When I first told my Swedish boyfriend that I was adopted, he looked at me with surprise and said
‘But you’re not black!’
It was the last thing I expected to hear.
But then I learned why. In Sweden, tremendous support is given to mothers and extended families in general, regardless of their age, social or marital status. It means that very few adoptions occur inside the country, because most babies stay with their mothers, or at the very least their extended family if the mother/parents are in difficulty. Other families in the community are recruited to lend a hand with guardianship once or twice a week. There are not many adoptions and if there are, they come from developing countries. Whilst I do not support adoption as a construct, I recognize that children whose families are killed or torn apart by war may be better off growing up in a more structured and loving environment.
However in more developed countries, adoption has taken on a different face. In England where I was born, a strong sense of shame, sex-negativity, strict protestant ethos and negative politeness culture has generated a paradigm where children are less worthy for having been born on the ‘wrong side of the sheets’ (not to mention their mothers). Adoptees are objects handed over to parents (mothers) who much of the time, are not adopting because it is their first choice, but because they cannot have the biological children they so desire.
But why do women desire children? Is it a biological imperative? A desire to nurture? A expectation forced on them by society1? Fear of loneliness? A need to heal childhood wounds?
Maybe all of the above. And all of those for better or for worse, are a part of our society and our humanity.
But a growing body of anecdotal evidence suggests that a larger than proportional percentage of mothers who adopt2, adopt to satisfy their own needs of narcissism.
Maternal narcissism is a set of traits on a sliding scale. It is characterized by the mother’s view of a child as an object which serves to enhance or otherwise add value to the mother’s own self-image. For adoptees it results in emotional abuse, and even greater difficulties of attachment which severely impact all their relationships over their lifetime.
Maternal narcissism is extraordinarily difficult to identify because
- It can appear to outsiders that the goals and expectations set for the child by the mother are ‘what is best for the child’
- To other parties the maternal narcissist does not operate in the same way (only towards the child)
- The child does not exhibit any characteristic form of rebellion or abuse markers (like the Stockholm syndrome)
- It is a disorder characterized by a total absence of self-awareness of the mother (she will never be able to admit it and always be able to justify her behaviour)
- A maternal narcissist with several children may choose only one to be the scapegoat and therefore has ‘proof by contradiction’ that she is not the one at fault
In adoptees, it is doubly difficult to identify because the child has existing attachment difficulties to the mother due to the primal wound, that occur even if the mother is not a narcissist. In fact, the only way to identify the presence of maternal narcissism is the eventual impacts of this narcissism on the child’s personality and behaviour. Impacts which may also stem from several others sources.
But picture this. A woman who longs to have a biological child, who goes through trauma time and again in order to conceive. Who is belittled by society for not being able to ‘be a real woman’. Who has a fundamental human need to love unconditionally, and be loved unconditionally (even though she herself is in many cases not). Who year after year thinks ‘if only I could have a child, I would be complete.’ The idea of a having a child is all-consuming. The faceless child becomes the object which will make everything right. They serve only to fill the void.
And so the woman turns towards adoption as her only remaining choice. Finally she will be happy. Finally she will have the validation she needs to be a ‘real woman’. Finally she will have a child who satisfies all those needs in her to be seen as the perfect mother. The adopted child is objectified to satisfy her vanity, her hopes and her dreams. Does it really matter which child it might be? No. And does she care anymore? No. Because any child will do.
Then what? For a while the child is compliant and satisfies those needs. She has to, in order to survive. But should the child turn out to be an actual person, with a will and a mind of it’s own, the narcissist will lash out against the object who has ‘failed’ to meet her needs. She will become an abusive parent. She does not love her adopted child. She needs it as a form of narcissistic supply. 3
There is already much evidence to suggest that non-biological offspring are at greater risk of violent abuse. In fact a study in 1988 of child homicides in the US concluded that children were approximately 100 times more likely to be killed by a “non-biological parent”4. However the study only examined the actions of step-parents, co-habitees, or boyfriend/girlfriend of a biological parent. And these actions may equally well stem from motivators such as possession, entitlement, competition or jealousy (to name but a few). But the same study suggests that humans will invest more in their genetic offspring than they will in their non-biological offspring which means that adopted children should fall squarely inside this theoretical framework.
Violence can be (unfortunately) proved. There is external evidence. Emotional abuse through narcissism, cannot (not even within biologically related families). And quite possibly, as is often the case with adoptees, the behavioral impact may greater on them than on their biological counterparts. An adopted child has already lost one mother. (S)he will most likely make a greater effort to diminish her own sense of self, and feed into the narcissist’s desires just in order to avoid being rejected by the second. It is a matter of survival.
So if the abuse cannot be identified and the consequences cannot be diagnosed, what’s the solution?
Change the paradigm. Acknowledge that women who do not want babies have the right to abort (yes, I said it). Do not encourage the creation of unwanted children to satisfy the needs of childless parents. Introduce support and encouragement for women to keep their children within the extended family. Destigmatize those women who expresses a human desire to connect through sex so they are not forced or coerced to give up their children. Get rid of this ridiculous notion that children born outside of marriage are in any way unworthy or inferior. And vet all prospective parents for the insidious nature of narcissism because a narcissistic mother is the last person who should be bringing up a baby already suffering from trauma.
Stop setting adoption up as the solution to society’s ‘unwanted’ children because nowadays trading babies more of a business than it is an altruist act to ‘save’ an orphan. And recognize that the fact adoption exists as a business4 at all, is the single biggest reason why children are given up in the first place.
1.As the childfree-by-choice movement gains traction, there are an increasing amount of women who state their boundaries around having children. Critics say that there is something wrong with them. I say, thank goodness that there are women self-aware enough to make a choice about their lives and their bodies. Because the ability to make this choice (as difficult as it is with society’s expectations and criticisms), means that there may be less babies given up for adoption because their mothers simply weren’t ready or willing to be mothers.↩
4.Daly, M.; M. Wilson (2001). “An assessment of some proposed exceptions to the phenomenon of nepotistic discrimination against stepchildren”↩
5.Adoption is over a 13 billion dollar a year industry by anyone’s best approximation. Just like actual adoption statistics, there is not one governing body that oversees adoption practices. Most of us have to base the numbers off of a study done in 1999 that had actual numbers and an estimated growth rate. http://www.adoptionbirthmothers.com/adoption-industry-13-billion-in-profits/↩