Adoption Trauma

Untitled-1What does a baby know anyway?
It’s a question that I have been asking myself as I navigate our OA journey. We like to believe we are doing the best we can and that we are doing the right thing. That God led us to this place with our family and that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing.
But when I look at Ruby and I think about the person she is becoming, I wonder what she thinks about all of this. Will I be ready for the day when she has hard questions? And more importantly, does she really have a primal understanding of the loss she has experienced as an infant or am I making a moutain out of a molehill?

In the early days and weeks of bringing Ruby home, there was a feeling of chaos. An adjustment period and a learning curve (we had two small kiddos under 1 for goodness sakes!). But it was so unlike giving birth to Eli, who I felt I already knew before his arrival. Ruby was this new human being I had no idea how to care for. Of course we knew what a baby would need, and we loved her and had prepared for her arrival as any parent would…but was that love enough? I didn’t have a sense of who she was or what made her tick. What does she need from us?

When Eli was born, he knew Barry and I instantly. He was calmed by our touch, and there was an instant connection. I loved his smell, I loved his cry, I loved everything about this new little person. It was familiar. It felt natural. I remember my mother commenting that I looked so comfortable with him.
When Ruby was born, we were instantly smitten. We had a different birth experience than with Eli and we had anticipated her arrival with as much excitement. But I didn’t know her. As soon as I held her, I was beginning to learn about her. Her smell was foreign, her needs were different.
Initially, she was not calmed by being held, she would cry when I would give her a kiss on the face or head, she did not hold my hand and stare adoringly into my eyes as my son had done. She cried a lot (despite tummy troubles, which was a very big part of her pain). It was all different than it had been with Eli. (Of course we know every child is different, but adoption adds a whole new level to that).
Perhaps it’s just her personaility mixed in with all her stomach problems, but I would veture to say there was more to it. I think she was mourning. She was sad. She had lost someone.

Can that be true, though? Could an infant really understand what had happened? Or even remember? Isn’t a loving home enough to make a difference?

We had decided that all our struggles were because of her tummy and we worked hard to make sure our little girl was comfortable.
But looking back, I’m not sure that was an acurate picture of what was happening. After reflection, it has occured to me that much of our adjustment period was due to the fact that Ruby was (and may still be) experiencing the loss of someone important to her.
I had been working with our pedi for a long time, and I remember our nurse telling me that her daughter was the same way. She said it was awful, but at 3 months old, her daughter woke up and was just a different baby. She was happy and only cried when there was a real reason to cry. I kept waiting for that magical 3 month mark to bring out our happy girl, but it didn’t come. 5 months…5 months was our “magic” number. I think primarily because she needed to build trust in Barry and I, but she also needed to experience her pain too. We had to build a relationship with her, learn about her and let her know that through the love and care we provided that she was taken care of.

Some may still disagree- babies can’t remember anything. But we know from our personal experience that Ruby has transformed into a different child. She loves to snuggle, she spends a lot of time locking eyes with us, she wakes up happy in the morning, she giggles and smiles when we shower her in kisses…she’s loved and loves in return.
Because I am the research nerd, I did go hunting for adoption trauma information and resources. From what I gather, this is something that will likely affect our daughter her whole life. And knowing that she is adopted, and having a connection to her past will help her as she grows in her understanding of what adoption means.
A lot of these studies are based on testimonies from adoptees, and their birth parents. Some even branch out into covering babies who have been in the NICU- separated from their parents. Other’s for children adopted later.

This is what I know. Ruby has been with us from the moment of her first breath on this earth. We are her blood and family. We fiercely love her. She was hand picked by God to be a part of our family. And we love and respect her and the unique journey she will walk with our family.
Perhaps she was grieving. Perhaps she was sad. Or maybe she just has a flare for the dramatic with a side of tummy problems. I think acknowledging some or all of adoption trauma, whether one believes it or not, will be a big step in providing Ruby with the emotional support she needs as she grows and further understands the nature of how she joined our family.


A great interview from: that details responses in a newborn adoption situation.

M.A.: What should adoptive parents know when they bring home their baby?
W.M. All adopted babies, I think you can pretty much say, are in shock, which is the most severe level of trauma. They need to be held a lot, they need to be given true empathy, and what they do needs to be interpreted in terms of their loss. And parents who are in denial of this add another trauma to what the baby’s already suffered.

M.A.: It sounds so hopeless, so irreversible. Is there something they can do? W.M. Absolutely. If they can come to their child with this understanding, then they can begin to empathize with the baby’s experience. So if an infant comes to them with colic, or with tremendous startle responses, or fear, or is unable to attach or unable to be held or comforted, instead of feeling like the child doesn’t like them, they can begin to say to this baby, “You must feel really sad, you must feel really lost. You miss your mother. You miss your connection. You’ve lost something very important, and I understand.”

“I’m not the mom you expected, I don’t smell like her, I don’t sound like her. I’m a different mom, and I love you, and I’m not going to leave you.”

And you have to say it, out loud. These are tremedously healing things for this infant to hear, and it will allow the baby to cry, it will allow the baby to mourn.

M.A.: How can I expect a newborn baby to respond to the words I say? He doesn’t understand language.
W.M. Babies are much more conscious than they’re given credit for. Medical science is beginning to understand more and more about what babies are capable of. They’re actually realizing that babies understand math, that they understand concepts, that they identify people, that they are much, much smarter than we have understood. But babies are also psychologically brilliant, and probably more in touch with their feelings and more in touch with what’s going on, than we ever realized.

M.A.: I’m afraid that by saying those things to him, that I’ll be putting awful ideas into his head.
W.M. I think one of the most ludicrous ideas is that you’re hiding anything from a baby. Years ago people wouldn’t tell children that they were adopted, and so they would grow up-and many such adoptees will tell you this-knowing that something was terribly wrong. And when they were told the truth, although it may have been interpreted as a painful or terrible secret, it made sense, and it made their life make sense, and it gave them an understanding of this burden they were carrying, like not feeling right about themselves.

So the idea that telling the truth to an infant is going to put an idea in their mind is absurd-they were there, they know. They know on a very primal, instinctual level. All you’re doing is telling them that the hurt they feel is real, which is what makes us sane. It’s what truly loving is-affirming that person’s honest experience. So it’s exactly the opposite of putting awful ideas into his head.

M.A:. How do I know if it’s helping?
W.M. You’ll know immediately. The baby will know, and you will know. They just… hear you, I don’t know how to say it-they hear you and they feel understood. It’s miraculous to see it. They just relax. It’s totally healing.

Babies who’ve been separated from their mothers do have to mourn. And they do have to be sick. And they need somebody just to understand why, and to allow it. And then they can heal.


What is your OA experience like? What is your adoption experience like? Do you think a baby can grieve- even from their first moments of life?


4 Replies to “Adoption Trauma”

  1. How incredibly insightful of you to interpret your daughter’s actions as a form of “mourning”. It makes so much sense. She knew the sound of someone else’s heartbeat for 9 months…knew the sound of that voice…knew the sounds of her environment (research shows that hearing is the most keen sense of unborn babies). I love that you recognized it…that you gave her the space and time she needed…and that the reward of love and joy has come as she’s coming out of her tunnel of grief. What a blessed little girl Ruby is to have someone so understanding chosen to be her mother and father. I love that you spend time trying to understand your kids and do what’s best for them. Most of all I love how candidly you share your heart with the rest of us. I believe many will be blessed by it.

    I would like to share this thought. My daughter was our second-born child. She did not like to be held…she did not like to be cuddled…she did not like to be kissed. She nursed on the delivery table…and from that moment declared that she was independent and preferred doing things “her” way. She’s 26 now…and still as independent and feisty. She’s not a touchy-feeling sort of young woman. But she’s beautiful strong, wise beyond her years…and I love her dearly and am so proud of her. I worried that I didn’t love her enough because I didn’t hold her as much as I cuddled her big brother…till the day it dawned on me that I was really loving her in the way that she chose to be loved…and that was real love. When we can give up what we want to do and accept our children for who they are…individuals…not mini-me’s…then we truly are loving them.

    Ruby is blessed to be loved…and you are blessed in return with her love. Many years with lots of love and questions and tears and hugs to come! Blessings to all of you in the long run!

    1. Great insight! Absolutely couldn’t agree more- that’s true love you showed your daughter. 🙂 it’s so easy to get caught up in what we think our children need because it’s what we feel we need to give them or what we would want.

  2. Many children remember being born…my youngest is one who does. Great interview you included that seems very wise. You’re doing the right thing by being a loving mother.

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