Followers of Them Before Us’s work have likely heard the term “Primal Wound” used in reference to the loss adoptees have experienced, as well as instances when adults intentionally deny a child the right to their mother or father, such as surrogacy and donor conception. Where did this term come from, and does it still offer helpful categories for thinking through the experience of children who experience the loss of their biological parents?

Nancy Verrier’s book, The Primal Wound was part of a shift in how people thought about adoption—moving from a time when people generally assumed the baby would not suffer any negative effects to a growing recognition that adoption always involves loss. Verrier recognized that this acknowledgment would require a shift in thinking, writing,

It is difficult, and understandably so, to change our thinking about adoption from that of a wonderful, altruistic event to that of a traumatic, terrifying experience for the child. It is difficult, and understandably so, for the adoptive parents to look at the infant and think that he might be suffering. Yet how can he not be? … there is no acknowledgment of the child’s loss of the original mother. Therefore, there is no permission, either explicit or implicit, to mourn.

Especially during the decades now referred to as the “baby scoop” era—when unwed mothers were sent away to give birth and in many cases, pressured into relinquishing their children, adoptions were closed, and adoptees were often not even told about their origins. At this time, the assumption was that the baby would not be affected by an event he would not consciously remember as he got older. Well-meaning people saw this as a “solution” to multiple problems: a couple who desired a child would have one and a woman who was not ready to raise a child was released from parental responsibilities.

Although we could say that elements of the book have not aged well, it gave expression to the feelings that many adoptees and their families had struggled to process and identify. By acknowledging the fact that adoption begins with a child losing his or her birth parents, and that loss is a tragedy, The Primal Wound recognized that grief is a normal human response to loss and helped adoptive families grieve with and comfort their children.

However, as Verrier and other adoptive parents from this era began to see, adoption held a paradox. Even though adoptees are typically raised in stable, two-parent homes with often higher than average income, compared to their peers they are more likely to struggle in school, more likely to be diagnosed with a disability, and are at a higher risk for suicide. 

This does not mean that adoptees are doomed to poor outcomes, or that adoption is not a good and beautiful thing. But it does mean that the trauma of loss is real, and affects even the youngest of children. Recognizing this loss should never lead to the stigmatization of adoption, which is a just society’s response to a child losing his parents. Instead, it offers the comfort of acknowledgment. 

Regardless of whether one finds Verrier’s book or the term “Primal Wound” helpful, decades of research reinforces the reality of the trauma that children experience when they lose their biological parents, especially their mother.

A child’s bond with her mother begins in utero. From recognizing and finding comfort in the sound of her mother’s voice to knowing her smell, responding to her emotions, and being able to identify her as a source of safety, comfort, and nourishment immediately after birth, a baby spends the first nine months of her life getting to know one person—her mother.

Research has shown that when an infant is separated from her mother, even temporarily, her response indicates high levels of stress. Comparing newborns sleeping alone versus with skin-to-skin contact, infants sleeping away from their mothers had increased autonomic activity and decreased quiet sleep duration. The study’s authors concluded that maternal separation is a significant stressor that a newborn may not be equipped to cope with.

Research on attachment and maternal bonding typically relies on animal studies because it would be unethical and cruel to force an infant to experience maternal loss simply to observe the effects. In fact, one of the earliest studies on maternal deprivation was a study on monkeys conducted by Harry Harlowe. To this day, his research is considered controversial because it was unnecessarily cruel to the baby monkeys involved.

A much more recent study, also involving baby monkeys, compared the outcomes of monkeys raised by their own mothers versus those separated at birth and raised by a surrogate. Even when all of their needs were met by a female member of the same species, monkeys that were not raised by their own mothers exhibited more behavioral inhibition, impulsivity, and higher concentrations of ACTH, the hormone that regulates cortisol levels. Research involving rats found that even brief maternal separation can permanently alter the structure of the brain.

Humans are so much more capable of attachment and connection than animals are. If maternal separation can harm an animal’s social and cognitive development, we must consider how much more significant that loss is for a human, who is wired for deeper emotional attachments than a monkey or rat ever could be.

Whether one calls it a “Primal Wound” or simply trauma, maternal separation and loss are no small matter and must never be dismissed or downplayed. When we choose to put Them (children) before Us (the adults) we recognize that children are harmed when adults refuse to do hard things. We recognize that adoption must be child-centric, acknowledging the child involved as the client and putting his needs first. We understand that a just society cares for orphans instead of creating them and intentionally forcing children to go through loss for the sake of adult desires.