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Is Maternal Narcissism More Prevalent in Adoption?6 min read

When I first told my Swedish boyfriend 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. Countries who have babies of far more colour than their pale-skinned adoptive parents. 

However in other 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’. International adoption in the U.K. is less prevalent than in Sweden, in part because there can be no ‘passing privilege’ between adoptive parents and their children, and thus no avoidance of the stigma associated with infertility. Yes, England is still that monolithic in its attitudes.

In any case, adoptees are objects to be saved; to be handed over to parents (adoptive 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.

My own observations of this type of objectification are supported by growing body of anecdotal evidence suggest that a larger than proportional percentage of mothers who adopt, adopt to satisfy their own needs of narcissism. And yet even where the adoptive mother is not a narcissist, some impacts similar to those from maternal narcissism may also occur in adoptive scenarios. Why?

Since maternal narcissism is characterised primarily by objectification, I suggest that objectification is also likely to be higher in adoption firstly because in that one transactional exchange almost every adoptive parent has already objectified their adopted child. Moreover, since a baby is wholly dependant—for a while at least—on the will of someone else to move them has to be picked up and put down, it is likely that a baby, all babies, will be objectified before they can function more independently. And when babies become toddlers, all parents control their behaviour and remove their agency in order to protect them.

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 really 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. The mother will do everything so that outwardly she appears to be the perfect mother, after all she already has the underlying insecurity that she was not able to be a ‘real’ mother. But should the child turn out to be an actual person, with a will and a mind of its 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 in the real sense of the word. She needs it as a form of narcissistic supply.

Maternal narcissism is not exclusive to adoptive scenarios, but maybe disproportionately more prevalent in the adoption triad and also potentially more impactful because of the initial disruption in the bonding-attachment continuum. Is there any research to support this?

There’s lots of 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”. However the study only examined the actions of step-parents, co-habitees, or boyfriend/girlfriend of a biological parent. And these actions are known to stem from emotionally abusive behaviours such as possession, entitlement, competition or jealousy (to name but a few). 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 would also fall squarely inside this theoretical framework.

Violence can—unfortunately—be proved. There is external evidence. Psychological abuse through narcissism or extreme objectification, cannot. Not even within biologically related families. And as suggested, as is often the case with adoptees, the behavioural impact may greater on them than on their biological counterparts. An adopted child has already lost one mother. She 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. She will fawn. It is an unconscious choice made, in order to survive.

  • Is Maternal Narcissism just another name for Tiger parenting?

In Neil Gaiman’s ‘other mother’ narrative, I saw my adoptive mother. I experienced her love as entirely conditional on whether or not I believed in the identity she prescribed for me, obeyed her wishes and met her emotional needs. And yet for years I wondered whether it could simply be a compounded effect of my insecure attachment from the initial separation, her chosen style of disciplinarian ‘negative’ parenting through isolation/withdrawal of love, her conviction that she was always ‘right’, her own emotional neediness and lack of boundaries, her controlling parenting through the belief that mother always knows best and her drive to see me succeed to appear as if she—the other mother—was the perfect mother.

I cannot be 100% sure, even now. This parenting style is not uncommon. Far more many children than I, have had parents who exhibit these traits. They are the very characteristics of what we call the ‘tiger’ parent but they are also the traits of maternal narcissism. Are they the same thing? Is one a conscious parenting choice and one an illness? 

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3 Comments

  1. […] comes from traumatic loss and chronic stress in my childhood through adoption compounded by maternal narcissism–a text book case of primal separation, objectification and neglect all wrapped up in one neat […]

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