The Sense of Guilt and the Capacity for Concern in Adoptive Families.

This is a transcript of a presentation that Martha Crawford, LCSW and adoptive parent and Joy Leiberthal Rho, LCSW and Korean Adult Adoptee gave for AFCAF/NY (Adoptive Families with Children of African Heritage and Their Friends, NY) in collaboration withFCCNY (Families with Children from China Greater New York) and the Adoption Initiative of St. John’s University, New York:



The Sense of Guilt and the Capacity for Concern in Adoptive Families.



I am Martha Crawford, and I am a therapist with a generalist practice – who happens to be an adoptive parent.


I have had, before and since we adopted children – many clients, friends and colleagues who were adopted and who have taught me a great deal. I have also worked with, professionally and in the adoption community – a good number of adoptive parents – although in my view, far too few seek support for themselves on their own journey through the world of adoptive parenting, and seem, in general, to prefer to seek services to help their children and their children’s “adoption problems”.


I don’t by any means consider myself an “adoption therapist” or an “adoption expert” – and nor should anyone else – I do feel that through my profession, and my work in the adoption community that I have seen something about the special shape that guilt takes among adoptive parents.



I am Joy Lieberthal and I am social worker and after over 15 years working in the world of adoption, I have become more comfortable calling myself an expert in adoption, but still not an adoption therapist.  I have worked in adoption on the policy and agency side and now settled in post-adoption.  It is not lost on me that the majority of the clients who come to me come because of my personal adoption status, but I am glad to see they stay because I am able to support them through a wide variety of life issues as well.


I have been fortunate to have some amazing mentors, but it is one in particular who helped me round out my perspectives in adoption.  As a child development specialist, she helped me to put adoption into the context of typical child development and see how adoption complicates the journey of a child in creating a self identity.  So, I get to see clients who happen to be adopted, which is an important distinction to be made.



Together we will be looking at a model of guilt as a healthy developmental process on the path toward mature concern and empathy detailed by a psychoanalytical theorist named Donald Winnicott:

D. W. Winnicott  was a psychoanalyst and a pediatrician in England during and after WW2 – The Dr. Spock or T. Berry Brazelton of his era –.

In his book The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment –  he details the childhood developmental processes of guilt in two chapters: The Sense of Guilt, and The Capacity for Concern, which is essentially, empathy. In this same book, Winnicott is most famous for describing the construct of “the good enough mother” or primary caretaker



My rant on the concept of good enough stems really from registration packets of prospective adoptive parents while working at a private adoption agency.  We would receive packets of PAPs who fill out a questionnaire as to why they want to adopt, the type of child they want to parent, their past and current relationships, their finances, the meds they are taking, their drug history, their debt and any questionable episodes in their past.  The true meaning, as Martha will make abundantly clear, has been lost and in discussing these packets, we humans were designated to decide who would pass through, not or would need further conversation.  My frustration laid in that none of the information really told us how they would fare as a parent.  It set up adoptive parents in a way that superficially made them feel sure of their decision without getting to the root of how to care for their new charge.  Throughout the homestudy process, the pink flags of racism, insecure or unattached adult, intense fear and anxiety of birth parents are superficially addressed.  And the end statement of we just need them to be good enough always made my stomach sink.  I am hoping tonight we will begin the conversation I wish all parents and adoptees could have so our parents can be good enough to securely hold our children no matter their journey.



Winnicott’s good enough mother does not anxiously pursue perfection, nor do they collapse in shame at their inadequacy. They are parents who have come to terms and take on going responsibility for their failures.

This model – detailing the various forms of guilt and its healthy development into mature concern – is useful to us in understanding something about the healthy and unhealthy shapes that guilt can take in adoptive families, and especially in the development of our own identities as “good enough” adoptive parents.

First of all, in Winnicotts view, ‘The study of guilt is inherently the study of emotional growth. (Win pp. 15)’

The capacity to feel guilt is seen a desirable and important thing – yet, this healthy kind of guilt can be derailed along the way into manifestations of guilt – too much or too little  – unmodulated, obsessive, annihilating, or completely denied – which can be destructive for adoptive families.

None of us will ever have just the right amount of guilt at the right moment – and, in Winnicott’s view these are phases that we will all have to work through, over and over again, in different contexts, in different subjects, with different children, and as our children’s needs, demands and perceptions of us change over time.

Winnicott describes guilt as originating out of “anxiety mixed with a special quality – anxiety because of the conflict between love and hate”

What we love about being adoptive parents and what we hate about being adoptive parents – our positive associations to our children’s first families –and our fearful, threatened, angry, biased, or negative internal imaginings about them, the qualities that we see in our children that we find gratifying pride-inducing and those that make us embarrassed, uncomfortable, confused, or enraged, our wish that our love will be enough to soothe our children and our fear that their losses will cause them to reject us as “not-real” –  this is nature of the ambivalent mix of love and hate

For Winnicott, and for me as a psychoanalytically informed therapist – it is important to understand that we believe that we all hold within us a wide spectrum of mixed and contradictory feelings – whether we are conscious of it or not.

If you accept this view – this means that we have an Un-Conscious. It means, for purposes of this discussion, I am accepting as a premise, that we all, everyone of us, myself included, have feelings, beliefs, biases, hope, fears, shames, strengths and weaknesses that  –  what ever it is we think we know about ourselves – we are Not Conscious of.

Other people, and most often our children, know a great deal about what we dont  know – or don’t want to know about ourselves.

9 years ago:

I am holding my sleeping son in my lap, he has been home for two or three months. I have become viscerally, experientially aware, for the first time that having a child is an unfathomable blessing, unsurpassed joy, a flabbergasting boon. I did not, could not know this before.  I did not know what parenthood would feel like.

Simultaneously I am becoming aware, again, viscerally, experientially, not merely cognitively, that my extraordinary gain is his first mother’s loss, his mother country’s loss and is also his loss.  I know now, specifically, in an embodied way, what and who was lost and to whom.

I go online, to search for narratives from adult Korean adoptees, to try to find narratives that repair these losses. I find a site called Transracial Abduction – that equates all adoption with criminal kidnapping – and which terrorizes and shames me –

I am becoming aware that I have gained the greatest joy in my life at another woman’s and at my son’s expense –  I had likely considered this intellectually – but at this juncture, smelling, holding, completely falling for this baby, it is overwhelming.


I close the computer quickly – but my head spins for days. I do not search online again for a long time – as the unfathomable guilt and shame that was evoked feels as if it could disrupt my ability to bond with this amazing child. If I dwell on it, or become possessed by it, I will feel a villain, unworthy of caring for any child – and I know that neither of us can afford that.  I forget about it. Block it out.




In Winnicott’s view a mature healthy guilt-sense, which he calls Concern, requires that we be able to tolerate ambivalence, accepting responsibility for all the light and the darkness that emerge from our choices – that we be able to withstand contradictory and mixed feelings – without foreclosing, deadening, cauterizing or cutting off any of them –

It requires that we neither collapse in guilty self-flagellating despair nor deny culpability.

In some families, in some households  – the contemplation of adoptive parent guilt and culpability – is so threatening it remains forever unacknowledged, intolerable, un-experienced, and denied utterly.

Unconscious guilt is often made most conspicuous by its apparent absence.

Joy can speak further about the effect that such reflexive denial responses can have on adoptees…



Caveat:  I realize I am describing a small population of adopted people who come to seek counseling, seek adoptee groups for support.  But I would like to make clear that this number is not insignificant.  You just have to look at Facebook to see the sheer number of adoptees who are seeking a shared experience. 


So, once we get past 4 or 5 years old, the world opens up and what is not talked about at home will be no longer remain silent.  Like ALL children, adopted children will begin to see, measure up and contrast their own families to those of their peers and create a narrative of their own that may not reflect how their parents view their parenting or definition of family. 

Over the last 20 years, the memoirs and films of adult adoptees have spoken loudly to the confounding guilt adoptees feel about their sense of loyalty/love/connection to their adoptive parents.  This will further compound their guilt if their thinking of/wishing for/wanting their birthmother remains unchartered territory in their family.  I think the best way to describe this conflict would be when Deann Borshay says in her first film, First Person Plural, talking about my birthmother to my mother is like putting dirt in my mouth.I cant talk to my mother about my mother.  By not being allowed to explore her past throughout her life, she is caught in an impossible quagmire as she goes through her search for self as an adult, at times poisoning her relationship with her adoptive parents.


The memoirs and films are a reveal of what that silent conversation is like for many of us. 


It begins with the self pact that we dare not speak of what we truly desire.  The charade begins based on assumptions of what we think we should know about our adoption story.


In the children, young adults and adults I see in my practiceand in myself as well, is the fantasy story that we create to justify our place in our family.  Mix some insecure attachment and a conflagration of anxiety, perfectionism, and a chameleon-like behavior begins to emerge. Or as Martha says, a deadening, cutting off of that part of us that could potentially damage the relationship we hold so dear. 


The reality is that a child has no choice but to attach, to be loyal, to desire connection.


It is when this charade can no longer be held together that eruption occurs.  Adoption exacerbates the complicated typical adolescence or second adolescence (for my adult adoptees who held it together the first time). 


Underlying this intense sense of guilt is the resentment and anger in the lack of entitlement an adopted person feels to the information that every other person this world has to know who they were born from and from where they came. 


Case Examples:

 Anabel was adopted as an infant to a Christian family who felt they saved her, never acknowledged her birth culture or family.  Now in her 30s, she is discovering too late that she has a whole other identity and family in Korea.  At a younger age, she can recall her desire to be American and later when she realized she was not ever American.  In the understanding that being adopted means to have come from another family, she is struggling with making sense of her abandonment (why isnt my birthmother looking for me?) and the inherent racism of her adoptive parents (why didnt they save a white child, how did they not know I had a whole other life in Korea?)


What it looks like now is explosion upon explosion as she is furious with her adoptive parents tired of teaching them and asking them to reconsider their perceptions of what their motivations to adopt her were, jealous of other adoptees who are in reunion, exhausted trying to maintain a cohesive identity as she tries being Korean.


Lee, 15 year old, Asian adoptee, always felt different from her parents and beginning to realize her parents do not see her as a child of color.  Instead, they treat her like a trophy, keep her at bay and spoil her.  She admits that she is the one in control, rarely disciplined.  She rages and throws tantrums and while her parents understand this is not appropriate for their daughter at this age, they rarely do anything about it.  They believe it has something to do with her being adopted but fail to see how they are complicit in her thinking about her adoption as something to be fixed or mended rather than an integral part of her and her family identity.



Fast forward another 3 and a half years:

I am now the adoptive mother to a 4 year old son and a daughter almost 3. Early in the day, the children had asked about my work, and I had explained my job was to help people.

I am now tucking them in. The four year old asks me to read his life book, and asks me to read the parts about his birthmother. I read my own recently written words out loud:

“Every mother in the whole world needs someone to help them take care of a baby: they need a friend, or a daddy or an aunt or uncle or a grandma or grandpa or they need enough money to pay a babysitter or job with a childcare center. And when a woman has a baby inside her, and doesn’t have anyone to help…

The three year old cut me off.

“You help her!”


“Mommy helps people. You can help birth mommies keep the baby!”

No I don’t, I think. I didn’t.  I haven’t.

I stammer lamely about how I never met their first mommies so I didn’t know how to help them.



At this juncture I now have more practice, more strength, and deeper expectations of myself about who I am and how I see my job as an adoptive parent. I want to be someone my daughter would be proud of. I want to live up to her three year old idealized image of me. I want to respect and honor her loss, and her mother’s loss and lack of real choice – and I want to live out my own values in the face of this – not just pay them lip service.

I talk to my husband and I contact our adoption agency- asking if there is anyway for us to give designated funds to family preservation services to the agency Korea.

They have no idea.

No one has ever asked this question before.

We not only donate money – but I begin doing research on single mothers’s services and programs in Korea – I begin posting on our Korean adoption list serve, I begin talking to all the parents I know about the opportunity to give designated funds to support single mothers programs in Korea, to help other mothers have real choices.

I annoy people: most especially other adoptive parents.

Winnicott describes one form of unhealthy guilt as  becoming permanently trapped in obsessive/compulsive symptoms:  “always trying to put something right” – and obsessive thoughts as making every attempt to annul one idea with another. But nothing succeeds. The symptoms are an attempt to do the impossible. “The patient absurdly claims responsibility for the entire general disaster but in doing so avoids their personal destructiveness”

Some become stuck, for longer or shorter periods of time in obsessive undoing  – but with sufficient support, and awareness – some of the very behaviors that are driven by guilty compulsion can build up our acceptance of responsibility – (guilt matured into concern)  – through cycles of attempted reparation and restitution.

Reparation takes hundred’s of forms: Language classes, motherland country visits, forging personal and organizational relationships within your child’s birthright racial, ethnic, religious communities, birthparent searches on your child’s behalf, participation in adoption organizations, advocacy –



And attending adoption speaker series, and presenting at them too.



Martha, you really set the tone for this conversation, so much of what I have prepared is a reaction to your honesty as an adoptive parent with children who are of color. 


I am struck by a general developmental theme emerging.  As your children age and develop their own cognition of what adoption means to them, so too do you as their mother.  It strikes me that your thoughts and curiosity is an attempt to stay one step ahead of where your children might be.


If we stop at early childhood the idea of being stuck on ideas, obsessive, awareness of others, seeking and being curious to get concrete answers is very typical of all kids this age.  It is remarkable as to where you were in parenting your child who is developmentally the same age as you in understanding adoption.  If there is a privilege here is it on the part of the child.  At elementary school age, a child does not realize what they dont know, they are simply taking it in.  They have no choice.  So there is little guilt, only concrete reflections of what they are offered. 


However, I am thinking of the parent who has a child well past this developmental age and feeling guilty about not doing enough.  I think there is always room for reparation.  Self awareness has no timeline.


It goes back to being the good enough parent in the way Winnicott intended the job of the parent is to hold whether by comfort or by creating strong enough boundaries in order for the child to bounce off of. 


In this discovery, I would encourage a new dialogue with the adopted young adult or adult as too often, the adoptees I see are waiting for the opening to have this very challenging discussion with the only parents they know.  I am reminded of the 24 year old adoptee I met at the very first Gathering in 1999 when she tearfully said, if my mother had only said she didnt know or understand, the doors would have flung wide open for me to be closer to her.



I believe its extremely valuable, and actually a necessity for healthy adoptive families – for adoptive parents examine their OWN wide range of fantasies about their children’s first families.


So many reasons:

If you know what you are afraid of, what you hope for, what threatens  you, what you feel about the imagined, lost families that might have been – the family that was disrupted and that allowed  that your family to exist, that brought these specific children into your lives – you are less likely to project your issues onto your children,

You are more likely to be able to hear your child clearly.

You will be more likely to withstand, without flinching and without fear, the more complicated, painful, challenging aspects of your children’s experience – should they choose to share it with you.

If you have ownership of your fears and fantasies and limitations – then your child does not have to protect you from them.

If you can talk about your internal relationship to the lost family that created yours it gives your child permission, and language to talk about their own experience.

It’s also an awful lot to ask of  a young adoptee to develop insight and create vocabulary to expose their private fantasy life about their adoptions if parents haven’t found their own words, or are unaware of their own fantasies: concretely accepting their own narrative/privilege as adoptive parents as an empirical, universal, fact.


Here are some of the the birth mother archetypes and stereotypes  – that operate and lurk in the collective psyche, in the culture, and  in the back of adoptive parents brains –  and I will own them as ghosts in my own machine as well.


They operate in  our psyches much the same way that any unconscious fantasy, bias,  or any racist stereotype does in unexamined unconscious racism, effecting and guiding our behavior,  from the back of our brains,  outside of our awareness.


They also are active in all forms of adoption: open/closed, domestic/international, same race/transracial –


In open adoptions they take the form of projections on to the birthmother, (as well as the birthmother’s internalized cultural biases against herself  – as in internalized racism, homophobia, etc) making it difficult to see her clearly for who she is. In open adoptions these projected unconscious contents can drive and strain parental relationships.


In closed and international adoptions, these projections are unchallenged, cast upon a blank screen.

A wounded, grieving mother – her child lost or taken from her, who searches and mourns every day of her life.

A young woman in college making excruciating choices to preserve her own future

An angry, profoundly attachment disordered, mentally unstable, abusive or addicted woman, her capacity to love wounded beyond imagining, who will certainly emotionally destroy the child that she carries if she is allowed to keep it.

A woman pathologically attached to a domestically violent relationship.

A woman whose child is taken and sent away for adoption by extended family or defacto in-laws, following a divorce or to prevent an undesired marriage.

My ideal- twin, my sister-mother, the only other woman on the planet whose life, fate, and investment in our mutual children’s survival binding us together forever.

A woman, overwhelmed by crisis, trauma, poverty, fearful of her ability to even sustain her own survival, terrified of being unable to ensure the survival of the infant she carries, placing her child to save his/her life.

A woman trapped in sexually abusive, exploitative, or incestuous circumstances having carried and placed multiple  pregnancies,

A mature, married working woman, suddenly surprised by a “menopause” baby, choosing to place the newborn to preserve the future of her older children by chosen, welcome pregnancies.

A woman exactly like I was, from the age of 20-28 or so  if I had become pregnant: working as an unskilled laborer, uninsured, living in a tenement in a horrible neighborhood, with random, unreliable, roommates, rarely able to pay rent and utilities, with no familial support, who simply had no other choice. It wasn’t my fate, thank god, but it could have been. I could easily have been a birthmother. Easily.

A destructive, rejecting raging, shaming woman, who has already wounded a child by abandoning them, and will harm them again if contact is made, or who will selfishly manipulate our common child.

A high school student, in primitive denial of pregnancy, startled by the delivery of a baby, leaving the child she can barely comprehend that she carried, behind in a hospital.

A woman, beautiful, saintly, gifted with children, a fairy-woman, Snow-White really, her capacity to parent our common child disrupted unjustly by circumstances which dissolve quickly and easily and which would make her fully capable to parent our child just a few months or even hours after her child is irrevocably placed in my arms.

Who would NEVER for a moment  scream like a crazed harpy, freak out  or emotionally fail the child that now, is under my care – The woman who shames me and activates guilt for all the thousands of normative, everyday,  only barely “good enough”  – inattentive, preoccupied, thoughtless, intrusive, over-compensating, overwhelmed, strident, screechy, psycho-mommy moments that  make me actually ask my for my kids forgiveness….

and HUNDREDS of other private fantasies, good, bad, horrible, lovely, neutral, ambiguous, beautiful, distorted, realistic, idealistic…



I dont think an adoptees fantasies of birthmother is any different.  The only added layer of complexity is how these fantasies extend to the self. 

If she is a prostitute, a young girl, a promiscuous girlwhat does that say about me? 

If she was poor and uneducated and told to do as her elders say, do I have the right to have a voice? 

If she is educated and has a career or a lifepath in mind, was I a burden too costly to bear? 

If I was abandoned, does this mean I was forgotten and does it mean I even have a right to claim her as my mother? 

In my own personal case, if I was lost to her, do I have a right to be found by her and forge on as mother and daughter?

The narcissistic wound for us then is this incredible childlike response to the fantasy that never ages.  It then permeates in the future intimate relationships we have with our peers, our lovers and our children.



Obsessive, guilt driven behaviors – when the guilt is brought into conscious awareness – can become symbolically reparative gestures.

Reparative gestures are the behaviors which transform fresh overwhelming guilt into mature concern.

Reparative gestures do not actually repair what has been harmed, lost or destroyed, or disrupted for the Other. Disrupted birthrights, lost ancestry, severed families of origin, blank medical histories, racial disparities and disconnection, distant mother-lands can not be restored,  patched over, corrected or “undone.”

The attempt at “repair” is only symbolic, not literal.

Nor is it the adoptee or the birthmother that is repaired by the attempts…

As guilt, made conscious, begins to mature into Winnicottian Concern and attuned responsibility, symbolically reparative acts repair adoptive parents ability to emotionally withstand, have empathy for, and accept responsibility to those who have experienced harm or sustained losses that have resulted in our gain.

The attempts at reparation help the guilt-ridden to stay in open, active empathic relationship to those people who activate our guilt-sense (our children) and to all those who may have been injured -without resorting to defense, denial or collapse.

A month or so ago:

I asked my daughter permission to share this snippet of a bed-time conversation we had recently, whispering to each other in the dark: Her parameters – I could share nothing personal she said about her own adoption experience, just one 8 year old thought about adoption in general:

“So here is what I think:” she said, after we had talked at some length exploring reasons for an irritable mood she had been struggling with :

“I think that adoption is good for the parents, and maybe good for a just a few of the birthmothers who never wanted to be moms. But I think it doesn’t feel so good to the kids. Adoptive parents are the only really happy ones.”


This time:

Not merely guilt.

Or maybe guilt transformed into an ally, or maybe  something much more.

“Ohhh. I hear you honey. I think that what you are saying is important. And it is true. It has made me happy to love you and take care of you. And I know that it can be hard for you. I can see when it hurts you – sometimes more than others –  and you are right, that isn’t fair…“

“I’m glad I can tell you Mom”

“Me too honey, I’m glad I can listen”



If I had written the idea of creating an ideal scriptbut this is about as ideal as you can get here in the real world.


Where I see it translate as a child ages is ownership of this happiness to be created by the adoptee onto the adoptive parent.  I think about all these years we have wasted talking about how to get a child to connect/attach/bond making it a burden for a child.  My wise mentor Rita Taddonio at Spence always says, it is not the job of the child to attach to the parent.  If we work off that foundation, it gives the child room to grow, evolve into their own love/hate of their parents as human beings instead of spending all those years guessing how they should be in order for their parent to be reassured.


I find it interesting that we never expect such acts of compassion and understanding from people who remain in their family of origin.  I am questioned as to the nature of my relationship with my parents even now at 42 years of age.  But when I ask others, they think nothing of throwing their parents under the bus and think this quite normal.  The perception then is that good adoptee never individuates, never separates.  This is just not typical development, why is that the paradigm in adoption?


And when this standard is not met, the intense guilt that plays out well into adulthood is painful to witness. The internal sense of ambivalence is hard to rewire in an adult who is stuck

In conclusion, I am thinking of two very different things I have read recently.


Article in NY Times parent blog


Guilt gone amok


Parenting magazine, February 2013 issue had an article titled, The Replacements where the author Christina Vercelletto writes, So how do experts define family? Its people with secure attachment to your child, (Merry) Lambert says (family therapist).  A magazine found regularly on newsstands puts it so plainly what we have been saying.  In the security of adults, the child emerges attached with a sense of family and belonging.



In this model, the Motherlode article would describe an attempt at moving through guilt to concern, that becomes overwhelming, and regresses into denial of guilt, similar to the moment when I slammed my computer shut. But there is also something more, and frankly stranger here – Guilt at being the beneficiary of adoption loss becomes, for this Motherlode writer, some sort of evidence of her own of victimization, as she somehow equates, or even elevates Beneficiary Guilt as comparable with or more traumatic than adoption loss.

This is what a guilt-driven defense looks like in action.

And all adoptive parents need to face this dilemma find a undefended path through it, not just for their own sakes, but for the sake of the adoptee.


And, yes, the Parenting magazine quote is lovely and straight to the point – adoptive parents must wade through the murky waters of their own internal lives to understand the ways that adoption guilt and unconscious fear and bias effects their abilities to attach securely to the adopted child.


If you’d like to join in the discussion – have questions or comments,

Feel free to join the Agitators and Allies Facebook page.

And follow Joy’s blog: Adoption Echoes at


We hope to continue the dialogue here – and plan, loosely and much more briefly  to discuss over the next month or so, the ways that this model of guilt/reparation/concern may or may not apply to  transracially adoptive families specifically and white adoptive parents capacities to examine white privilege and move from denial and colorblindness to allyship with their adopted children of color – and how those processes effect adoptees perceptions.