Happy Adoptees

by Julie A. Rist

I am not the happy and grateful adoptee that you want me to be.  Don’t get me wrong.  I was happy and grateful for almost 45 years — or so I believed.  Had you asked me then how I felt about being adopted, you might have heard something like, “Great!  I am so grateful to my (adoptive) parents for all they did and, no, I am not interested in finding my ‘real’ family.  My adoptive family is my ‘real’ family, thankyouverymuch, and they are a wonderful family.  I’ve had a wonderful life.  Of course, I am grateful to my natural mother for giving me life.  Oh, you’re adopting?  How wonderful!”

I enthusiastically expressed that view all those years because I needed to convince myself that my life was normal and right and that I was okay.  I did it because everyone else wanted me to feel that way, too.  And I thought I would die if I ever looked deeper.

Happy children

You’ve seen adopted children who seem to be perfectly happy, too.  They smile and have fun just like those whose families are intact.  They act happy and, occasionally, they are.

Yes, adopted children smile and laugh.  Did you stop smiling after you lost a loved one?  Didn’t you still laugh when someone said something funny?  Weren’t you still capable of having some fun?

Did you ever smile and act happy to hide your grief?

Of course you did.  But even when you smiled, those close to you knew it didn’t mean you were happy.  Those close to you accepted and expected your pain and sadness.  They did not expect you to be happy about your loss.  They gave you something most adoptees do not get: acknowledgement of, empathy for, and permission to express your grief.

What grief?

In the early ’50s when I was adopted, little was known about the power of the bond between mother and child.  Society still accepted Locke’s theory of tabula rasa — that we are born as blank slates.  John Locke died in 1704, yet his theory survived until the mid- 50s.  Now, however, we know that even before birth babies are intelligent, remembering and aware beings with their own personalities.

We know that much of who we are today was created in the womb. We know that mother and child are a single entity, profoundly connected physiologically, emotionally and spiritually — even through early infancy.  A baby does not understand that he or she is an individual until at least 9 months after birth.

Through their research, authorities have determined that, when the mother/child entity is split, it causes an acute and lasting trauma in both mother and child.  The repercussions are ominous and tenacious.  Though they become buried deep inside, the repercussions follow both mother and child throughout the remainder of their lives.

It is difficult, emotionally, to imagine a tiny baby’s very real feelings about the loss of his or her mother — the terror of losing all that is familiar, all that is comfort — the unique heartbeat, scent, taste, voice, rhythms and vibrations.  Babies are born needing and expecting these familiar things which only their natural mothers can provide.

Even with this knowledge which has accumulated over the past 20 years, there remain those in our society who sever the mother/child entity as casually as they would cut a common earthworm in two.

Ignored trauma is another trauma

A child’s first experience in the adoptive family is usually joining in everyone else’s happiness over his or her tragedy.  The child’s first trauma is ignored or dismissed, perhaps in the belief that enough love will make it disappear.  It will not.  In essence, the adoptee is expected to dance along with everyone else on his or her own mother’s virtual grave.  Most experts in the fields of adoption psychology and trauma consider this dismissal to be the adoptee’s second trauma.

The first and second traumas are the root causes for a number of issues and for additional traumas, which accumulate one upon another (what Betty Jean Lifton calls “Cumulative Trauma”).

We may not want to imagine these things because it is uncomfortable to do so but, to act in a child’s best interest including protecting his or her emotional health, we need to suffer through such discomfort.


Over 14 years ago, I began 9 years in therapy, struggling with a boatload of issues that are utterly classic in adoptees.  I didn’t accomplish much.  The problem was that I did not connect them with my adoption experience.  In all fairness, my therapist encouraged me to recognize the connection, but I was so deep in “De Nile” that I could not see it — indeed would not see it.  I needed too desperately (like most of society) to believe that my adoption experience was the positive part of my life — not the source of my problems.

Denial is powerful and, in many ways, a gift.  It is a state we create in order to avoid feeling the pain of seeing the truth.  When a baby’s world is gone, he or she does whatever it takes to survive.  If the child does not get empathy and permission to grieve, he or she has no choice but to psychologically deny the trauma.  And that includes smiling to hide the grief.  The child begins to believe that his or her feelings are unimportant — even wrong.  The child learns how not to feel.

I do not use the word “denial” in a damning or judgmental way.  It is a normal and natural human survival tool.  I not only acknowledge it but, knowing intimately the pain that comes with shedding that denial, I am reticent to nudge others out of it.  Denial can be a trauma victim’s most effective tool for survival, because revisiting the event that caused the trauma can feel literally life threatening.

The downside of denial unfortunately outweighs the upside.  Denial prevents us from understanding and effectively managing all the issues that stem from the disintegration of the mother/child entity.  What are the most common issues?


Issues of the adoptee are barely acknowledged by society and then only in those who are of a different race than the adoptive family — as if physical differences are the only ones that matter.  But there are reasons why we see repetitive generations of lawyers, healers, scholars, actors, artists, etc. in natural families.  It is not just a matter of continuing a family business or tribal tradition.  It is a matter of like characteristics being perpetuated, generation after generation, being nurtured by genetic mirroring.

Even if we are not transracial or biracial adoptees, we still do not get the genetic mirroring that we so desperately need.  We don’t know how tall we’ll get, or whether our hair will get darker or lighter, our skin clearer, our bodies thinner or thicker.  We don’t know who we’ll look like when we’re older.  Our own natural characteristics are unfamiliar, so we don’t know what we should or should not choose to develop.

Although such things may seem inconsequential to those around us, they are monumental to us, and serve to make us feel even more alienated, more lost.

When an adoptee’s characteristics do not fit those of the adoptive family (or the extended adoptive family), there can be trouble.  In my case art, writing and psychology were all frowned upon by my adoptive family.  Yet those characteristics run happily in my natural family.  Though my adoptive parents meant well, I grew up feeling like a bad seed.  Out of desperation for approval, I pursued career paths that I thought would please them but even those successes were never enough to overcome their disappointment.

Carrying the surname of someone else’s family also contributes to identity problems.  The child is expected to embrace the adoptive family’s ancestry, as if his or her own is immaterial — as if living in the dark is no big deal.

Low self-esteem

Identity issues can explain some low self-esteem, a classic adoptee problem.  Another cause is some adoptive parents’ — and society’s — (unmistakable yet unspoken) low opinion of the stereotypical “birthmother.”  Not only is this an unfair and incorrect judgment about our mothers, but adopted children incorporate these attitudes into their own self-image.

Along with this message, adopted children are often told that, essentially, their mothers loved them so much that they gave them away.  This makes no sense.  If my mother really loved me that much, she would have kept me — therefore there must be something wrong with me.  This creates low self-esteem.

Low self-esteem leads to people-pleasing.  Adoptees are exemplary people-pleasers.  That is why we so often appear to be happy and are pleasant to be around.  Lots of smiling!  Our original purpose as adoptees was to fulfill the desires of others, to make them happy.  Early on, our authentic selves are sacrificed to fill those needs.

Powerlessness and control

For many adoptees, it is easy to fall into despair and feel powerless over circumstances that emotionally healthy people can overcome with relative ease.  This is rooted in our separation experience, when we felt powerless, helpless and hopeless.  Paradoxically, we can become obsessed with controlling other parts of our lives, those things and events that we can control.  This is conflict waiting to happen.


Often, depression can come from the sheer exhaustion of maintaining pretense (being in denial).  No matter how much love and care we are given, the truth is that we are (and will always be) someone else’s children.  Yet we exhaust ourselves emotionally, pretending otherwise because we believe it will ensure our survival and prevent another abandonment.

We also expend a lot of energy fantasizing about our natural mothers, and a lot of energy burying our authentic selves in favor of people-pleasing.  All these things take a great deal of energy yet offer little reward  — fertile ground for depression.


One of our most common problems is that of trust.  The original disintegration of the mother/child entity can literally destroy a baby’s nascent sense of trust.  Once lost, it can never be recovered.  Only a tentative sense of trust can be painstakingly built by the adoptive family, yet it will always be difficult and sometimes impossible.  Again paradoxically, we tend to casually trust anyone and everyone.  It is when deep trust is required, as in intimacy, we tend to fall short.


Abandonment is the most common issue of the adoptee.  Despite the true circumstances of the separation from our natural mothers, we experienced this emotionally as abandonment.  Even with later knowledge of those circumstances, the early emotional experience of abandonment never leaves us.  Relationship troubles abound.  Other issues such as trust, identity, low self-esteem and control compound these troubles.

Many people have abandonment issues.  For adoptees, however, abandonment is not just painful.  It can feel like annihilation.

“Only eyes washed by tears can see clearly.” — Louis Mann

Staying in denial, while it may be a refuge, hurts everyone involved.  Although seeing the truth also hurts, don’t parentless children deserve what they truly need?  How can society continue pretending that the smiles are genuine simply because it is easier than acknowledging the underlying problems?

For those who genuinely care about these children and want to take that first step toward seeing clearly, start with one of Betty Jean Lifton’s books, such as Journey of the Adopted Self or Nancy Verrier’s The Primal Wound.  They offer insight into the issues of adoptees, adoptive parents, and of mothers who have lost children to adoption.  Such knowledge and understanding can open our minds and hearts to alternatives that are better than adoption.

Smiles as masks

Despite all these traumas and issues, adoptees smile.  We smile to hide a world of hurt that neither we nor the rest of the world want to face.  We smile because the world needs us to smile.  They need to believe they are doing the right thing for us, to forget those silly “issues,” and call us “happy.”  By smiling, we help them do that.

Next time you encounter a “happy” and “grateful” adoptee who had “wonderful” adoptive parents and a “wonderful” life, look a little closer.

Ms. Rist is an artist, writer, and adoption alternatives activist living in Phoenix.

Copyright © J. A. Rist 2002.  All rights reserved.