There Is No ‘Right Way’ To Love A Child

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This originally appeared on Mamamia. Republished here with permission.

I have never considered myself very maternal. I make babies cry and I really do not understand the appeal of them. Puppies I totally get—babies, not so much. For much of my life motherhood was something I intended to do someday but in recent years, it started to feel like an alien concept.

So when I unexpectedly became a mother to a 7-year-old girl, I wished I’d been better prepared.

In 2008, my husband and I were asked to take custody of a relative of his whose parents were unable to raise her. I had met her once and had just one memory of her kicking the family dog, which did not endear her to me; but still, we did not hesitate. She needed a family, and we could make one.

In the weeks before she moved to our home, I was a buzz of activity and planning. I painted and decorated her bedroom in an explosion of pink. I dragged out my childhood books and toys, enrolled her in school, and identified every sporting club in a 10-mile radius. I had plans, and at the top of the to-do list was to “be a perfect mother.”

There were a series of bureaucratic processes that needed to happen before we could take custody, but like any bureaucratic machine, progress was slow and I spent many hours on the phone pushing, prodding, and demanding results. I was louder and pushier than I had ever been. I barely knew this child but I loved her already. I was a mother and my sword was drawn.

The first month or so was bliss. She was a genuinely delightful child—sweet, kind, affectionate, and desperately craving a mother figure. On the day she moved in, she asked if she could call me Mom, and my heart nearly burst. It was real, I was a Mom and I even had the label. Her little life had been a series of traumas, each one capable of toppling most adults, but yet she was full of laughter and joy.

Some people said it was a honeymoon period, that eventually her traumatic life would bring out behavioral issues, that it would not stay this easy. But time passed and she only grew stronger, and more delightful as her sense of humor and quirky character developed. She showed a kindness and empathy beyond her years. We had the perfect child. So why was it so hard for me to be a good mom?

I had heard about post-adoption depression. Similar to post natal depression, it is rarely discussed, and even less understood or empathized with. For most adoptive parents, welcoming a new baby is the culmination of years of planning and waiting.

So when their dream is finally realized, and they struggle to bond with the new baby, or the reality of having a child—especially a physically or psychologically damaged one—catches up with them, depression often sets in. And like any new mom, an adoptive mom feels ashamed—after all, this child was a gift, for which she is supposed to be forever grateful. When she has talked about nothing else for years, and now it has happened, no one expects the new mom to turn around and say “I think we made a mistake.”

For me, I had not particularly wanted a child. I had not waited or planned, or dreamed of a baby. But around me were well-meaning people reminding me how lucky I was, what a wonderful child I had been blessed with when I had not even been trying for one. The message was clear: You have been given a gift; be grateful and do not mess it up.

On the outside, I was an infatuated mother. I would regale my friends and family with funny stories, boast of her achievements, and exclaim over her courage and resilience. But on the inside, I was a mess. The most troubling and relentless thought was whether I loved her “like a mother should.”

When I discovered she was being bullied at school, I became enraged; this seemed motherly so I gave myself a mental tick. But then she spent a weekend away and for two days I forgot about her, earning me a big cross—not very motherly! When I was too tired to read her a book before bed, it was not because I was working full-time while also adjusting to raising a child, but because I must not love her enough. Real mothers would find the energy.

For every motherly tick I earned, I gave myself many more crosses. I would shout from the rooftop that I loved her as my own child, but internally I did not believe my own rhetoric. And it was not as though she was hard to love—everybody who met her loved her. So what was wrong with me?

The thing about internal conflicts is that they do not stay internal for long. My self-doubts spilled out into the way I behaved. I was short-tempered, resentful, and angry, and was constantly berating myself for my failings. Children, even the most well-mannered of them, require patience, and I am an impatient person.

I would leave work early to be with her, but yet the moment she was in my company, she would irritate me with her childishness. I would snap at her, instantly regret it, but two minutes later, snap again. Sometimes I had to force myself to hug her. She was so affectionate, so desperate to demonstrate her own feelings and to find her place in my life, that I felt suffocated.

When I was away from her I would intellectualize how much she meant to me, and determine to be better, to love her as she deserved. I would have whole days, even weeks where I was a better version of me, faking motherliness. But inevitably, I would resort back to my lesser self, and consequently, wallow in self-hatred.

I resented that I had been asked to do something that was too big, too much to ask of anyone. I was angry that my husband seemed oblivious to my battles. If I told him of a bad parenting moment, and expressed regret that I did not behave differently, he would kindly agree, nodding his head as I described how I should have reacted. I desperately needed him to tell me that sometimes I got it right, remind me that it takes time to be a parent, perhaps express some of his own doubts.

And so this went on. I had lost the ability to even recognize love, as every twinge of emotion I felt was excessively analyzed.

Then one day, her birth mother called. She called regularly to speak to our daughter, and occasionally we would chat. On this particular day, she began the conversation with “You know how you were going to raise [blank] for me?” and I lost the ability to breathe. This was the moment I had pretended would never happen. She was going to take her back. The next second stretched endlessly in front of me. My heart felt as though it was being clenched and wrung out, my knees buckled. I did not feel like my life had ended, I felt like it lay in front of me—a gaping dark hole of meaningless.

And then she said, “I was thinking we should formalize that.” And I breathed again. Of course, I was still a mother.

I have been a mother now for five years and this is what I’ve learned: There is no right way to love. An adoptive mother’s love is not “less” because it took longer to develop.

Instant love is no stronger in the long-term than love that matures slowly. And it is OK that it takes time. It is no less precious for that. I no longer ask myself whether I love my daughter “like a mother should,” because there is no such thing.

Some mothers love gently, some love fiercely. Some express it through their daily presence, through touch and words, while others express it by a new-found vigor to change the world. Raising children is hard whether they come from our wombs or arrive on an airplane, and self-scrutiny and judgement is not helpful.

Because sometimes, no matter how much we love our children, we just don’t feel like reading them a bedtime story, and it really is as simple as that.

The names in this post have been withheld because the child is under a child protection order.

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