Adopted Children are also Replacement Children

Strangers as Kin Cover

The replacement child is expected to fill a void that has been made by a child who has died; the adopted child fills a void that has been created by a child who never came into being. Kristina Schellinski in her book, Individuation for the Adult Replacement Child, has given us an insightful psychological profile of children who are carrying the burden of having been born after the death of a sibling. This fact can leave them with profound existential anxieties about life and death and such children may need help to find a creative solution to the feeling that death owed them a life. I would like to elaborate on the concept in further detail by following the fortunes of children who are adopted.

Adopted children are also replacement children but in a slightly and subtly different way. These are children whose parents could not look after them and their adopting parents could not have a child. This means that at the very start of their lives they will be carrying existential doubts and questions about where they fit in, in the world. They may also be burdened with a more pernicious historical prejudice about their origins. Many adopted children, when adoption first became legalised, were illegitimate and there was a far-reaching belief that such a child was a filius nullius, or a child of no man, even the erroneous suspicion that they might be carrying a defective gene.

Expected to be the child who never was

Adopted children, even to this day, may carry an uneasy cultural legacy burdened with unconscious fantasies that they may not be up to the life that is expected of them. The subtle expectations that are loaded onto adopted children could be described as impossible because, on the one hand, they are expected to be the child who never was, while on the other hand some may carry the unconscious cultural belief that they should never have been born.  Whichever way an adopted child turns they find they are on existential quicksand.

In the UK, it was only in 1926 following the Adoption Act that the illegitimate child was given a legal name and a legal right to family life and could become someone else’s child. The Act helped to bring about a revolution in thinking: almost overnight this inconvenient child became a wanted child. But the solution brought other unintended social and psychological consequences. ‘Who am I’ was a frequent question that such children, knowing they were adopted, asked as they reached adolescence and were searching for a meaning to their lives. ‘Why did my mother give me away?’ followed, with other more profound anxieties such as ‘Is there something wrong with me that she gave me away?’ These questions have eaten into the soul of many adopted children, leaving them angry, confused and often with murderous rage, if we take Oedipus’ life as an example of an abandoned and adopted child.

I witnessed my brother’ anger and distress

My half-brother was not my father’s child and so was ‘adopted’ by him. I have witnessed my brother’s anger and distress when he learned the truth. I also know of the agony he suffered when he asked his natural father to acknowledge him. He refused.

I dedicated my last book The Uninvited Guest from the Unremembered Past to my brother who died of cancer while I was writing it.

The adopted child and the replacement child can share other similar anxieties. These can be seen most starkly in a fear that there is a gap, a hollow, a black hole at the centre of their lives. Both may experience the heavy weight of fantasies that their parents project onto them. A replacement baby may be expected to heal the loss of their idealised dead sibling; the adopted child may be expected to fulfil the dream image of the parents imagined child.  Exasperated parents of an adopted child have been heard to say ‘No child of mine would behave like you!’ Many replacement children, as Schellinski pointed out, fall at the same fence. They disappoint their parents because they are not ‘the missing other’. Both the replacement child and the adopted child are forced to recognise that they cannot live up to their parents’ dream.

Strangers as Kin

In my recent book, PsychologicalPerspectives on Illegitimacy, Adoption & Reproductive Technology. Strangers as Kin, I cite from the most moving memoirs that I have come across about the doubts and difficulties of being an adopted child. Jeanette Winterson’s second autobiography Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal? followed her semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.  She gives a remarkable voice to the adopted child who does not feel safely placed in the world. ‘There is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives,’ she asserts; ‘… adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. Its like arriving after the curtain has gone up. The feeling that something is missing never ever leaves you – and it can’t, and it shouldn’t because something is missing.’ Not only does the adopted child have to face a life where the story has already started, but she arrives with already packaged expectations. In Winterson’s case her adopting mother told her that ‘The devil led us to the wrong crib.’  Winterson was the wrong child and she could feel that she was, but this left her with an agonizing existential question, ‘I don’t know why I don’t please.’ What is remarkable about this memoir is that Winterson’s natural intelligence and education and therapy helped her survive creatively. Put quite simply she found ‘a language tough enough to say how it is.’ This must surely be the goal of all who try to help replacement children and those who have difficulty in facing that they have been adopted.

Prophecy Coles trained as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist but is now retired. She has written many articles on sibling relationships, eating disorders and sexuality and has lectured across the world.

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