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Psychological Disability in Exiled Mothers

This Australian doctor parallels adoption separation with the unresolvable grief of families whose sons were MIA (missing in action).

Summary of "Psychological Disability in Women who Relinquish a Baby for Adoption," by Dr. John T. Condon (Medical Journal of Australia) Vol 144 Feb 3 1986

Existing evidence suggests that the experience of relinquishment renders a woman at high risk of psychological (and possibly physical) disability. Moreover very recent research indicates that actual disability or vulnerability may not diminish even decades after the event.

Condon defines how the relinqishment experience differs from perinatal bereavement in four crucial psychological aspects.

  • Firstly: although construed as "voluntary" most relinquishing mothers feel the relinquishment is their only option in the face of financial hardship, pressure from family, professionals and social stigma associated with illegitimacy.

  • Secondly: their child continues to exist and develop while remaining inaccessible to them, and one day may be reunited with them. The situation is analogous to that of relatives of servicemen missing "believed dead" (MIA). The reunion fantasy renders it impossible to "say goodbye" with any sense of finality. Disabling chronic grief reactions were particularly common in the war in such relatives.
  • Thirdly: the lack of knowledge of the child permits the development of a variety of disturbing fantasies, such as the child being dead, or ill, unhappy or hating his or her relinquishing mother. The guilt of relinquishment is thereby augmented.

  • Fourthly: the women perceive their efforts to acquire knowledge about their child (which would give them something to let go of) as being blocked by an uncaring bureaucracy. Shawyer describes poignantly how "confidential files are tauntingly kept just out of reach, across official desks". Thus the anger that is associated with the original event is kept alive and refocused onto those who continue to come between mother and child.

On a study of twenty women who relinquished their baby, all but two of them reported strong feelings of affection for the infant, both during the late pregnancy and in the immediate post partum period. None reported negative feelings toward the child.

Feelings of sadness or depression at the time of relinquishment were rated on the average as intense and "the most intense ever experienced". Anger at the time of relinquishment was rated at the time as between "a great deal and intense." Only 33% reported a decrease over time, and over one half said their anger had increased. Guilt at the time was rated as "intense" with only 17% reporting a decrease over the intervening years.

Almost all the women reported they had received little or no help from family, friends or professionals. Over half of them had used alcohol or sedative medication to help them cope after relinquishment. Almost all reported that they dealt with their distress by withdrawing and bottling up their feelings. One third had subsequently sought professional help.

A most striking finding in the present study is that the majority of these women reported no diminution of their sadness, anger and guilt over the considerable number of years which had elapsed since their relinquishment. A significant number actually reported an intensification of these feelings especially anger.

Taken overall, the evidence suggests that over half of these women are suffering from severe and disabling grief reactions which are not resolved over the passage of time and which manifest predominantly as depression and psychosomatic illness.

A variety of factors operated to impede the grieving process in these women. Their loss was not acknowledged by family and professionals, who denied them the support necessary for the expression of their grief. Intense anger, shame and guilt complicated their mourning, which was further inhibited by the fantasy of eventual reunion with their child. Many were too young to have acquired the ego strength necessary to grieve in an unsupported environment.

Few had sufficient contact with the child at birth or received sufficient information to enable them to construct an image of what they had lost. Masterson (1976) has demonstrated that mourning cannot proceed without a clear mental picture of what has been lost.

The notion that maternal attachment can be avoided by a brisk removal of the infant at birth and the avoidance of subsequent contact between mother and child is strongly contradicted in recent research. Condon and others have demonstrated an intense attachment to the unborn child in most pregnant women.

There is a strong impression from data that over-protectiveness is part of the phenomenon of unresolved grief and serves both to assuage guilt and compensate for the severe blow dealt by relinquishment to the self esteem in the area of being a "good mother".

The relatively high instance of pregnancy during the year after relinquishment invites speculation that this represents a maladaptive coping strategy that involves a "replacement baby".

 
 

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