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You Didn't Hear Me Cry: Communication as the Adoptee's Deepest Wound

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

Although I am not a mother myself, I’ve browsed enough birth vlogs on YouTube to have a good idea of what happens when a baby is born. Typically there is a cluster of people gathered around a hospital bed, surgeon's table, or birthing bath. You can see the mother laboring intensely, or a surgeon and their team working intently on a c-section. The scene interrupts into commotion and fumbling, and then - BOOM - you hear the strangled, angry cry of a brand-new baby as the mother eagerly reaches out to accept her newborn. Like clockwork, once the mother takes the baby into her arms, the crying stops, and the relationship between mother and child begins.

Our first act in this world is to cry. Our primal response to life is to look for a response. For most adoptees that cried, we were never fully answered. This moment at birth is when our relationship with communication begins, and adoptees might not realize the effect it has on the rest of their lives.

Let’s dive into this and look at how those first moments in the world might impact adoptees and their relationships into adulthood.


The Cry for Mom

A baby’s first cry has many effects. It seems to be both a response to the shock of birth, and a primal call for our mother. It clears our lungs, prompts our mother’s bodies to produce milk, and expresses a distress and vulnerability that any human would respond to. Our mothers reach out to accept us, embrace us, and hold us close, ensuring us food, safety and comfort. The commotion of entering the world is over and the warmth of a parent's body calms the baby down. The bond is already there - mother and child have been sharing a body for months and are finally able to touch and be touched. This is both soothing and something new to process, and crying comforting and communicating is a great way to process that. Mother instinctively change their voice to address their baby for the first time, speaking in gentle, steady tones. The message is clear: it’s a lot of work coming into the world but baby can now relax - you're safe with mama.


According to KidsHealth, babies use crying as their first form of language, and they utilize different tones and length to communicate just as adults do. This means the first language we spoke was to our biological mother. On a primal level, babies are wired to cry for their mother to bring her close. Her scent triggers relaxing hormones and the hunger response. Her touch and rhythms are familiar. This is recognized from day one, across the board, in our approach to comforting and caring for babies. We already know that most babies will continue to cry long after birth, and stop only when they find themselves in their mother’s arms again. We've all witness how babies and toddlers who cannot be consoled with any comfort or distraction and often only stop sobbing if they find themselves in their mother’s presence. We accept this as common and normal.

However, for adoptees, this script is flipped.


To adoptees, getting such a clear and straightforward emotional response to their own distress can seem like a luxury. The idea of being responded to - and that response equating to safety and relaxation - is foreign. Someone else’s arms may have tried to hold us, someone else’s voice may have sought to soothe us, but in our minds the cry went unanswered. Our comfort, safety, and certainty vanished. The jarring experience of our first cries going unheard, paired with multiple caretakers and interrupted early childhood development often impacts us into adulthood.


The Adoptee Experience

As an adoptee coach, I listen to the stories of adoptees from all backgrounds, all across the world. At some point or the other, most articulate a deep sensitivity to being 'cold shouldered', a fear of expressing need, and a correlating lack of safety that they experience when they feel unheard, even briefly.

Throughout life, this sensitivity to communication can have a far-reaching impact.


Childhood Experience

The impact of adoption starts at birth. Some adoptees were held by their birth mothers, but others were not. Some birth mothers spoke to their children in utero, others tried hard to detach themselves from the child they were carrying. Some adoptees remained with their birth mother for a few days, week, months or even years before being placed in an adoptive home. Adoptee experiences are different across the board, but at some point, even if only at birth, we cried and our mothers didn’t hear us. We spend our life trying to make up for that.

Interestingly enough, when we are children, many report having a jump start on communication skills compared to their peers. I myself learned to read a year ahead of schedule, I was so anxious to unlock the secret codes and communication in books. As children, we may have been very particular about our words being repeated precisely, or been quick to pick up catchphrases and metaphors. Many of us channeled our intense interest in communication into writing, acting or other communicative arts. By and large, adoptees seem to work very hard to be heard.



Adult Experience

The impact of adoption can bleed into adulthood, as well. Adoptees commonly feel misunderstood, unheard or spoken over at work, in relationships and in everyday service interactions. We may find ourselves having intense toddler-style emotional reactions to these things despite being otherwise emotionally stable. Unsurprisingly, this can hinder personal relationships and create struggles in professional environments. Every adoptee is different, but the sensitivities to communication in social situations is echoed frequently to me in session after session, from adoptees of every background.


Depending on our success with communication, our adult personalities tend to pendulum swing into being either very outspoken and belligerent, or painful shy and self-conscious. Many of us develop a habit of withdrawing completely, masking our true thoughts and feelings, parroting the communication patterns of those around us and masking our own ideas and desires with people-pleasing. To some extent, it seems that virtually every adoptee disconnects from their true needs and struggles to identify and articulate our true needs. After all, from birth, our first and only cry - the cry for our mother - was unheard. The impact of this wound can take a lifetime to recover from.


Conclusion

The bottom line is that adoption and communication go hand in hand. There are practical and obvious reasons why, as we see in the universality of an infants first cry. There are also observable impacts into childhood and adult like. Authentic communication, stemming from the authentic self, is crucial for adoptees to heal

Adoptive parents should do their research and make accommodations for their adoptee. They will need to make sure their child is heard. Focusing on the importance of communication and giving them opportunities to talk to other adoptees will help.

For adoptees, finding places where you can safely practice talking about your adoption experience, either in healthy online forums, with an adoptee competent therapist, a coach like myself, or even an adoptee-trauma informed friend is key to growing into your voice.



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