Once matched with a child through international adoption many parents look at the pictures and comb through the information about their referred child (often for months), dreaming about the day they will finally meet and become this child’s mom or dad. Parents often even convince themselves through a single photo that they already love this child. Through all the mounds of adoption education that parents go through, not much, if any of it, typically focuses on what parents should do if they don’t feel love for their adopted child. Most of the education focuses on ways to help the child attach to the parent instead of the other way around. The reality is that attachment goes both ways and it isn’t always love at first sight.
I talked to a mom on the phone recently who reached out to me for advice because she did not feel as though she was attaching to her son who had been home for a couple of weeks. I let her know that this happens sometimes in adoption and she was not alone. It is normal to feel like a babysitter, or to feel like you’re just going through the motions. Attachment doesn’t happen overnight and not all love stories begin with “love at first sight.” I shared with her that the best advice anyone ever gave me in the beginning of my adoption journey was, “fake it till you make it.” Stay dedicated to your child and do your best to meet their needs and your relationship with your child can grow into something beautiful, but it takes time. There were many times (especially in the beginning) where I would hold, rock, carry, hug and kiss my children when it was not genuine, but I did it for my children because they needed it and it was a step forward towards attachment. Often parenting, especially adoptive parenting, isn’t a “give and take” sort of situation, instead it is a whole lot of selfless giving without getting much, if anything, in return.
It is normal to feel overwhelmed, confused, afraid, sad, shock, guilt, or even regret when meeting your child for the first time. Whether your child joins your family through birth or adoption it is a HUGE life transition which takes time to adjust, especially if it’s not what you initially expected. When I talk to parents who are about to travel to meet their child for the first time, I tell them to set their expectations low and not to anticipate a fairy-tale-like meeting. If you don’t go into the meeting with your own preconceived fantasy, then you won’t be disappointed when your expectations aren’t met. There are few adoption stories that begin with a child running into their new parents’ arms with a huge smile on their face, excited about the new adventure ahead. A more realistic picture is a child AND parent(s) who are both cautious, scared, and uncertain about the journey ahead.
Most of the time children who join a family through adoption are resilient and amazingly brave. When I didn’t feel attached to my child, I found hope in looking at how much she had already overcome so far in her short life. If she could love me and call me mom after all her heartbreak the least I could do was love her and be her mom in return. Love isn’t always instant but rather a choice you make and a goal you work towards. So, if it isn’t love at first sight don’t give up, the hope is that sooner or later you no longer have to fake it and your attachment strengthens and the love becomes real.