In chapter three of See What I'm Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses, author Lawrence Rosenblum referenced several studies and anecdotes involving mothers and their ability to smell their own children, and mentioned experiments studying kin identification. These stories triggered a memory for me. I have three kids, the older two are my natural children, meaning I carried them myself. They were 8 and 9 years old when we received a surprise phone call about a newborn baby who needed a home. Who says no to a perfectly good baby, right? My husband and I met her the same day we found out she existed, when she was about 8 hrs old. Two days later, she was under our guardianship and I spent as much time as I could with her at the hospital in the NICU. She came home, and my whole family embraced her. So, the memory goes like this… She had been with us for about two months and the big kids were helping me get her dressed after a bath, when my older child asked me when she was going to start smelling “like us”. This memory today actually made me remember what she smelled like at the time, so intensely I could almost taste it. I can’t remember when she stopped smelling different from us, but I do remember telling the kids that as she grew and we used the same soaps and shampoos and detergent she would probably smell more like us. We are no longer consciously aware of any differences, but I would guess that she stills smells different from us today, only we have incorporated her smell into our family identity.
Among adoptive families, our story is not uncommon, but it sometimes causes bonding issues for adoptive parents (Selwyn & Meakings, 2015). Adoptive parents themselves, researchers Julie Selwyn and Sarah Meakings were conducting interviews of families with disrupted adoptions and those at risk for disrupted adoptions. A disrupted adoption is relatively rare, but they do occur, causing children to be re-homed and trauma to all involved. A pool of adoptive parents were interviewed, consisting of 45 parents with disrupted adoptions and 45 parents considered at risk, and Selwyn and Meakings were surprised that several parents mentioned the smell of their adopted child as being problematic for them. In some cases, parents confessed to feeling “unsettled” by their children not smelling “right”, and so they felt guarded and uncomfortable snuggling or holding the children. Others identified the children as having a very off putting acrid smell they associated with fear, and still others explained that their children were marking their new homes, rooms, and beds with urine to make the space smell more familiar to them. “Parents described an acrid smell and one that was so powerful that they had to overcome feelings of avoidance. Parents had been unprepared for this possibility and could not raise the issue of odour with visiting social workers, as they thought they would be judged as inadequate and strange” (Selwyn & Meakings, 2015). Interviewed parents admitted the off putting odors affected their behavior towards the children, which in turn affected how the children behaved, often negatively and contributing to poor bonding. What is not really explored in this report is that the bonding issues caused by smell would of course work both ways. Children, even newborns, already traumatized by the loss of their familiar people and smells and placed in a strange smelling environment with strange smelling people, might be equally unable to acclimate and feel repulsed by the smell of their new families.
I think it is quite interesting that this research turned up such unexpected information, partially because like the parents interviewed, I thought it was just an “us thing”. I also found it to be very surprising that more studies haven’t been done on the sensory aspects of adoption. I think in our case, I grew up as the oldest in an eclectic, blended family packed with siblings, half siblings, cousins, half cousins, and step cousins and all of their connected relations and friends, and I tried to replicate that for my older kids. By the time we brought home our latest member, we were pretty well primed to accept scent outliers into our group, but as Selwyn and Meakings detail, no one warned us of the potential issues possible scent differences could cause for the success of our adoption. We are also a pretty odd, science-y bunch, so noticing these differences did not upset us or cause shame, and we had like-minded individuals with whom we could positively work through these observations. However, having been a part of the adoptive world and various support groups for the last 14 years, I would strongly agree with their proposal and feel that this information about sensory bonding should be included in the pre-adoptive education sessions. I support the idea that worn clothing could be exchanged for better prospective adoption matching and hopefully a more positive outcome for families.
Rosenblum, L. D. (2010). See what I'm saying: The extraordinary powers of our five senses. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Selwyn, Julie & Meakings, Sarah. (2015). 'She just didn’t smell right!' Odour and adoptive family life. Adoption & Fostering. 39. 294-302. 10.1177/0308575915612617. Odour.final.docx