Adoption and the Soul’s Journey


Adoption and the Soul’s Journey

By Stephen Rowley

From my earliest years my parents told me I was adopted. They told me they chose me and that I was special. Beyond that, I knew nothing about where I came from or who my original parents might have been. As a child, I never thought to ask them what they knew about me before I came into their lives.

But at age thirteen, I finally asked my mother about my adoption. What did she know? Who gave me up for adoption and why? Surprisingly, my questions were met by rebuke, as she angrily asked back, “Don’t you think your father and I love you enough?” 

I felt humiliated and vowed I’d never speak to her about my adoption, or my birth parents, again. Ironically, my deep shame became the impetus to find out more on my own. That day I set forth on my own journey to answer one question: Who am I? That quest would last nearly a lifetime. 

The story of this investigative journey can be told in two ways. The first is the story of trying to uncover the sealed records of my adoption, including the names and addresses of my birth parents. This was a detective story, as I scoured the “pre-internet” for clues and followed roads leading nowhere for over two decades. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, my search was done largely through typed correspondence and requests for records. Finally, in my mid-thirties I was helped by the new director of the adoption agency that had placed me. He sent me some unsealed documents about my birth mother and her family. 

As soon as I was able, I visited my biological mother’s hometown in Iowa and found a 1944 high school yearbook photo of her in the public library. I then wrote everyone in the county who had the same last name to ask how I might find her. A month later at my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, a relative sent me Mom’s married name and address, and located on the East Coast. After extensive correspondence with her two daughters, I learned that she’d recently been released from a halfway house and was now living in subsidized housing. Undeterred by the news of her lifelong struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, I flew east to meet her. Despite her dire circumstances, in sharp contrast to my newly minted Ph.D. from Stanford, my long-sought mother and child reunion changed both of our lives for the better. She, too, had desperately wanted to find me, but had limited resources or clues to do so. In the course of a few short hours, we each found something of ourselves in the other. Time and distance had not extinguished the deep bond we shared, and her brilliance beneath the veneer of tough circumstances shone through. After forty years, I had found my birth mother, and she had found her boy—at last.

She died two years after our reunion. Although I never lost interest in discovering the identity of my birth father, I had no trail to follow. I couldn’t find a trace of his existence, as (it turned out) early records had misspelled his name. Then, thirty-five years after reuniting with my mom, I received an email through 23andMe that a close relative on my birth father’s side was trying to reach me. After a quick exchange of emails, not only was my father’s identity revealed to me (he was by then deceased), but also news of his four daughters—my half-sisters! My search for my birth mother had required years of detective work; discovering the identity of my birth father took no effort at all, once I’d given up.

Not all adoptees who search for their birth parents enjoy such happy or unlikely outcomes. Nor do all that many adoptees get to grow up with loving and well-to-do parents—who encouraged my education and supported me unconditionally in good times and bad. 

Now to the second way of telling my story, this version from perspective of my inner life as an adoptee. In many ways, it speaks to interior life of all of us who were separated from our birth mothers in infancy. If I have learned anything from the years of my search and hearing stories of other adoptees, I have found that the outer lives of adoptees are uniquely different from each other, but our inner lives, seldom recognized by others, are strikingly common. The trauma of being separated from our birth mothers soon after birth continue to be felt well into adulthood. 

The difficulty of recognizing this trauma is that, of course, this powerful experience happened well before we had language to process it. Most adults have scant memories before the age of four. Even if we grow up in a loving home and later discover our birth parents, the imprint of such profound abandonment and the absence of essential attachment remain in the unconscious. I’m a Jungian psychotherapist now, specializing in trauma of all kinds, and I’ve come to know the inner terrain of the psyche well enough to recognize its presence in my own moods, memories, and behaviors. And I see and feel them in other adult adoptees, especially among my clients.

Many adoptees resonate with the image of the inner orphan—a piece of our psyche that remains restless, yearning to connect, always on the lookout for stability, never quite finding the peace and wholeness we seek. For many adoptees, including me, the idea of an inner orphan is profoundly real—buried but quite alive within our psyches. 

Not all adoptees share this inner experience. Jung famously said during a BBC interview, “The thing about the unconscious is that it’s unconscious.” Given that much of our early experience is held in the unconscious, we cannot know for a fact that this is not so. Yet when I’ve described my personal search for identity as a soul’s journey, many adoptees strongly resonate with this word choice, regardless of their spiritual or religious orientation. To many, the soul’s journey to discover our true identity is not a foreign concept, but a deeply held drive. 

It has taken the better part of a lifetime to see how my adoption and the search for my birth parents have led me to ever-deepening insights and personal growth. To my surprise and enduring gratitude, the wandering orphan within me has served, ultimately, as a spiritual guide whose powers are barely perceptible at times, but persistent. My long search for my identity has helped me discover deeper meanings within myself. I hope this will be true for many of my fellow adoptees, as we embrace our souls’ journeys and the quest to answer this essential question: Who am I?



Stephen Rowley, PhD, is a psychotherapist practicing on Bainbridge Island, Washington. He previously enjoyed a 40-year career as an elementary school teacher and principal, and a school district superintendent in Washington State and California. He has also been a professor at three universities, teaching educational administration and organizational theory. His has a BA in English from the University of Wisconsin, a PhD in Administration and Policy Analysis from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, Santa Barbara. 

Summary of The Lost Coin: A Memoir of Adoption and Destiny

Stephen Rowley takes us along on his lifelong journey for meaning and identity. He deeply engages us with the stories of his adoption, his search for his birth parents, coming of age as a college radical, becoming a visionary school leader, adopting a son with his wife, losing his career at the hands of power-hungry school board, and experiencing transcendence in a dream, compliments of the Dalai Lama. All these trials and stages of his evolution set the stage for reinventing himself as a depth psychotherapist and writer in later life. 

The Lost Coin helps us understand the lasting impact of separating a mother from her child, and the unspoken restlessness and yearning for connection it creates. Stephen Rowley forged a life path that revealed hidden truths that helped him discover his own soul’s calling. “It is my hope,” he writes, “that through my memoir, you may discover the unique capacity within you to heal and even thrive, not in spite of the wounds you carry, but because of them.” 

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