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What If? and Ghost Kingdom Mentality–Adoption Glossary Spotlight

by Laura on January 23rd, 2013

We all think about What If, right?

What if my dad hadn’t taken that new job in a different city, would I have married my high school sweetheart after all? What if I hadn’t cheated? What if I had? Would I be in a different place? Happier? Healthier? More complete?

These questions arise at different moments in our lives, especially at seeming turning points. It’s human nature; a normal way of reflecting on the past so we don’t make the same mistakes down the road (we hope). I, for one, am the Queen of Repeat Mistakes, much to my chagrin …

Anyhoo … So what makes the What If question different for those in the adoption constellation? Don’t many non-adoptees think, “What if I’d grown up in a different family?” Perhaps, yes. But the What If questions take on a deeper, repressed subconscious relevance when applied to adoption.

The What If questions morph into the Ghost Kingdom

The truth is, there’s more to it than just day dreaming for adoptees, first moms, and adoptive parents. The phrase, Ghost Kingdom was first coined by adoptee (who totally “gets it”) B.J. Lifton.

Growing up in a closed adoption, children often wonder where their first mom is. Not just asking, Why did she give me up? Wondering … What is she doing now? Does she have more children? Most importantly: Does she love me?

There may have been answers from the child’s adoptive parents, but what little information that’s provided, weeellll let me tell you, it was never enough.

Different kids process in different ways. Some adoptees never do this shit stuff. They don’t have any post-adoption issues! Ha! I walked through the mall in my suburban home town looking for women who were approximately seventeen years older than I. In Maryland, and I was born in New Jersey! I was so silly

One adoptee friend of mine, Deanna Doss Shrodes, used to spend her entire time at ball games–not looking at the game. She scanned the crowd, trying to see if there was anyone who had her distinctive nose, similar facial features.

The Ghost Child rises, especially around the Birthday (Birth. Day. Get it?)

The Ghost Kingdom mentality can pervade the first mother experience, whether or not they realize it as such.

Rebecca Hawkes wrote about this from her perspective in a post where she reflects on what her name would have been, has she not been relinquished.

She was the little girl, missing from the family dinners. The ghost child. The young adult still missing from big family photos. As point-of-fact, Rebecca notes in passing that it was an uncle who commented that she was not there. The Ghost Kingdom affects the extended family, too.

My (maternal-biological) grandpa quietly, privately celebrated my birthday with a cake … every year.

I have another adoptee friend whose first mom has blocked out the memory of her daughter’s birth so completely; she states she can’t remember it. At. all.

What If … tragedy strikes?

A first mom asked on Facebook whether anyone knew if any of the Sandy Hook victims were adopted. What a curious question, I thought. It took me a moment to understand, and then I realized … First moms are wondering–Was that my child?

Even my own first mother, a teenager, was smart enough to ask her adoption agency “counselor” (Lord knows what her qualifications actually were) about the future. … would anyone would tell her if something ever happened to her baby?

The counselor laughed. “Everything will be fine with the baby. He or she will live a very long life.”

“If anything ever happens, will you please extend me the courtesy of telling me?” she insisted, and the counselor looked at her as if she were nuts.

Imagine: you relinquish your child, the child gets (God forbid) cancer, hit by a car, is a victim of a horrible crime. And you just have to live, waiting, until your child finds you. Until the records open when the adoptee is 18. Or, you wait forever, hoping, praying your child grown-up child is alright.

Is the Ghost Kingdom still around in Open Adoption?

Such is the “blessing” and the curse of closed adoption. Not knowing. Having a Ghost Kingdom around us, and yet, somehow not always realizing it consciously.

The Ghost Kingdom affects adoptive parents, too–the child they never had because of infertility, raising the child someone else relinquished. So, is it “better” when the adoption is open?

Open adoptions can help to reduce some of the Ghost Kingdom mentality. However, they perhaps raise the What If question … over, and over, and over. As first mom Monika Zimmerman says, having contact with your relinquished child can be like poking a raw wound. I imagine some days it’s having salt rubbed in it, too.

But, at least an open adoption is … Without the shame … Without the secrecy … That’s better, right?

I would be completely remiss if I didn’t point out the amazing open adoption blog, written by Lori Holden. After a long talk with her pre-adolescent daughter, helping her understand why she can’t live with her first mom or dad, Lori says

You can tell a thousand stories of what your life is not. And only ONE story of what your life IS. This is your life …

*  *  *  *  * 

If you have any links or blog posts relating to Ghost Kingdoms, the Ghost Child or the What If mentality, please let me know in the comments section! I’m (still) working on my Adoption Glossary of Terms, but it just keeps getting longer and longer … I’ll be sure to include your link on the new page!

images from 


From → Adoption

  1. I really identify with this post. I am a birthmother – my son is in his early 20's. I always worried that he would be kidnapped, get cancer, get in an accident or house fire and that no one would ever tell me. I would be so relieved when his parents would send anonymous periodic updates through the agency because at least I knew at that moment that he was alive and apparently well. Any news stories involving children his age would have to be thoroughly read before I could breathe again. I too used to scan shopping malls and crowded places for his face.

    • Laura permalink

      Dear S –
      Thanks for sharing, I'd hardly though about the first mother perspective growing up … We were told that our first moms "moved on with their lives." Well, yes and no. Of course, they tried to have full lives, but few "forgot all about us." And truly, shame on those agencies who assumed this, too! Even in a closed adoption, adoptive parents still could have been encouraged to leave periodic "notes" about the well being of the child. Just for the sake of the first family's peace-of-mind.

  2. My story is not related to adoption, but I think all of us tend to fantasize about with the What If Mentality once in a while. I wrote a fiction piece last week about going back in time and realizing my brother, who died in 1999, was still alive. My "What If" has to do with my own actions, instead of my parents, but still, I think it's common. Here's the link:

    Also, I'm reading Steve Jobs biography. It's fascinating. Did you know he was adopted? The author uses the word "bipolar" to describe some of his behavior. It's very long, but it's a good read so far.

    • Laura permalink


      Perhaps this sense of "What If-ing" and reflection are also symptoms of memoir writers :) … Trying to figure out how our lives could have turned out differently; what we could have done differently–had such-and-such not happened. Or had happened.

      I did know that Steve Jobs was adopted, but haven't delved into the autobiography … I didn't know about the bipolar description. Well, now I'm going to check it out!

      Thanks for stopping by here, Monica!

  3. The Ghost Kingdom Theory is one of my faves. It's one of the last things BJ published before she died.

    Here's my Ghost Kingdom story:

    • Laura permalink

      Thanks, Amanda! I love this moment-in-time, that shows understanding through the fog, from both your (adoptive) mom's perspective, and yours. Your summary of Lifton's theory is also apt. From your blog post:

      BJ Lifton theorized about a "Ghost Kingdom" in an article she wrote for The Psychoanalytic Inquiry (2010) shortly before she died. Her theory described a secret place where the "what ifs" of adoption live out and are visited occasionally by each "triad" member. It is a realm or a plane of some sort that contains what might have happened if infertility loss did not exist, if a mother had kept her baby, and if the adoptee had not been adopted. It is an unconsious place that houses the vision of the the much-wanted biological child, the baby who was surrendered, and the perpetually young surrendering mother, where pain from what was lost is kept from surfacing.


  4. Like I said in your link to this blog post on FB, the "what ifs" can overwhelm sometimes. I know a first mom who reunited with the son she relinquished and then found out about his death via FB. I think about that a lot, and hope that since I'm in an open adoption that my daughter's parents would contact me personally if something ever happens to her (even if it's not fatal).

    Shame on your first mother's "counselor" for telling your mom what she did. I'm certain that the counselor bought into all the lies about first moms and didn't want to focus on the fact that these moms were experiencing loss at their cores. Adoption is supposed to be happy, right?

    Anyway, I think about the what ifs all the time. I wonder how my daughter would be different if I were raising her instead of her adoptive parents. She LOVES music, and I keep wondering if they have music around all the time like I would and do. The what ifs get especially bad when I have my "grief attacks." I feel her loss all the time, but when the grief gets especially bad, then I get lost in the Ghost Kingdom.

    Excellent post. As usual!

    • Laura permalink


      Yes, shame on those adoption counselors. I get that they were operating under different what, values? different research? But really, how can you think that having a baby won't affect you? How can you tell a woman it's not a big deal? Craziness.

      I think about you, a lot, Monika. I wonder how you cope with this loss and with the knowing. Open adoption is better (I think) but still involves loss and pain and what if-ing. But the cool thing is that you can play music when you're with her, you can teach her songs and, even if your daughter's other parents aren't musical, you can develop this in your little girl. It can even be "your thing" that you have with her. Please! Don't get lost in the Ghost Kingdom!


  5. As a first Mother in an open adoption one of the hardest things for me is finding the balance between celebrating the life my son has and grieving the loss of the boy who no longer exists, the boy he would have been if I had parented, the boy who disappeared the day I signed the papers in the hospital. I personally believe my grief is wrapped up in the what ifs, that the grief I feel is for the child that disappeared which makes it that much harder because how can you grieve a child that no longer exists when such an amazing little boy is sitting in front of you? But I do grieve because I know that he's not the same boy he would have been and as much as I love the boy that is today I also love the boy that disappeared.

    • Laura permalink

      Oh yes, this is another element of the Ghost Kingdom — the child that would have existed had you raised him. That is hard; and I truly have no advice for you! I can just say that I am sorry for your grief, my heart goes out to you.

  6. This is so timely because I'm seeing that things tend to come around in a spiral rather than a straight line. Know what? Just two days ago Tessa asked again, on the way to a visit with Crystal, if she could go live with her first mom for awhile. We talked about it in much the same vein as we did 3+ years ago — musing about what that would be like, looking at what would be gained and what would be lost, and not really coming to any definitive conclusions.

    The infertility community did a What If blog hop once about our own roads-not-taken. Here's my post:

    • Laura permalink

      Lori — All of this adoption stuff (and life stuff, too!) does come in a spiral, and then it may even circle back upon it self at times, no? Ohhh, I have so many questions for you … How old is Tessa now? Would you ever consider letting her "live" with her first mom? On the one hand, it would seem like a normal extention of your open relationship. On the other hand, wouldn't that defeat the purpose of Tessa having been adopted? Whoa … my head is spinning. How are you handling all of this?
      P.S. Thanks for sharing your What if post … I think it's so interesting how your children process the What If's differently–Tessa in terms of living with either of her first parents; and Reed in terms of having been adopted into a different family.

  7. Interesting discussion, Laura. This just confirms how true it is that you can't really understand a person unless you've been there. I wasn't adopted so I can't imagine the emotional struggles you went through. From what I've read, it seems that the closed adoption system has run its course and is antiquated. I'm glad things are changing for the better and I hope they continue to.

    • Laura permalink

      Grace — Halleluiah!

      "From what I’ve read, it seems that the closed adoption system has run its course and is antiquated. I’m glad things are changing for the better and I hope they continue to."

      It has run it's course, and yet, believe-it-or-not … there are still families who want a completely closed adoption so they won't have to "face" the possibity of "having to deal with" their child's first parents. This is why prospective adoptive parents are often turning towards international adoption–less likely to be able to reunite down the road. Their child won't speak his native language, etc.

      It's so true; it is hard to put ourselves in others' shoes, but I just love when others (i.e. you!) want to learn and understand. It is truly amazing!

  8. Oh yes, the Ghost Kingdom where I lived for soooooo long.

    I hate that place.

    • Laura permalink

      Deanna — I don't like it either, and yet I find myself "going there" every now-and-then. Is that inevitable? I don't know …

  9. I have returned to my place of birth, and as tiny bits of clues start to form a narrative, and the more I leave behind my acculturated baggage from my place of adoption, the more I get a glimpse of what life "might have been like" for me here. This can be excruciating. I am not sure I like the term/theory "ghost kingdom" for a variety of reasons. And the regret built in to a cascading series of "what ifs" is too much to contemplate, especially when I am now surrounded by those without this luxury or privilege. Nonetheless, it saddens me when I allow myself to admit that I most likely would have preferred staying here. It calls so much into question….

    • Laura permalink


      It's so great to see you here! There is regret built into these What Ifs; I agree. That's exactly why it can be so damaging to live in the Ghost Kingdom. To try to accept what our life is and not what it could have been–it's very difficult. But I find having a "name" to something, well then I can put those damaging thoughts into their place. Oh, Laura, that's Ghost Kingdom thinking right there. Try to live in reality.

      On the other hand, I think that it is this wondering about what could have been — that leads so many adoptees to actually search. We may not be able to correct the past, but we can at least try to "make up" for lost time. That's what's been so positive for me about my reunion, just being able to get to know my first mother. I wasn't there always, but I can try to be there now.

      For international adoptees, the loss of culture, language, ethinicity are such huge factors. The so-called "first world" perspective was always, Well why would they want that "old, poor, backwards culture, anyway"? Such notions are ignorant and thoughtless. I am so intrigued by your journey–but yes, it does raise so many questions …


  10. Von permalink

    I often write about the 'ghost twin' who we might have been or the lives we might have lived but here's a link to one related post –

    • Laura permalink

      Okay, cool, I'll add this link to the Adoption Glossary "Page" when I get it up-and-running. The glossary has definitely turned out to be more work than I previously expected …

  11. I know this is an old post, but I just found your blog and am reading through it. I so totally relate to this post and loved it. I, too, look around at people here in MD and wonder if we are related even though I grew up and was born in NJ! I wonder if I'm related to any adoptees I hear about, and when I see first moms posting who are still looking for their children, I have to restrain myself from imagining that they are my mother. Lots of ghosts still here, but I'm working on it. Thank you for writing this.


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