I knew that the break up of my marriage would be a momentous loss for my daughter. As a child of divorce myself, I remember that kicked-in-the-abdomen feeling that the words “we’re getting a divorce” deliver. I understood the indelible pain this announcement would bring her. What I didn’t expect were the wounds of abandonment still lingering from her adoption that our divorce would uncover.
It was an unremarkable Tuesday night in November when my spouse and I finally found the courage to break the news of our separation to our daughter, then a snaggle-toothed second-grader. We sat together on the couch in our den and began to tell her how our life together as a family would be changing. She sobbed as we explained that mommy and daddy loved each other but couldn’t live together any longer. She wailed as her 7-year-old world, as she’d known it, was upended.
After that first night, she calmed down. She seemed to adjust as our awkward new life stumbled along. We moved into different homes and different schedules. We learned to co-parent. Thanksgiving was with daddy. Mommy got Christmas day. We shared teacher conferences, birthdays, and back-to-school nights as best we could. My daughter seemed to take this new reality in stride. She seemed, in a word, fine. But then, a few months after our separation, things began to change. She suddenly was far from fine.
Behaviors she’d outgrown years before unexpectedly returned. She stopped sleeping in her own room and began sleeping in my bed again every night. And each night, she thrashed with nightmares and talked in her sleep, restless and angry.
At school, this once happy child withdrew into herself. The little girl who once smiled and volunteered to help the teacher pass out papers and recite the Pledge of Allegiance seemed to vanish. At recess, she walked alone on the playground picking up rocks. She ate her lunch alone in the school lunchroom, isolated. The teacher called me for a conference, concerned with these sudden changes in her formerly happy student.
At home, her anger fumed. She was mad at me, mad at friends and family, even the dog was a target of dislike and no longer welcome in her room.
She had temper tantrums. I’m talking preschool-style all out meltdowns that were incomprehensible and unstoppable. She kicked. She screamed. She tried to hit me. She scratched at her own face with her fingernails. During one harrowing episode, she pounded and kicked a wooden closet door until it came off the hinges.
My mom instinct screamed, “Something is not right.” Our divorce had unlocked a cache of loss in my beautiful, smart daughter that I couldn’t soothe or stop. It was terrifying.
I knew that our divorce would be difficult for her, but could this separation be triggering loss from her long-ago adoption? Could she have wounds from an event she couldn’t even consciously remember? The answer was yes.
According to Jean MacLeod, adoption advocate and author of At Home in This World, divorce can trigger an adopted child’s loss issues. The uncertainty of a parent’s divorce can set off deep feelings of abandonment for a child of adoption. Even if a child can’t specifically recall long ago memories of relinquishment, the traumas of abandonment are still very much there. No matter how young a child was when they were adopted, there is still a scar.
Divorce reignited the pain and uncertainty of adoption for my daughter. She’d already lost her birth family, language, culture, and country. Divorce was just one more loss to add to that list. It set off a cascade of pain and fear of what might happen next in her young life.
I’m fortunate to be part of a community of parents with children adopted from China. I reached out to other adoptive parents and through this network, found a licensed marriage and family therapist who specialized in working with adopted children. The therapist began to help my daughter work through her feelings of anger and pain that this divorce uncovered. She helped my daughter understand why she felt the way she did. The therapist helped her understand how normal and logical these strange feelings were.
Therapy helped my daughter so much, but frankly, I have to admit it helped me even more. Therapy armed me with the knowledge and empathy to know how to confront these raw feelings and how to support my daughter through this difficult time. Therapy truly was a life saver.
I’m pleased to say that we are through the worst of the storm. My daughter is thriving in our new mom and daughter life. Once again, my beautiful daughter is smiling. She’s enjoying her friends and looking forward to school again each day. And she’s sleeping soundly in her very own bed.
What’s my advice to other parents going through marital separation and divorce? Be aware. You know your child better than anyone; if you see her struggling, I urge you to work with a licensed therapist familiar with adoption to get the additional support, tools, and knowledge you need. Together you, your ex, and most importantly your child, can weather the pain and loss that divorce can uncover.More On