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Memoirs of An Adoptive Mother

In our book A Womb of Her Own, (Routledge, 2017) author JoAnn Ponder writes of her own experiences as an adoptive mother. She states as follows: I was exhilarated to arrive home after two weeks in China, when Caitlin reached out to me for the first time and said “Mama.” Perhaps I needed a sign from her to feel like a mother and not just a caregiver. As Caitlin’s grief subsided and my mothering capacities unfolded, a bond developed. I fell madly in love with Caitlin, thinking that she was a dream too good to be true—yes, too good to be true. Separation anxiety was palpable on her part, more subtle on mine. My favorite lullaby to sing to her was You Are My Sunshine, which was a reference to her previous name. Initially, I gave little thought to the ending lyrics: “Please don’t take my sunshine away.” In retrospect, I always feared the loss of my child somehow, for example, declining an open adoption due to fears that the birth parents would emotionally kidnap or actually reclaim the child.

My Fears and Insecurities Diminished

My fears and insecurities gradually decreased as my natural parenting instincts took hold, I experienced success in caring for Caitlin, and she responded positively to my love and care. As I began to feel like a real mother, I was awestruck by the immensity of this transition. While women can divorce, change jobs, and so forth, a mother is always a mother. This was forever. It was as if Caitlin and I developed a natural rhythm, a give-and-take flow in our interactions, and it was this dance that made me feel fully like a mother. This rhythm might be similar to what researchers such as Beebe, Tronick, and others (summarized in Beebe & Lachmann, 2013, and Tronick, 2007) have identified as the dyadic regulation of affect between infant and mother. The mutual regulation was identified through microanalyses of videotaped infant-parent interactions, and occurs largely outside of the participants’ conscious awareness. However, I recall a more macro-level experience that suggested that subtle, intuitive regulation was occurring. One night at the dinner table when Caitlin was about 18 months old, I noticed that she was staring at me with her head slightly cocked, her mouth closed, her eyes squinting, her eyebrows knit, one arched higher that the other. I said to Carl, “Look at Caitlin! I wonder why she’s looking at me like that… where did she learn to make that expression?” Carl replied, “Well, she certainly didn’t learn it from me!” It was then that I realized that the facial expression was the way that my mother had looked at me with disapproval when she did not like what I was doing, a sort of nonverbal censure. We have not spent much time around my mother, so I figured out that I must be doing the same thing to Caitlin. So there it was, the intergenerational transmission of “the evil eye!” My look of surprise caused Caitlin to burst into laughter, whereupon I sensed that she was teasing me. The whole family laughed uproariously that night at the dinner table, though I felt weird that I had been channeling my mother without being aware of it.

Our Mother-Daughter Dance

As Caitlin and I perfected our mother-daughter dance, my professional views and perceptions shifted as well. Whereas my psychological reports about others previously referred to clients as “mothers” or “adoptive mothers,” I now began referring to “birth mothers” or “mothers.” In other words, the “mother” was the person rearing the child, whether the mother was biological or adoptive. Initially, this was not a conscious change in perspective, but an evolution based on my own experiences and internal perceptions. My coming into being as a mother was based mostly on my experiences with Caitlin, but also aided by individual psychotherapy. I received therapy from the time I was awaiting a child until she was a toddler. The therapy helped me to grieve my infertility, recognize ambivalence as normal, modify idealistic expectations, and develop self-compassion. Nonetheless, there were still blind spots… as there probably always are in parenting.

Typical Parenting Issues

When Caitlin began biting people during her toddler years, it never occurred to me that she had a speech problem, so I was surprised when daycare staff recommended an evaluation. Whereas I thought that Caitlin was saying single words in English and still babbling a lot, the results indicated that she was talking in sentences, but had a severe articulation disorder that rendered her speech unintelligible. I felt awful when I realized the many times that I failed to respond to her, and how frustrating this was for her. Immediately after the evaluation, I told her that we would get help so that she could learn to speak clearly. Her biting stopped that very day, her articulation improved slowly over years of speech therapy, and her enhanced communication revealed a sharp, creative mind. Ever since then, I have come to view biting as an important sign that the child is trying to communicate something.
When Caitlin did not learn her numbers and letters as quickly as most preschoolers, I told myself that children learn at different rates. When she came home from kindergarten crying that she was stupid, I reassured her otherwise. Despite my experience in evaluating learning disabilities, I felt blindsided when the teacher recommended special educational services. Leery that resource placement would further hurt Caitlin’s self-esteem, I arranged for services from the private sector: a neuropsychological evaluation, academic therapy, and tutoring. I remain convinced that if Caitlin was placed in special education classes, she might still be there. With intensive intervention from the private sector, her academic skills were on grade level within a year, and exceeded grade level by the following year. As her achievement soared, her confidence blossomed, though I still wonder if my desire for a typical or smart child made me slow to recognize her developmental challenges. Was I only seeing what I wanted to see? In retrospect, I do not think that I was less sensitive or attuned than most other parents might have been under the circumstances. Nonetheless, it was a painful process of self-examination that led to my conceptualization of the adopted child as a replacement child.

Memoirs of An 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). Memoirs of An Adoptive Mother. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 19 Apr 2019
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