

        I whole heatedly agree with your final thoughts, “I think it’s most fruitful not to rate these influences quantitatively, but to recognize they all carry their legacies into a persons complex tapestry… In different ways for different people.” Marcy in articulating the uniqueness of each life is profound! Thank you for all your work and sharing your journey!

  4. Judah says:

    This is a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing a piece of your own story in a way that is helpful for others, like me. I admire the work that you are doing to provide information and understanding to parents. All the best.


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