What Is The Primal Wound?
Understanding The Trauma of Infant-Maternal Separation
by Marcy Axness
Throughout the generations of routine obstetrical, hospital, and adoption practice in this country, the assumption has always been, "Why would the separation from its mother affect a newborn baby?" But with the advent in the last twenty years of pre- and perinatal research, we now have astounding findings about what a fetus experiences in the womb, what a strong connection it has with the mother long before birth, and how intelligent, aware and remembering a newborn is. Many researchers now feel the more appropriate question to be, "Why wouldn't the separation from the mother to whom he/she was connected for nine months affect an infant?"
"Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding doesn't begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period. When this natural evolution is interrupted by a postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which I call the primal wound'." So writes Nancy Verrier in her book, The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child (1993).
Rather than deeply question whether the experience of adoption is traumatic, we as a society tend to believe that enough love and care can make everything right. But psychologists from Freud on down have taught us that the first stage of psychological growth includes the development of trust, as a foundation for secure relationships with others. Babies who are separated from the only connection they've ever known--their matrix--have had their nascent sense of trust deeply violated.
And so all that love and care we give to the adoptee often has a hard time "getting in". As Verrier says of her own relationship to her adopted daughter, "I discovered that it was easier for us to give her love than it was for her to accept it." On very deep levels, adoptees often feel it too dangerous to love and be loved, authentically and deeply; they can't trust that they won't be hurt or abandoned again.
Children often split themselves off from the injured parts of their psyches, and develop functional, acceptable, "false selves". This concept of the false self is often the explanation behind what seems like "wonderful adjustment" on the part of an adoptee (or any traumatized child) who has responded to the deep fear of further abandonment or trauma by becoming compliant and adaptive to the needs and expectations of the parents or caregivers. However, their grief and anger is simply buried, even out of their own consciousness, where it can remain throughout the years, curdling their emotional lives.
But all is not lost--parents needn't feel hopeless in the face of these revelations, for one of the most powerful healing forces is available to every parent, free of charge, empathy. Empathy allows a person, even a tiny baby, to feel his feelings, rather than repress them, so they can be released. Babies who have lost their original mothers--permanently or even temporarily--or have suffered other painful or traumatic experiences, need to express their feelings of grief and rage.
To support them in this process, we need to empathize with their experience and their feelings, in its various forms. In babies, these powerful feelings are expressed physically, through such behaviors as inconsolable crying (or the other extreme, virtually no crying at all), extreme startle responses, arching or stiffening at being held, 'spacing out' or sleeping all the time, severe colic or other illness.
The feelings of loss, abandonment and rage that result from this trauma of separation are overwhelming to a newborn who hasn't yet developed an ego, much less ego defense mechanisms. Thus, they need our help in processing these powerful feelings, and this help needs to take the form of active empathy--saying the words, out loud, that let the baby know that what he or she is feeling is allowed, and that the parents truly see and hear the baby and what that baby is experiencing.
"You miss your mother. You miss your connection. You've lost something very important, and I understand. I'm not the mom you expected, I don't smell like her, I don't sound like her. I'm a different mom, and I love you, and I'm not going away. I am here for you forever, even when you feel sad." Or, " You had some scary and painful things happen to you, I'm really sorry."
These may be difficult words to say, words which prod at our own losses and hurts--of infertility, of the death, miscarriage, or stillbirth of a previous child, or other deep pain suffered on the road to adoption. But I can think of no greater gift we can give our precious new children than the freedom to be exactly who they are, with all that they feel, so they don't have to bear the leaden emotional baggage of banished feelings throughout their lifetimes. And our priceless gift in return, as truly loving parents, is a secure, trusting, and profoundly intimate bond with our children.
Editor's Note: Article (1994, by Marcy Wineman Axness. Author retains first rights. The book, The Primal Wound, can be ordered from the author, Nancy Verrier, 919 Village Center, Lafayette, CA 94549; $14.95 plus $2.50 shipping & handling.