Outright primal hatred was not a feature of any of my adoption fantasies. No, in my fantasies, my new child adored me on sight and was so, so thrilled that I was her mother. In my fantasies, my child was seamlessly a part of our family and we had a fantastic relationship, despite adolescence. In my fantasies, there was never any hard or unpleasant stuff to deal with. Fantasies are just that–imaginary flights of fancy where everyone is happy and loving, and the sun always shines and it never rains, or at least only when you want it to.

Even someone like me, an experienced adoptive parent and knows better than to put much stock into these fantasies of what my new child will be like, can still fall prey to the lure. Wouldn’t it be amazing if this child knew deep down that I was her mother? The question flits through my mind and I’m off and running, even though I know that I have a better chance of winning the lottery than becoming an internet sensation with our miraculous and touching video of our first meeting.

And then comes reality. Things seem as though they are going swimmingly at first, but then grief hits. You are the wrong mama. You are the interloper, the stealer of children, the object of a child’s grief and pain and fear. There is no adoption fantasy happening. Instead, this child, your new child, wants nothing to do with you. She will fix her own hair. She will get her own food. She will take care of herself. She doesn’t need or want your help. You are the wrong mama.

Or reality comes in a different way at a different time. Your son has been home for years. You have a relationship. You’ve had your ups and downs and life hasn’t been easy, but you think things are getting better. You tell yourself things are getting better. They’re getting better, right? And then they’re not. The bottom falls out of your world and you realize there has been no bottom to your son’s world for a very long time. Your child has experienced so much pain and loss that loving you, or even liking you, is too much of a risk. He will do just about anything to avoid getting hurt again. As a result, he doesn’t want you to touch him. He doesn’t want you to talk to him. He doesn’t want you to pay any attention to him at all. He cannot let you be the mama because in his world, mamas leave. Every single, last one of them. If you are not the mama, then you won’t leave, and he won’t be hurt… again.

And it hurts.

A lot.

So what do you do after you’ve cried in the bathroom or curled up in a fetal position under the covers for a while?

1. You remind yourself that you wanted to be a parent.

Parenting is messy. It can be wonderful and fulfilling, but it can also be stressful, terrifying, and hard. Parenting means that you make the hard decisions to be the best support you can be to your child. Parenting means you don’t always get to do what you want because your child takes priority. Parenting is very often a long, long lesson in delayed gratification. When the parenting relationship is reciprocal, it makes all of this easier. It is easy to love and do things for a child who loves you right back. It is much more difficult to love a child who doesn’t return anything positive. Parenting is sacrificial; parenting a hurt child is very sacrificial.

2. Remind yourself that the now does not last forever.

Things may look bleak in the moment, but rarely do our lives stay exactly the same. The child I first wrote about, the one who wanted nothing to do with me after our first meeting? We adore each other now. It took a couple of weeks of being a patient, kind, and loving person, but eventually she thawed. I let her set the pace. I didn’t want her to think I was trying to force myself on her, but I wanted her to come on her own terms. And she did. That son I wrote about, the one who was so hurt that he pushed everyone away? He will let me hug and kiss him now. He will give me a compliment… grudgingly and infrequently… but he will do it. He avoids me less. It seems like small steps, but to us they are huge. We continue to work to slowly gain his trust and show him love in the face of rejection. It’s the small steps that keep us going and remind us that there is hope.

3. Find things to fill your heart and soul in other ways.

Your happiness is not dependent upon how much your children do or don’t love you. Sure, it’s pretty wonderful when your child returns your affection, but if they don’t, you have not lost all hope for a good life. Invest yourself in other things and people, as well as investing in your child. Find ways to receive the positive feedback that we all need and that will help you to continue to pour yourself into your hurting child.
4. Be the kind of parent that a child could fall in love with.

It is so easy to get discouraged and annoyed and hurt when we are rejected by our children. Those feelings do not make for calm and pleasant people. At least they don’t make me calm and pleasant, more like irritated, angry, and easily annoyed. During some of my worst moments, I would sometimes stop and look at myself, and I didn’t like what I saw. How could my child like, much less love, me? I didn’t even like myself at that moment. Parenting is humbling. It is also filled with second chances. It is okay to give yourself a do-over as you would for a stuck child. Give yourself another chance, being more conscious about your outward behavior… as many times as it takes.

Don’t give up and don’t lose hope. Continue to love your prickly child, without asking for love in return. Love that child because you are the parent and that is what parents do. And slowly, over time, the chances are extremely good that your child will come around. It is hard to ignore flat out, genuine, sacrificial love being poured out over you.