Monday, January 14, 2008

The Unwelcome Child, Notes Part #1

In his 1929 paper, "The Unwelcome Child and His Death Instinct," Sandor Ferenczi (Budapest, originally published in The International Journal of Psycho-analysis) put forward an idea based on observations made during his stint as a doctor in charge of a war hospital. This included deciding the fitness of those suffering from epilepsy. The next bit is unclear. At least to me. But it seems Ferenczi also observed patients suffering from "nervous circulatory and respiratory disturbances" such as asthmatics and cases of "complete loss of appetite and emaciation, not explicable anatomically."

Ferenczi then goes on to write that he hoped, "that a wider circle of observers (I am thinking of particularly of children's physicians) will bring forward further material in its support."

The idea is this: His observed patients came into the world as unwelcome guests of the family and that, "All the indications shew that these children had observed the conscious and unconscious signs of the aversion or impatience by the mother, and their desire to live had been broken by this" and that, "Moral and philosophic pessimism, scepticism and mistrust became conspicious character-traits in these patients. One could also note ill-disguised longing for (passive) tenderness, repugnance to work, incapacity for prolonged effort, and thus a certain degree of emotional infantilism, naturally not without attempts at forced character strengthening."

Ferenczi then goes on to talk about a young woman, born an unwanted third girl in a family without boys, who not only brooded about the origins of all living things, but was also alcoholic and frigid with a tendency to colds. But Ferenczi wanted to make clear it wasn't his task to exhaustively explain all the symptoms, but wished to, "point to the probability that children who are received in a harsh and disagreeable way die easily and willingly. Either they make use of the many proffered organic possibilities for a quick exit, or if they escape this fate, they keep a streak of pessismism and of aversion to life."

Ferenczi wasn't talking about those given up for adoption. 1929 was long before adoption became big business. But I think it most definitely applies to those of us adoptees whose mothers cut themselves off from their babies in order to give them away.

While I have never been suicidal, I've had the persistent feeling that I'm not fully a part of the world. It's more than not fitting in. It's more than feeling you're on the outside looking in. It's like you're not quite real. Like you don't deserve to be here.

Then there are those things - big things - that I've struggled with and against all my life. Such as the inability to meet long term goals that are important to me. It's telling that I chose television news production (then radio) as a career. It's highly structured. In an eight hour shift, you can produce a newscast seen by many people. This I can do. I can also produce a radio story and finish articles of 1,200 or so words. What I can't do are long term projects, such as long feature stories and books. I'm not lazy. I just can't finish. In my basement are stacks of drafts of half-written and discarded novels. At some point, I reach the point where I say, it's useless. This is ridiculous. Nobody will want to read what I write. Who do I think I am? I'm nobody. I'll never be Margaret Atwood or Ruth Rendell or Joanna Trollope, who have so many interesting things to say. I'm unworthy.

This is more than writer's block. When I'm around other people, they seem more real, more solid. By comparison, I feel vaporous.

Ferenczi was onto something, as commenter Anonymous Bob pointed out. (He alerted me to the existence of this paper) I was an unwelcome child and knew it. Felt it. Probably in utero. My mother, who at 37 had already raised three children, decided as soon she learned she was pregnant that she would not keep me. It was never a possibility. She told me so. She also told me she never held me. Not once. She peeked at me, mostly because the nurse badgered her. Because, she said, she "didn't want to get attached."

While I do know I was fostered until I was placed in my adoptive home, I have no idea where I spent the first month of my life. Was it in a private home? An institution? Left at the county hospital? Was I picked up and cuddled? Or left in a cot and drugged to keep quiet?

My earliest baby pictures show me stiff as a board, looking away from my adoptive parents. I'm told I never cried as a baby. The aparents didn't think this was unusual. They just thought I was a "good baby." I was acting like a half-dead one.

I also think Ferenczi had it right because all those strange feelings of not belonging and being unwelcome are most pronounced when I'm in contact with my (birth) mother. I feel like I'm fading away. That she is real and I am not. Suddenly, it's almost hard to talk. To form full sentences. My voice feels weak. I'm devoid of thought and opinion and determination. And while she sometimes says untentionally hurtful things, she is friendly enough. But I don't feel welcome. I feel unwelcome. And totally unsafe. It's like it's her or me. I can only exist away from her.

Will summarize the rest of Ferenczi's (short!) paper soon.

25 Comments:

Blogger Suz said...

WOW. Nina, incredible, powerful, deeply saddening theories.

However I also find it interesting from my own perspective. I am so often faced with moms who tell me they dont feel that way, the way I feel, that I am too sensitive, too emotional, that they were and are fine with the loss of their child. I cannot wrap my brain around it.

But now reading this, maybe they were able to cut themselves off from their child and I was not. Maybe they truly did indeed not want their child and I did.

I some odd way, i find this comforting. It might explain to some degree why I am different from some of the moms I know.

Thanks for sharing.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Nina said...

(((Suz))) I can see where it is comforting. Even though it's disturbing, I find it a perfectly reasonable explanation for what another adoptee called a lurking "darkness of the mind." In a way, this explains one of the differences amongst adoptees. Those who have the garden variety adoptee issues. Then those of us who feel even more alienated. Not all first mothers are in denial. At least some of them - as you've heard them say - that they were okay with giving up their babies.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Suz said...

I still dont to believe that any mother wants to give away their child or has no feeling. I just dont want to live in a world like that. Call me pollyanna, naive, whatever. I like to believe that some mothers were more successful at denial but underneath it is the normal, standard feeling. They are too terrified to allow those feelings to surface out of sheer terror. So they live in this happy lalaland of everything being fine, not needing their child, denying contact, etc.

Of course, there can also be many flavors. There can be some percentage that are heartless breeders and then a percentage that is in terror induced denial - and they all get bulked together.

Awful on all counts for all affected regardless of the root cause.

7:23 AM  
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10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous Bob said...

Hi Nina. Yey you got the paper!

"I also think Ferenczi had it right because all those strange feelings of not belonging and being unwelcome are most pronounced when I'm in contact with my (birth) mother. I feel like I'm fading away."

Ditto, and it made no sense until I read Alice Miller and learned more about the um "psychological and social conditions" I was born into. Pre- and perinatal psychology is where it's at!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-_and_perinatal_psychology

http://www.holistic.ie/amethyst/documents/adoption2.htm

6:35 AM  
Blogger Nina said...

Anonymous Bob,

By the way, some other adoptees on AAAFC also chimed in...saying it made sense to them given their experience. I need to reread Alice Miller with Ferenczi in mind. Thanks for the links!

8:37 AM  
Anonymous mia said...

I wonder Nina if these conditions are more pronounced in those of us who seem to have mothers who truly did make up their minds from the beginning. Topped by our special breed of parent?! Ugh.
I am the same way when it comes to completing ANYTHING but I guess when you look at the cards stacked against us from that precarious beginning we turned out pretty damn good.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Nina said...

MIA: You're right, Mia! I think we are survivors. And a lot stronger than we give ourselves credit for! I DO believe that these traits are more pronounced in those of us whose mothers did cut themselves off early. At first, the idea seemed kind of shocking. But now that I've had time to process, it seems very reasonable and not at all surprising.

6:37 PM  
Anonymous hopewaits said...

I've read this post and the comments so many times.
It is so difficult for me to get into words what I am feeling because there are so many thoughts produced by this post.
I have to comment to Suz..For adoptees, it's not a measure of a mother wanting her child but the fact that ultimately, she did not....kind of degrees of not wanting.
If we were not nurtured as babies by our aparents (who were adopting for their own needs)then we were not "connected" to a person/family and as we grow, we have a tendancy to "fade" or become disconnected;become nothing but an extension of something that has no real foundation in us. And so we perform/become whatever we need to be to "get" the nurturing and love we need and for me that continued into adulthood, and is continuing to some degree even today.
Perhaps that is why we fade and become less than something in the presence of our aparents....because that is what we really were to them and we just revert to that person/position of truth.
I think,for me, that is why I have trouble completing goals because the goals are for me nd I'm not sure who "me" is.......the sme with maintaing relationships.........Oh dear, I'm rambling again but no ,it is my truth...........

7:57 AM  
Blogger Nina said...

Hopewaits: I found so much truth in what you wrote. I think my aparents were so happy to finally have a baby - any baby - they could not see ME. Me the individual was not important. I was to meet THEIR emotional needs...fill the vacuum...make adad act more like a man and less than a child. They were so wrapped up in their happiness they couldn't see that it was strange I never cried...that I was stiff as a board when held...and never questioned where I was the first month of life (they thought I was a newborn! Bizarre!) So when you wrote that when aparents couldn't nurture or connect with us, we became even more disconnected...it TOTALLY made sense.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Suz said...

Hopewaits - I think I am confused by our comment. Are you suggesting that all mothers did not want their child?

Becuase I have to strongly disagree with you.

I did indeed want my child. I told the agency, after they locked me in a home for six months, I wanted my child. And then I was reminded of the promissory note my parents signed, the law suits that would be filed against me if I did not turn over my child to them.

In my case, your assumption (if I am reading it correctly) is flat out wrong. I wanted her - but was too weak to fight the coercive and intimdating tactcs that were used against me.

I also know many mothers who feel the same.

Accuse us of being too naive, immature and resourcelss to fight the forces that worked against us, but please dont say all of us did not want our chilren.

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