Known consequences of separating mother and child

Known Consequences of Separating Mother and Child at BirthImplications for Further Studypublished at:
 Wendy Jacobs, B.Sc., B.A.“The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do.”Sir William Deane, Inaugural Lingiari Lecture, Darwin, 22 August 1996.
Separating mother and child at birth was the way adoption was practiced in Australia in the latter half of last century. We have heard from other speakers about current knowledge regarding the mental health consequences of this separation. In this paper I look at adoption from a historical perspective, how adoption was practiced, what was known about the consequences of adoption, and what influence, if any, this knowledge had on adoption practice.Brief  history of adoption in Australia

Adoption was a social experiment in which babies born to unmarried mothers were taken at birth and given to strangers for adoption. It was claimed to be in the best interests of the child, who would be protected from the slur of illegitimacy and would have a better life in the adoptive family. Adoption enabled infertile married couples to have a family, and the State saved money on its welfare bill.

Adoption legislation was first introduced in Australia in the 1920s, but adoption was slow to be accepted, due to the belief that immorality and other evil tendencies were passed on from mother to child. After World War II, however, when environment was seen as more important than heredity in the development of the child, adoption became more popular. It was believed that mothers would not bond with their babies if the babies were taken immediately after birth, and the mothers were prevented from seeing them, and that babies would bond successfully with their adoptive families if they were placed as soon as possible after birth. All ties with the natural mother were then severed, the child was issued with a new birth certificate which showed him as being born to the adoptive parents, and the records were sealed.

Adoption was promoted as being in the best interests of the child. Mothers were expected to forget about their child and get on with their lives, get married and have children of their own. Adoption was seen as an instant ‘cure’ for infertility. None of these beliefs was based on any scientific evidence.

Reports from the 1950s of emotional problems in adoptees

In fact there were reports from Britain and the USA, from 1952 onwards, that a large number of children seen in child guidance clinics and other psychiatric services were adopted.

In 1952 a British psychiatrist, Wellisch, drew attention to a problem of adoption – the lack of knowledge of and definite relationship to one’s genealogy, which he termed genealogical bewilderment, and which could result in the stunting of emotional development in adopted children and could lead them to irrational rebellion against their adoptive parents and the world as a whole, and eventually to delinquency. This was echoed in 1955 by Winnicott, who said ignorance about their personal origin made adolescence more of a strain for adopted children than other children, and in 1964 by Sants who wrote that genealogical bewilderment is a factor which frequently appears to be present in adoption stress.

There were reports in 1953 that adopted children manifested severe pathology including a preponderance of impulsive behavior, with characteristic ‘acting out’, both sexual and aggressive. (Eiduson and Livermore, 1953). Overt aggression and sexual acting out were also noted by Schechter who claimed, in 1964, that there was substantial evidence from many sources that the nonrelative adopted child may be more prone to emotional difficulties. In adopted adults he found more alcoholism, sexual acting out, and more suicide attempts.

Several other researchers found a predilection for impulsive behaviour and acting out, antisocial symptoms in adopted children. (Simon & Senturia, 1966; Jackson, 1968) They were found to have serious adjustment problems in adolescence (McWhinnie, 1969), and all seemed to have a sense of abandonment by the birth parents irrespective of experiences. (Triseliotis, 1971) Triseliotis suggested that the wound could be healed in a loving adoptive family, but the scar always remains.

Sants wrote in 1964 that there were problems in transplanting children into a new family, that, as adoption workers have found, the relationship between child and substitute mother has special complexities. This was recognised by a doctor who spoke at the seminar for adoption professionals held in February 1967 prior to the introduction of the new adoption of children act in NSW. He said that the adoptive relationship is an unusual relationship loaded with a greater potential for stress than the usual natural parent/child relationship. (Blow, 1967)

At the same time there were articles in the Australian Journal of Social Work which described adoptive parenthood as inherently more difficult than biological parenthood (Mackay, 1967), and explained the vulnerability which an adopted child, even in the best of homes, may experience. (Bull, 1967)

Adoption boom in late 1960s-early 1970s

It would appear, however, that adoption workers either did not read their journals, or chose to ignore the evidence of problems in adoption. After the implementation of the 1965 Adoption of Children Act in 1967, adoptions continued to increase, reaching a peak of around 4,000 in NSW in 1971-72. Adoptions began to decrease in the mid-1970s, not because adoption workers acknowledged that what they were doing was harmful, but because of the wider availability of contraception and abortion, changed social attitudes toward single motherhood, and better financial support to single parents.

Adoption research

The Australian Journal of Social Work in 1967 published a review of adoption research in America and Britain, which concluded that the studies were of little value and suggested there was a need for a national study of adoption.

There was some research being conducted in Sydney in the 1960s. In 1965 Wilfred Jarvis, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at the University of New South Wales, was conducting A Study of Adolescent Unmarried Mothers and Adolescent Adopted Children. As far as I know, the results of this project were never published. According to an article (Kiely, The Unmarried Mothers) published in The Bulletin in 1967, Jarvis found that “mothers who surrender their children for adoption seem to suffer chronic bereavement for the rest of their lives. And, as if to complement this, adopted children usually manifest a keen and often obsessional wish to locate and meet their natural mothers, which becomes dominant during adolescence. Jarvis also found that unmarried fathers suffer bereavement and guilt long after the child is born and adopted, although most have by then terminated their relationship with the mother.”

Not allowing mothers to see their babies

The practice of not allowing mothers to see their babies, which was said to make relinquishment easier for the mother, continued into the 1980s in many hospitals, despite evidence that, as Edlin wrote in 1954, mothers who did not see their babies were much more disturbed after their return home than those who spent some time with their babies before giving them up. As Gough said in 1961, A mother is able to make a much more valid decision about her baby’s future if she has known him as a real person and has had a chance to experience her true feelings towards him. In an Australian social work journal in 1968 Sister Borromeo disagreed with the idea that not seeing the baby somehow makes adoption easier for the mother. She said maternal feeling is surely such a complex reality that we cannot believe that its arousal is dependent on a single sensory stimulation.

However the practice of preventing the mother from seeing her baby did not change even after the 1971 Manual of Adoption Practices in New South Wales, stated: It should not be assumed that conflicts are minimised and relinquishment made easier when the mother does not see her child. Guilt and later emotional disturbances may be intensified under such circumstances.

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Headings in the article

Adoption similar to a death

Mothers’ long term adjustment

Adoption and child abuse

Adoption and suicide

Suicide in mothers

Adoptees and the prison system

Causes of problems in adoptees

Causes of problems in mothers

Real cause – trauma of separation

Why we need research into adoption


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