I have heard from some adoptive parents that they “instantly fell in love” with their child. That sounds lovely, and while it may feel true for some, for most of us it just doesn’t work that way. When I met my son he was 7 years old, wearing a yellow windbreaker and hand-me-down jeans and smiling nervously at me from the stairwell of his foster home in Ethiopia. He had no reason to love me, a stranger who his caregivers urged him to call “Mom.” I knew his face only from pictures, and he was so beautiful, so small and vulnerable, that it was easy to try to convince myself that I loved him at first sight, but I didn’t. My mama heart beat fast as we hugged awkwardly, polite and shy with each other, and as he took my hand I thought how his hand fit like a puzzle piece inside another woman’s, not mine; I wondered if he was thinking the same thing.
My instinct to protect him was immediate and visceral, and it is what fortified me in the months that followed, when I found myself wishing I could fast-forward to a future in which we shared a version of the deep, eternal, satisfying love that my daughter and I enjoyed. Each night, after another anxious, tantrum-filled day, I would cry when he finally fell into restless sleep, hating myself for being glad to be alone, questioning why I ever thought I could be what he needed. “Bear your own discomfort,” my therapist gently instructed during our weekly call. “Your small daily actions, your calm consistency no matter what, is planting seeds of trust. Keep stepping—the love will come.” So I faked it. I patiently endured his efforts to push me away, showing up for him every day with love and warmth, even when I didn’t feel it. When I lost my temper, I would look into his eyes and apologize. “I’m sorry,” I would say gently, exhausted and despairing and not feeling very sorry at all. “I shouldn’t have yelled, I’m working on that.” The days were long and our moments of true connection were far between, like a radio with bad reception—the occasional blip among the static.
One morning, a few months after he moved in, my son came downstairs and hung uncertainly in the doorway, watching me as I read a book on the couch. “Good morning,” I said with a gentle smile and returned to my book, my body tensing for a tantrum. He inched toward me, chewing his lip, eventually sitting down and resting his head on my shoulder. “Can I sit with you?” he asked shyly, not looking at me. “Sure, buddy,” I said, my heart racing. I continued reading, wrapping my arm around him as he burrowed against me and drifted off to sleep. That day we had several bursts of music among the static, and as the months passed those bursts turned into songs, then albums. Four years later I no longer “fake it,” but that doesn’t mean we’ve “made it.” If anything, I work hard to remember that it’s my job to earn his trust and love every day. That is a delightful burden to bear, because the love we share is wide and bone-deep.