Adoption is Not Love

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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.

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