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The Psychological Birth of the Adoptive Mother

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) author JoAnn Ponder writes as follows:

For prospective parents unable to conceive a child, the adopted child becomes a replacement for the biological child who previously existed only in hopes and fantasies. There are similarities between biological and adoptive motherhood, but also some significant differences and special challenges for the adoptive mother. Under the best of circumstances, the adoption does not result in an instantaneous identity and fulfillment as a parent, which involves a more gradual process of coming into being. The available literature offers few insights into this process, in that it focuses more on the adopted child than the adoptive mother. I have chosen to term the mother’s journey as a “psychological birth” in order to denote a process such as The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman, 1975). The following chapter explores the available psychoanalytic and developmental literature, along with insights from my clinical practice with adoptive families and my own journey to becoming an adoptive mother after years of infertility.

Infertility and the Decision to Adopt

Adoption is seldom a heterosexual couple’s first choice for creating a family and often occurs following infertility. Individuals may experience strong emotional reactions to infertility, including shock, disbelief, frustration, and blame (Burns, 2005; Rosen, 2005). Medical treatment is costly, intrusive, and time-consuming, interfering with sexual functioning and spontaneity, straining relationships, and taxing emotions. Each menstrual period, unsuccessful treatment, and failed pregnancy is experienced as a profound loss, rekindling earlier losses. Over time, this can engender feelings of bereavement, helplessness, and pessimism. The individuals may get angry as if cheated of something that should be theirs. Infertility thus activates castration anxiety and narcissistic injury (Blum, 1983). In self-psychological terms, infertility threatens a sense of self-cohesion, giving rise to anxiety and fragmentation. From an interpersonal view, it leads to the emergence of dissociated aspects of the self, earlier modes of organizing experiences, and altered perceptions of relationships (Rosen, 2005).
Though the decision to adopt may nurture hope, prospective parents can feel entitled to compensation for losses and difficulties sustained during infertility (Malave, 2005). They may feel the right to choose their child’s sex, age, or source country, choices possibly influenced by narcissistic motives, unconscious fantasies, and cultural or gender stereotypes. After years of infertility treatment, those who want a baby fast may be resentful of the screening process to adopt, frustrated by bureaucratic obstacles, and disappointed by the limited availability of infants, especially Caucasians (Miles, 2000). Factors such as the child’s age and race may also complicate the bonding process.

Bonding with the Adopted Child

Children adopted after infancy often have histories of neglect, abuse, institutionalization, or multiple changes in caregivers. These issues can lead to anaclitic depression (i.e., Sptiz, 1946), attachment disorders (i.e., Main, 1991), or other emotional problems (i.e., Downey, 2000). Even with newborns, there are differences in nurturing biological and adopted children. Bonding begins during pregnancy when hormones such as oxytocin are released (Schechter, 2000). Psychologically, the mother makes the child a part of her body, prenatally and postnatally, especially in breastfeeding (Furman, 1993). In contrast to the wanted biological child with hormonal and genetic advantages for bonding, the adopted child may begin life in an ambivalent intrauterine environment (Schechter, 2000). For adoptive parents, there is “instant and disorderly gestation through adoption” (Waterman, 2003, p. 177) rather than a gradual unfolding of the psychological state of parenthood (Sherick, 1983). Adoptive parent and child are strangers at first, and parents faced with the fact that the child came from someone else’s seed and womb, especially if the child is dissimilar in appearance (Etezady, et al., 2000).
Based on prior experience with Black and Korean children adopted by White parents, color-blindness is unrealistic in parenting (Miles, 2000; Waterman, 2003). For transracial adoptions to succeed, parents must be willing to relinquish their identity as a “White family” (Reed, 2000). They must confront their own racism and recognize their tendency to idealize or devalue their child’s race, consciously or unconsciously, as negative stereotypes can emerge during crises, conflicts, and the child’s adolescence (Miles, 2000). While they are encouraged to foster an association with the child’s race and culture, the child may view too much or too little association as a subtle rejection (Miles, 2000).
Despite the challenging beginnings for adoptive families, the difficulties can be managed. Bonding and attachment are complex processes arising not only from parent and child’s biological characteristics, but also from the parent’s past experiences, psychological make-up, fantasies, and expectations, in combination with the child’s temperament and parent-child temperamental compatibility (Etezady et al., 2000). Clearly, self-awareness and compassion are important characteristics for the adoptive mother. According to Waterman (2003), adoptive mothers are capable of a primary maternal preoccupation (Winnicott, 1956). With a “good enough bond” (Miles, 2000), processes like emotional containment (Bion, 1962), mirroring (Kohut, 1977), the mutual regulation of infant-mother social interactions (Tronick, 2007), and mutually attuned attachment (Schore, 1994) foster the child’s mental and social development. This led Siegel and Hartzell (2003, p. 34) to state that “adoptive parents should in fact be called biological parents because the family experiences they create shape the biological structure of their child’s brain.” This is reassuring in that my husband and I met our child literally as a stranger in a foreign country, yet we managed to form a family.

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Burns, L. (2005). Psychological changes in infertility patients. In A. Rosen & J. Rosen (Eds.), Frozen dreams: Psychodynamic dimensions of infertility and assisted reproduction. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, pp. 3-29
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Main, M. (1991). Metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive monitoring, and singular (coherent) versus multiple (incoherent) model of attachment: Findings and directions for future research. In C. Parks, J. Stevenson-Hinde & P. Morris (Eds.), Attachment across the life cycle. New York: Tavistock/Routledge.
Malave, A. (2005). From infertility to adoption. In A. Rosen & J. Rosen (Eds.), Frozen dreams: Psychodynamic dimensions of infertility and assisted reproduction. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, pp. 128-164.
Miles, C. (2000). Bonding across difference. In S. Akhtar & S. Kramer (Eds.), Thicker than blood: Bonds of fantasy and reality in adoption. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, pp. 19-59.
Reed, K. (2000). Separation-individuation theory and interracial adoption. In S. Akhtar & S. Kramer (Eds.), Thicker than blood: Bonds of fantasy and reality in adoption. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, pp. 61-89.
Rosen, A. (2005). Facts and fantasies about infertility. In S. Brown (Ed.), What do mothers want? Developmental perspectives, clinical challenges. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, pp. 171-191.
Schechter, M. (2000). Attachment theory in light of the adoption research. In S. Akhtar & S. Kramer (Eds.), Thicker than blood: Bonds of fantasy and reality in adoption. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, pp. 139-152.
Tronick, E. (2007). The neurobehavioral and social-emotional development of infants and children. New York: Norton.
Waterman, B. (2003). The birth of an adoptive, foster or stepmother: Beyond biological mothering attachments. London: Jessica Kingsley. Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena. In D. Winnicott, Playing and reality. New York: Routledge, pp. 1 – 34.
_______ (1956). Primary maternal preoccupation. In D. Winnicott, Through paediatrics to psycho-analysis: Collected papers. New York: Brunner/Mazel (1992).

The Psychological Birth of the Adoptive Mother

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2019). The Psychological Birth of the Adoptive Mother. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Apr 2019
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