Adoption is Not Love

photo (11)

Isn’t that a great picture?  Jacob took it of the two of us as we were sitting and enjoying each other yesterday, one of his first selfies!  I would love to just post the picture and skip the not-so-glamorous background… but that would be doing a disservice to you and everyone who reads this little blog.  You see, this picture symbolizes a great victory for us: my son and I cuddling and genuinely having fun together.  It is terribly simple, but it took a lot of tears and effort for us to come that far.

There is a dirty little secret the adoption community never likes talking about.  And I understand why, it’s a really tough subject.  It’s a hard pill for us to swallow as parents, let alone to share publicly with the world.  I mean, it’s totally confusing.  You see this adorable or heart wrenching or emotionally pulling picture of a small helpless child whose eyes are just crying to be loved.  Your heart immediately aches, you “fall in love”, you pray and talk with your spouse and pray some more and before you know it you’re shelling out all your savings and spending all your free time in piles of paperwork, and headaches and nights where you can’t sleep because “your baby” is alone somewhere, cold and hungry and totally clueless that anyone is coming to help them.

And then after what seems like absolutely forever, you get the word that it’s time to travel and meet this picture face to face and you can’t hardly stand the wait any longer.  You put your whole life on hold to jump head first into a sleep deprived marathon in a foreign country you’ve never been to before, running on pure adrenaline with the thought of meeting your child for the first time.  Then you get to the orphanage and see their face (just as cute as you thought they’d be) and “fall in love” all over again.  You visit and bring them cookies and toys and attention they’ve never had before.

They light up like a tree on Christmas, their personalities blossom before your eyes, they’re so sweet and lovely and they call you “Mama” and “Papa” and brag to everyone that they have a family and they’re going to America.  The day finally comes and you bust them out of the orphanage forever, you do a marathon of flights back home, exhausted, but so happy to be there… and after a week or two the dust settles and you start to come out of your fog to see your new life with this child you “loved” for so long from afar… only to realize you don’t love them at all.  In fact, you don’t even think you like them, and what on Earth have you done to your family?  And is there a way to undo this?

All the compliance and love you received back at the orphanage has turned into manipulation and tantrums and anger and confusion… so much confusion.  And then you become angry and frustrated and of course you’ve read all the books.  You know their behavior is from trauma and profound neglect and abandonment and fear; you know it is not their fault, and yet you still can’t help but despise the chaos they have brought into your home.  And you begin to wonder, do I still love this child?  Did I ever really love him at all?

Friends, I have a confession to make.  For months I shouted and shouted for Jacob and Hope.  I told you how much I loved them, how I loved Hope for years, how much we desperately wanted them home.  We swore we would go to the moon and back if we had to, and then we did. (Ok, ok… we went to Ukraine, but it felt as far as the moon and took about the same amount of time.)  We were told dozens and dozens of times how brave we were, how much love we had, how awesome what we were doing was, etc.  I saw adoption t-shirts being sold all year with the slogan “Adoption is Love” glistening on the front.  I believed it, I believed it with my whole heart.  But now I know better…

If you have ever been married you might understand this a little better.  When my husband and I were engaged, I told him I loved him every day and I *thought* I meant it.  In a way I was right, but not really.  Love isn’t that fluttery feeling you get in your stomach when your handsome, strong, doting new beau walks in the door.  It’s not writing little love notes in class instead of paying attention to a boring lecture or staying up for hours talking about what your babies will look like one day.  Sure those things feel great and we love to feel them, but those feelings are not love.

Many couples have told me, and I agree, that they didn’t love their spouse on their wedding day.  How could they?  The wedding is the moment you agree to love, that you make the decision to love, but the wedding isn’t love in and of itself.  Love is still giving your husband a kiss when he gets home every day, even when that fluttery feeling in your stomach hasn’t visited in months.  Love is listening and empathizing, giving your undivided attention when your mind wants to wander every other direction.  It’s making an effort to do things the way your spouse likes them, instead of always leaning toward your preferences.  It’s not saying anything when he takes the last cookie that was supposed to be yours.  Love is forgiving and asking forgiveness every single time you annoy each other, anger each other and hurt each other.  Love is serving that person, feeding, cleaning up after, holding, cherishing that person even when you don’t feel like doing any of it at all.  Especially when you don’t feel like doing any of it at all.

The adoption process can be long and grueling and hard and painful, but it isn’t really love.  Much like a wedding, adopting an orphan isn’t loving them, it’s just making the decision to start loving them.  Adoptive parents aren’t great because they made it through a home study, got on an airplane and signed a few papers.  They are great when, after months and years of hard stuff, they still choose to love this child they brought home.  We’re just like any parent really.  No one told me how awesome I was for making it through pregnancy and labor!  They mostly just said, been there done that :)  But as the child grows and blossoms… you start to see the effects of love take place and you think, what a great job they are doing with their kids.

So back to my confession, I won’t go into the gory details but… Jacob and I?  We’ve had a hard time bonding with one another.  Hope and I have struggled too, but she is a little more forgiving, she just loves everybody.  I brought these two treasures home and almost immediately began wondering what this terrible mistake was that we had made.  Scared and shaken by the reality check that I had two children I felt no good will toward, I turned to my dear friends and mentors in the adoption community.  And what did I hear?  I heard how common this is, how attachment is hard (even for parents!), that we shouldn’t expect to “feel” loving toward our new children right away.

I learned about how important newborn bonding is not just for the baby but for the mother, and how we need to be gentle with ourselves because we lost such an important stage of development in our relationship just as much as our child did.  I found out how many adoptive parents feel the exact same way, how depression is common, even typical, post adoption.  I stashed some new strategies up my sleeve and I resolved to fake loving my children until I really did love them…

But then someone led me to the Scripture, and what does it say about love? In His sermon on the mount, Jesus tells us: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Love our enemies?  Does that mean that we should like them or have warm fuzzy feelings around them or enjoy every second of our time together?  No… so what does love mean?  It means to pray and to serve and to put another’s needs before your own… especially when you don’t feel like doing any of it at all.

It means, feed them, rock them, hug them and dress them, help them and speak kindly to them… especially when you feel like recoiling instead.  It means read them a story when you’d rather shoo them away.  It means take two minutes and cool down so you can coach yourself on how to talk softly and not be harsh.  It means, dear adoptive parent, don’t panic when you get home and find that you don’t feel loving toward your child.  I don’t always feel loving toward my husband, but I choose to love him anyway, and when I fail I ask his forgiveness and most importantly… I never give up.  And never once have I said I didn’t love him just because the feeling vanished in that moment (or day or week or month…).

There have been many times in these first few weeks that I failed both of my newly adopted children, especially Jacob.  I didn’t feel like I loved him, and it showed.  But I repented and I tried again. I’m not perfect, but we’re doing so much better.  He’s finally beginning to attach, to seek me out, to trust me.  And I’m finding that I am beginning to feel that love for him again as well.  For me, adopting Jacob wasn’t the loving part… mothering him is the loving, and it is sometimes a battle minute to minute, fighting against all of my feelings and weaknesses.  But it is a battle that, with God’s help, I am persevering through.  We will make it through this difficult transition, because I made the choice to love this boy every day of the rest of my life, and that’s exactly what I am going to do.

Remember the picture I posted?  That was me and Jacob yesterday, with all the fun, happy, loving, mommy-and-son feelings you would expect us to have during a moment like that.  It was a great moment, and those moments are becoming more and more common.  But they are hard won moments, moments of joy breaking through days and weeks full of the loss, and confusion and heartache that is adoption.  Healing is a beautiful thing, but it is both bitter and sweet.  My prayer tonight is that we might all learn to take the bitterness and the sweetness together, with a thankful heart, as we seek to love all those whom God has placed in our path… especially when we don’t feel like it at all.

P.S. – If you are an adoptive parent who is feeling more of that loss and heartache right now and less of the love and joy you expected…  First, be gentle with yourself, and do reach out to someone you can trust.  I am no expert in attachment, but there are plenty of people who can help and resources where you can find the tools to fight this battle for your family and the child you have chosen to love.  Please don’t keep it hidden, because you are not alone, and there is hope and healing on this long and winding road.

Comments

  1. Oh Dallas, I get this. It was ugly here for five solid months. It’s still ugly to most outsiders, but compared to where we were, it’s nothing short of miraculous.

  2. crystalkupper says:

    This is all so true. My parents have gone through this exact process.

  3. Thanks for your honesty! It is a help to others and a good example of how to love like Christ.

  4. This is what terrifies me the most about adoption. Your heart aches because you cannot undo all of the hardship that brought your child to this point, and although you are not responsible for it, you are the one who has to keep working to overcome it. And sometimes it is just plain horrid.

    We have known for about 8 years that adoption is in our future but have been waiting for the Lord’s timing. Suddenly the time is now, and the wait has been both good and bad. Good because I have had time to read and ponder, and bad because…well, because of the same. One of our bio children behaved in many ways like a child of trauma, and it took years of heart -wrenching struggle to help him grow and manage the misinformation his brain continually fed him about the world.

    Having that inside knowledge about raising a “traumatized” child really helped me when I started reading about adoption adjustment. There are a lot of theories about how to help adopted children, but some of them felt very wrong to me. Finally I found Bryan Post (the first book I read of his was with Heather Forbes: Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control.”) I have since read many other things of his, and really appreciate his style. It works for me, and has many of the same ideas we used with our own little guy. I also have started Cogen’s “Parenting your Internationally Adopted Child” and am enjoying it.” Deborah Gray also has some insightful ideas. I would love to hear what sources are helping you because I am a few months behind where you are now.

    We are finishing up our home study and compiling our dossier. Two children are in our future, probably both older than 5. It is sobering, but I keep reminding myself that this was a definite call from the Lord and that He will be with us, especially in the hard times.

    I posted this on my kitchen cupboard: Joshua 1:9 — “Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”

    I hope people keep talking about this because it is an enormous part of adoption life! Can I link to this post on my adoption blog? Thanks again for sharing your experiences!

    –Sarah.

    • dalas.mueller@gmail.com says:

      Hi Sarah, thank you so much for reading and for your insightful reply! I have been meaning to read Logic and Consequences for a while, but haven’t gotten to it yet so maybe I should just sit down and finally do it. Definitely do all your reading and note taking now, there’s no time when you’re in the midst of it, haha! Most of the wisdom I am gleaning now is from other adoptive parents in safe places where we can discuss specific strategies and have an understanding shoulder to cry on. I would highly suggest getting a support system together of more experienced adoptive parents – that has been my life saver. Truly. Please feel free to share the post!

      • Jane Barker says:

        There are a ton of adoptions support sites some very specific to individual circumstances. Highly recommend checking several out. Be cautious at first at what you post until you get a feel for the group, some are very supportive and understanding and supportive but a few have a more critical spirit.

  5. Thank you for writing this – it is very encouraging. Here are a few other great resources on parenting kids from hard places: http://empoweredtoconnect.org/ and anything by Karyn Purvis (especially The Connected Child – I buy this for every friend who is adopting).

  6. A mother in our closed adoption group shared your post. It is a closed group so parents can be honest about their considerable struggles. We need to understand we are not alone, that these feelings are common. I am a 12 year survivor and thriver, having adopted a seven-year-old Russian boy 12.5 years ago. It has not been easy, but it has been so worth it. I had three bios when God laid adoption on my resistant heart. We have all changed for the better. My faith has grown so much during this journey. God has convicted me over the years that my job is to lovingly nurture Roma, and God’s job is to heal him, whatever that healing looks like, and it might look a lot different from my definition. I trust that God sees the big picture. I have noticed that handing this over to God over the years has taken my faith to a place it could not have gone by my will! Not only is Roma changed, but I am changed. So are my bios, and my friends and family who have watched from a safe distance. No regrets! God is always in control. My latest blog posts about my son: (He has approved of everything I have shared.)
    “Consider it all Joy.” http://on.fb.me/1msFvVU

  7. I have two sisters who were adopted at older ages with severe trauma histories. One of my sisters protected her little brother as she watched vietcong murder her family. They were adopted in the states but then separated when her adoption disrupted due to her behaviors- they kept her brother. She went on to two more placements until arriving to our big crazy family where somehow we were able to make it work. My other sister was used as a servant for a family and was abused so badly she was deaf, brain damaged, and covered in scars. How do children go on from this? These are their earliest imprints of relationships, their own identities, how the world works, how to survive. My mother was a seasoned social worker and adoptive mom; and she was considered an expert in this early wave of international adoption. I saw her break- she simply fell apart in anguish, frustration, regret, and GUILT. And no one knew this was happening- she had too much pride to tell anyone. My parents struggled in their marriage under the stress- they eventually divorced. One sister went into respite for a while and we were all relieved… and guilty about that too! But somehow we all had a lot of tenacity too and stayed connected.

    Here’s the thing- despite this chaos and loss and struggle, it eventually got better. My sisters never stopped growing and changing- it wasn’t like “attach and done”. In fact, their past would resurface and impact each developmental stage right through becoming moms and then having empty nests (One just said goodbye to her college bound daughter and called me in tears). But now it’s more of a gentle reminder of old grief. They still have scars but they are both good people and they are family.

    Just thought I’d share our story since my mom never did and the secrecy hurt her, I think. Hang in there, but know your limits and get space when you need it (and space can help attachment, too). “Fake it” to meet their needs when necessary, but be real with those you love- and get support from those who get it. It does take time, maybe a long time, but eventually you have this really cool, kind of crazy family like mine :-)

    • dalas.mueller@gmail.com says:

      What a powerful testimony of your family Jessica. Thank you so much for sharing that with us.

    • As an adoptive momma of two who has been having some rough times lately almost 6 years in, this was so encouraging and helpful. Thank you for your honesty and for sharing!!

    • I really appreciate your honest perspective. I am both the sibling of adoptees and an adoptive mom. We are almost 4 years in and the challenges keep increasing. I agree–secrecy hurts, but being real and honest heals.

  8. Dalas – thanks for your honesty and the action of love in sharing this message. My walk with attachment to my very traumatized daughter (we’ve been at it 16+ years) has been such a growing, enriching, rewarding experience for our entire family – God has used our trials to bring such beauty! But it has not been easy. And in so many ways it’s been lonely. That’s why I so passionately serve as Exec Director of Attachment & Trauma Network (ATN) — so other children and families will have access to support and resources and the public/decision makers will know that it’s important that our families get the support they need to be able to keep on loving-as-an-action-word our children toward healing their hearts. ATN is here to support families – you’re not alone! http://www.attachtrauma.org

  9. Dalas this is such a well written piece. It shows adoption as it is. Yes it can be a wonderful experience beginning to end but there are so many stories,including ours, like yours. It is hard, ugly, and exhausting. Thank you

  10. Beth Henry says:

    I love this article. I adopted a 5 year old from Russia. I haven’t written our story yet but you have inspired me to do so. She is 16 now and we’ve been through absolute hell together. It’s been a tough, rough ride. But worth every single second to come to the place we are now. The place we’ve found in our hearts and souls. ❤️
    Thank you
    Beth Henry
    Bethannhenry1@gmail.com

  11. Thanks for this post!! My husband and I are at a very hard time with our adopted daughter who is now 9 yrs old. We are almost 3 years into having her home but she is still so very hard to love!!! I appreciate others being bold and courageous to speak the truth about these things because many people outside of the adoption community just don’t get it and it helps to build more awareness!!!

  12. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. We have also adopted two children from with in the foster care system. My advise is to cherish those beautiful moments. They will get you through the tough ones. And pray pray pray.

  13. jana wise says:

    If I didn’t know better I would think my daughter had written every word of this. Thank you. Your honesty is a blessing to so many who are beating themselves up because they don’t feel “love” every second of everyday for this child they have brought into their home.

  14. Thanks for this post! We adopted our son from foster care and I have felt many of the same feelings! The book that encouraged me most throughout our adoption was Adopted for Life by Russ Moore.

    • dalas.mueller@gmail.com says:

      THAT is an amazing book Joelle!! Totally agree and recommend it to anyone considering adoption or going through it.

  15. Stephanie Graybill Nelson says:

    This is the first time I’ve EVER seen anyone write about something as deeply personal and potentially shameful (even though it’s not but we think it is!) as this! I cried as I read your article as well as the other comments. We adopted from foster care (weren’t intending to adopt but the bios both walked away from this 1.5 year old) and I’ve had a deeply guilty sense hanging over me for the year and a half she’s been officially “ours.” It was SO encouraging to hear from someone else that the feelings of “love” just aren’t there all the time and this journey we’re on is just that – a long journey, filled with joyful moments (she’s 3 now and darling but…) and the darkest days I’ve ever experienced. I’m so very grateful to you for telling us your thoughts – for being so honest. You’ve encouraged my very soul today and as your sister in Christ, I am so very grateful.

  16. WOW! I’ve found my people! So happy to know that I am not an alien adoptive mom who isn’t cut out for the process.

  17. If you have ever learned lessons in your life or been through trials, you have probably come to this realization: That this blog isn’t correct. You loved that child. Start to finish. It is so easy to look back on a younger you and think you were niece or less knowledgeable, and in some ways you probably were, but that doesn’t mean there was no love at all. Love grows, strengthens and deepens, and you came to a further understanding of what loving your child(ren) meant and means throughout the process. You didn’t fail at loving them then or mess up or were naive as to what love was, you simply grew in your love. And it is incredible to have breakthroughs and victories (no matter how small!), but that doesn’t mean you have to discount previous feelings and emotions in order to build up your current situation. Love is a process, and I believe when you got married you loved that husband (with a different or less mature understanding, but an understanding) and you grew on that with time and it became more beautiful. Just like your marriage, you grew in love for your child(ren) and that is incredible that you loved your child in the pain, yet it doesn’t make it less incredible that you worked your butt off to get to that point.

    • dalas.mueller@gmail.com says:

      Oh Hannah, please don’t read this blog and think I meant I did not love my children during the adoption process or that I don’t love them all the time now! I love my children, all the time, and that’s truly the point. But as far as our English goes, love is a really tough word, because there are so many kinds of love and we only have one word to describe all of them. The kind of love I’m talking about is “agape love” selfless love. That I did not have at my wedding day or on the day the judge decreed these children to be mine. Did I pledge to start learning what agape love meant and to begin loving that way? Yes! But neither when I married my husband nor when I adopted my children did I understand what those vows truly meant. It is not until after you say “I do” that the true loving of a person begins.

      I suppose you can call it growing in love or less mature love, and that is fine also. But I didn’t choose those words because I felt they didn’t describe the reality I have seen in my life; they also don’t address the process of adoption itself – which is a more accurate description of what I was talking about. Like I said in my post, you can totally love your children through the adoption process, but the process in and of itself isn’t inherently an act of “love”. I believe we are likely saying the same thing with different words. Thank you for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts.

  18. Chris Knaak says:

    It did my heart good to hear your words. What resonated with me especially was the part about how the bonding at birth is also important for the mother….which having missed this makes things more challenging later; especially when adopting teenagers (13 and 18) who aren’t at all snugly or cute. Sometimes I get a little choked up when I see a teenage boy put his hand on his mother’s shoulder or lean in to give her a hug….my boys are not there yet and it makes me feel guilty to covet that kind of affection. They might never be able to show affection in that way; but they have come to love me in their own way, which is quite remarkable and very special. My only goal was show them Christ, and every day that I surrender my will to His will – they see Him. There are days that I fail and my flesh gets the best of me, but it is good for my boys to know, as well, that humans are not perfect and that people in a family can work out their differences with the result being a loving secure relationship. God has shown me how to love my boys (my nineteen year old still likes it when I do “This little piggie went to market” with his toes at night!) and He will continue to teach them how to love me, through me. Thank you so much!

  19. I adopted 5 kids in 6 months and walked this same road of mustering up love when no feelings were present. This is a great post! Here is my own testimony: http://5kids6months.blogspot.com/2014/03/healing-in-hurt-battling-fear-anger-and.html?m=1

  20. Reading this what a moving article, wish those that don’t adopt could understand what adoptive parents go through its different then having your own birth child. We have adopted 2 children a boy and girl at age 2 and 4. The boy easy to love and bond with the girl not so. Over a 10 year period she would open up which was wonderful then resort back to putting that wall up. When she reached 14 we stayed having lots of issues with her from being accused for abuse to her being very unlady like at school and around boys. We reached out for help and she was taking from our home because of her accusations and also she was able at that age decide what she wanted to do. After a year of therapy with her and her still fighting us to be let go so she could be adopted by someone else. As heartbreaking as it was we let her go because we only wanted happiness for her. Our hearts still break till this day. The sad thing is she stays in contact with our families but will not bother with us. For the boy he is now 18 and a great guy. We are also getting complimented on what s great kid he is. Both were treated and loved the same. The girl was in multiply places pryer to placement with us and the boy only one home before us and was at that home as an infant.

  21. 5 years later and I still feel this way……It’s been a nightmare…….. If I could turn back time….For some, the attachment never happens, on both ends. My daughter and I are like oil and water. She is manipulative and conniving….and she lies about everything. She intentionally antagonizes me when my husband isn’t looking. When I don’t respond or react, her new target is her younger sister. I’m at a loss, really, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

    • dalas.mueller@gmail.com says:

      I am so sorry Robin! I will be praying for your family. Adoption is tough, more so for some than others. Hoping you can find some help and healing. *Hugs*

  22. Thank you so much for sharing this, Dallas. I’ve not been through the adoption process myself, though our oldest granddaughter (3) is domestically adopted, and I have three (domestically) adopted nephews (a 9-year-old on my husband’s side of the family, and two young adults, 20 and 23, on my side of the family.)

    I have read many adoption blogs, and I’ve often wondered if things are REALLY as “wonderful” as they all say they are. Or maybe the only adoptive parents who blog are those for whom life is going fairly smoothly, and the families who “go silent” after they get home are the ones who struggle — but no one ever hears about those struggles?

    Here is another story (The Silent Months — http://mylifeingodsgarden.com/the-silent-months/), along the same lines as what you wrote. Diane actually disrupted (for two weeks, a year or so ago), then went back and got her daughter. Her story is only (at this moment) written through their decision to go back and “reclaim” their daughter from the respite family, She has made it very clear in every part of her story that things are going much better now. She has written it for the same purpose as your story — to encourage other adopting parents who feel they are “the only ones” struggling in these ways.

    One more blog that has been a blessing to me, and that others might find helpful, is Christi M at Parenting that Heals (http://parentingthatheals.org/). Christie and her husband raised 4 boys, then adopted 4 older girls, one from a double-disruption. She is very open about their struggles, and the “tools” they have used to help the girls work through the trauma of their past.

    I’ve created a permanent link to this blog post on my own blog, in the hopes that someone who needs it will see it there, and be encouraged.

  23. This was such a well-written blog post, thank you for sharing your heart. I really could have written ever word of it…except we are almost 4 years in and things continue to get more challenging. Professional help is a non-negotiable…as well as supportive friends and family. Being real and honest and open through this journey is crucial. Thank you for putting voice to what many of us adoptive moms feel.

  24. My child was taken by adoption, and kept in secret. Her named changed. Our hearts broken. We raised her sibling, have our grandchildren. Please…. no more secrets in adoption.

    • dalas.mueller@gmail.com says:

      I’m so sorry Andre, but I do believe that the situation you are describing is not like anything we are discussing on this post, nor are the “secrets” I refer to dangerous or evil secrets like what you are expressing. I hope you can find healing for your family.

  25. As an adoptee, adoptee advocate, and adoption writer, I appreciate your honesty and understanding that adopt can be difficult at times. I have an incredible amount of respect for to be able to understand the trauma that your two babies may have gone through. It is a sensitive subject that most people do not want to talk about or believe. It is real though. Thank you for your honesty. Prayers and love to you and your family on your adoption journey.

    http://www.thenotsosecretlifeofanadoptee.com

  26. Thank you Dalas for writing this post and sharing so openly your story of love, what it means, and the loss of the idea of love too.
    I am pre-adoptive stage myself through domestic adoption – though I had a match for a month which fell through last week.
    To try to prepare to receive my two girls, I had been thinking a lot about the foundation of adoption being grief and loss, and tried to put myself as much as possible into their shoes. I was asking myself “will love be enough?” and I feel that reading your post has helped me understand even more what I was asking.
    Thank you, I will be keeping this post and referring to it again :)
    Ali Jayne

  27. All adoption feelings are valid on all sides
    But your title adoption is not love could have been better worded
    I hope you all remain in Gods s grip🙏

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