About Adoption 9
In the 1950s psychological theories of identity and ‘attachment’ were still under scientific investigation. They were not yet a real issue in ensuring the health and moral development of the child. Heredity, and Freudian theories of internal drives and conflicts, still held sway as determiners of the child’s future.
It seemed self-evident that providing a home vetted for financial security and moral values was a complete and adequate substitute for the inevitable deprivation of the child reared out of wedlock, while satisfying the hunger of childless couples for a baby of their own. The concept of adoption followed society change, the emphasis no longer on ‘rescue’, and very different from the early use of the word ‘adoption’, when children were taken in to be taught to work in families with children and not look above their lowly social status.
The theory was that adoptive parents would fill the bill so completely that the child need never know of the existence of the birth mother beyond the fact of adoption, and could even be spared the discomforting knowledge of shameful birth.
To that end, secrecy was possible. A new birth certificate was issued giving the child a new identity, and preventing knowledge of biological inheritance, social or medical. Adoptive parents were promised that the child was wholly, legally theirs, in no way different from a child of the new mother’s own body, the accident of birth being eliminated from any further consideration. Their obligations were stressed as being totally the same as to a natural birth.
This reassured the relinquishing mother that by her loving act, the baby would have opportunities and security in life that she could never provide. It gave the new parents more security for once the papers were signed, the biological mother could never find, identify or reclaim the child.
It came as a frightful betrayal to some devoted adopting parents when these laws were changed and they saw their children turn away in search of their ‘real’ mothers – who practically speaking would not recognise them if they met in the street. The child who had become part of her adoptive mother’s own identity was now often seen to grow up and deny that identity and seek a new self-identity away from the family of upbringing.
Insights on separation were gained from observational experiments of separation on children, including a film of a hospitalised baby’s grief and distress (A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital (Robertson, 1 953a, 1953b; Robertson & Bowlby, 1952). It was taken for granted that the new parents could provide everything necessary for the attachment so essential for normal development, even if the child had spent the first years in an institution without personal care. Failure in the new relationship could be blamed on genetics, for the child’s existence was demonstration enough that the mother was ‘not quite right’, morally. Unfortunately, it came to be taken for granted that mothers, natural or adoptive, were to blame for problems observed in the child.
My first observation of separation occurred during my own childhood when an aunt who occupied a separate flat in our house adopted an adorable little girl at about two years old. This was the crucial age for birth mothers who tried to hang in there. The reason why our Mrs. Woods exerted considerable (and kindly) pressure on new mothers bringing their babies to the Office, was the experience of seeing those who tried to keep them giving them up a couple of years later. This is what happened, apparently, with my new little cousin. However, she seemed to settle in well and for a few weeks I loved playing with the little one and enjoying her happy, affectionate nature. She was perhaps responding to better and more reliable care than had previously been possible.
However, she had been handed over without delaying for the few weeks allowed for the mother to make sure she had made the ‘right’ decision before giving formal consent. And this one couldn’t bear the parting. When it came to providing the fatal signature she came instead and removed the child. My aunt and uncle were heart-broken.
Poor woman, she certainly tried to keep her beautiful baby girl; but it really was impossible. Eventually she had to give up all over again. She returned one day with a pale, silent, subdued little girl suffering a third separation, a ‘different’ child. She still looked like that when I last saw her in her teens; her joie de vivre seemed to have disappeared for good.
When I think of her, I understand something of what I must have looked like myself after weeks in isolation hospital at the age of two. That separation experience had very negative effects on my relationship with my own mother – I even came to believe that I must have been adopted myself. In the 1950s, John Bowlby’s work on separation and the perception and persistence of ‘attachment disorder’ enlightened me to much of my own ‘abandonment’ experience. After half a century of further consideration I recognise even more the damage done to personality development and sense of identity by separation, especially for toddlers whose brains are still forming.
‘Maternal deprivation’ during critical periods can prevent healthy ‘attachment’ – the developmental response to loving, reliable parenting – and leave growing minds at sea in the world, without that fundamental sense of ‘belonging’ in society that is the first and most basic need after air, food, water and shelter.
The Methodist Babies’ Home believed in immediate adoption as the kindest and healthiest way. After all, the separation will always hurt but the longer the bonding, the deeper the pain. My son however was hospitalised with an unnamed illness until six weeks. He came to me apathetic and unresponsive, but very quickly began to respond and develop normally.
In a different place my daughter was breast fed for six weeks as ‘giving a good start’, which may be true physically. I believe it is cruelty to the mother; and my daughter came to me continually screaming with fear and anxiety, refusing the bottle, not responding. and for over a year ‘failing to thrive’, just like the old ‘marasmus’ description of motherless babies … it was only in her second year that she began to eat and develop normally.