Comforting Patterns

So JudiLynns’ comment has been bouncing around my head since the day she left it.  Her questioning if I really believe in genetics, have I lost my mind suggesting the existence of a hair color gene and am I perhaps “copying” my daughter have prompted me to think once again about adoption, genetics and what is referred to by Stiffler (and other psychosocial studies types) as synchronicity.

For the blog record, I was joking about the hair color gene. According to many of my readers, my blog posts are emotionally heavy most of the time. Many of my readers have joked they need therapy or a good stiff drink after they read some of my words. I was attempting to be a bit lighthearted and fun while pointing out an obvious enjoyable similarity between my daughter and me. I have been a hair coloring fiend since my early teens.  Imagine my amusement to see the same in the daughter I was not permitted to raise? Coincidence? Science?  Or me “copying” a child I birthed but haven’t been in the presence of since she was three days old? 

For purposes of this post I am going to loosely define genetics and synchronicity as I suspect some (maybe even Judy) are mixing up the two concepts. Others might find the discussion interesting.

Genetics is a science that deals with the structure and function of genes, their behavior, and patterns of inheritance from parent to offspring, and gene distribution, variation and associated change in populations. As genes are universal to all living organisms, the science of genetics is applied to the study of all living systems, from viruses and bacteria, through plants and animals, and naturally, to humans. When I refer to genetics in adoption, I refer to those aspects of an individual that clearly come from their genetic makeup or more commonly known as inherited. A predisposition for a disease like cystic fibrosis (CF) is an example of something that might be inherited.

CF is a disease passed down through families by a defective gene. Millions of Americans carry the defective CF gene, but do not have any symptoms. As a person with CF must inherit two defective CF genes — one from each biological parent it is highly unlikely a child will “get” CF from biologically unrelated adoptive parents. I happen to know a fair amount about CF as it is possible my two sons carry the gene while being free of the disease. Their aunt died of the disease when she was sixteen. My ex husband and I underwent genetic testing focused on ruling me out of the equation as the doctors assume my sons father is a carrier. This suggests that my sons as well could be carriers despite being free of the disease. 

With this understanding of genetics in mind, I was indeed joking that my daughter may have inherited a hair coloring gene due to our striking similarities in that regard. How else could that have happened?  If my daughter had been raised by me one could easily argue it was nurture, she saw me do it, wanted in on the colorful action, and decided to do same. The same argument could be made for her adoptive mother or father. Perhaps they also colored their hair every six weeks.  As there is no documented medically inherited hair color gene, (as there is with CF) it assumed to not exist. 

It is my folly.

Or is it?

Genetics? Coincidence?  Me “copying” my daughter as Judy suggests or might there be something else at work here?

Synchronicity (again as defined by psychosocial types studying these things)  is the “experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, yet are experienced as occurring together in a meaningful manner.” The concept of synchronicity was first described by Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung.

In her 1992 book titled Synchronicity and Reunion: The Genetic Connection of Adoptees and Birthparents, author LaVonne Stiffler details “coincidences” in adoption reunion. These events include dreaming of one’s child in specific danger, naming a later child by the unknown name of the firstborn, knowing the day of a mother’s death, vacationing in the same location, making identical purchases, and beginning to search at the same time.

Psychologist Jean Mercer, PhD, spokesman for science-based and humane psychotherapy for adopted and foster children,  challenges Stiffler’s view of adoption and synchronicity in her blog post titled It Ain’t Necessarily So: Mistaken Conclusions From Adoption Anecdotes. In this post she questions the connection between mother and child, the “myth” that a mother has left her “stamp” on her child, as well as the longing an adopted child may have for their biological family.  Mercer explains that “birth mother myth may be a remnant of the old conviction that a pregnant woman’s wishes and feelings would mark her baby both mentally and physically.” She cites the example of a mother wanting a particular food item and being told to eat it for if she did not, her child would “want”.  She goes further to suggest that it is only a step from that food belief “that something happened during pregnancy that irrevocably connected the baby to the birth mother.”

Mercer doesn’t outright call a total foul on Stiffler’s work in adoption synchronicity rather she questions the suggested phenomenon and states “…we can’t build our understanding of the world on a mere assumption that the phenomenon exists”.

With all due respect to Mercer and her work, I will state I believe in the phenomenon but that is of course because I have lived it and can detail many “coincidences” between my daughter and me. That being said, if you are to follow Mercer explanation (and perhaps even commenter JudiLynn) I am making it up, copying my daughter or seeing things I want to see, not things that are necessarily there.  My beliefs are, as stated by Mercer, nothing more than a “comforting pattern”.  To wit, just as adoption professionals profiting from the sale of children will offer, there is no connection between me and my child.

Intellectually I completely understand how this could be suggested. After all, adoptive parents like to believe that the child they adopted was destined for them by god and magical thinking type forces. If one is to believe a magical connection between unrelated individuals, certainly they can also suggest a lack of connection between related ones as well.

Do you agree with Stiffler? Mercer? Jung? Your own experience?

What if I introduce the idea of Fetomaternal Microchimerism to you? Will that sway your opinion one way or the other?

Microchimerism is the presence of a small number of cells, genetically distinct from those of the host individual and an organ. The most common form is Fetomaternal Microchimerism (or fetal chimerism). Said in plain English, fetal chimerism suggests that a small number of my daughters’ very unique DNA cells stayed with me after I gave birth to her.  These fetal cells have been documented to persist in a mother’s circulation for as long as 38 years and in some cases, forever.

Oh so many questions.

Fetomaternal Microchimerism could explain the mothers’ connection to the child but if no such cells stay with the child, how do we explain such events from the surrendered child’s point of view?  Does synchronicity only apply to mothers and if so, how can you possibly exclude the child from that equation?

Research states that 50-75% of mothers retain fetal cells. It also states that maternal cells have been found in offspring though at a much lesser percentage.

Again, I ask, would the presence of these cells create the connection or “homing instinct” Mercer questions? 

Moreover, if science has found the cells have persisted for as long as thirty eight years, might the connection be lost after some longer period, and if so, would that help explain why some older mothers claim not feeling/no connection for their child upon reunion?

Mercer suggests that “to understand whether there are special links between birth mothers and their separated babies, we need to look at a large group of such people and examine the experiences and narratives of all of them, not just those who have been reunited and are volunteering to tell us about themselves.”

While my blog readers will hardly qualify as the large group Mercer is after, I ask each of you to consider sharing your thoughts – for or against – nature, nurture, genetics or synchronicity. Perhaps in doing so, we can each add something to this growing body of work. Perhaps we will eliminate the need to continually question the existence or value of the mother-child bond. 

At the very least perhaps we can demonstrate  that the value of that bond is best determined by those connected by it.

15 Thoughts.

  1. I LOVE this!!! And just because I will add my 2 cents! I believe in a whole mesh of all of that. I am myself adopted. I feel like I have somewhat of a unique perspective. My oldest daughter, her father and I are not together. She was spending 3 weeks with him and 3 weeks with me alternatively up until she start school last year. While there are certain things she obviously expirienced with her dad and not me, there are certain items that still are distinctly me! I ABSOLUTELY believe we take on characteristics of our biological parents whether we are raised by them or not! I also believe in nurture too, as a child who was adopted I have a LOT of characteristics that are just like my adoptive parents. I also have ways in which I am very different. Certain things that are passed to my kids are just to me to not believe in nature though also! I LOVE lemons. My oldest daughter also loves them. My middle daughter loves them as well. Both girls were known to eat the peels of the lemons, but neither saw the other do it (my oldest did it before my middle daughter was born and stopped before my middle daughter was old enough to do it.). I certainly did not encourage that (yuck! my mouth puckers just thinking about it!), but I did eat lemons as a kid myself, and who knows, maybe I did eat the peel to!

    I also want to say that I certainly believe there is a higher power involved here as well. I absolutely believe in God. I dont necesarrily believe God says, “ok, you will be abandoned and you will be kept and you will be aborted…..” God gives us free will, we make choices, and many times in the long run, those choices can be used for God’s glory. I wouldnt have had it any other way. The story of my adoption is wonderful. I would love to someday meet my biological mom so that I can see what characteristics I have that may be similiar to her!

    • Thanks Jenny I also have observed such similarities in my parented children! I had a penchant for eating onions like apples when I was a child and so did my oldest son. Fascinated me as by that time I had ceased that habit and for certain did not encourage it in my son!

  2. Fetomaternal Microchimerism has nothing whatsoever to do with feelings of the mother for the child and there is no scientific literature that says it does, only wrong conclusions drawn by people who want to see something in this finding that is not there. What I have read about it only suggests that it might be a cause or factor in some autoimmune diseases in the mother. How mothers feel for their children in reunion is complicated and not physical or hormonal, it is emotional and situational, and so many factors play into it; this is not one. Older mothers do not lose their connection with a beloved child because of loss of fetal cells, and mothers who never connect with their found children are suffering from emotional issues, not a lack of these cells.

    Genetics is also much more complex than the simple formula involved in clearly inheritable illnesses like CF and hemophilia where you put two carriers together and you have the disease. There are many genetic tendencies, both talents, preferences and illnesses, that are much less clear cut . My personal belief is that many strange little quirks involve hereditary tendencies, having observed this in many reunited people including my son. Our writing styles are much the same, although the subject matter is different. We both love cats as do most of the people in my mother’s family, although he was not raised with them. In other ways he is different and uniquely himself. Your daughter’s penchant for hair color may well be one of these strange little family tendencies. Heredity can seem magical and mysterious, hence the concept of synchronicity.

    Stiffler’s book was an interesting psychological study of what people see and don’t see in reunion, and I would not rule out some sorts of ESP or mystical connection, but it is not the kind of hard science Mercer is talking about. I do not need hard science explanations for everything in the human mind and soul, so it does not trouble me to believe some irrational and unlikely things as metaphor and as a spiritual approach to the hard questions in life. We all believe what we need to in order to make some sense of the chaos and heartbreak of the world, and seeing inexplicable connections between long-separated relatives is part of that, part of the human condition.

    What does bother me is trying to force a mechanical, physical “sciencey” explanation for these things, when there really isn’t one. Like the microchimerism phenomena, which has nothing to do with mothers loving or remembering their babies being stretched and twisted by conclusions not warranted by the actual research findings, or a very crude view of genetics and heredity that leads searching mothers to expect to find a clone, and be disappointed when they find someone very unlike themselves. Genetic inheritance is extremely variable and involves the genes and traits of millions of ancestors. This can be seen in intact biological families where someone is totally unlike the living family members, because they most resemble an ancestor whom nobody remembers from centuries ago. This can happen to adoptees as well. Not everyone finds biological relatives with lots in common, although many do.

    • Thanks for your lengthy thoughts Maryanne! Appreciate the contribution. Looking forward to hearing more!

  3. “Your daughter’s penchant for hair color may well be one of these strange little family tendencies.”

    Suz, I thought it could just be a strong visual intelligence, which is heritable, I’m pretty certain. It’s a great sensitivity to colour, shape, texture, line. Picking up on what Maryanne said, I have the distinction of being one of those kids whose natural parents did not recognize the bent. When I announced to my mother one day, around the age of 7, that I was thinking of becoming “an interior decorator” (as the job was known then), the response was “Over my dead body.”

    A comforting pattern? Why not? Or, as JudiLynn, mentioned, it could be something you noticed and had in common and then acted on. Anyway . . . it’s all good.

    • Interesting Jess. Visual intelligence. While I am very familiar with the concepts (my children were schooled by a Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence magnet school) I had never considered this. : ) I can offer that I am indeed very visually attune to colors, patterns, etc. I find I am drawn to certain ones (jewel tones and dark/monochromatic), have issues with texture, patterns. Always associated this to a slight sensory modulation disorder but it could be related to visual intelligence. Thank you for sharing.

  4. As to “lengthy thoughts, ” one of the things my son said he is accused of is being “verbose”:-) I am afraid I have the same tendency and greatly admire those who can say what they mean in a succinct way, but usually that eludes me.

    • I can relate Maryanne. In college I actually had the nickname “Suzy Verbose” My freshman Eng teacher was constantly chiding me to make it shorter, cut stuff out. I have so much to say and being socially verbally challenged I overflow with written words! : )

  5. I have much to say about this but I’m preoccupied with P’s “dad drama”. Will try to fortunate thoughtful response soon. Thanks for posting this!

  6. Suz, scientific explanation or not, this happens. I believe in synchronicity. I’ve seen it over and over again and need no proof per se. As silly as it might seem to some… I have an adoptee friend who met her mother and they used the same hair products. Another friend, a mother, spent a lot of time at baseball games during her pregnancy, and her son loves baseball. I ate hot dogs at least three times a week during my pregnancy (it was what I craved, with lots of mustard) and my son loves them. I could go on and on with similarities that I’ve heard, not just aptitudes for music, art, literature or whatever, but in the end it’s the little things that we share that prove the point, IMHO.

    When I met my cousins that I didn’t know existed until we were all in our forties, because my mother kept her family a secret after being surrendered at age six, I found so many similarities. Little things, like speech patterns, words used, throat clearing, body language.

    I like the comment about visual intelligence. That more than explains your hair coloring commonality with your daughter. I don’t think you are seeking similarities to make yourself feel more connected. I think you are rightfully observing them, not imagining them.

    Great post, my friend.

  7. I’m going to repeat what my caseworker told me the day I walked into her office 4 years ago trembling, sobbing, terrified to even talk about the idea of finding my parents of origin. I was trying to suppress my feelings, stuff them down and not cry, not believing I had the right to even acknowledge my own curiosity about who I was I where I came from. My caseworker, truly an angel if there ever was one, had to tell me, because I honestly didn’t know it or believe it, that I DESERVED to know who I was and whence I came, that searching for my parents would heal the gaping wound I’d been trying to pretend didn’t exist for over 40 years…and after we discussed details of my 3 pages of “non-identifying medical and social history” and noted how SO many parallel character traits and interests and skills and talents existed between me and my mother AND father, and I tearily mused about always wondering what was Nature and what was Nurture….she said:

    I’ve been doing this it 23 years. Honey, it’s ALLLLL Nature.

    Now that I’m a year and a half into reunion, I have to agree. Sure, okay, nurture, how you were raised in your environs and by whom informs a ton of stuff. I think “nurture” for adoptees in their adoptive homes is also frequently about trying to make–i want to say it’s like trying to make the square peg fit in the round hole, but more complex. The square peg doesn’t feel ashamed or suffer from genetic bewilderment, or lifelong abandonment issues.

    But Nature. I mean, come on. It’s your intrinsic character. It’s how you respond when someone pounds you into that round hole. Just because someone sanded down your edges to fit in didnt change your genetic makeup. It might’ve crushed your spirit, or forced you to “pass” as a member of the adoptive family, and it might’ve scarred you, but you can’t destroy innate character. The way you were Nurtured will contour the way you behave, when your true Nature is discouraged or goes unnoticed, or is misread by your adoptive family hellbent on making you One Of Them.

    Guess I’m Angry Adoptee today.

    • Sarasue – I dont hear angry. I hear insightful and thoughtful and experienced. I enjoyed your comment. So well written and visually descriptive. Thank you for sharing.

  8. I loved Stiffler’s book and was actually fortunate enough to have been a couple of workshops she gave on synchronicities before the book was published. So many of us in the group were in reunion…I was brand new and astounded at the synchronicities/similarities and seemingly genetic propensities that my son and I observed in each other.

    Maryanne’s comments are interesting and I had to smile at her honesty in admitting that she and her son are sometimes perceived to be a bit verbose. 🙂

    However, right brained, artsy fartsy type that I am, I can only share the fact that there have been so many similarities observed in my son and the rest of my family over the 22 years of reunion;
    that I have just learned to accept the “Mother Nature” theory…

    Forgetting about simple things like food and music interests we share; there are so many other more visceral similarities such as speech patterns, body rhythem (we danced together several times early in our reunion) and body scent… When I first met him; he smelled familar to me – I felt like a Mother Bear finding my cub and recognizing that he was indeed mine…
    My son came to live with my ex and I in Connecticut for about 9 months when he was 21… he used to “borrow” my pillow and/or pillowcase to sleep with because the scent was comforting to him. When I questioned him, he told me that he hated to sleep on the pillowcases of his adoptive parents because they didn’t “smell right”…

    We used to cook together. when we lived with us and found we both move and navigate a kitchen the same way…like crabs darting back & forth… it used to drive my husband crazy.

    I don’t know if these things are just visceral impressions, senses or if there is any genetic link and certainly don’t have the vocabulary skills to communicate the way Maryanne and others do; but I sure have experienced way too many similaries in my reunion and that of dozens of others to question that there is an element of the Divine involved.

  9. The first time Christopher came to visit, I was shocked several times to see how similar he was to my raised children. They all stood the same way, he and one of my raised sons has the same sense of humor, many other little things. At one point while sitting around the table talking after eating, I looked over at Christoper and he was sitting in the same position with elbow on table with his chin setting in his fingers in the exact same way as my raised son sitting next to him. I could have stared at them all night long! We enjoy the same favorite foods, like the same wide variety of music, talk and laugh loudly, are creative; there is so much more we share in common.

    I would say that all the things you wrote of are in play for us ~ nature, genetics, and synchronicity.

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