Adoption is not something one takes on lightly. As soon as the formal journey begins, one enters an often-frustrating application process of form-filling and hoop-jumping, designed to actively weed out less resilient adopters. There is certainly no sugar-coating around the possible emotional and behavioural challenges associated with children from troubled backgrounds (which most children waiting for adoption inevitably are), and you are expected by the Powers That Be to demonstrate your preparedness for the near and long-term, in order to be accepted as an adopter. While the candid scenarios presented by social services were not enough to deter me from going ahead with adoption, the process was eye-opening, and did prompt me to acquire as much knowledge and understanding as I could around the most common issues. I wanted to feel ready to embrace whatever adoptive parenthood may throw at me, and I knew that having some proven strategies and techniques up my sleeve – even if I were never to need them - would give me more confidence than relying instinct alone.
During this quest for pre-adoption enlightenment, I found that there is plenty of valuable, practical advice to be had - from both professionals and parents with hands-on experience - on the subject of adoptive parenthood and its particular trials, and I was encouraged by this; soaking up as much knowledge as possible. But in between these self-help binges, I worried; was I over-complicating things? Should I be relying instead on maternal instinct and the reparative powers of Love? Some would say so (and did). But with almost a year of adoptive parenthood now under my belt, I feel justified in saying that, no, Love is not enough. Adoption is no fairy tale, and Love does not automatically spring forth from some sparkling well with a wave of the proverbial magic wand. Had I trusted in Love alone as a panacea in troubled times, I fear I would have found myself drowning in confusion and despair over the past few life-changing months. As wonderful and powerful and desirable as it may be, the hard truth is that Love can be tantalisingly elusive, unpredictable and strange.
I know I am not the only adoptive (or otherwise) parent who would admit that the pursuit of Love can be heart-breakingly mysterious and frustratingly nebulous in the early days of parenthood. Adoptive parents especially may find themselves baffled and disheartened by their unspent desire to love a child who does not know how to be loved. While a new born baby is an empty vessel just waiting to be filled with love, adopted children may never have experienced it, or be too afraid to accept it. My son had just 50 words when he came to us, and 'Love' was not one of them. In the first few weeks he added 'cuddle' and 'kiss' to his limited vocabulary, then one afternoon, while I was handing him a drink in the kitchen, he quite casually uttered the L word for the first time, as if testing out its relevance. But for me, to hear “My love mummy” was sustenance and salvation. I knew then that love could grow between us, even if its significance was still less than palpable to all parties.
What I have learned is that before love can blossom in either direction, there are more important jobs that must be done – wounds of the past to be healed, bridges of trust to be built. The most encouraging counsel I’ve received over the past few months has been from good friends who were brave enough to confess that they, too, struggled in the first few months of parenthood, and did not experience the expected thunderbolt of love with their new child. They described how it grew slowly and in unexpected ways through the humdrum routines and rituals of daily life. This candour gave me the strength to ride out the dominant early emotions of fear, grief, loss, anxiety and doubt - to name but a few - and to feel encouraged by those exquisite moments when a shimmering glimpse of Love would flutter up, precious and fragile and begging to be caught. But however much one has desired and pursued It, surrendering to Love is a daunting prospect, and for me, the scariest part of becoming a parent.
“Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love.”
Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge.
In almost 40 years on this planet, I have loved and been loved constantly. I know what Love is and how it feels when it goes away. Even though Love has sometimes hurt me, I trust that it will endure. My children have not had the same experience, and it would be naive to expect Love to keep us together - for now at least. But here we are, a little family growing together, getting used to each other and getting through the day. Love is all around, but we do not rely on it to sustain us. Instead, we have had to take a more pragmatic and practical approach. More than anything, I have needed...
Patience. Just having the inner strength to wait for each little attachment milestone to happen - without judging and berating oneself in frustration at the seemingly endless time it takes – has been crucial in maintaining self-confidence and sanity in the early days. Then there’s the daily patience needed to support and nurture two hurt, grieving children with their baffling behaviours; to remain calm in the face of raw, irrational, impenetrable anger. And a longer term kind of patience that involves reassuring each other that life as we knew it has not completely disappeared for good.
Resilience. My inner well being and the flourishing of the children has required all of us to be tough. I have found that my resilience to the daily trials is strongest when I have plenty of adult company and support, and I try not to let a day pass without seeing another grown up who can reinforce my mental health and sense of self.
Resourcefulness. Finally, I’ve needed to be incredibly resourceful in order to maintain any kind of equilibrium in our family. Certainly, much of this comes from instinct, from my own upbringing and other life experiences – but I do regularly draw on what I have read and been told about adoption, attachment, child psychology and parenting. Don’t knock it.
Love is important in adoption, and of course in any kind of parenthood. The love of my partner, family and friends has cushioned and consoled me through the most challenging days of my life so far. And now the promise of love blossoming between me and my children propels us into the terrifying and exhilarating next phase of our 'official' life together. But if you are embarking on adoption, or considering offering advice to someone who is, please, do not mistake the role of Love and expect it to solve all of your problems. Call me a cynic, but through my own experience, I now firmly believe that Love is the goal, not the solution.