Mention the word "adoption" in an ordinary group of people and you will find certain shared themes. When a birth mother (almost never does a birth father immediately come to mind) is mentioned you might hear phrases like, "I can't imagine how difficult a decision that would be." Or, in a less sensitive group, "Who could ever give away her baby?" When an adoptive parent is mentioned you might hear, "What a good thing to do." "They must be saints." Or, again, with less sensitive people making certain assumptions, "So, whose problem [referencing fertility issues] is it ... hers or his?" "So, how much does it cost to adopt a child," with the assumption being that adoptive parents must have monetary acumen to finance such a venture. And, when "adopted child" floats through a group, most people immediately think "baby."
Our adoptive experience is much different than the scenario many people imagine when they hear "adoption." All ten of our children have been adopted as "older children," the youngest entering our lives at nine months of age, the oldest at eleven years of age. While we have changed our share of diapers, warmed milk for bottles, and taught youngesters to read and write, we have not had the experiences many parents (adoptive or otherwise) have in the very first weeks of their children's lives. That's not all that bad, if it's sleepless nights and twenty-four hour care you wish to avoid. But it is bad if it's attachment and bonding you are concerned with.
I assume it's pretty well common knowledge by this point in our society's lifespan that the most critical moments in a person's life as the first weeks and months after birth. It is in these primordial moments that the foundations of trust, nurture and contentment are built into tiny lives. Attachment issues in adoptive children are significant, even when a family adopts from the hospital birthplace, but even more so for families who adopt a child later in his or her life.
I was reminded again last night of just how primal this issue is for parents who adopt older children. I have become accustomed, over the years, to the episodic bantering about "birth parents" to the point where I don't think much about it. When I find myself with other families and their birth children, however, I discover that there is not the same preoccupation. In the typical family formed by birth relationships, there is little conversation about the beginnings of life. Sure, there are questions about "the day I was born" and "when did I come home from the hospital" and the like, but there is not the preoccupation associated with the loss of one's earliest caregivers.
Anyway, last night our sibling group of three and I were having a fairly ordinary conversation in our living room, when the wounds were opened once again. Our sibling group of three is comprised of one boy and two girls; they share the same birth mother, but the girls have a different birth father than the boy does. The discussion began innocently enough, with a teenage discussion about height and body shape, with predictions about eventual adult size. It was an ordinary family discussion until our older daughter suggested that she might be taller than our son because her birth father was taller than his. (Whether or not this is factually accurate is unknown, but a likelihood). In a split second our son remonstrated, "Shut the f___ up. You don't know what the hell you're talking about." This group of three is usually very tight and protective of one another, so his outburst was a shock their emotional system. Taken aback, our daughter (and their perpetually caught-in-the-middle loyalist birth sibling) said nothing and then escaped the room. Our nearly sixteen-year-old son began to sob, covering his face with a baseball hat, his body convulsing with emotional pain.
Our son is prone to manipulating others, so I often discount his emotional outbursts, or at least seek to keep my emotions in check so as not to enflame his tactics. But intuitively I sensed that last night's response was less about manipulation and more about the raw, sheer pain that comes from early years of neglect and abuse.
There was little I could do. He didn't want to talk with me about it (I asked in several different ways), he didn't want me to touch him; he just wanted to be left alone. I sat with him a few minutes in the shadowed living room, coaxed him to take his evening meds and left him with four banal words, "I love you, John." I say "banal" because the phrase seems so impotent in the face of such deep-seated pain disugised often as hostility and aggression.
While it may be true that some things in time become fine -- such as wine -- there are some things in time which do not become fine. Early years of trauma and pain are not erased, even after eight years in a stable, loving adoptive family.