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When an Adoptive Mother Is Unloving

“Honestly, I don’t think my mother wanted to be a mother."

Key points

  • The cultural mythologies about mothering and motherhood can blind us to the fact that mothers can be unloving and abusive.
  • Cultural beliefs about adoption affect children and how we listen to their stories, including the idea that blood ties are always better.
  • Given the narrative of having been saved or rescued, it may be harder for an unloved adoptee to recognize mistreatment and act on it.
 Echo Grid/Unsplash
Source: Echo Grid/Unsplash

The title of this post refers to the fact that while the culture—and its mythologies about mothering and motherhood—allow unloving biological mothers to hide in plain sight, adoptive mothers may have even more camouflage. Those mother myths—that all women are nurturing, that mothering is instinctual, that maternal love is always unconditional—as well as the belief that blood ties are always stronger, make it difficult to articulate and recognize the mistreatment inflicted by a biological parent. I know this firsthand and it’s been echoed in the many stories told by those whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood or who were verbally abused, scapegoated, ignored, or bullied.

The adopted child of an unloving mother faces all of that in addition to having to absorb the fact of being abandoned by her or his birth mother and having to deal with the singular myths and beliefs pertaining to adoption. For these daughters and sons, there is an even heavier burden. Gracie, now 45, wrote:

“I finally felt safe enough to tell my college roommate of three years about my mother, her meanness, and her active ways of demeaning me. She looked at me and said, ‘That can’t be. She chose you. She chose to be a mother. She worked hard to make it happen. You somehow have this mixed-up in your head.’ It was another 10 years before I told anyone else the truth. I was devastated.”

But those beliefs may not even come from the outside, as Cathryn, 50, recounted. She’d been brought up in a strict and religious household; she has been in therapy on and off since she was 16:

“For most of therapy, I denied that there was an issue with my adoptive mother, having been under ‘the grateful adoptee’ spell. Therapists did try to disabuse me of my misconception that I was to blame. I would always defend my adoptive parents. Until age 45 when, after going no contact, a gifted therapist helped guide me through the fallout.”

A Few Caveats About Assumptions

My effort here is to take a complex and relatively unexamined topic and to expose some generalizations that might be of use to adults who have difficult or even toxic relationships with their adoptive mothers. But each person’s experience is also individual in meaningful ways. For example, why an adult decides to become a parent (and whether that decision was actively sought out or thought about or simply a biological accident) always affects the trajectory of the parent-child relationship; it can become even more meaningful in the case of adoption, which requires action, planning, legal help, and, often, money.

One of the sadder examples is that of my friend, Greg, who was adopted to “replace” (note the quotation marks) a 5-year-old son who had died; you can imagine how impossible a role that was to play, despite the fact that Greg was a high-achiever, smart, caring, and kind. It was probably inevitable that his parents saw him as lacking because they literally wanted him to be someone he wasn’t. (He became a psychiatrist specializing in children.)

Cynthia, now 45, is estranged from her mother and close to her father:

“Honestly, I don’t think my mother wanted to be a mother. My dad came from a big family, always wanted kids, and he was the driving force behind my adoption after she had two ectopic pregnancies. She was 30, loved her job in the fashion industry, and adored traveling. That all stopped on a dime when my father convinced her to become a stay-at-home mom for me and the baby boy he was hoping for next; he made more than enough money as a lawyer to support us. But she was bored, disaffected, and he started complaining about how she neglected me and their fighting spilled over into daily life. It took three years for the baby boy to arrive and when it came time to sign the papers, my mother balked, saying this wasn’t the life she wanted. My parents divorced and while my father wanted custody, she wouldn’t give it to him out of spite. Long story short: She went back to work, I had a series of nannies, and saw my dad every other weekend and on Wednesdays. He married a woman who accepted me totally and then gave me two brothers and a sister. I cannot remember the last time anyone mentioned that I was adopted and, honestly, I don’t even mention it to people. I have a loving family. Tons of therapy later, I am content with my own life (married with one child) and those who love me. And I survived my mother.”

Cynthia’s story is happier than most because adopted children can sometimes find themselves as the odd girls and boys out when a biological child or children are added to the family. That was absolutely true for Marie, 64:

“Once my adoptive parents had their own children, the two of us adopted ones were treated like charity cases. Materially, we were provided for and expected to behave so as not to make them look bad. But their focus was on their own children.”

The Cultural Take on Adoption (It’s Complicated)

While it’s true that modern history sees adoption as a good solution to problems experienced by birth parents, abandoned or neglected children, or those unable to have children, a 2016 review by Amanda L. Baden in Adoption Quarterly makes it clear that the issue is remarkably complex; she explains it by highlighting what she calls “adoption microaggressions.” A number of her findings jump out. The first is the belief that the biological ties are always superior in terms of optimal family functioning; this becomes an aggression and a mark of shame for the relinquishing mother and an insult to the adoptive mother, and results in the adoptee being asked if he or she has a “real” family. It should be noted that this belief also results in adopted children feeling that they must search for their birth mothers even when they have loving adoptive parents. These searches do not always include happy endings, which increases their sense of not belonging.

Another is the idea that adopted children should be “grateful” or that they were “lucky” to be rescued; this came up in a number of recollections submitted to me and was sometimes actively used to magnify the child’s sense of not belonging to the family or to anyone; it happened in both families comprised of adopted kids and those with a mix of adopted and biological children.

Keep in mind that children are marginalized for being different or scapegoated in dysfunctional biological families, too; it just packs a different punch for the adopted child. Nicky, now 50, wrote:

“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know I was adopted. I was 3 when adopted. On the one hand, my mother taught me to repeat that I was special because I was adopted but she also related every negative trait she thought I had to my natural mother. For example, she would say ‘You’ve got that moody look on your face again, that’s your mother in you.’ It was always a negative comparison so I grew up thinking that my natural mother was bad and, if she was, so must I be.”

The adopted daughter internalizes what her mother says about her as unchangeable truths, just as her equally unloved biological counterpart does.

Holding the Adoptive Mother Accountable: A Bigger Taboo?

For all that biological children face cultural criticism for airing the truth about their mothers’ mistreatment, it may be even harder for the adopted child to recognize the treatment and to set boundaries. Ceci wrote:

“I spent decades doubting my perceptions because my mother supposedly ‘saved’ me. Everyone said it. It was the daily mantra. I grew up thinking that if it hadn’t been for her, I would have ended up in a trash heap. And I believed until I was 50, when I realized how differently I treated my own children and I finally saw there was a villain of the piece. And it wasn’t me.”

Thanks to all those who filled out questionnaires and urged me to write.

Copyright © 2022 by Peg Streep.

Facebook image: - Yuri A/Shutterstock


Baden, Amanda L. “Do You Know Your Real Parents?” and other Adoption Microaggressions. Adoption Quarterly. 2016, vol.19(1), pp. 1-25.