Friday, April 16, 2010

Did you see this article? Attachment in adoption

Taking a break from decision making for a day to ask if anyone saw this article in Slate by an adoptive mom about her difficulty bonding with her adopted Chinese daughter.

I cringed at the title ("I Did Not Love My Adopted Child"), mostly for this little girl who would some day perhaps google her writer mom's name and find it. And then think...what? What would it be like to read that as an adolescent?

But at the same time, I found aspects of the article honest and real and willing to grapple with issues that are rarely discussed, at least in public forums.

It's a question I've always wondered about when considering adoption (in particular, international adoption): Would I feel the same connection? Would I feel attached? Would the child feel attached?

And then beyond that, Am I a monster that this question even crosses my mind?

Being a psychologist, I've asked a couple of therapists about it and they've basically said, however the baby arrives, you love it with all your heart once it gets here.

That's certainly what I would hope. And it sounds good and Disney happy ending.

One of my former supervisors, a wonderfully warm clinical psychologist who adopted 15 years ago from Russia, chose to be very candid with me about his experience. When I asked him if he immediately loved the little Russian girl he and his wife brought home, he said no. He said he felt a desire to care for her physically because of her absolute dependence on them. But that the love part took awhile. That it was a few months later - when he let go of her stroller for a moment and it rolled a few inches forward on the sidewalk toward NYC traffic - that he felt the first surge of fierce, throw yourself in front of a bus, love. And I know he loves her the same fierce way now that she is an adolescent, as he fights hard to find the right educational and therapeutic environment to help her deal with emotional and cognitive deficits resulting from malnutrition and institutionalization as an infant.

But the article got me thinking. And made me wonder about people's experience with this.

What do you think about the bonding process in adoption? Is it the same? Is it different? How so? Any personal experiences you'd care to share?

I know it's a touchy subject - so if you'd rather comment anonymously (constructive comments only!) - go for it.


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  1. Well, I only have 1 bio child, and hope to adopt from foster care one day, but I can say that while I loved my daughter right away, the fierce feeling of I would literally die for her and cannot imagine my life without her, that did take a bit, so I think that each instance is unique, either way. In the first few weeks of my daughters life my mil kept asking me if I felt swept away, and I would just say yes, but I wondered the the hell she was talking about.
    I did work with a woman who had given up ttc and adopted a little girl, and then within a month of bringing home her first daughter, she got pregnant with her second daughter, and she told me when I asked her about having a blended family, you love them the same, without question for her, she loved both her daughters fiercely.
    Since we want to adopt from foster care, we know the kids would have problems, and I have worried that when our having to dedicate more time and energy to help that child or children with special issues start to take a toll on the rest of the family, would I start to feel differently? Just being completely honest. Prior to having a child, I would never have thought I would feel different about either. I just wanted to be a mom, but now having that fierce love and adoration for my daughter, I do worry if I could love an adopted child with lots of issues this much. I feel confident I will love all my children so very much, but the love for my daughter is just so intense, it amazes me that I can feel this for anyone, even her, but I do. But since I love her even more than I expected, I assume I will feel that way about each child. We might have slightly different feelings for each child because they are each unique beings, but I think the intensity will be just as much. If it takes a few months, I'm ok with that. I think it will take them a few months to really attach to me as Mama.
    But all that is just thinking. While I have thought about it a lot, and I mean a lot, it is still just thoughts. I have not put it into action yet.
    Melissa in Durham

  2. I love my son (adopted from Korea) just as strongly as I love my two bio girls. The moment he was put in my arms I felt like I was his mother. Not to say there wasn't some initial adjustment for us as a family. There are plenty of adoption horror stories out there, but for every horror story, there are probably 100 or more stories of perfectly blended, happy adoptive families.

  3. I am not at the point of thinking seriously about adoption - it's still in the fantasy of "well if this last cycle doesn't work, there's always adoption." But I think your questions are valid and they touch upon the silent side of the reality of adoption. It's funny, I just wrote about the subject of adoption on my own blog- it must be something in the air.
    I don't know how I'd feel about the reality of what it would be like to have an adopted child in my arms - I would hope I'd bond or more so, that they would bond with me. Oh that's it, now that I think of it, I am more afraid of them not bonding with me than me bonding with them. Why can't any of this be easier?

  4. On the other side of the fence, not all biological parents have that immediate (or even delayed) surge of loving their child. Here's one article talking about that:

  5. The minute I held my son for the first time, he felt no different than if I had birthed him. Sure, you don't really know their schedules, or how they like to be held---but you don't know that with your own birthchild either.

    I think too many people build adoption up to be this magical thing---and it can be---but there are a lot of issues that can/will make the road less than perfect. It's a shame that so much paperwork and legality goes in to something that so many others take for granted...

  6. I am not an adoptive parent- and I only became a parent 3.5 months ago. Honestly- I didn't feel much of a connection to my daughter after I had her. When she became more interactive (about 5 weeks) I felt more of an attachment. Now that she's approaching 4 months (and I'm back at work), I find myself missing her and longing to be with her.

    I think I always loved her, but I'm still not sure I love her as much as other parents love their kids. Everyone says how special/deep/strong love is between a mother and child. I don't know what they're talking about. I don't think I love my daughter any more or less than I love my husband, mother, father, sister, etc. Does my daughter need me more- yeah, but do I love her more than my other family members- I don't think so. So either I don't love her as much as other mothers, or I love my family a lot more than most people.

    My cousin is 40. She was adopted as an infant. She was the first grandchild and was doted on and adored by her parents and extended family. I'm certain my aunt and uncle love her the same as they love her 2 siblings that were born to them biologically after she was adopted.

    I follow a blog written by a mom who suffered with years and years of infertility, adopted a little boy, and found out when he was 9 weeks old that she was 7 weeks pregnant. So now she has 2 boys, less than a year apart- one biological, one adopted. She writes powerfully about her experience and her feelings. I think it's telling that the first time she felt her milk let down was when her older, adopted son was upset at the doctor's office. He might not be biologically hers, but her body and her brain don't care.

    Here's a link to two particular posts that might be of interest:

  7. First I need to say that I love your blog. I became a blog reader back in the day of the early greats about 7 years ago, and its hard for me to become a passionate follower of newer blogs but you have totally won me over.

    Bonding is a tricky thing. I always suspected that I would have an easier time bonding with a newborn than with an older baby or toddler probably because it is a two-way street and I feared an older baby would have trouble bonding with me. This is why when we had failed 5 IVFs I was starting to consider domestic adoption but not international. IVF #6 worked so it never came to that, but my son was in the NICU for 4 weeks, the first 2.5 of which I was not allowed to hold him or even touch him too much. (He was on a ventilator and they keep them sedated and masked to try to replicate a dark low stimulus womb). Bonding after that was not a problem.

  8. Thanks for posting this, from am infertile lurker. Thanks for being brave. I have had very similar questions, and then worried if it means I am not cut out to pursue adoption for having these questions. After coming out on the wrong end of so many fertility and treatment percentages, to even have a chance of being the "x" in 100 families where the bond is just not there is such a scary thought.....what would make my luck at adoption any better than any of my treatments. One more way that infertility keeps on giving....

  9. Can I be really honest with you? I didn't always love my bio babies the moment they were placed on my belly after being born. One of them was covered in meconium and I was a bit revolted that a poop covered baby was laying on me. I just wanted him clean. It took a few days for me to love them, and in the case of our preemie, a bit longer. I love them fiercely now, and am quickly bonding with our nephew who has moved in with us....but he's not my baby yet, but then again my babies weren't always right away either.

  10. So we're not adopting, but, I am not pregnant and the babies are not even here yet but I love them with all my heart and would do anything for them... to me, they are my children and that is it.

  11. I think everyone is different - whether we're talking bio or adopted children - when it comes to bonding. What adoption lacks, is that 9 months of physical bonding that happens during a pregnancy.
    Personally, I took a bit of time to bond with my daughter. I felt that instant desire to protect her and be there for her but it wasn't a true love connection for quite a few weeks. The big thing is to recognize is that it's OK to have those feelings. My biggest issue was battling those inner demons and coming to terms with them.
    Now, I'm like a fierce mama-bear who will protect her cub at all costs. She's the light of my life and I can't imagine not having her in it.

  12. I'm a stepmom. I missed the first 7-10 years of my sons lives. I love them as much as I would my own sons, but it took a while to build up that relationship. I think because I have this experience of mothering children that are not genetically my own, I feel I could do the same with adopting a baby.

  13. I wonder about this too. It's not the part that's held me back specifically, and I'm sure I'd adjust, but I do think it would be normal for the bonding to take a little longer. You are not alone! Nor a monster!

  14. I only have a bio child, but I did not feel instantly attached to him. The birth and c/s were rough, BF was a horror, and it was at around the 6 week mark that I started loving him more than the stranger who I was caring for. Sure, I would have taken a bullet for him from the moment he was born- and I would probably do that for anyone. But the serious, burned into your viscera, feral-like attachment, the I-would-cut-your-throat-out-if-you-dare-harm-him crazy mother love, that took weeks of a slow building.

  15. I always wondered what people meant when they said things like "I loved my baby instantly." What does that mean? I have 3 biological children and struggled with this idea each time one of them was born. With my first, I genuinely was worried that I would never feel it. I did feel protective of him, but it was many months before I "loved" him the way I love him now. I think I probably intellectualized the idea too much.

    Another thing that I might add, now that I have children spanning 1-10 years old, is that I go through periods where I don't feel close to one of them. I've actually used the word "estranged" to my husband to describe the feeling. He always just chuckles and says, "honey, you felt this way about our a different one last month, you'll get over it." And he's right. Sometimes I just feel closer or further from one of them, and I've learned that it shifts over time. I think it's probably pretty normal.

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  17. MotherEarth said...

    My husband didn't bond immediately with our biological daughter. He loves her for sure now, though. I think people who are very cerebral maybe don't bond emotionally as quickly as people who live with their heart on their sleeve. Perhaps it has more to do with the kind of person you are rather than the kind of pregnancy or adoption you have. In any case, bonding typically occurs. That's what matters.

  18. We pursued adoption immediately after getting a grim infertility diagnosis; we wanted a family, and the biology of it honestly did not matter to us. Our philosophy was that the people in our lives whom we loved most- each other as husband and wife, our closest friends who are like siblings to us- did not share our genes, but we loved them as much (and sometimes more) than those who do, so why would we need a genetic connection to our child to love her? However, we did adopt domestically, and while we were open to a child of any race and many medical issues, we were adamant about adopting a newborn. It may very well be different with an older child adoption- because those children do have emotional issues, and because they have known other mothers and fathers- but for us, we were overwhelmed with how powerfully we loved our daughter from the moment she was placed into our arms. We didn't have a biological child's birth to compare it to, but being there to see Evie born was the single most amazing moment of our lives.

    When she was just three months old, we got a "surprise" in the form of a positive pregnancy test. We're expecting twin sons next month. I'm worried about whether we'll love our boys as much as we love our girl (I think that's normal when you're expecting your second). Right now, I just can't imagine loving anyone more than I love my daughter. Hopefully what they say about your heart expanding and loving all of your children equally is true.

  19. Thanks for writing about this.

    I'll second (eighth? tenth?) those who say that a mama doesn't necessarily bond immediately (or soon after) with a baby she birthed, even a much-wanted, IVF-conceived one.

    That said, I think there is more to this question than whether one does/doesn't have the 9 (or so) months to "bond." There's the question of infant versus toddler/child adoption: Is the child at an age where he or she should be bonded to somebody (other than his/her to-be-adoptive parents if they have not been his/her caregivers to date)? And is he/she? My understanding is that it's (much) better if the answer is yes, but obviously either taking an attached child away from the caregiver they're attached to or dealing with a child who should (in terms of their age/developmental stage) have formed attachments but hasn't is going to have, um, challenging moments.

    Here are some interesting blog reads on different aspects of this issue:
    Karen writes beautifully about experiencing an unexpected pregnancy (that led to the birth of her second DD) while raising her DD adopted from China: .

    Stacey writes so compelling about her experiences parenting her DD adopted from Haiti in addition to her 3 bio kids, and about her disrupted adoption with her (then eldest) son, most recently here: .

    I've also quite enjoyed Dawn's writings on parenting a bio child and an adopted child (of a different race) here: . And Lori's (both her children came to her through domestic, open adoption, I think).

  20. Oh, and honestly? Having read the article, this line really jumped out at me: "The problem is that harm has already been done. Even the best adoptive parent is just the clean-up crew." Um, yes. Not, of course, that this is the adoptive parents' fault, but I do think the world would be a better place if we could acknowledge that adoption involves loss. And in terms of your question about the author's daughter finding this article as a grownup? Honestly I'd hope (article or not) that her parents will be honest with her about the process involved in bringing her into their family ... so that as an adult, reading this wouldn't come as a shock. Is that crazy? I think "we were committed to and worked hard to help you become a member of our family, even though becoming part of it was a difficult experience for you as a young child," or something along those lines, is actually a beautiful message (again, in a context that also acknowledges the loss ...)

  21. I think that your questions are completely normal, and do not at all indicate that you couldn't adopt. I've also been putting a lot of thought into adoption and I think the love will come, either way. My biggest worry when I consider adoption is more along the lines of this article (I can't post a link, but google it):
    "The Lie We Love" on - I would want a very young child, but apparently, there aren't so many seeking homes - so sometimes, where they are coming from is questionable. :( I don't know what I am going to do! My husband isn't up for older child adoption.

  22. Mo, I think your questions are completely normal, and valid...I know of two families who have been blessed through adoption and both Moms shared with me that it wasn't instant for either of them (and I had them read your article reference too!) BUT that now, 10 years later and 13 years later, they love their adopted children with the fierce Mamabear love we all dream of having...Reassuring for me on a personal level but still...And also, perhaps your profession tends to make you look deeper within than most of us are willing (confident?) enough to.

  23. I have one bio and one non-bio kid. I bonded much more quickly and fully to the non-bio kid. FWIW.

  24. I have done tons of thinking about this very subject lately. Maybe it's the whole Tennessee mom sending her adopted child back to Russia thing. I am now a member of both clubs...and I can honestly say that, for us, love didn't happpen immediately when our son came to us (he is 10 years old). It may be different with a baby that is adopted. I loved him from the moment I saw his photo. And I too had a deep desire to care for him and to give him a wonderful life. But the bonding...the love....that takes time. It takes special moments to build that love. And that's ok! I feel like people think that this magical thing will happen the moment you meet your adopted child. And it very well may be that way for some people. But I would bet money that it's not for most. Our son is amazing and has no major issues, unlike many older children that are adopted. But he too had a failed adoption. The family took him for 5 months and sent him back to foster care. They couldn't get past lots of things and their bio children were jealous, blah, blah, blah. Which brings me to another point. When you choose to adopt, you make a commitment to a child before you even know who they are. Period. The End.
    We went through pregnancy and adoption all at the same time. And it has been a wild ride! It has been amazing and wonderful and difficult and crazy all at the same time. And now, almost 9 months in, I can honestly say that I love my son beyond words. We are still adjusting and learning. I have never been a parent before and now I have to know how to parent a 10 year old! But it's working and we screw up and make wrong decisions. But it's working!
    All of that to say...if you prepared to give it some time.
    PS: For anyone out there thinking aout adopting, especially an older child, it can be done in the US...from foster care, and it is pretty much free. The process can be long and tedious (no more than international adoption I'm sure) but it's absolutely worth it.

  25. while I think bonding and attachment are different with domestic and international adoption, I think you'll find that even biological parents don't necessarily bond right away with newborns.

    one of the reasons we chose domestic adoption was for the chance to bond with a newborn. we adopted our daughter at birth, and it was really important for me to do everything we could to form a proper attachment. I even tried breastfeeding, we co-slept, we wore her, etc.

    the truth is we did love her instantly, even if it took a while to get to know each other. I've said before that I love her as much as I could love any child that came from my own body.

    with international adoption, I think it's helpful if you have as much information as possible (e.g., medical history, conditions of placement, attachment to a foster family or caretaker, etc.)

  26. So many thoughtful comments. My two children were adopted from Kazakhstan at seven months. I can say that I was attached to them from our first meeting. I don't think I can say the same for them! They remained in the baby home during most of our in-country stay and at first we were simply fun visitor to them. The more time we spent with them the more they became attached to us. People often focus on their attachment to the child but it does work both ways.

    We chose adoption over fertility treatments because it was our greatest desire to be parents and care for a tender soul. I love my children with all my being. I can't imaging loving a child more. If adoption weren't possible I would never know this love.

  27. This is such a huge topic - I feel a bit paralyzed by its size in knowing what to say.

    I think that attachment is probably THE biggest issue in adoption, and you'd be crazy not to think about it. And it's so very, very two-way. People who expected to fall instantly in love, don't. And people who didn't, do, and some of those find that their child doesn't easily attach to them.

    If you want to read about attachment in children (rather than parents), I recommend 'Parenting your internationally adopted child', by patty cogen (yes, I know that's an ultra-specific title, but it's extremely good on the effects of trauma, and I think everyone should read it!) and 'why love matters' by an author whose name I can't remember (arrgghh). That one is about how affection physically shapes a baby's brain, and is utterly compelling whether you're thinking about birth children or adoption.

    If you're interested in reading about adult-children bonds, there's no better place to start than Melissa Faye Greene's writing (here's her blog) :
    and specifically, her article on the shock of parenting her first adopted child
    (which is actually from an anthology of writing about adoption, which is great).

    Sorry, I know this is the world's driest comment, but they are some of the sources that really helped me to think it all through, to answer the question - can I REALLY love a stranger's child? And in the end, the answer for me was yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

  28. I agree with the others; attachment and bonding is THE question to be asking, and prospective parents aren't doing anybody any favors if they just try to push that out of their minds. For me (someone not parenting yet) it's hard to conceptually reconcile the idea that adoption really is different with the idea that it is NOT second-best.

  29. My bio son is 4 months old. I love him more than anything. But it took me a while. I delivered him drug free and in the best way possible, but I didn't have the instant I'd jump in front of a bus for you kind of bond right away. I was shocked intially I think. That I made him, carried, him, delivered him. I was so overwhelmed at his birth and the weeks following. I don't know when I absolutely fell in love with him, but it wasn't instant, it took time. I wasn't expecting it to take time, I expected to cry with joy at his birth, but I didn't.
    My husband and I plan on adopting one day as well and I know that won't be instant love either.

  30. I've been thinking a lot about this lately. It's the honest truth EVERYONE has to wonder at some point in facing an adoption, right?! They'd HAVE to. I have several friends who have adopted, and, all of them have had similar feelings as your friend...that they deeply cared for this child. But, that the love developed. Whether it was hours, days, weeks or months. But, it was there.

    It's an interesting question. A sad one.

    Hope things are going welL!!!

  31. Great post Mo. I'm so glad that you wrote this as it helped clarify why I am not open to adopting. I myself was adopted (open arrangement within my mother's family) and, as the child, I never really attached to either my biological or adoptive mothers. I've read loads on attachment disorder and it seems that babies adopted between 6 and 12 months are more susceptible to attachment disorder. (I was 11 months old when I was adopted and my adoptive mother changed my name at the same time).

    I've always worried that if I adopted a child or did donor embryo that I would have trouble bonding to the child, and vice versa. That it would be settling for something when my heart desires nothing more than to look into the face of my own child. I'm pretty sure that this is more important to me than it is for most moms-to-be because of my own experience in being an adoptee.

    Again, great post. Bravo!


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