When the skies didn’t open and the heavens didn’t sing: you were still mine and I’d defend that point through any storm. What on earth am I supposed to do when I don’t feel love at first sight for my child? We live in a world of instant gratification, yet bonding is a slow process.
Instant Family, the box office smash, hit theaters in mid-November of 2018. The all-too-real comedy focused on Pete and Ellie Wagner, a middle-class couple in a rut. Ellie stumbles across a popular photolisting website and spends an evening realizing how many children are without homes. Naively, they think a child will fill the void and ultimately decide to tackle foster care. If you haven’t seen the movie, I cannot possibly recommend it enough, see it as soon as possible (with a bucket of tissues and a heart ready to cry). If I’ve done my job right and convinced you it’s wonderful, I guarantee this article has a few spoilers. Proceed accordingly!
The Movie Itself
Mere minutes into the film, Pete and Ellie meet the oldest of their three prospective kids. Shortly thereafter, they meet the other two kids at their current neglectful placement. All things considered, it goes less than spectacularly. Because, shockingly, although children are precious and beautiful, they aren’t saints. The littlest girl has a vulgar vocabulary far beyond her years, Juan is “emotionally fragile,” and the couple’s anxiety is super evident. Needless to say, it was like the world’s most awkward first date.
The first time I watched this chat, my heart skipped, and I gripped the edge of my theater seat. How many times had I been sure that kids were right for us, only to be so wrong? Any sort of connection felt like some sick trick, a play to raise my hope and then rip my expectations away. Yet, the lack of fuzzies was super alarming too! I felt like a monster for not clicking with every child who came into care.
Days before watching Instant Family, I had just seen the case file for three adorable little boys. Yet as cute as they were, I hadn’t felt that spark. (Spoiler alert: Our story has a happy ending, given that we adopted them.) I ached for an easy decision, and it hadn’t been passed my way this time. I didn’t have clarity. It was like Pete and Ellie, or whoever directed the movie, placed a spotlight on that unflattering portion of my life.
Afterwards, the couple sits down for an authentic and messy heart-to-heart. Essentially, the conversation boils down to a lack of instantaneous connection between the parents and their future children. The heavens didn’t open, angels didn’t sing the first time the children walked into their life. Remodeling a bathroom seemed just about as God-ordained as their first moment with the kids. Shouldn’t it have felt more…magical? The confines of this scene held what seemed like it had taken years for me to articulate.
Why Don’t We Have *That* Spark?
When there’s no cosmic connection, uncertainty threatens to swallow your hope.
That’s already scary enough to deal with. So why do we constantly push the photoshopped version of love onto our families?
According to an Adoption.org article, “Misconceptions about adoption continue to abound. Movies and other media misrepresent adoptive situations, often in order to make the plot more emotional and dramatic (in reality, adoption is emotional enough without the stereotypes). There’s no such thing as a perfect family. Try to help people understand that adoption doesn’t make your family better or worse than anyone else’s. Everyone is learning and growing together, and that’s what matters.” This ultimately conveys a truth I’ve failed to summarize time and time again. Instant Family did something I had never seen before! I never knew how much I craved plotline where the adoptive family was a hot mess. The movie was distinctly void of Hollywoodish unnecessary drama, just normal teenage and foster care life managed by perfectly average heroes.
There wasn’t a cosmic connection or love at first sight moment, and I loved every second of it. The honeymoon phase wore down and left the Wagners exhausted. When Ellie talked about how much compassion fatigue she experienced, I wanted to stand up and shout, “I hear ya, girl!” in the middle of that theater.
Instant Family repeatedly addresses all the misconceptions about love’s “aha” moment, making fun of its own inspirational speech moments. When the grandmothers, mentors, teenagers, and parents are all hit by a wave of wisdom and suddenly understand just how the pieces fit together, their sage advice contributes to the Wagner’s search for answers. Oh, how I wish it was always that easy. When there’s no cosmic connection, a strong support system that will come alongside you is crucial. Loved ones can help you weather the storm.
Instant Connection Is Not The Rule
Eleanor Roosevelt stood amidst what were the least “cosmic connection” moments in history. The woman was the recent widow of the late president, living amidst World War II, and stood firm in her resolve nonetheless. When I’m standing and wrestling every bit of what I’ve been handed in life, I have to look at this woman, whose life went everything but according to plan, and hear her words: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Now, I won’t dare compare my life (as chaotic as it may be) to the wife of a national hero during WWII. But our First Lady had a point: sometimes there isn’t a choice aside from looking back at the mountains and valleys you’ve already conquered, and pressing on. Maybe you feel like a failure or an imposter because you haven’t clicked with your children yet or they weren’t the ones you had always planned for. Reap confidence from what you’ve endured and understand that no person has it all figured out.
Foster care is beautiful. But it is a result of the broken world we live in, where people have problems and children are often caught in the middle. Humans are wired to love, it’s crucial to our biological makeup, so a family is truly a group of people who choose to love each other. Yet foster care often skips straight to the big moments, without a foundation from those elementary steps. There is no allotted time to fall in love with your family, and you are not a monster for feeling “like [you’re] watching someone else’s kids.”
Some people, like Pete, feel love at first sight. Others, like Ellie, need some time. The same goes for your children. It varies child by child, parent by parent, and your process is unique to you. Forums are fairly evenly split between people who felt that instantaneous click and those who didn’t. Since adoption isn’t an organic biological process, the connection and bonding time isn’t aided by hormones. There’s a lot of grace needed for both you and your children on this journey. Some of that grace comes from others, a lot of it comes from yourself.
Give Your Family a Fighting Chance
I cannot stress enough how important counseling is. You cannot force attachment, you can’t force peace, you can’t engineer certainty. But having an impartial and licensed third party wade through the chaos you might be facing is priceless. I’d confidently tell you counseling, therapy, and any other means necessary are a crucial part of fighting to become, start, and maintain a family. Use the resources around you to give yourselves a fair shot.
So, today, there’s no glaringly-obvious cosmic connection. That means you, your kids, your marriage, all fight for the family you’ve been given amidst this funny thing called life. It’s the only option in order to stay sane amidst whatever family chaos you are in.
Now, although the exact etymology is sketchy at best, supposedly the old English proverb says, “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” You and your child may not have been instantly connected through a flood of oxytocin coming through your womb. But a covenant to hold a child as your own is a bond like none other. Additionally, the blood of a thousand papercuts during documentation and paperwork must count for something.
Eventually, the based-on-real-life couple do become the foster parents to the three beautiful children and forge their own unique and strong bond. Yet they never experience that instant cosmic connection. Life is messy with a lot of slamming doors, clumsy parenting choices, and downright chaos. Maybe you would’ve sat in silent conviction with me there in the theater. (I totally would have shared my tissues with you, friend.) Pete and Ellie’s situation simultaneously seemed like a total miracle and a hot mess. Which is okay. And oh, did it speak to my soul.
When the skies didn’t open and the Heavens didn’t sing
The day infatuation didn’t burst through the door, it didn’t seem like a big thing
Love didn’t push me over like a feather,
There was no hurricane or change of the weather
I couldn’t understand, thought it was some grave sin
How love knocked and timidly waited to be let in.
The Heavens didn’t open,
The skies didn’t sing
I didn’t instantly hear your last name with mine ring
But I thank what gave me you,
My greatest blessing.
You are my kin,
I choose you today and everyday from here to the end
Please my dear, let’s address one thing:
I couldn’t have wanted anyone more.
You, my love, were purposed for our family at your core.
I never thought I’d have to introduce myself to my son
And with that, I’m proud of the family we’ve become.
So often, we shrink from the world of the unknown. When there isn’t that perfect moment of clarity or an immediate understanding, comfort looks safer than anything. Henry Nouwen declared in his audiobook, “We tend to stay away from mourning and dancing. Too afraid to cry, too shy to dance…we become narrow-minded complainers, avoiding pain and also true human joy…Let us mourn, and let us dance.”
In foster care and adoption, we avoid the extremes. “Too much planning and you’ll get hurt. Too little involvement and you’re definitely doing the wrong thing.” We press an exorbitant amount of judgment upon ourselves to avoid failure at any capacity. But family means the possibility of failure and beauty without a guarantee of a painless existence. There isn’t always a cosmic connection and love, adoption, foster care, all require a choice to become family. I’ve come to realize the choice is just as beautiful as any cosmic connection. Choosing love is powerful.
Ellie’s mom, Grandma Jan, talks about the need to search one’s soul and remember why they became a mother (or parent) in the first place. You became a parent for one reason or another. That is not void, despite any change in how life has shifted that dream, and your choice is powerful. When there’s no cosmic connection, I celebrate that you’ve chosen to fight.
I love that each day I choose my family. Years of life on different paths brought us together. I am simply thankful for their existence and the privilege of existing in the same cycle of life. Each unique member of my family and everything that brought us together makes us a family, and I’ll take that to the bank. Cosmic connection or not, fire and laughter forge the strongest bonds.
May you find the strength to laugh through this season, the vulnerability to cry when you need to, and the bravery to love with everything you have. Because what do you do when there’s no cosmic connection? Give thanks for every circumstance which threw you together, and write your own cosmic connection into the growing bones of your story.