For many years I have taken an interest in the unique relationship that develops between Mothers and Babies. The infant's environment before he/she is born, and into the early stages of infant life; is one that is profoundly sensitive. Donald Winnicott (1956) tells us that the Mother is capable of forming a relationship with her Baby before the end of her pregnancy; and that this is a necessary and very special state for the Mother.1 When giving thought to Mothers who find themselves having to relinquish a baby for adoption, it is reasonable to predict that this “special state” Winnicott refers to, is altered or interfered with. Mothers relinquishing their Babies for Adoption often know that the Adoptive process is pending. For their own emotional protection, they may have a tendency to defend themselves against (or deny themselves the pleasure of) the above mentioned state that Winnicott calls “Primary Maternal Preoccupation”.1

For the Infant, the Adoptive process usually means a separation from it's Mother at birth. This is also a profound experience. The natural process of birth, and the Mother's opportunity to get to know her Baby is disturbed; and the so is the delicate balance of attachment, security and infant need. Bowlby (1988) conveys this beautifully, as he explains that an infant is naturally inclined to seek it's Mother. He points out that the infant is naturally inclined to seek proximity to the mother and form an affectionate bond with her.2 When this bond is altered, as it is, in a dramatic sense, in the adoptive process, the impact is often far reaching. There can be little doubt, such impact is carried from the infants early experience into adult life; and can influence an adoptees sense of self, as well as complicating their notions of security, both in their families and in their other relationships.


First and foremost, we all struggle in some form or another with issues relating to dependency, security or sense of self worth; and we all attempt to attend to this as best we can, depending on our personal resources. Adoptees, however, have a circumstance in their lives which is absolutely unique. The bond between themselves and their mothers is broken in reality. (usually at the beginning of infant life) I believe this particular aspect of reality can give the above mentioned struggles with sense of security and self worth, a particular “loading” for the Adoptee that cannot be ignored.

Like all of us, the Adoptee carries with him/her a complex array of memories, feelings, thoughts and response mechanisms; but it is worth noting, that this extra “loading” I referred to earlier, offers a particular quality to the manner in which an Adoptee sees the world. The filter (the way we view the world, based on the sum of our life experiences) used by an Adoptee can be unusually vulnerable to insecurity or a shaky notion of permanence. Relationships can be shrouded in suspicion or continuous needs for reassurance. An Adoptee's confidence in the reliability of their environment is quite possibly, dramatically affected by early separation and loss.

These issues appear in the lives of Adoptees regardless of the quality of the Adopting Parents. The reason for this, is primarily because the need to search for, and know one's origins, is primitive in nature. No matter how loving and nurturing an Adoptive family are, and no matter how secure a base they are able to provide for the child they adopted; they have different genetic and emotional make-ups. They cannot provide a space for the Adoptee where he/she can see him/herself in the face of a parent. I believe, quite genuinely that most Adoptive Parents are readily available and willing to provide the most secure base possible, however no one can “back track” and take away the real experience of separation and loss; and the anxieties that are naturally associated with this. Equally importantly, no one can deny the sense of difference an Adoptee recognises instinctively; and attempts to accommodate.

Mothers Relinquishing Babies for Adoption

Mothers who experienced the process of relinquishing a child for adoption, rarely escape having to negotiate intense grief, and a sense of loss which in many ways may not be reconcilable. In the early days of Adoption, the whole process was conducted under a “closed system” Mothers who relinquished babies for Adoption under this system, were instructed that they should forget that they had given birth to a baby; and that they could never expect to see, let alone know, the baby they carried in-utero for 9 months. In 1984 (nearly 90 years after the writing of the original Adoption Act) this changed. Mothers and Adoptees interested in searching for, and re-uniting with each other became possible. Adoption now operates according to an open system.

In the scheme of things, it does indeed seem bizarre that a woman who has just given birth, be told to forget such a momentous event. The women who found themselves in this position, were often young (although not always) Many tried to comply with the directives imposed upon them, partly because the environments in which they found themselves, did not support anything else. These women were rarely offered room to complain, grieve, take time to say “goodbye” let alone change their minds if they wanted to! At the time Adoption Papers were to be signed, many women were at the end of a process that had been difficult even bordering on traumatic. Many had been sent away while in their pregnant state, so as not to invite unwanted questions from extended family and friends. Many women were made to feel ashamed. The process women routinely describe as such a happy moment, is instead infused with confusion, guilt , distress anxiety and acute loss.

Mothers who adopted their babies within the closed system (prior to 1984) found themselves in a very curious position once the laws changed. Suddenly a situation that was believed to be impossible, was now possible. For these reasons, searches and reunions conducted by a relinquishing mother for her adopted out son or daughter, can have a degree of importance that borders on intense. Reunion is often seen as a chance to rectify a loss; or perhaps to settle a persistent state of unresolved grief. Reunions are often thought of as an end to a long painful process; In reality, however, reunion is usually the beginning of a story, that has a life all of its own.


It is not uncommon for reunion to be an important the aim for both Adoptees and Relinquishing Mothers. The idea of finally meeting “the Baby who was lost” or the “ideal Mother” can have an intoxicating or euphoric quality to it. Even in the early stages of the reunion itself, it is well known that a “honey moon” period takes place, where reunited Mother and Son/Daughter become acquainted with each other. It is important to realise that all reunions will contain a host of hopes (some realistic and some not) that invariably take substantial time to process, understand and articulate. It is important that where possible, all the implications, imperfections and hopes that each person brings to a reunion can be articulated as fully as possible for it to have life in the long term.

Related Areas of My Work.


1 D.W Winnicott: (1956) Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis. Karnac Books

2 Bowlby: (1988) A Secure Base. New York Basic Books