One Way to a New Life

How adult replacement children can discover their true self via "self-birthing."

Posted Oct 29, 2019

Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock
Source: Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock

There’s great news for adult replacement children—that is, those of us who were born or conceived to replace a sibling or other dear member of the family. Many feel ill-at-ease in life and in their relationships, but ignore that the “replacing” condition is the root cause of their suffering. They are certainly not alone—there are millions of replacement children in the world, and there are many famous replacement children, even among the pioneers of psychoanalysis.

I’ve asked Kristina Schellinski to be my guest blogger this month because I believe her contribution to recognizing the replacement child phenomenon is enormous. In her new book, just published by Routledge, she uncovers the hidden trauma of adults who were born or designated as a replacement child. Some were given a replacing role by those around them, while others self-identified with it.

Individuation for Adult Replacement Children: Ways of Coming into Being offers a chapter-by-chapter overview of the essential elements of the condition. The book recommends a consciousness-raising path of individuation to help adult replacement children become the unique, unmistakable person they, in essence, are.

The author is a Jungian psychoanalyst and Swiss psychotherapist. She presents cases she has worked in her 20 years of experience. If that were not enough, she is a replacement child herself and discloses her own personal experience. The author advocates for understanding the psychology of a replacement child and makes a case for early diagnosis by clinicians and for the necessary efforts to prevent the "making" of replacement children.

Professor Albert Cain, who wrote the first article “On Replacing a Child” in 1964, finds that the “book represents a major and rich contribution to the slowly but steadily evolving genre of Replacement Child literature” and praises “its many virtues.”

For clinicians specifically, combining a Jungian perspective with research from Freudian psychoanalysis and Bowlby’s attachment theory, Schellinski presents deeply moving case examples and testimonies to help recognize and treat the condition, which includes a view to preventing transmission to succeeding generations. The book explores different “Ways of Coming into Being” when adult replacement children discover their true selves in a process that Schellinski calls “self-birthing.”

One very important note: Replacement child is a controversial term for some, especially when the phenomenon/condition is not completely understood. The term does not automatically refer to those born after the death of a sibling or other member of the family. In many situations, the birth of a child is celebrated, and the child is welcomed unconditionally.

The replacement child is faced with a complex situation when parents try to get over a loss by having another child, or when they stay locked in a frozen grief process; the replacement child may find him/herself living a conflicted life in the shadow of another, unable to form their own unique identity because of imposed ties to the deceased. A replacement child may never feel “good enough” when compared with the idealized, absent other sibling.

I asked the author the following questions:

What is special about adults who were born or designated as replacement children?

“Many suffer, as a child or later as an adult, from existential insecurity and identity issues, survivor’s guilt, frozen grief, and experience relational difficulties,” Schellinski said.

But there is a silver lining to this cloud: This suffering can prompt a search for the true life force, the self—and lead to a transformation. Some are led to accomplish extraordinary achievements; others are led to a much deeper appreciation of their own existence.

While some replacement children may have been overprotected and feel "as if" or kept back in their development, others were viewed as a golden, miracle child. As the psychiatrist Maurice Porot once put it provocatively, replacement children have three ways out: to become creative, go mad, or become a psychologist! Schellinski then added: “I propose a fourth way out of the dilemma: the path of individuation, that is to discover who you yourself are! Give birth to your self!”

What is individuation, and what do you mean by self-birthing?

The process of individuation allows adult replacement children to free themselves from projections or unconscious identifications rising from the confusion of a living individual with a missing, other human being. “Individuation denotes the process by which a person becomes a psychological ‘individual,’ that is, a separate indivisible unity or ‘whole,’” Jung notes.

But first, we must understand the psychology of the adult replacement child, and recognize symptoms caused by the underlying structural elements of the condition. Then a change can be observed when, in a dialogue with images of the unconscious, in a safe and understanding setting, held and mirrored by a counselor or an informed loved one, the true self can shine through.

Schellinski advocates for working through the structural elements of this condition, which brings acceptance and compassion: This is how a replacement child first came into existence, and this is how they can find new ways of coming into being—in the process of self-birthing!

Each individual replacement is unique in the way they were affected by the initial replacing circumstances, and in the way they discover the inalienable life force within themselves—their true self. This force has always been there but lay dormant when replacement children remained unconscious of the condition. When they find their way back to re-connect with their true selves, many adult replacement children can affirm, like Carl Gustav Jung, “This is what I am.”

Some of the most famous pioneers of psychoanalysis were replacement children, right?

Yes, Sigmund Freund lost his younger brother, Julius, and Carl Gustav Jung was born after two stillborn girls and a boy who lived only five days; also, Françoise Dolto and André Green report how disease and loss of a sibling made their relationships with their mother difficult. In my view, they developed theories that reflect their own search for self, and thus give a virtual but vital helping hand to replacement children today.

Many artists born as replacement children became uniquely famous, such as the singer Maria Callas and Elvis Presley, the painters Salvador Dali and Vincent van Gogh, or the authors of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe) and Peter Pan (James Barrie). Also, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, is a replacement child.

The book is illustrated with art by Caroline Mackenzie, Camille Claudel, Salvador Dali, Egon Schiele, C.G. Jung, and Francisco de Zurbaran; the title image is by “Delphine,” who experienced a psychological rebirth in her 70s when she discovered that she was a replacement child.

A psychological rebirth—is that what an adult replacement child can hope for?

Yes, in essence, psychologically, I see the hope for an adult replacement child in the emergence of self and the re-discovery of the essence of the original being. A replacement child who has become conscious knows what it means to die to a false existence in order to truly become him- or herself.

Is there a soul-to-soul connection?

Murray Stein wrote in his foreword to my book: “Souls are singular and irreplaceable... there is an irreducible essence to a personality. This is the core of the ego, which is a reflection of the center of the personality, the self.” And once a replacement child knows who they are—they can also reach out to the soul of the other or feel a connection with the other without losing their sense of self.

What is the task of the clinician/counselor while working with an adult replacement child?

First and foremost, to recognize the suffering of replacement children. Diagnosing the condition and recognizing its diverse symptoms, such as low self-esteem, questions of identity, existential anxiety, depression, survivor’s guilt, or difficulties in their relationship with self and others, can help adult replacement children reconnect with their own life force and discover the unique individual they are. In this process, many realize that they are not alone, that many other adult replacement children have suffered silently or unconsciously from this hidden trauma.

Acceptance, recognition, and awareness-raising compassion can help adult replacement children to reconnect with their true selves and with others—and find new ways of coming into being.