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Adoption: A Clinical Example-Part Two

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

Based on my experience in working with adoptive parents, they are given little guidance about the amount and kind of contact with birth mothers appropriate to their child’s developmental level, nor are they “given permission” to consider their own readiness for contact. I suggested regular, predictable contact with Sam’s birth mother, in order to minimize unwanted surprises or repetitions of perceived rejection. I initially suggested infrequent contact, however, because Mr. and Ms. X’s discomfort with Sam’s birth mother hampered their ability to contain Sam’s emotions about her. I secretly felt grateful that I did not have to deal with Caitlin’s birth mother due to my own fantasies that the birth mother could have a negative influence or, conversely, that Caitlin might prefer her to me.

The Birth Mother and Mourning the Lost Love Object

A few months into treatment, Sam began asking more questions about his birth mother as his birthday approached. Although birthdays are bittersweet for the adopted child, his adoptive mother told him that he was lucky to have two mothers. If he was so lucky, I asked her, then why did his birth mother relinquish him? Ms. X said that she always told him that his birth mother was too young to properly care for a child. That was true, I said, and perhaps someday he would understand. In the eyes of a young child, however, there is no reason to justify giving away a baby. Ms. X appeared startled and sad, as if she had never considered the depth of his loss. This awareness might have helped her to begin forging an emotional connection with him over their mutual losses. I encouraged the parents to reassure Sam that he was not relinquished because something was wrong with him. They also should tell him that they are his “forever parents” who love him even when they disapprove of his behavior.

Within a few months of starting treatment, Sam was calmer and more focused. He began carrying a teddy bear almost everywhere– a bear with a visible heart sewn on its chest. Sam gave his own middle name to the bear. I considered the bear to be Sam’s transitional object, a mother-substitute used for self-soothing (Winnicott, 1953). As Sam’s angry outbursts decreased, his mother stopped logging them and began focusing on his positive qualities. In addition, she smiled and interacted with the children more often. Within a year, Sam was having only one outburst per week.

Fifteen months into treatment, Mr. X found a better job in another city and the parents announced plans to move the next month. Ms. X said, “This will be better for the family in the long run, but I know it will be hard for Sam to leave you and his friends. Can you help me find a good therapist? And how can we help Sam with deal with the disruption?” I used my professional contacts to find a therapist with a similar theoretical orientation to mine. As I terminated my work with Sam, I helped his parents plan a smooth transition to a new home and school. Mother and son had come so far, Sam with increased self-soothing, and mother with sensitivity to how parental issues impacted him.

During my last session with Sam, I gave him a stuffed penguin with a baby penguin attached to its belly. I suggested that Sam and his parents see the documentary movie, The March of the Penguins (2005, directed by Luc Jacquet), a beautiful study of animal bonding and resilience. One month after the final session, I received a note from Sam’s mother. The new therapist was not me, but they were adjusting. Six months later, Ms. X left a frantic voice mail. She said that Sam had cut the baby penguin off the adult, then brought the baby bird everywhere—to school, bed, and so forth. He had just lost the baby, and now his mother wanted to buy another one like it. I let her know about an online source. What a sad metaphor, the baby penguin lost from its mother, but what a nice ending, the adoptive mother replacing the lost object.


Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena. In D. Winnicott, Playing and reality. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 1—34.



Adoption: A Clinical Example-Part Two

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: A Clinical Example-Part Two. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 17, 2019, from


Last updated: 18 Jun 2019
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