One of my very favorite things about my son when he was an infant was his “chubby baby” status. There was no denying he was the poster child for baby fat, and I loved snuggling my face into his neck, pinching the little rolls on his legs after a diaper change, and running my finger against the hills and valleys of his arms.
At a family work function, a co-worker harped on how “fat” he was, calling others over to look as she poked him. My inner Mama Bear was clawing at the cage as I quickly removed us from the situation, and to this day, I walk the other way when I see that woman.
Then, when he turned 4, there was the new teacher who yelled, “He is a BAD boy,” when I picked up my son one day. She continued ranting, tearing my son down as he buried his face in my leg. My claws came out, and I made sure that woman was never in the same room as my son ever again. We later hired a nanny who treats our children as she treats her own, replacing one bad teacher with an amazing one.
The fierce instinct to protect children doesn’t come along with giving birth; it comes along with parenting a child, however they come to you. As the person who takes the sting out of external wounds with kisses and soothes internal wounds with hugs and words, I’m the manager of my kids’ health until they can take that job over for themselves.
When I sense they’re about to get hurt, everything in me tells me to protect that child at all costs. I can avoid, distance myself, or walk away from most people who hurt my children. I can usually replace the hurtful people in our lives with caring ones.
But what do you do when the person who creates the pain is someone essential and who can’t be replaced? What do you do when the person responsible for the tears is a birth family member?
First, I remember the love. I remember those days in the hospital that burrowed into my core—gut-wrenching and hauntingly beautiful all at the same time. I remember that they would never intentionally hurt the child they labored for, cried over, and placed into another’s arms.
Then, I remember what I want to teach my children: Sometimes, people are doing the very best they can. We can’t set expectations for ourselves, based on our own life experiences and our own capabilities, and then expect others to rise to our personal standards. Their life is different from ours. Their grief, pain, and hardships may put them in a whole different frame of mind than ours. They may have bigger issues they have to conquer first before they can even think about the intricacies of our expectations. Whatever the situation may be, we need to remember that, sometimes, we just have to love people as exactly who they are today, and remember that they love us back. We can express our needs to them, communicate healthy boundaries, and then, as parents, we need to help the child for whom we’re directly responsible, and let the adults manage themselves.
One of my children’s birth moms recently made a promise to our child she wasn’t able to keep. This had happened a few times, so I had to ask that everything be a surprise for a while. I didn’t want my child getting built up and then disappointed, especially by someone so important. I didn’t want my child to feel like the lack of follow-through was anything personal.
I look back on how I communicated that to my child’s birth mom and wish I’d done it outside of the heat of the moment. I wish I’d been more level-headed and that I’d realized she didn’t follow through with the promise because she was in a state of grief, and that I should respect that instead of challenging it. My inner Mama Bear came out. My instinct said, “Protect at all costs,” but I should have managed my child in that moment versus trying to manage the adult, who I have no control over and who’s perfectly capable of controlling herself. I should have helped my child manage the grief, and then addressed the issue later, with a calmer tone, and merely as a, “Hey, from here on out, can we try something new?” I forgot my job for a minute, and I controlled someone who was outside of my immediate circle of responsibility.
Open adoption relationships can be so tough sometimes, mainly because emotions are so high and there’s a lot at stake. In most cases, there are two mothers who love fiercely. There is one mother who has the luxury of focusing her energy on taking care of the child, and there’s another who has to focus on things that bring less joy. In everyday relationships, where the stakes aren’t so high, you can walk away from the person who makes your child cry or replace that person. In open adoption relationships, these connections are precious, and we need to have a game plan for how we handle the bumps and bruises our children might sustain throughout the journey. We need to keep our claws retracted and remember that the only people we control are ourselves, the only people whose personal standards we can set are our own. We can’t expect people to meet us where we are.
“Love them where they are,” is what a mentor of mine often says. It’s so simple. Be responsible for your actions, help your children through whatever may happen, and simply love. Take a breath, and let compassion drive you. Remind yourself, and remind your children, that their birth families love them and that we’re all on the same team.
Protecting our children doesn’t always mean jumping to their rescue, so lead by example and teach your children to be slow with their tongues, patient in their expectations, and forgiving with their love. We love people for who they are, exactly where they are.