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 to 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 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 three years old, if they need at least a 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.”
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?
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?
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.