When adoptive parents bring home their "package of pure delight," they open a bundle of conflicting emotions.
That's the opinion of Britta Hausmann, clinical director of the Adoption Counseling Center of Western New York. A psychotherapist for 25 years, Hausmann has dealt with adoption issues for nine years.
"Adoptive parents often have little time to prepare themselves psychologically," Hausmann says. "When you have a biological baby, you have nine months to prepare, but in an adoption you can wait years and then have the baby delivered to your doorstep in weeks.
"When the baby arrives, people who have waited such a long time have a tendency to hover over the child. It's the opposite of being not wanted. It's being over-wanted."
The psychological implications of adopting, whether it's done privately or through an agency, are similar, Hausmann says.
"First there is the grief that they haven't had the child themselves and the feelings of loss with infertility. And they may have the sense that the biological parents are 'ghost' parents. They wish they could erase them and be the only parents.
"Also, many have unrealistic expectations, a romantic view of what it's like to be a parent. These are all normal feelings."
Parents should try to ease into a "comfort zone" where adoption can be discussed freely without making it an obsession. Instead, she said, they may drift to extremes.
"In adoption, everything is exaggerated. Some parents perpetuate what I call a 'conspiracy of loving denial' where they think they shouldn't talk about the adoption. But a child is naturally curious and his fantasies will be aroused even more."
Erring the other way, some talk about the adoption incessantly. "Every time one mother changed her baby," Hausmann says, "she made a point of saying: 'You're my beautiful adopted baby.' The baby should be a child first, not a label."
At the time of adoption, biological parents should write a letter with medical and non-identifying personal information, Hausmann suggests. This should not be written as a letter to be read when the child is 18, but as a resource for adoptive parents during childhood, she says.
"It gives them something to work with, some kind of material. Most children don't want to know that much, only something that gives them some identity. . . . The letter can be a catharsis for the biological parents. They are contributing something. It shouldn't be a sorrowful, burdening letter."
Adoption and adolescence often become entangled.
"The teen-ager can use adoption as a manipulative tool. If parents haven't come to terms with it, they start thinking they're too strict and maybe the child won't love them. The kids use all of this and the parents get kicked in the emotional shins."
Further doubts enter as parents wonder if a "biological" child would have behaved the same way, Hausmann says. "They have ambivalent feelings. . . . Parents expect too much of themselves. They should know they will have normal bratty kids."
The Adoption Center has family counseling, play groups for young children and discussion groups for teen-agers. "They can talk about things that might be painful for parents to hear," Hausmann says. "Regardless of how you say it, they've been left out of someone's life, and you have to deal with feelings of abandonment, closeness, trust."
In her opinion, meetings that take place between biological mothers and their children later in life are surrounded with unrealistic expectations.
"To start with people call them 'reunions,' but they aren't reunions because there's been no emotional closeness between the two people. Sometimes adolescents want to meet out of curiosity, but it's always better to wait until post-adolescence."
Though the media often portrays the initial meeting as exuberantly joyful, the future relationship may be fatally flawed. "This is a lifelong process," Hausmann says. "It's integrating the past, present and future. There is not a magic panacea that will make you whole."