Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

'The Nurturing Enemy'

An unwelcome role for many foster and adoptive caregivers.

Key points

  • A child can feel the effects of the abandonment from their birth mother for an entire lifetime, even years after placement within a new family.
  • The primary caregiver (usually the mom) often assumes the role of the "nurturing enemy," or a threatening reminder of early abandonment.
  • Often, the harder the caregiver tries, the stronger the child pushes away.
  • Role-modeling self-care is the best way to forge ahead.
 Call Me Fred/Unsplash
Source: Call Me Fred/Unsplash

It is commonly known that the first two years of life are the most important developmentally, since they create the foundation for all subsequent years of relating. Jean Piaget refers to this developmental stage as the sensorimotor phase of development, where a child learns to coordinate language and motor responses, develop a sense of curiosity about the world, and develop object permanence —the trust and ability to grasp that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be immediately seen, heard, or sensed (when a caregiver goes away for a moment).

In Nancy Newton Verrier’s book The Primal Wound, she expresses how a child can feel the effects of the abandonment from their birth mom for an entire lifetime, and why, even years after placement into an adoptive or foster family, the primary caregiver (usually the mom) becomes what is known as the “nurturing enemy.”

The concept of “nurturing enemy” was not something my husband and I learned in our pre-adoption education. While we were informed of the potentiality that parent-child attachment may take longer than anticipated and taught intentional bonding techniques, the possibility that our child might actually be “wired” to reject me was never discussed. Twelve years later, after lots of head-scratching, reading, and specialized therapy, it made sense. I was the nurturing enemy.

What Is a “Nurturing Enemy?”

A child who has the “primal wound” of early abandonment will often reject all subsequent attempts by a mother figure to attach as an emotional survival mechanism. While not conscious, the infant or child braces against what they perceive as the threat of further hurt, rejection, or desertion by the current caregiver (usually the mom). Subtle behaviors, based in a need to remain in control and thwart the caregiving attempt, dominate the child’s awareness. Knowing at a deep, profound level the excruciating pain of maternal abandonment, the child braces against any future attempts of nurture and affection. It’s unbearable to even consider letting love in.

When a child misses the opportunity to develop a secure base of attachment in his earliest moments and years, he will often sabotage future attempts at meaningful connection. It’s as if the child builds a wall around himself through his behaviors, meant to keep people (especially the mom) from getting close enough to develop deep, true relationship. The harder the caregiver tries, the stronger the child pushes away.

Shortly after the adoption of my son, I began to notice the subtle signs of attachment avoidance. When I held him, he became stiff and rigid. It felt strange when he would not cling to me or look me in the eyes, especially when I longed to connect and pull him close. There were times when he would throw his head back in protest of being held. He would urinate on me when I attempted to carry him, or squeeze his eyes shut to avoid looking at me.

As a new adoptive mom, I felt alone. I looked around at other families and felt betrayed. Feeling like an imposter, I smiled and tried to play along, but continued to feel as if something wasn’t right. I continued to believe that these issues would resolve in time, so I kept trying. Rather than resolve, the problems morphed.

When school started, the heel-dragging and self-sabotage began. As I tried to help my son with homework, he would feign ignorance and deliberately put down wrong answers. Sometimes he acted helpless, as if his hands didn’t work. When he was of an age to know how to dress himself, he would put his clothes on backwards. Simple expectations for hygiene and self-care became control battles. While subtle or hard to see by the outside observer, these behaviors were frequent and common. To me, they felt maddening.

Feeling exhausted, I wondered, why does my son do these things? Why does he persist in these contrarian behaviors—day after day, week after week, year after year? What’s wrong—that he’s unable to go with the program, and that he fights me on every. Last. Detail?

When I began to realize that these behaviors were not deliberate attempts to thwart me—that they were internalized manifestations of my son’s early neglect, trauma and abandonment—I could let go of the pressure I put upon myself to help him. When I began to appreciate that my son’s reactions to me originated from a place of deep pain an hurt (that I did not cause), I was able to absolve myself from the need to work harder. Because working harder created the opposite effect I wanted—his heels dug in deeper.

The Way Through

As a parent, it can be hard to let things go. To not take things personally. Yet this was exactly what had to happen for my son and I to heal. I also had to wrestle with the Pandora’s box of adoption and all it entails—a sub-optimal set of circumstances, steeped in pain and loss on so many levels. The pain of relinquishment of a child and all that led to how the child came to be. The pain of abandonment felt by the infant in its earliest days and the terror associated with this desertion. The loss experienced by the birth mother’s community, and the culture they are a part of.

No adoption happens without loss. As an adoptive mom, I also had to grapple with the loss of the dream I had that we would be a “typical” family, defined by typical, biological family standards. While I yearn for deep, profound connection with my children, I honor their experiences of loss alongside my own, and take comfort in knowing that parenting perfection does not exist. No relationship is perfect. We do the best we can, with the circumstances we have been given.

I know that I may always be seen as the “nurturing enemy” to my son. At least until he is old enough to develop meta-cognitive skills (an ability to think objectively about why he does what he does). I know that life sometimes presents us with developmental opportunities despite challenge and hardship—and that unapologetic self-care provides the best possible foundation for growth and connection. When I am able to nurture myself and understand my own needs, I am a better role model for my children. And we all win.


1 The Psychology Notes HQ.

2 Verrier, Nancy Newton. The Primal Wound. Understanding the Adopted Child. Gateway Press. April 1993.