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Adoption and The Replacement Child

In our book A Womb of Her Own author JoAnn Ponder writes as follows: I believe that infertility results in object loss much like bereavement, except that the loss is a fantasy of what might have been, rather than an actual child. Hence, I believe that the adopted child can be a replacement for a fantasy, much like a replacement child takes the place of a deceased child. In a classic paper by Cain and Cain published in 1964, the replacement child was defined as one conceived to take the place of a child who had died. Well-known examples are artists Vincent Van Gogh (Nagera, 1967) and Salvador Dali (Dali and Parinaud, 1973), each of whom was given the same name as his deceased brother. Conceiving a new child and giving him the name of a deceased sibling were more common in the past when there were high birthrates and infant mortality. However, problems ensued when the parents remained apathetic, grief-stricken and withdrawn, with a narcissistic investment in the deceased child. (Cain and Cain, 1964) They avoided mourning by projecting idealized expectations for the dead child onto the substitute. Since replacement children were treated more as embodiments of a memory than persons in their own right, they often developed identity disturbances.

Adoption as Replacement

In 2000 Anisfiled and Richards extended the replacement concept to adoption and other situations, but did not explore the dynamics specific to adoption. I suggest that when fertility treatments fail and prospective parents rush to adopt, their unresolved emotional issues can impair the capacity to be emotionally present for the child. If parents project idealized fantasies onto the child, this might impede the parents’ ability to see the child for who he or she really is. When narcissistic vulnerabilities are activated, the parents may project problems onto the child or birth parent.

Infertility, Anxiety and the Insecure Parent

The adopted child is born to parents who did not want the pregnancy or mistreated the child. (Cohen, 1996) However the child may attribute the relinquishment to his or her defectiveness, resulting in a sense of not fitting in, first with family and later with others. (Frankel, 1991) The child is then reared with parallel experiences of anxiety and insecurity. (Cohen, 1996) I believe that infertile individuals who have not worked through their feelings of inadequacy are prone to feel unsure about their parenting skills, insecure about parent-child relationships, and threatened by contact with birth parents. Adoptive parents who project their insecurities may show defensive hypervigilance to potential problems in the adoption. (Hushion, 2006) In most cases such insecurities dissipate with time and experience, though a few families require therapeutic intervention. Mutual success in mastering doubts and anxieties about the adoption may strengthen parent and child, resulting in a uniquely affirmative bond. (Frankel, 1991)

Adoption and The Replacement Child

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). Adoption and The Replacement Child. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Apr 2019
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