When Love Takes Time

I sat in the back, watching the women from her church present my aunt with gift after gift, in celebration of the anticipated arrival of a little boy from across the world. She sat in front of a stone fireplace in a folding chair and opened a box with a framed needlepoint poem. Through tears, she read:  

You are not flesh of my flesh,
Nor bone of my bone,
But still miraculously, my own.
Never forget, for a single minute,
You did not grow under my heart,
But in it.

I was 10 years old. A seed of love for a child I didn’t know planted itself, deep and firm, in the soil of my heart that day.

***

She was a thousand pieces of paper, accumulated slowly, piled up in messy stacks on my desk over the course of a year. Then, with one phone call, our fourth child had a name. Hours later, an email gave us her face. After three more months, we flew to China to meet her and bring her home.  

On a chilly Monday morning, she remained a dream, a pulsing in my veins, a knowing, a hope. By the afternoon though, as we sat in a small lobby with black leather chairs and a water cooler by the door, a little girl with a red and blue plaid coat walked in the room and became flesh. The idea of her, a reality. A theory, proven. Existing in the abstract, now tangible.

We were strangers one moment; family the next.

For the remaining 10 days in-country, our daughter preferred to be cared for by my husband, a possibility we were told expect. What I didn’t expect was the rawness of my hope to be wanted by her and, despite knowing it would be unlikely, the absence of another secret hope: that we’d all fall instantly, helplessly in love.

We traveled with a two other couples for the entire 15 days. On our last night in China, the other mom who had kids back home asked how long it would take to love our adopted children like we love our biological ones. I’d been thinking about the same thing earlier in the day and objectively suggested, “A year?”

The adoption literature varies, but we were told to expect our children to need at least three to four months to adjust for every year they spent without a forever family. There’s no making up for lost time. But there is gazing into eyes, wiping away tears, meeting physical and emotional needs consistently and consecutively in order for our children to know that they are safe and we are their parents. At 3 years old, if they need at least year to attach to us, why can’t we give ourselves the same amount of time to attach to them?

We finished our dumplings, talked and laughed, lifted our glasses in toasts. All the while realizing that falling in love with a child you just met is easier said than done.

***

I don’t know where the mirror came from. (Was it there the whole time?) Maybe a nurse brought it out during the hours I curled on my side, leaving and returning to my body with the waves of pain as my daughter worked her way through me. From me. To me.

On my rear now, half sitting up with sweat pouring off my face, I see my daughter’s head. With another push, her shoulders. The midwife shifts her attention to my face. “Okay, pull her out.”

What? “Me?”

She, the nurses, everyone in the room looks so pleased. They are grateful, proud even, of a labor culminating with a mother birthing her own child.

“Yes! Pull out your baby.”

I fold over, grab my first child’s torso, feel her leave me as I hold her for the very first time. We were one; then suddenly two. My love immediate—and continuous.

***

After three months at home, I ask my husband, “Do you love Viv like you love our other kids?”

He doesn’t hesitate or feel bad. “Not yet.”

What’s been a weight on my heart for weeks is a simple breakdown of the facts: It’s unlikely we would emotionally love a child we’ve only known for a few months. It’s well documented in adoption circles that even though she’s ours forever, it can take time to love her the way we love our other children.

“But we will,” he continues. “It’ll come.”

I don’t want to say it out loud: I’m afraid it won't.

***

“Did you love all your kids right away?” I ask.  

I’m sitting on a patio under an umbrella holding the handle of a foamy cappuccino. Across from me is a woman from my church. She has grown children and I’m grateful for the opportunity to ask her heavy questions a couple of times a month. I anticipate her saying what I would say: Of course I did!

Instead, she thoughtfully says “No ...” And tells me about her first child, how she had an overwhelming desire to protect, provide, and care for her baby. But love? The kind of love where your heart melts and explodes and dances and drips?

No.

Then she told me about the moment—the moment she’s able to describe in detail even decades later, when her daughter’s smile sent a rush of emotion through her body and she thought, she knew, This. This is it. I love her!

As she spoke, it was as if she reached out her arms to help me put this heaviness I’d carried between my shoulders down on the ground, like a granite rock at our feet. Yes, mine is a story of adoption. But with her words, she taught me love can take time for biological mothers too. I felt lighter. Freer. And more than ever, reassured that it will happen.  

Sometimes love just takes time.

***

We sit in the upholstered red rocker and read one short book. I sing the same songs, say the same prayer. Then I hold her, rock in silence. And wait.

“Close your eyes,” I whisper, but she opens her almond eyes even wider, willing wakefulness (or at least the appearance of it) in an air of defiance. My frustration teeters on the edge of a very long day’s cliff, but my heart grabs it by the waist and pulls me back toward calm.

I kiss her eyebrow, right above those alert eyes, and quietly say “I love you” with a gentle smile.

With her next breath, her eyes close and she releases into sleep. We rock and I hold her longer than necessary.  

Instead of laying her down as I’d done for months—in expectant fear of her waking, in tired desperation to separate her needy body from my own without breaking the spell of sleep; while holding my breath, avoiding the creaks in the floor, anticipating a moment to exhale relief that another day is done—I lay her down slowly. Tenderly. I know I’ll breathe in the quiet air of restoration in a moment. In the calm of the evening I’ll gather pieces of myself up from the floor  like toys being returned to their places before starting over again tomorrow.

Instead of leaving, I linger. I tuck. Gaze. Adore.

I kiss her cheek and whisper again, “I love you.”

I’ve said it to her every night since she became ours almost six months ago. But tonight, it’s different.

It feels like I mean it.  

A few weeks later, my husband and I had our first (and only) night away from the kids since the adoption. When I walked in the door the next day, Viv stood in the living room with a toy train in her hand. A blue bow held her jet black hair out of her face and her green dress with bold purple and turquoise flowers radiated against her tan skin. Her tiny frame turned to see me enter and her eyes disappeared with a dimpled smile welcoming us home.   

My heart fluttered with surprise and I caught my breath, because my first (and only) thought as I went to pick her up and give her a hug was I love her!

***

Maybe this is one of a mother’s greatest strengths: loving, making the effort of love, or anticipating love, even when a child isn’t loving you back. Maybe this is what it feels like to be a foster mom, or a step-mom? A mom of a teenager? And I wonder how many first time moms also feel like this.

Is it fear? Lack of confidence? Unfamiliarity?

Maybe.

But even in the most perfect of circumstances, love doesn’t seem like something you can have just because you want it. It’s not an emotion that can be forced or willed into being.  

In my head, I knew I wouldn’t initially feel the same way toward my adopted child as I did with my biological children. In my heart though, I wanted it—for her (and for me). And it broke me to know there was nothing I could do except wait. All the while, fending off the fear that love would never come, with the sharp spear of protectiveness we all seem to possess, as if it’s gifted to us the moment we are born as mothers.  

So is it trust? Knowledge? Grace maybe? A combination of it all that chains our hearts to our children, transcending mere biology? I don’t have the answer. Nor will I pretend that after just six months, I feel the same impenetrable, visceral, covenantal bond that I have with my biological children.

But it’s coming—I can feel it.

All we need is a little more time.

Growing Up Together

We work side-by-side, taking yogurt and peanut butter out of the cart and placing them on the conveyor belt. They roll away towards the counter and we place bananas and almond milk in their empty spots. His dark brown hair is not quite as black as mine, but it is thick and straight. We high-five when the grocery cart is empty and wait on the man in front of us to pay. It is a regular Tuesday afternoon.

The man leaves and we step up. The cashier, an older woman, smiles at us and asks the typical question,“How are ya today?”

“Doing well, thanks,” I reply.

She scans and bags. We wait and smile occasionally.

“You know,” she says. “It’s so sweet you brought your brother with you to the store. Most moms would kill for a daughter who helps out around the house.”

I smile and nod, hoping he hasn’t heard. I look down and casually glance his way. He’s looking at her with a furrowed brow and squinted eyes.

“Who were you talking to?” he asks, real question in his voice.

“Your sister,” she says. I hold my breath.

“I don’t have a sister,” he says. After a pause, he asks, “Do you mean my mom?”

The cashier looks like she wants to crawl under a rock.

“Oh, yes. Your mom,” she corrects herself then looks back up at me. “You know, you must be graced with aging well. I knew you were related because those eyes, but you just look so young.”

She finishes bagging. I pay and my receipt prints.

I smile a sad, apologetic, embarrassed, honest smile. “I am so young,” I say, take the receipt, and walk out of the store while he rides on the back of the cart.

When we get to the car, he recounts the scene and laughs. It’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard—that someone would think I’m his sister. Of course I’m his mom. What was she thinking?

 I smile and laugh, too. I don’t want to cry about it anymore.

***

My son and I just moved into our first place together four hours away from my parents. I started graduate school, he attended the local kindergarten, and I felt the insecurities and transitions of a new mom all over again, minus cluster feeding and diaper changes. We survived on my school assistantship, barely, but I determined we would make it. So we did.         

Maybe it’s part of living in the deep south, but when you get pregnant at 17, everyone stares at you with wide eyes. People question everything about you and frequently feel they have the right to say, You’re too young to be raising a baby. Most of the time, they don’t even know the whole story.

This grocery store exchange is my story, one that happened more times than I remember.

Later that night after the grocery trip, I wound up in a burst of emotions. I wasn’t even angry at the cashier. I was only 23 and looked like I was 16, never having given up t-shirts and all-stars. I never wore makeup and had my nose pierced. She just assumed what I probably would have as well.

Even though I understood others struggled to understand our journey, I was angry and sad for my boy and the situation I had put him in. I always knew growing up would be much different for him than it was for me. I lived a typical childhood with both parents. And while Ethan’s dad loved him, we never married, and our child never knew us together in one house. Even with the support of all my family and friends, I was the one person who had always been there.

I was Mom.

I figured once we moved out of my parents’ house, things would seem more “normal.” I would be authority and advocate, but things felt just as difficult as before. Truthfully, life was harder. Graduate school and work demanded much of my time, and the same little boy who adamantly declared me to be his mother at the grocery store also adamantly wanted to play or read together. I wanted to succeed in school for our future and be a great mom in the meantime.

I sat on the tiny back patio of our little place after he had gone to bed. I felt defeated, as if the whole charade was up. I could pretend it was easy to balance single-parenthood and school. I could pretend the cashier’s words didn’t sink into my heart. I could pretend I didn’t fear they pierced my son’s heart as well. But it wasn’t true. I drank a glass of wine and prayed. I thought we were going to be fine on our own, but I was questioning, asking God if I could really do it. Was I too young to be Ethan’s mother? Could I pursue my dreams and love my son well?

As I sat there, frustrated and doubting, I got a text from a friend back home who knew life was hard.

This is the only plan He has ever had for your life. Trust Him. You got it!

If I trusted Him, then I had to believe this was exactly where Ethan and I were supposed to be. This four-room house was meant to be our home, and home was a place to grow. And growing was exactly what we needed. I was still in school, still in my early twenties, still trying to figure out a career. He was just starting school, growing inches each year, and learning to let others have a turn.

We ate popsicles together on the front steps and raced down slides at the park. We had dance parties and jumped on the bed. In truth, we were more like siblings than I wanted to admit.

In that moment, I realized every relationship was about growing and learning together. Ethan and I were on the same journey as everyone else, our route just looked a little different.

If I didn’t let the difficulty make me hard, I would be able to give more grace and understanding, and in turn, Ethan would as well.  It was this hard providence, this weird, non-traditional mother-son thing that would enable us to love others in a unique way.

I cried then, my heart broken open with tears of relief, of sorrow, of joy, of hope.

I glanced in his room on my way to bed then stopped to reposition and cover him, his head at the foot of the bed and his blanket in a heap on the floor. He briefly opened his eyes and said, “Mommy, I love you,” and wrapped me in a big hug. Then he drifted off while I pulled him closer, because time did nothing but push us forward so quickly we could barely open our eyes.

“I love you, too,” I whispered, and though he wouldn’t hear me, I spoke the words aloud so I would know they were true, “We’re right where we’re supposed to be.”


Guest post written by Melissa LaCross. Melissa is a wife and mother who spends most of her time chasing three boys and drinking black coffee in Charlotte, NC. She loves a well-prepared meal, red wine,  a real conversation, and can often be found hiding in a corner with the other introverts. Melissa writes to make sense of the world around her and contributes to Darling Magazine.

Photo by Annie.

Mama Heart

Shifting nervously in my paper gown, I search the room and realize there isn’t a clock. I wonder if that’s intentional, if it is meant to bring about calm for people like me and my husband, as we sit in this windowless, cloud-colored room.

The clinic is quiet as we wait for the doctor who will interpret our ultrasound. The minutes slow and stretch as I take shallow breaths with my hand on my stomach. We were supposed to hear the baby’s heartbeat by now. Our midwife hadn’t been able to find it, but she said that wasn’t unusual in early pregnancy. She sent us to this specialty clinic as a precaution, to make sure everything was progressing as expected. She told us she had seen two other women in the same situation just this week. Their babies’ heartbeats had been found, no problem. I turn her word choice over in my head. Those heartbeats were found, but if a heartbeat is lost, where does it go?

My husband and I start talking to each other and then trail off, afraid to voice our fears that there might not be a heartbeat, there might not be a baby anymore. There is a tap on the door and the doctor enters. She leans gently against the sink, compassion softening her voice and drawing her gaze right into mine, as she tells us that the baby has no heartbeat. It could be a mistake in dating the pregnancy, so we should make an appointment in two weeks to come back and check, just to be sure.

Tears run hot down my face as I choke on my jumbled thoughts. I press the doctor for numbers she is reluctant to give. How much of a chance is there that this baby will live? “Less than ten percent,” she finally admits, “but we will hope for the best.” I excuse myself and rush down the hall, fumbling with the bathroom door as my sobs come out loud and fast.

“I’m so sorry,” say the doctor’s words and face, as she tells us she will see us in two weeks. We will keep hoping.

Two days later, the bleeding starts. We cancel the appointment. There is no baby. There is no need to check for a heartbeat.

***

A few months later, I find out that I am pregnant again. Joy and terror chase each other around my head. I spend the next six months afraid to say anything concrete about this baby. I begin my sentences with, “If this baby is born,” and, “Maybe …” Fear clenches its relentless grip around my heart as I furtively research pregnancy symptoms and baby registry checklists. I cannot believe that we will really get to meet this little person growing inside of me. But the heart carries on, regardless of the emotional state of the person in which it beats.

At each appointment with our midwives, I hold my breath until we hear the baby’s heartbeat. Every time, it is strong and clear and definite. At our 20-week ultrasound, the doctor tells us, “You have a beautiful baby.” Despite my fear, the baby’s heart is pumping away, a miraculous flutter on the grainy black-and-white screen. There is still a tiny heart cradled in my body, beating and growing, sustaining life and bringing healing.

***

Our son with the strong heart sits in his high chair at breakfast between my husband and me, looking from one to another. My husband puts his hand on his chest. “Ba boom ba boom ba boom goes Daddy’s heart!” He does the same thing on Julian’s chest, and our little boy dissolves into giggles. “More!” he shouts. “More!”

Later that day, I sit with our boy again in his high chair. He looks at me with earnest concentration, his ocean-colored eyes clear, his forehead furrowed. He touches a small hand to my chest. “Mama heart, “ he says.

Mama heart. These words from my son’s mouth articulate the joy and pain and uncertainty that dance daily within my being. How much can a mama heart hold? How do we make room for all the love, fear, and wonder that welcoming little ones into our lives can bring? I used to think that my heart could not contain it all. The heartbeat we could not hear from our baby who did not live closed my heart down in despair for a time. But it is the work of the heart to open as well as close, to carry us through both the hard and the good times, because that’s what the heart does. Hearts are strong and made to endure, to expand and contract with the changes of life. They keep persevering, leading us on, with each new moment. We grow, life shifts, and our hearts adapt.

My heart is not the same as it once was. I know that this little boy and the baby who came before him have made it bigger. This business of being a mama is the hardest and most glorious work I’ve done. It is a daily, moment-to-moment way of being in the world, and it teaches me that my heart can carry more than I imagined. Joy and pain expand and contract the heart, and the spaces between make room for strength and courage. I celebrate the small joys, and when I stumble, I get up to try again. My mama heart is strong, like my boy’s, and day after day, my heart beats on.  


Guest post written by Jordan Miller-Stubbendick. Jordan lives outside of Buffalo, NY with her husband, toddler son, and golden retriever. She is a writer and Lutheran pastor who loves books, daydreaming about her next meal, and the transformative power of stories to humanize and connect us to each other. She is learning to exhale, stay present to what is right now, and take this thing called life one day at a time.

Putting Fear In Its Place

My son has a severe phobia of thunderstorms, and I like to say it’s all Daniel Tiger’s fault.

Three years ago, when I was in the throes of adjusting to life with a newborn and a three-year-old, Daniel was our third parent. I could turn on an episode during long nursing sessions or while I went to put the baby down for a nap, and my son Nathan would sit for 22 minutes, mesmerized. Daniel encouraged trying new foods, sharing, and there was a whole arc that summer about a new baby sister that seemed divinely ordained. Nathan soaked up every lesson, and I patted myself on the back for choosing the perfect show: equal parts educational and entertaining.

It was all great, until the thunderstorm episode. Nathan had been blissfully unaware of the existence of thunderstorms until this point. He never batted an eye at a rumble of thunder or flash of lightning. The loudest storms wouldn’t wake him in the middle of the night; I can remember carrying his sleeping form downstairs during a tornado warning more than once. He didn’t know to be scared, so he wasn’t. That all changed as he watched Daniel and O the Owl become afraid of a thunderstorm in the Land of Make Believe. His eyes were opened to a previously undetected threat, and he learned a new lesson: fear.

At first, his reactions were pretty typical: he would jump at the first clap of thunder and scurry to sit next to me. I’d give him a reassuring hug and distract him with a game or toy, and he would quickly forget the storm as he immersed himself in playing. Three years later though, his fear has grown into full-blown terror. He eyes anything other than a cloudless, blue sky with suspicion—could a thunderstorm be imminent? On cloudy days he’s reluctant to play outside or stray far from home, because sometimes clouds mean rain and sometimes rain means storms. Nathan doesn’t decide to do something based on whether or not he thinks he will enjoy it, but on that day’s weather forecast.

Meanwhile, my husband and I have tried every tool in the parenting toolbox to assuage his worries. We’ve talked about how thunder is just a sound and sounds can’t hurt us. We’ve checked out books from the library that explain the science behind thunderstorms and lightning, knowing that sometimes we fear what we don’t understand. We have encouraged safety rules: stay indoors, away from windows, when there’s a storm. We’ve made concessions: yes, if a storm wakes you up in the middle of the night, you can come sleep on the floor in our room.

It’s a heartbreaking thing to see the fear and panic in his eyes when the first roll of thunder rumbles. My arms wrap around his thin shoulders and I whisper in his ear that he’s going to be fine, and that the storm won’t hurt him. Without fail, our conversation unfolds the exact same way every time.

“But how do you know, Mom?” he will ask. “How do you know the lightning won’t get us?”

“Nathan, bud, remember: what’s my job?”

“To keep me safe.”

“That’s right. I promise I will keep you safe during this storm.”

Usually my reminder is enough to keep the crushing fear at bay. And then of course, no storm lasts forever. As the thunder fades and the rain lets up, Nathan visibly relaxes. The sun breaks through; the threat is gone, at least temporarily.

We’ve tried everything to help Nathan manage his fear, and while some of what we’ve tried helps, nothing has calmed his anxiety completely. As you can imagine, we’ve received various nuggets of well-meaning advice.

Why don’t you tell him there’s nothing to be afraid of? Well, that’s not really true. Lightning can hurt you. His fear is disproportionate to the threat, but the threat still exists.

Why don’t you just distract him? We do some, but first we validate the fear. At the core, it’s an instinctual self-preservation. Nathan’s gut is telling him there’s something to be afraid of, and we don’t want to completely invalidate that. It’s more about managing his response to fear and less about pretending the fear doesn’t exist.

As challenging as it is to help Nathan learn to control his panic and anxiety about thunderstorms, there’s something to be said for a fear we can see and name. There’s also the satisfaction of being the antidote: my arms, my calming words, my presence is enough. He trusts me to keep him safe, and, so far, I’m able to do so.

It won’t always be so simple.

Someday he will learn I can’t keep him safe, not really. There are dangers in this world that I’m not strong enough to guard against, and then there are also the threats that come from his own mind: self-doubt, guilt, lack of self-worth. He will see there’s plenty to be afraid of in this life and how easy it is to let fear draw the boundaries of our lives for us.

Dreams go unpursued. Love stays unrequited. Differences remain misunderstood. The chance of a storm keeps us from seeing the world.

In the Daniel Tiger episode that ruined everything, Daniel’s mom tells him, “Close your eyes and think of something happy,” during the storm. Maybe she meant it as a distraction, but it’s also a profound truth.

Fear is heavy and oppressive. It crowds out everything else if given the chance and will absolutely revel in calling the shots. It takes a deliberate effort to focus on joy to put fear in the proper perspective.

It’s a lesson I could stand to listen to as well. Nathan and Daniel are only afraid of thunderstorms, after all. My own fears—of failure, of missed opportunities, of embarrassing mistakes—those are the ones that lead to a life that feels woefully unfulfilled when they’re the loudest voices in my head. When I’m whispering, “Remember bud, we can’t let the fear win,” it’s as much for me as it is for him.

That’s the funny thing about parenting, though. You think you’re shaping their character when really, they’re shaping yours. Together, we’re talking more about joy and less about fear. Joy in other people, in experiences, in accomplishing something that requires bravery and strength.

We don’t have to vanquish our fears, but we can’t put them in charge, either. Fear gets a voice, but not a vote. It can come along for the ride, but it sure can’t drive. That’s joy’s job.

Fearful moms raise fearful kids, and I want more than that for my children. I want more than that for me. Together, we are choosing something different.

We are choosing joy, and that’s no small thing.


Photo and words by Jennifer Batchelor.