Adoption: Recognizing the Loss for All of Us

I witnessed something unexpected this weekend – a swirl of pain in a normally safe place.

A group devoted to conversations about parenting adopted/foster children with connection, a group teaching and supporting the methods developed by my friend, Dr. Karyn Purvis, became a place of debate, contention, and pain.

As I watched the conversation unfold, much of it was focused on the adoptee as the marginalized voice and the adoptive parents as being in a position of power – all true.

But when pain was expressed by struggling adoptive parents, most yearning to understand – they were silenced and accused of not listening to the marginalized voices.

Some of the parents were dismissed with sentiments of, “You chose this – you’re the adult in this situation. Deal with it.”

At least that’s how I read the words through my own lens of parenting children who came to me after living through trauma.

Reflected in the conversation is this reality: adoption begins with tragedy and loss.

Who am I?

While I am in a position of power as an adoptive parent, I have not always held this role.

I am also a member of one of the marginalized and silenced groups, and for 28 years that was the only role I held in the adoption triad.

I feel comfortable lending my voice to this conversation because I’m a first/birth mother too.

All told, I’m a former foster youth, first mother, adoptive parent, and foster parent.

If you set me on an adoption balance scale, I might lean slightly in the position of power, but not with heavy certainty.

In every adoption, there is loss, pain, and sorrow. When trauma is involved (and I would argue it’s common), it spills over onto everyone involved and the sorrow spreads further, touching many lives.

In the story of my son’s birth and subsequent adoption, this profoundly impacted five different people (or groups of people).

I visualize us in an arc, with my son, the adoptee at the apex, birth family to one side and the adoptive family to the other.

He, the adoptee, holds the point of greatest significance because, without him, there would be no adoption. None of us would have the roles we hold.

He also is the one with the least power, or voice, in the arc.

My Parents

My parents were devastated and trying to do the very best for me when, under the advisement of their priest, I was sent to a Catholic foster home. The plan was for me to place the baby for adoption through Catholic Charities and return home without him.

I was supposed to move on with my life. They were too.

Nobody expected me to be writing about adoption 38 years later.

Pain and Sorrow

Me – First/Birth Mother

I did not understand this plan. I was determined to fight for my child, and I tried.

I had no voice – none. I was lied to, coerced, and not given any alternatives.

I didn’t know I had rights – to be honest, in the late 1970’s, I’m not sure I did.

I was repeatedly told that if I kept my son I was selfish and I would ruin his life. He would be a juvenile delinquent and it would be my fault.

I had nothing to give him.


His adoptive parents had everything to give him.


I thought if I kept him we would be homeless.

My foster mother was told she was not allowed to offer me any help whatsoever. She feared she would be breaking the law if she did.

I nearly took my life.

Pain and Sorrow

My Son – Adoptee

My son was not placed directly with his parents as I was promised, but went through two foster placements before going to his parents when he was two months old.  I did not learn of this until he told me himself years later.

I was told he was placed directly with his parents and there was no going back.

He suffered from the effects of attachment challenges and other issues his entire life. He searched for and found me when he was 16.

All that he had been told about me was false (the agency also lied to his parents), and he had many questions.

He longed for connection with me and also loved his adoptive family dearly.

Pain and Sorrow

Adoptive Parents

From what I understand, his adoptive parents suffered from infertility and wanted a child. They applied to adopt through Catholic Charities and were matched with my son.

I don’t know what they were told about why he was over two months old at the time of placement – I’ll never know why that happened.

I’ve seen pictures of them holding him soon after he became their son and their faces show delight. I don’t know when they realized it, but they were also newly pregnant with his sister.

Parenting Nick was challenging. I can’t speak for them, I only know about Nick’s childhood from what he told me, but he says he was a very hard kid.

They tried many schools, therapies, medications, a wilderness program, residential treatment; I’m sure I don’t know nearly everything they tried.

It was a hard road for his adoptive parents – and they loved him.

Pain and Sorrow

Siblings – by birth and adoption

Lastly, there are the siblings, who are also affected by this adoption story. With respect, I’ll mention Nick’s sister by adoption first.

She grew up in the swirl of his hurricane. Nick loved her dearly and told me stories of how he hurt her at various times and demanded so much of their parents’ attention.

He regretted that. He admired her so much and was very proud of her.

My children know what it’s like growing up with siblings who have experienced severe trauma in their early lives – both my children by birth and my children by adoption. Their lives have been profoundly impacted by adoption and the accompanying trauma.

Annarose is a camp counselor this summer. She called one day after a camper had a severe meltdown that triggered a PTSD flashback for her. She needed my support and time to process the experience.

This is not uncommon for my kids who became children from “hard places” themselves.

I’ll also add, my children by birth grew up knowing they had an older brother, but didn’t meet him until he was a young adult. This was a loss in their lives too.

Pain and Sorrow

What I hope I’m illustrating is this: adoption is rooted in loss. There is love, to be sure, so much love.

There is also pain and sorrow.

Yet, as a Believer in Jesus, I firmly believe that in every sorrow there is hope.

There is Hope

God does not waste our suffering – he uses suffering to shape us, to make us more like Him, to increase our capacity to love and serve others.

Adoption broke me.

Losing my son nearly caused me to take my life. But in my darkest hours, I found my greatest hope; God drew me to Himself and I came to know Him.

When we see one another with eyes of compassion, when we recognize the pain of every person in the adoption triad, we learn from one another.

To say to an adoptive parent, “You chose this, so your pain is not valid,” is not acceptable to me.

Pain is always valid – we aren’t in a contest to see who is suffering the most.

My son, an adoptee, suffered injustice and had no voice or power as an adoptee. He did not know his original name, ethnicity, or medical history.

He did not know he was loved by me.

My friend, an adoptive mother, suffered terribly when she learned her adopted son sexually assaulted her young daughter.

Her daughter, a sibling, suffered trauma and continues, years later, to process the impact of this abuse.

Another friend, a birth mother, was told as a young teen that she could take her baby home from the maternity home (in the late 1970’s) if she paid her bill for her six-month stay. Having no money, she was unable to meet that demand. She believed she had no choice but to follow through with the adoption. She suffered.

We cannot silence one another.

We are called to listen and to love.

I am a student of grief and loss – a particular kind of suffering.

In the past two years I’ve lost two children, Nick and my daughter, Kalkidan.

Suffering can lead us down a very dark road. I feel the pull toward it some days, but I’m afraid of where it could lead and just how far it might take me.

I believe God calls me to use my suffering, the injustice, my loss, my grief – to learn, to teach, to love.

To the best of my ability, I choose to live an open-hearted life.

We learn from one another when our minds and hearts are open and we seek to understand.

Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive, 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

In courage, hope, and compassion for each other and the journey.



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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Emily
    July 24, 2017

    Thank you for sharing this. This is poignant and crucial.

    As adoptive parents we desperately need to side with our children, understand them and support them. Yet, we are also dealing with all of our own emotional issues and need to be understood.

    We ourselves need a safe place/person(s) to confide in where we feel supported and ok being ourselves. We need this so that we can actually learn how to truly be there for our children. In our struggle for both, when we can’t seem to get both, we can feel unloved, unloveable, unsupported, and at the same time, on the inside, know we need to give more to our children. Then fear sets in which triggers the same things our children exhibit.

    You have so much to give. Thank you for doing that.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 24, 2017

      Yes, Emily, you are so right. When we are in fear and feel unsupported, we are unable to learn and unable to connect, and there we are – a parent not operating at her best with a very wounded child wondering if they can trust us to manage their fear. We need connection, support, safety of our own in order to do our job well. Such a good point. Thank you.

  2. shannon
    July 24, 2017

    thank you so much for writing this. as dr purvis said, you can’t lead your child to healing unless you know the way yourself.
    my son who was adopted sexually abused his younger sister this year, and i was told by an adoptee that it was my fault for accidentally getting pregnant after adopting a sexualized child.

  3. Bev Regier
    July 24, 2017

    Thank you, Lisa, for writing the truth and illustrating it with your own life. It is never true to tell someone that their pain doesn’t count because they chose to open themselves to a situation that includes pain. I’m guessing the person who tried to say that might be speaking out of some pain of their own that isn’t recognized, yet. But at any rate, I’m glad that you are able to validate that no matter how good and full of love an adoption can be, it includes pain and loss for everyone involved.

  4. Gloria
    July 24, 2017

    I am very touched by this post. I am an adopted parent and I have seen similar forums where the only voice that is validated is the adopted child. As you say, it is critical that adoptees have that voice, but it does not need to be at the exclusion of the others in the triad. Thank you for this, and all you do to shed light on these issues.

  5. Adoptingmama
    July 24, 2017

    I love your raw honesty filled with your pain and your love. Hugs

  6. Marlene White
    July 24, 2017

    Lisa – When I read your words I often feel that you find the words that my heart cannot express. Thank you for finding the words for my tender heart.

  7. Karen Yingling
    July 24, 2017

    Lisa – I am a moderator in the group you referenced. It was an awful weekend for our big group of parents and for our moderator group as well. Your words are so incredibly helpful to me as the moderators work towards helping all involved navigate their way through the pain and loss to the healing . Thank you for your wisdom that comes through your journey of pain and loss.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 25, 2017

      Karen, I so appreciate your words. I rewrote this piece many times in an attempt to be very respectful to all involved, removing all mention of the original bloggers, the group, etc. I can’t imagine navigating that as moderators. I hope parents feel the group is still a safe place to come for support and help. I imagine with over 10,000 members, many will never even know this took place! If it seems appropriate, I hope my post can be shared with the group.

  8. Thank you for having a voice after this weekend so quickly. I’m still processing a LOT! You speak from your voice of privilege and authority with compassion and I hope readers (and members of the group) can keep opener (is that a word?) hearts because of your words.

  9. Joanne Coriell
    July 25, 2017

    I am an adoptive mother, in the last 2 years we have lost our wonderful son 32 year old to ALS and our beautiful very special needs 7 year old daughter to pneumonia. I know about that dark road and also often wonder how far it will take me.
    I try very hard to remember that through it all, my God is still good!!

    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 25, 2017

      I’m so sorry for your losses, Joanne. I feel very changed – hopefully for the better. It’s still hard to take it all in; maybe you feel the same.

      1. Vivienne
        July 29, 2017

        Praying that the balm of gilead will flow over both your souls. My heart breaks for you both.

  10. Jeni Leidenfrost
    July 25, 2017

    Thank you for sharing so much, Lisa. I always appreciate hearing your perspective and your sweet and genuine heart.

    1. Lisa Qualls
      July 26, 2017

      Thank you, Jeni. I appreciate your encouragement.

  11. nicole
    July 26, 2017

    Hi Lisa,
    Thank you for sharing your expansive experience!
    Reading about the conversation in your group, I keep thinking of what my husband says almost every time I feel unfairly attacked, “Hurt people, hurt people.”

    Once I went to a counselor because I was at a loss with one of my children. My child seemed to be trying to destroy me and I didn’t know what to do. The counselor patiently and calmly explained the idea of emotional transference to me. I was humbled as I realized my child wasn’t trying to destroy me, he was trying to connect with me. As he shared his pain with me he was giving me an opportunity to know him better.

    In the past I’ve joined online groups (like the one you mentioned) because I was in excruciating pain and desperately needed to connect with others who would get it. However, sometimes I would end up feeling more beaten down by the group. I wanted to blame everyone else, but began to realize- most of us had come for the same reasons. We were ALL feeling beaten down (and we all are coming from different places).

    Often, when we’re beaten down, we hurt others. Sometimes we’re unintentional as we do so and, at times, we feel self-righteous as we’re certain in posting a comment we’ll save a multitude of others from committing an egregious offence. But, if we weren’t hurting, I think many of us would have more energy for empathy and tact.

    I DO hope you share your post with that group and I hope it starts a beautiful and healing conversation. Your experience is extensive and we can all learn a LOT from you. There are also a lot of other voices we need to hear. There is no one story. My children aren’t going to have the same exact feelings/experience as any one other adopted person. Still, I know I need to listen to as many adoptees as I can, because, when I do, I’m better suited to ask my children the right questions- questions they desperately want to answer, but need me to lead the conversation on.


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