The Inner Life of the Adopted Child: Adoption, Trauma, Loss, Fantasy, Search, and Reunion

Betty Lifton. Handbook of Adoption: Implications for Researchers, Practitioners, and Families. Editor: Rafael A Javier, Amanda L Baden, Frank A Biafora, Alina Camacho-Gingerich. Sage Publication. 2007.

The time has come to approach the subject of adoption in a new and realistic way: to see where it connects to myth and to plain old life. We have to see the adoptee as a child marked by fate, but not doomed by it. To see birth mothers as women who have lost their children as surely as women lose children to accidents, disease, and war. To see adoptive parents as people who have lost their chance for biological continuity, but who have taken other women’s children as their own as surely as parents in biblical and mythical times rescued infants found floating in baskets down the river.

My purpose here is to help mental health and legal professionals, as well as those in the extended community, understand what is specific about the formation of the adoptee’s inner world. This means being able to see the adoptee not only as a child who has gained a family, but as a child who has lost one. Because this loss is not usually recognized by society, adoptees often feel alone on their journey, even when surrounded by a loving adoptive family. They also feel invisible because an essential part of them is not acknowledged: The part that was born of other parents whose genetic code is stamped into every cell of their bodies. A Finnish psychiatrist, Max Frisk (1964), called these missing parents “hereditary ghosts.”

Seeing the Ghosts

We could say that all families have ghosts, but the ghosts in the adoptive family were created in the closed adoption system. As an adopted child, I was haunted by the ghosts of the mother and father I was told were deceased, but who proved to be very much alive. As an adoption therapist, I treat ghost-haunted adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. All of them are accompanied by their own unique ghosts, who are not literally dead, but “as if” dead.

One cannot see adopted children or adults if one is not aware of the ghosts that accompany them. On one side, the adoptee is flanked by the ghost of the child he might have been had he stayed with his birth mother and father. On the other side is the ghost of the child his adoptive parents might have had: the perfect child, his sibling rival with whom he will compete, successfully or not. And just behind the adopted child are the ghosts of the lost birth parents.

So too, the birth mother is surrounded by ghosts: The ghost of the child she surrendered to adoption (the ghost baby); the ghost of the father of that child; and the ghost of the mother she might have been. The adoptive parents are accompanied by the ghost of the perfect child they might have had as well as the ghosts of the birth parents of the child they are raising.

In my book Journey of the Adopted Self (Lifton, 1994), I introduced the Ghost Kingdom, where the adopted child keeps the lost birth mother, birth father, and his original self, the eternal ghost baby who was not able to grow up. The Ghost Kingdom is an alternate place, located in one’s psychic reality. It is a portable Home that adoptees carry inside them. It is the Land of What Might Have Been. It is the Land of the As If Dead.

After giving up her baby, the birth mother creates her own Ghost Kingdom, where she keeps that lost child. She may try to repress the trauma of her relinquishment, but the ghost baby waits in the Ghost Kingdom, which serves as a ghost nursery. She may visit it there on its birthday, when she is pregnant with her next child, and at unexpected moments over the years.

The adoptive parents have their Ghost Kingdom, where they hold on to their unborn or stillborn baby, or the child who died. They may visit it when they are disappointed in the child they are raising as their own—the child who does not live up to the high standards of the ghost child who might have been.

Until recently, the Ghost Kingdom was an inaccessible place that adoptees never expected to visit, except in their dreams or fantasies. But now with society’s fascination with roots and the increasing openness in adoption, many adoptees are setting out to find their ghosts. It is known as The Search. And crossing over into the Ghost Kingdom is known as Reunion.

Acknowledging the Trauma

Every adopted child has experienced the trauma of being separated from his or her blood kin under some kind of legal arrangement. Social workers feel it is politically correct to say that the birth mother has made an “adoption plan.” Birth mothers call it “surrendering” the child. Nancy Verrier (1993), an adoptive mother, calls it the “primal wound.” Whatever language one uses, adoptees feel the trauma of the mother’s disappearance as an abandonment.

I speak of the adoptee as having not one but “cumulative adoption trauma.” What do I mean by this?

The first trauma is the baby’s separation from the mother with whom nature intended it to be. Not too long ago, the baby was placed in foster care for 3 to 6 months while the agency studied its fitness for adoption and chose its adoptive parents. The baby then experienced another separation—this time from the foster mother when it was placed with the adoptive mother.

The next trauma comes with the child’s awareness that he did not grow in his mommy’s tummy, but in some other woman’s. He realizes that he is not a natural part of the family. He is unnatural. He is not normal like other kids.

And yet another trauma is the adoptee’s realization that he is not going to know the mother who gave birth to him. He is not going to understand the reason why she gave him up. He is not going to learn her name or what she looks like. And she is not going to come back for him. He must have been a bad baby.

Inside every adopted person is that abandoned baby. Adoptees carry that ghost baby through life, and their developmental task is to become adults who can hold and comfort it. They have to accept their adopted fate. But here is the paradox: Adoptees can love their adoptive parents and not love being adopted. For being adopted means being different, living an “as if” life—as if you were born into your adoptive family. It means being biologically disconnected; being disempowered because you have no right to your original birth certificate, which has been sealed away.

The Self as Double

An adopted teenager once told me, “I feel there are two me’s. The me that was born, but didn’t live. And the me who was not born, but lived the life I have today.”

Without understanding it, she was expressing the split in the self that so many adoptees make in order to survive. Early on they get the message that they cannot grieve for their lost kin, that they must commit themselves to the adoptive clan if they are to keep their adoptive parents’ love. Already abandoned by the birth mother, the child feels no choice but to abandon her. By doing so, he abandons his real self. This early potential self that is still attached to the birth mother is often unacceptable to the adoptive parents and, therefore, must become unacceptable to the child.

Karen Horney (1950) stressed that there is no more consequential step than abandoning the real self. The child forced to give up the real self cannot develop feelings of belonging. There is instead a feeling of basic anxiety, of being isolated and helpless. For this reason, adopted children often try to shut out the subject of adoption. This means that they are separating one part of the self from the rest of the self—a pattern known as dissociation, disavowal, numbing, or splitting.

D. W. Winnicott (1965) and R. D. Laing (1960) both used the terms true self and false self to describe the split in the human psyche that many children make. I call the split in the adopted child the artificial self and the forbidden self, neither of which is completely true or completely false.

The artificial self looks like the perfect child because he or she is so eager to please. These children are compliant, put everyone’s needs before their own, and suppress their anger. But deep inside they feel like a fake and an imposter, feelings that may overwhelm them as an adult. Having cut off a vital part of themselves, they sometimes feel dead. The forbidden self is oppositional. Refusing to please, these children often act out antisocially as a way of feeling alive.

An adoptee often switches from one self to the other during various stages of the life cycle. The artificial self may express his or her anger in adulthood. And the forbidden self may eventually become a dutiful son or daughter.

Escape into Fantasy

For people who know little or nothing about their antecedents, there may be no place to go except into fantasy. It makes sense that adopted children would spend a great deal of psychic time there. They may seem to be sitting quietly in their room or just looking out the window at school when they are really deep in the Ghost Kingdom, imagining scenarios that might have been or still might be. These fantasies often alternate between the positive and negative. Sometimes the birth mother emerges as a famous movie star or a favorite teacher, or she morphs into the local bag woman, a prostitute, or a drug dealer.

Adoptee fantasies must be taken seriously, for they are the fragile center beam around which the edifice of the adopted self is being built. They are a kind of umbilical cord, enabling the child to stay connected to the lost mother. They are an attempt to fill in the missing part of their narrative with real people. But the very anonymity of the birth parents devalues their status and suggests that it is beneath that of the adoptive parents. Some adoptees have been known to drop to a lower level of society than the one they were raised in because they imagine that it is like the one they came from.

The Search

Most adoptees do not search until their twenties or thirties or after their adoptive parents have died. But we could say that they have been searching from the moment they learn they are adopted. He is searching when he fantasizes what his mother might look like; she is searching when she looks for women who resemble her on the street or in a bus. The adolescent who asks, “Who am I?” is already on the search. But the adult adoptee literally searches when life seems at a dead end: when she has a child of her own, or when he is immobilized by some loss in his life.

We can see the search as a quest for the missing parts of one’s narrative, for origins, for meaning, and for a coherent sense of self. We can understand it as a rite of passage, as a chance to take control of one’s destiny, as a way of finding oneself.

Still, many years may pass from the moment one knows one will search and the moment one begins this part of the journey. There are no safe parameters. No way of staying in control or knowing what one will find. One is moving not only toward the original mother but toward the original trauma. There is the peril of being rejected or disappointed, of losing the fantasy ghost mother, of losing the adoptive parents, of losing one’s magical self that set one off from ordinary people, and of losing the self that grew up adopted. But perhaps most terrifying, the search can uncover one’s psychic split, beneath which lies the threat of fragmentation and disintegration, which one has spent a lifetime trying to ward off.

Lack of control of the outcome is the major reason why many adoptees either do not begin the search or turn back in the middle of it. Yet there are ways one can take control—I call them “control points.” One can control how fast one searches: Either one does it oneself, which takes time because the records are sealed in most states, or pays a professional searcher, which can hurry the process. One can control how to make contact once one gets the information: by phoning or writing or using an intermediary. And one can decide when to take the plunge: in a few days, a few weeks, or even a few years.

But although adoptees can control the externals of the search, they may still be overwhelmed by the inner experience: the unexpected highs and lows they feel as they get in touch with formerly repressed grief and anger. This is because adoptees who search not only go forward to unite with the lost birth mother but also regress back to the past, to the moment of separation. They are both the adult trying to recover the past and the baby trying to recover from the trauma of separation.


While the search is the longing for the retrievable, reunion, no matter how successful, brings with it the painful knowledge that what has been lost cannot be found in its original form. The young mother who surrendered her baby has changed with time. An unfamiliar older woman—married or unmarried, with or without other children—has taken her place. And no matter how well the relationship goes in the beginning, at some point the adoptee realizes that this woman is not the fantasy ghost mother that he or she was seeking, the mother who would give unconditional love and make him or her whole. Whatever gain there is, perhaps the greatest loss in reunion is the fantasy ghost mother.

The birth mother and adoptive parents experience their own kind of loss. The birth mother is catapulted back to the trauma of that period when she gave up her baby and is usually overwhelmed with unresolved grief. No matter how close she might feel to the son or daughter who has returned in adult form, she has lost the ghost baby she carried all those years. And adoptive parents, no matter how understanding they are of their child’s reunion, have lost their role as exclusive parents.

Reunion, like adoption, can be seen as a lifelong process. One’s first meeting with the birth mother may be exhilarating, but it is only the beginning of the journey. Adoptees must live with ambiguities where they were seeking certainties. They must accept that there are parts of their narrative that they may never know. They must find a way to keep their adult self in charge during the reunion and not let what I call the “mad/sad baby” inside control their emotions with temper tantrums expressing their grief and anger over their perceived abandonment. They must somehow persuade their spouses, partners, and friends not to feel threatened by their mood swings and irrational behavior. And they must continue on with their adult lives and careers, with the parenting of their own children, rather than staying stuck in the past trying to relive what might have been.

Whether they have exorcised their ghosts, invited them into the Adoption Kingdom, or carved out an alternative place that one adoptee calls the “New Territories,” reunion usually proves to be a positive experience. One has taken control of one’s life, one is empowered, grounded in history, and feels real.

Therapeutic Strategies with the Adopted Child

Parents may bring their adopted child to therapy because he or she seems depressed or is acting out. The child is the identified patient, as if it is only his or her problem and not that of a family system built on secrecy. Even if the adoption is semi-open, which means that the adoptive parents have met the birth mother and have sent pictures the first 2 years through their lawyer or agency, it must be remembered that the child has not seen the birth mother. She remains as much of a mystery and ghost as the birth mothers in the closed system.

Therapists must see the ghosts that accompany the adoptive parents as well as those of the child. They must see the trauma everyone has suffered and the dissociation all of them have done. Only then will they understand that it is the dissociation that causes the resistant adoptee to say, “Adoption is no big deal.”

Therapists who have treated young adoptees, especially adolescents, know how difficult it is to get them to talk—especially about adoption. How do you talk about a subject you have split off from your conscious mind and no longer have access to? How do you talk about a set of parents that you don’t know and have no shared experiences with? Therapists may have to do most of the talking in the beginning. If they can win the adoptee’s trust, they may even become part of his or her fantasy life—an ideal birth parent. They may even be invited into the Ghost Kingdom.

Therapists can earn that invitation by telling the adoptee that they have some idea of what it feels like not to know your birth mother or father or anything about how you came into the world. When adoptees realize that therapists are speaking their language, they begin to share the private thoughts that they keep hidden from their adoptive parents.

At the same time, a therapist must be careful not to exclude the adoptive parents. It is a good idea to see them in separate sessions and sometimes with the child, so that everyone can express their feelings and their fears to each other. Often it is the only time they have communicated like this. The parents are usually taken by surprise at their child’s interest in his birth family. They were not told that there can be identity problems when adopted children are kept in ignorance about their origins. Some adoptive parents are eager to learn and do everything they can that will help their child. Others may become jealous of the close tie the child has formed with the therapist and end the relationship. Or they may resist a therapist’s suggestion that they try to get updated information about the birth mother and make her a real person. They may fear opening up their closed adoption. The therapist has the task of helping the adoptive parents understand that their child’s need to know about his heritage does not reflect on their parenting skills. They cannot lose their child. On the contrary, their child will feel even closer to them if they can take part of this adoption journey together rather than leave the adoptee to take it alone at a later time.

Strategies with Adoptees in Search and Reunion

Adoptees do not go into therapy saying they want to search. They usually go to understand why they have problems with intimacy, why they cannot get married or stay married, why they cannot hold a job, why they are depressed. Only after the therapist helps them become aware of the defenses they have used from an early age do they get some insight into the importance that adoption has played in their lives. Gradually, the dissociation begins to wear off, like a fog lifting, and they see clearly that they need to find the answers to the questions that they buried long before. Only the birth mother has those answers: Only she knows who the birth father is.

Therapists who are knowledgeable about the adoptees’ journey can guide them through the uncharted terrain that comes with reunion. They can explore with them what their expectations are. They can prepare them for the various scenarios that are possible: finding that the mother has died; that she doesn’t want to meet them; that she will meet, but doesn’t want to tell the rest of her family; that she wants more of a relationship than the adoptee does; that she has married the birth father; that she will not tell them who the birth father is; and that she is in an institution.

Even in the best scenarios, there is eventually a letdown. Adoptees must accept that they cannot have the inflated ghost mother in human form. She doesn’t come in that size. They have to be careful not to let the “mad/sad baby” express their disappointment but keep the adult self in charge. They have to accept the actual mother for who and what she is and forgive her.

Strategies with Birth Mothers

Birth mothers often go into therapy after reunion because they are overwhelmed with sadness, guilt, and anger. Therapists can help them understand that they are in touch with the emotions they had split off after the relinquishment. They should be encouraged to let go of the ghost baby they have held on to and accept the adult the baby has become. They should be prepared for the “mad/sad baby” to emerge from time to time. And they should be helped to understand that the adoptee may not want to introduce them to the adoptive parents. Loyalty to the adoptive parents may account for the adoptee’s ambivalence in the relationship and the need to withdraw once in a while.

Strategies with the Adoptive Parents

Adoptive parents are often threatened by the adoptee’s reunion and growing friendship with the birth mother. They may be hurt that they have not been asked to meet the birth mother. They should be helped to understand that their child needs to fill in this part of his or her narrative and that the adoptee’s relationship to his or her adoptive parents often becomes stronger after reunion because there are no more secrets cutting off communication.


Many adopted children feel invisible because they are forced to repress their need to know about their origins. They feel that an essential part of them is unacknowledged by their adoptive family and society. The purpose of this chapter is to help mental health and legal professionals, as well as those in the extended community, see what is specific about the formation of the adoptee’s inner world. It introduces the concept of cumulative adoption trauma and discusses the adoptees’ need to dissociate feelings of loss, grief, and anger. It explains the adoptee’s search for the birth mother as a way to form a coherent sense of self. By integrating the past and the present, the adoptee is able to move on into the future.