What is it like to be an adoptive mother in Ireland today?
‘The inter-country adoption process is very gruelling with a lot of uncertainty’
Sandra Doody and her daughter Sarah, at home in Stillorgan, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The heart-rendering stories of adopted children searching for their birth mothers once they reach adulthood are well known. The sometimes sadder tales of birth mothers seeking contact with the adults who they haven’t seen since handing them over as babies are also shared widely.
There have been more than 6,700 inter-country adoptions recognised in Ireland over the past 15 years.
However, we rarely hear about the experiences of adoptive mothers.
Counselling psychologist Barbara Liddy’s study on motherhood through inter-country adoption gives some insight into the experiences of these women. Through her interviews with 16 adoptive mothers for her doctorate thesis in counselling psychology at Trinity College Dublin, Liddy looked at the conflict between expectations and reality and the poignancy and privilege of adoption. She discovered that the inter-country adoption process itself puts a lot of pressure on women to be perfect mothers.
“The inter-country adoption process is very gruelling with a lot of uncertainty. Women have to prove they are emotionally, physically and financially capable of becoming mothers before they even meet the child they hope to adopt. I think that if the process was easier, adoptive mothers would be more confident in themselves,” explains Liddy.
However, that said, many of the 16 adoptive mothers that Liddy interviewed for her study said that they were privileged to become adoptive mothers and grateful to the birth mothers for sacrificing their children. “Some of the women I interviewed felt more connected to society on becoming a mother. It gave them access to a world they didn’t have before,” she says.
Liddy says that her study – albeit small – revealed communities across Ireland are generally supportive to adoptive mothers, however health professionals and family members of the adoptive mother are often not supportive enough when difficulties arise.
One adoptive mother who spoke to The Irish Times believes there needs to be better supports for adoptive parents across the board. She says, “I meet adoptive parents who are struggling to manage their children’s behaviour and feel they are failing. I think that there is a lot spoken about the dream of adoption but very little preparation for the reality of adoption. There is an African saying that it takes a village to rear a child – well I think it takes a whole town to rear an adopted child.
“As a society, we need to recognise that some adoptive children are traumatised. There needs to be more awareness in the workplace for adoptive parents who are struggling. Some of these children will continue to need help and support throughout all their lives. Love is not always enough,” she adds.
A recent Irish study of GPs by the Irish College of General Practitioners found that many GPs feel they need more guidance and training to deal with complex developmental issues present in some children from inter-country adoptions. Sandra Doody is an adoptive mother and primary school teacher who works with children with attachment difficulties.
“The experience of parenting an adopted child teaches you a great understanding of attachment issues. Children who experience the loss of their birth mother and birth father will always have some form of attachment issues. The wound heals over but it may open up again in the future – particularly if an adopted child has children of her own.”
Many adoptive mothers say that it was only through rearing their children did they realise the behavioural and psychological issues that arise from missing out on early bonding and attachment. “Many of these children have difficulties regulating their emotions and controlling their impulses. They can be angry, impatient, loud and bossy, all of which relates to a deep insecurity,” says one adoptive mother. “I learned to stay with my daughter when she was acting out and reassure her. I think teachers also need advice on how to deal with children with early childhood traumas.”
Some parents have found Let’s Learn Together, a guide for parents and teachers of adopted children in Northern Ireland a useful aid. The booklet stresses the importance for adoptive parents to be physically present, emotionally available, responsive and caring as you would with a baby.
Liddy found that many adoptive mothers find the best support from other parents with children from inter-country adoptions. “There is massive informal support from the inter-country adoptive community – and specific country groups which also provides their children opportunities to meet other children from the same area as they were adopted from,” she says.
However, as a counselling psychologist, she believes that there is a potential for vulnerability among adoptive mothers.
“My study found that while it was a predominately positive experience for adoptive mothers, families could be better prepared before adoption to meet the unique needs and attachment issues of the child they will adopt. There is also a need for greater support from family, friends and health professionals.”