Worrying about what should happen during bonding wastes too much precious time that could be spent actually bonding.
I have a dirty secret about adopting my infant son: I didn’t bond with him right away. I felt like I was babysitting him for the first few months. I had read all these warm and fuzzy stories about adoptive mothers’ “love at first sight” moments with their newborns… and it didn’t happen for me. The worst part is that I had expected it to happen, and felt guilty when it didn’t.
Son, I apologize to you for not bonding with you right away. I still hold some misplaced guilt about that, despite the fact that we soon bonded as much as if you had come from my womb. I am telling our story so that other mothers can know they are not alone and perhaps not be guilted and distracted by what it is “supposed to” feel like.
Some friends and family members have told me that even their biological children felt like strangers when they held them for the first time. Despite carrying them for nine months, some biological mothers are brave enough to admit that they still needed time to bond with those little strange people who are suddenly in their arms. It is finally time that adoptive mothers are also allowed to admit that a new baby in their arms can feel like a stranger – and that doesn’t make us less of anything!
I personally believe that adoption should not be a “last resort” or a “plan B”, so I can tell you that my husband and I worked very hard to gain a testimony of adoption before beginning that process. However, in fairness, I can also admit that I would not have worked hard to gain that testimony of adoption had I not had to endure the hardships that I did.
Many adoptive mothers – at least ones like me – are already facing so many slams to their self-worth. The adoption process can be cruel and unusual punishment, especially for someone who may have already lost choices, dreams, or even babies. We have to get fingerprinted, prove that we put childlocks on all the cabinets years before children arrive, and watch close friends and drugged-out celebrities on TV accidentally get pregnant over and over again. Some of us may feel less than whole as our lives are scrutinized by caseworkers and uncertain extended family.
So, upon arriving at the hospital the day after my son was born, I was already knocked down a few notches. I couldn’t carry a pregnancy, I hadn’t had much choice in anything, and I had to constantly prove I was a fit mother even though I had no children. My husband and I were beyond nervous – but my nervousness was not about bonding. I assumed I would bond with him. I had read many books about adoption, and I was so excited to meet the child who would automatically feel like mine. I was only nervous that the birthmother would change her mind.
As our birthmother had chosen not to meet us, the kind hospital staff put us in our own private room in the maternity ward, just down the hall from her. They shut the door and told us to wait there, and they would wheel Baby Boy into our room in his bassinette.
My heart was racing. I just knew that one look into his eyes would seal us together forever. I just knew that we would instantly be one. I just knew that it would be love at first sight.
It didn’t happen.
It hurts my heart to admit this to myself, much less to him, but I think it’s so important for other adoptive mothers to hear: my son was a stranger.
At the moment, there in the hospital room, when the nurse closed the door and left my husband and I staring at the stranger in the bassinette, I was mortified. I thought something was wrong with me. How could I not feel like this perfect newborn was mine? His birthmother had chosen us for him. She had hand-picked us. I had spiritual confirmation that this child was meant to be in our family. She had spiritual confirmation that he was meant to be in our family. Why didn’t I feel love at first sight?
I remember searching his little body for parts that resembled my husband or me. Why would I do that? It almost seems like a subconscious thing. I am not proud of it, but it happened, and I want other adoptive mothers to know. I remember specifically looking at his ten perfect toes and realizing how they were in a perfect descending order, and knowing he didn’t come from my or my husband’s gene pool. My husband and I have toes that are all crazy different lengths. When I think back to that hospital day, I think about my son’s perfect brown toes and I wonder why in the world would I have expected them to look like our imperfectly-shaped, pasty-white toes?
After four years of pondering this topic, I have an idea of a few things that may have contributed to feeling like he was a stranger. His birthmother had only chosen us three days before, so we were still reeling from being selected after eight childless years. We had been through miscarriage(s), and our hearts were still healing. He is a different race than we are, and, thus, looked nothing like us. (Don’t judge: it’s hard to feel like a mother at first when people constantly ask, “Is he yours?”) He was sickly and small, so we had a very difficult newborn phase that was filled with no sleep and constant crying. And, most importantly, we were subconsciously trying to protect ourselves in case the birthmother changed her mind. I know that wouldn’t actually make it hurt any less, but we had 22 days to endure before the phrase “automatic return” was off the table.
The next 22 days were scary for us. We had been through loss before, and we couldn’t bear the thought of going through it again with this newborn who was already in our house. There was a paperwork problem that extended our state’s ten-day “automatic return” to the birthmother if she were to change her mind. My heart was trying to protect myself from more pain, even though my head knew I would be devastated if she changed her mind, no matter how much we bonded or didn’t bond.
So I did all the right things: we did as much skin-to-skin contact as we could. I wrapped him inside my homemade wrap. Skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin, “the bonding hormone”. I carried him this way for most of every day, because he had to be upright at all times from stomach problems. I sang songs to him that my mother sang to me. I cried for him and for his birthmother, for the losses that they were both experiencing. He didn’t know my voice. He didn’t know my smell. But I was all that he had, and his birthmother had picked me to raise her son.
I was scared that I was a “fraud” mother. I felt (perfectly normal) feelings of grief and guilt. Adoptive mothers experience a wide range of emotions that nobody really talks about, but they are important. Not only was this child a stranger to me, but I was a stranger to him. Theories of “newborn grief” and “adoption trauma” (sadly) propose that newborns can feel loss if they don’t experience the smells and sounds that they had experienced in utero. I felt guilt because I felt like I had stolen this child from the only environment that he had ever known. I had to remind myself on a daily basis that his birthmother loved him enough to make the impossibly hard decision to place him with us. I had to remind myself that each song I sang and each rise and fall of my chest and each beat of my heart inside that homemade wrap was the best I could do for him. And for me. And for her. I was beginning that bond.
It wasn’t love at first sight. It happened one song, one breath, and one heartbeat at a time.
After a few months had passed, and he was healthy, and I had kissed those beautiful brown toes a thousand times, I realized that I would lay down and die if someone took him from me. I no longer felt like I was babysitting. He was just mine. People still asked, “Is he yours?”, but I no longer bristled at the question, because I was secure in the knowledge that he was mine. He knew my heart , and my breath, and my songs – and now he knew my face as well.
Two years later, I gave birth to twin boys, thanks to the miracle of modern medicine. When they came out of my body, and I saw their toes for the first time, my first thought was, “Why are those boys so pink?!” I had expected them to come out brown, just like my firstborn son.
I would love to hear from other adoptive mothers and soon-to-be adoptive mothers. What did you expect upon meeting your child for the first time? Did it go just as you expected? Was your child a stranger too, or did you feel an instant bond? Let’s start talking about this and stop feeling so guilty!
This post was originally posted on Beyond Infertility as members-only content.