How do you love the people closest to you? What’s your style? Are you assertive, cautious, enticing?
This question is one I hadn’t thought much about before we adopted, but have been forced to think about a lot over the past year. My family of origin are respecters of privacy and personal space. Our interactions are always careful to not make anyone uncomfortable. My husband comes from a family that is less so. Our approaches, as a result of that training as well as our own personalities, are very different.
How does this relate to parenting adopted children, particularly when it comes to older kids for whom we are not the first parent-child relationship experience they’ve had?
As a new parent to a child you really don’t know, you can expect some semblance of a courting process…your goal is to fall into parent-child love with each other, but that doesn’t happen overnight. I mean maybe it does for some people, like love at first sight, but it didn’t happen that way for us and I imagine that it’s pretty rare. So set that expectation aside and think about how long it took you to really fall in love with, say, your spouse. And remember that most likely your spouse was trying to woo you during this process. And realize that you and your new children may not really feel like you love each other for a year, or two, or five. Because they will not likely be trying to woo you at first…you’ll be in a one-way relationship where you are carrying all the risk (from your perspective…remember, they are feeling very much at risk), and your advances are not being reciprocated.
I decided in our early days not to tell the kids I loved them until I really felt it. Because I figure, they are smart, and they’re going to see through it if I’m not being honest. I think it was at least seven months before I said it the first time. I showed them in a million tiny ways that I am a loving, attentive, thoughtful and capable Mom (wow did I just say that about myself?!) by meeting their needs repetitively, by introducing them to new things, by being happy to spend my time and energy and attention on them. I showed them affection through hugs, rocking, smiles, holding hands, pushing them on the swing, cooking them things I know they love, rubbing their backs, snuggling while we read, etc. etc. etc. But I wasn’t looking them in the eye and putting that love to words. Until recently.
Part of me is so overly sensitive to how what I say is going to make someone else feel or think, that I just don’t risk it. Plus my kids are so averse to words about love, and clear physical expressions of it, that I knew my advances would be rejected. But as I’ve gotten healthier accepting my new role and recovering from the shock of suddenly becoming a mom to three. I’ve realized that it’s time to make the kids uncomfortable. Because the truth is that I do love them now. And they are going to be uncomfortable with being confronted by that. And it’s OK.
If you think of them having a bubble around them on this topic, me telling them that I love them is an invasion of that bubble, big time. The bubble is one that says, “I’m going to keep people at arms length, but especially the ones who inhabit a role that I know to be untrustworthy.” I’m in the most critical of those roles: Mom. Primary nurturer. The one you can count on no matter what. Well in their experience you can’t count on a Mom no matter what. So even if they want to count on me, they’ve got little voices inside their heads screaming “NO!!! DON’T TRUST HER! DON’T LET HER IN! SHE’S NOT GOING TO STICK AROUND!”
So yes, it makes them uncomfortable when I tell them that I love them. And it’s my job to invade them with love. If I respect their bubble on this topic, I’m robbing them of the beautiful opportunity to learn how to have a healthy attached relationship. If I let them, they would keep their relationship to Mom on their terms. They’d accept the nurturing, the cooking, the laundry, the nursing when they are sick, the cheerleading for their activities, the taxi service, the social coordination, and they might never truly commit to the relationship. Sound like a bad husband? Well I’m convinced, if I don’t do the hard work to break through that bubble, they will someday become a bad husband. Because a boy’s relationship with his Mom is the model for his later relationship to his wife. And I don’t want my boys to become men who accept all of those gifts from a woman, but who won’t allow themselves to be vulnerable for her by committing to the relationship. I want them to have a wonderful marriage someday, and I want them to be able to fully engage in a loving, committed relationship.
We have a couple of other things working against us, those of us who adopt boys from Ethiopia. First, the culture is not one that shows women a lot of respect. Second, kids in the orphanage (and I’m only guessing that this is largely the case in orphanages other than the one we adopted from) have lots of female caregivers, and very few in authority. Women do their laundry, cook for them, keep things clean, entertain them, etc. But they don’t demand much from them. As the Mom, you are going to fulfill most of the same tasks that several female workers used to do for them at the orphanage. But you do NOT want to be your boys’ servant. You have to teach them how to relate to you in a different way.
I can’t remember if I shared this, but in the first couple of months that they were home, one of my boys snapped their fingers at me at the dinner table when he wanted more food. Probably the same one that wagged his finger in the face of the flight attendant and shouted “No!” on our flight home from Ethiopia when he didn’t want another drink. You will likely have to rehabilitate your boy in the way he relates to women.
I’d say after a year, we are really only just at the tip of the iceberg on the topic of expressing love or reciprocating in a loving relationship head on. The timing feels about right to be working on it now. We had a lot of other things to work on earlier.
As the Mom it can be really painful to be rejected by a child whom you want to shower with love. And by the way, I only have my experience and a handful of others to go by…you could well adopt a super affectionate child who doesn’t present these challenges. But if not, you will want to protect yourself by remembering that their fear of love, particularly for a Mom, is going to take some time to tame. Don’t take it personally, and don’t let them see how much it hurts you, especially before they are mature enough to care about such a thing. Recognize that your need for reciprocated love from them is not likely to be met at the level you need it to be. Celebrate the victories, and remember that you are watching your child begin to conquer their biggest fears. For example, I remember the day Melkam first climbed into my lap. I didn’t want to breathe for fear of losing the moment! You will know when the big victories start to happen.
We’ve had a lot of them, don’t get me wrong. My five-year-old asks for extra hugs when we leave each other for any reason, both boys ask for Momma Love (snuggle time), and my oldest and I usually give each other a kiss on the check during our goodnight hug. But the words, heaven forbid you say those three scary words. Tonight, for example, I told both boys I loved them when I hugged them goodnight. My oldest said “Mom! Don’t say that to me!” and I responded with “Alex, I’m going to say that to you for the rest of your life.” He said “Well I’m not going to say it back.” To which I replied, “That’s ok. You don’t have to.” And that’s just where we are right now. An uncomfortable invasion when I said it, but perhaps somewhat relieved by the idea that, for now, he is under no obligation to reciprocate the words. And by the way, his delight at being told I love him is thinly veiled under the pretense of disgust. It’s not hard to see. Someday soon I’ll tell him that I look forward to the day that he feels comfortable saying that back to me, but for now I’m not expecting it.
I’m talking specifically about my boys here (ages 7 and 5) because my little girl was about 13 months old when she arrived home. She doesn’t have the same kind of experience that the boys do, and she’s just as affectionate and cuddly as a typical toddler. She also has no fear of saying out loud “Mommy, I love you!” Or telling others that her Mommy or Daddy love her. So we’re just not dealing with the same challenge.
Speaking of Ellie, she is so precious! It’s a good thing 2-year-olds take a nice long nap. They are more charming with an occasional break! Here’s a video of her I caught today only because she thought I was checking emails on my phone rather than focusing the camera on her.