Shhh! don’t talk too loudly or you might miss it. Do you see it over there in the corner? What, you don’t see the giant elephant in the adoption living room? You didn’t even know there was an elephant? I did, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.
There are a lot of topics that adoptive parents are willing to talk about. Over the years, it has been heartening to see parents willing to share about the hard in their adoption journeys. It makes others going through the same struggles realize they are not alone. It’s okay to talk about unethical practices. It’s okay to talk about trauma and what trauma does to children. It’s okay to even share that at first it is hard to attach to this new person in the family.
But did you catch that? We speak in code; we use words like “attach” and “bond” and “find our new normal.” These phrases are fine if that is what we are really talking about, but too often that’s not what we’re really talking about. What we’re really talking about: just not liking this kid who now lives in your house.
It takes a very brave soul to say that they brought this child home, often at great expense and lots of blood, sweat, and paperwork, and now they just don’t like him or her. It’s as if some incredibly annoying neighbor child moved into your house and has now hunkered down for the duration. No one is coming to pick the child up. The child is not going away. People just don’t admit to these feelings. Oh, they might for the first couple of weeks, but later, after the child has lived in their new family for months . . . even years? Nope.
I’m writing about it, but even I am not completely ‘fessing up to it; take a look at my anonymous byline. It’s not done, this not liking your child. Good parents love and like their children. Oh, they might have moments of annoyance where the liking is hard, but these moments pass and they go back to being good parents. But it is possible to just not like your child. It is possible to not like your child even if there is no outward reason, such as raging. It is possible to be annoyed at the child merely walking in the room. To hear the child speak is like nails on a chalkboard. It is a visceral reaction and also a purely emotional one. It is not one that is chosen.
The parent who doesn’t like this kid who is now their child lives in constant emotional turmoil. There is the perpetual annoyance of the child to exist through. (Only so many trips to hide in the bathroom can be made in a day.) But even worse is the emotional turmoil that goes along with these feelings.
Guilt goes right up at the top of the list. The only reason this child is in your house is because you agreed to it. Not only did you agree to it, you actively pursued it. You were supposed to love this child. You imagined loving this child. You were excited to parent this child. You have to take deep breaths every time the child walks into the room.
You know you are a liar. You (hopefully) fake it with your child. They didn’t ask to come and live with you. This is not their fault. Other people meet your child. They love your child. Your child is so sweet. Your child is so joyful. Your child is so wonderful. You smile. You agree. You smile some more. You hope it looks genuine. You feel like a clod because you are lying through your teeth.
How can you be a good parent if you feel this way? It makes you question everything you thought about yourself. And then other people tell you what a great parent you are. You know they’re wrong. If you could just tell them how very wrong they are, it would stop, but you can’t. There is no way you can speak the truth because it is just too awful to say out loud. Saying it out loud would somehow make it truer than it already is.
But I’m here to tell you that you are not alone. You are not the only one to feel this way. If you work at it (that whole faking-thing you are getting so good at), it will get better. It may take three to four years. Yes, you read that right. Years. We underestimate the time it takes to learn to love a child who is so very different from you. A child who has had vastly different experiences. Who has experienced trauma.
I know because I’ve been there. I know because I’m there again. Here are the steps I took to love my child.
- Forgive yourself and extend yourself some grace. You cannot move forward consumed by guilt. You did not create these emotions and feelings you experience with your child on purpose. It is what it is. You have to accept it and move on. Stop hating yourself for not loving your child.
- Touch your child lovingly and smile at your child every single day. If you have not experienced these feelings, then this will seem like a strange suggestion. Why wouldn’t you do this? But if you are struggling in this area, you will know that this is something you avoid. It is almost painful to contemplate. But you need to do it. Force yourself. Reward yourself with chocolate if you need to.
- Be vigilant in stopping yourself from dwelling on what annoys and irritates you about this child. I didn’t say stop feeling the emotions, because emotions don’t work that way. You can’t will an emotion to disappear, but you can control what you think when the emotion is triggered. It’s best if you can make yourself think about some positive aspect of your child, but if even this is too difficult, think about something completely different. You must not let yourself dwell on what you don’t like.
- Work on thinking positive thoughts about your child. Start small if you need to, but start working on the habit. Be aware of how you think about your other children (if you have them); the ones you know you like and love. Make of study of how you think about them, how you interact with them, how you respond to them. Copy that with your child you struggle with. You are modeling for yourself what it will feel like to like this child.
The feelings we associate with love are not things we can will into being. You cannot control, create, or eliminate those feelings. But love itself is not an emotion, not a feeling; it is an act of will. To like something is to experience an emotional or visceral response to the thing; to love someone is to consciously choose to seek what is best for them and what is best in them. By acting with love toward your child, you will eventually re-shape the feelings that you have in response to your child. It may take years, but there will come a moment when you suddenly become aware that you feel affection for this child.