Erik Erikson, 20th c. the cognitive development theorist, suggests that the first stage of one’s life, age 0-1, is when the individual develops trust. The trust originates out of “comfort, certainty, and care. This allows the child to develop basic trust. Problems in this stage can result in depression or distrust of the world” (Miller, 2011). Clearly the intervention that adoptees experience at this age, namely separation from the birth mother, may lead to a basic mistrust of life. If continued, the adoptee comes to view the world as a dangerous place, and may retreat from it, or later escape through alcohol or drugs, or even suicide.
“Psychiatrist George E. Vaillant and his associates (Vaillant & Milofsky, 1980) found support for Erikson’s formulations…and concluded, as Erikson contends, that the post-childhood stages of an individual’s life cycle must be passed through sequentially. Failure to master one of Erikson’s stages typically precluded mastery of later stages” (Crandell, et al., 2009, p. 449). Pretty stern stuff. How then do adoptees master these prerequisites to develop to the next stages of life?
One answer may be that since not all areas of one’s life develop equally, trust might grow in one area, and be surmounted in another area later in life. Vaillant & Milofsky, 1980, found that “five domains: lifestyle, intimate relationships, occupational/career, religious beliefs, and political ideology” (Crandell, et al., 2009) are impacted by Erikson’s life stages. Of these, none but intimate relationships are operational in the first year of life. So the outlook for the adoptee is that these stages must be mastered belatedly, and the feelings of absence compensated for, or replaced. Other theorists, like Kohlberg, surmised that one can return to an issue over and over again in one’s life and resolve it perhaps with more subtlety. Ruminations over why we were left or what we missed come to mind.
This is what is hoped; that adoptees seek to transcend their impairment, which is nearly unavoidable and through no fault of their own, through instinct, perhaps will and a desire to be whole, with trust in life. If that sounds Pollyanna, think of what it would be like to not trust taking the first step. When we tell the story, we can see what we tried to skip.