Before we brought TM home, I read a lot about adoption and attachment. I knew the signs of anxious attachment; I knew a whole bunch of activities to foster attachment; and I knew that it was unlikely our new son would immediately fall head over heels in love with us. These were important things to know, but something vital was missing in everything I had read. All of these things dealt with the attachment of the child to the new parent; very little was mentioned about the attachment of the parent to the new child. It never occurred to me that this was something to be concerned about. I liked children, I loved my children, our new son was, by all reports, handsome and intelligent, why would there be a problem?
As I waited for our paperwork to slowly make it way through the layers of bureaucracy, I continued to read about adoption and read accounts of other's adoption experiences. Most of these accounts were of the 'hearts and butterflies' variety...the new parents fell instantaneously in love with their new child, and aside from a few bumps here and there, life seemed to be heading to happily ever afterward. While I certainly didn't go looking for the hard stories, they were not easy to just come across either. From what I knew as we headed out on our first adoption journey, parents fall in love with children, but children may take a while to fall in love with parents.
This all goes to explain why I was completely blindsided by what actually happened. Not only did I not fall instantaneously in love with my new son, his difficult transition made it very difficult for me to even like him. And because I didn't know that parents can have as much difficulty attaching to children, I also had a heaping dose of guilt and failure to go along with these incredibly unexpected feelings. We all made it through those traumatic first weeks, though I'm convinced it was solely through God's grace that we did so, and back on home soil, TM and I began a dance together that would eventually make us truly mother and son.
My first inkling that what I was experiencing was more normal than anyone let on was coming across an essay by Melissa Fay Green, where she described her first experience with adoption. Finally, someone who described what I had been feeling! Perhaps there wasn't something wrong with me. I have since had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Green and was able to thank her for her life-saving essay. My autographed copy is not something I'll be parting with. As I began to mention my difficulties with this part of adoption, I slowly began to hear other's difficult journeys which all began to sound remarkably similar. The theme running through all of them was the burning, gut wrenching question of, "Will I ever love this child as they deserve to be loved?"
In the beginning of my relationship with TM, I was convinced that it was his attachment which needed all the work. If I could just get him to the right place, then I would be able to fall in love with him. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it took me a very long time to realize that focusing on my attachment to him was just as important. As I look back over the past few years, I am struck by how much emotion follows action. The more I behaved as though I loved TM, the more love I was able to actually feel. I needed to hug and kiss him, play games with him, smile at him, and think positive thoughts about him just as much as he needed me to do those things. Even today, I must be vigilant to be sure we both experience positive interactions...it is too easy to fall into old patterns.
So, if these experiences are actually quite common, why don't we, as an adoption community talk about it more and more openly? I notice on blogs and message boards, that it is not a subject commonly talked about, but if someone asks a question about it (and often that someone is feeling horrible and ashamed because of their feelings), the flood gates open and story after story comes out about how it wasn't all rainbows and happy trees at first. Let's cut to the chase. It can be hard to learn to love a child you have adopted, especially one that is past babyhood. It takes time. And by time, I don't mean a few weeks or even a few months. I'm talking years. I think we get impatient and expect everything to fall into place right away, but how often does that happen with anything?
If you're wondering how TM and I are doing these days, I can honestly say we're doing well. There are still times we butt heads, but perhaps because in many ways we are remarkably similar. For better or worse, I think TM is as stubborn as I am, and it's not always pretty. But I love him...really, truly love him...stubbornness and all. A few months ago I had a dream which was very telling. In my dream I discovered that we were merely TM's foster family and that in a few days he would be leaving to join his adoptive family. I was devastated. I couldn't figure out how this could happen. I thought I was going to get to see him grow up and always be a part of our family. It was one of those dreams where I cried and cried; the kind that are a relief to wake from. It was a great relief to wake from this particular dream, both to know that it wasn't real and to know that I had finally found a permanent place in my heart for this little boy.