I Did Not Love My Adopted Child

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 13 2010 7:14 AM

How to Love an Adopted Child

The painful truth about adoption.

"I no longer wish to parent this child."

Those words aren't mine. They come from a letter written by 33-year-old Tennessee nurse Torry Hansen, who sent it on a plane back to Russia with the 7-year-old son she'd adopted last September. But there were moments last summer, after we brought home our newly adopted 3-year-old from China, when they could have been mine. That line perfectly encapsulates the way I felt for weeks after we returned from our adoption trip (although my version would have included more cursing). I did not love that child. That child did not love me (although, when she wasn't screaming at me, she clung to me like the last tree standing in a tornado). I did not wish to parent that child, and I did not think I ever could.

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Obviously, I eventually did, or the storm that now surrounds Hansen would have enveloped me instead. But without taking away anything from what her adopted son was suffering, I understand, deep in my bones, what Hansen must have been going through when she bypassed all other emergency options and put that child on a plane. In the same way that women who've experienced post-partum depression understand mothers who kill themselves and their infants, I get it. There, but for [fill in saving grace here], go I.

Like me, Hansen must have thought she was prepared. She was screened, questioned, and evaluated. She would have sat through the mandatory "adoption education" session on institutionalized children featuring descriptions of sexual and other abuses, violent anger, and unpredictable procedural delays. She would have filled out forms, she would have been evaluated by social workers, and, because of Russia's strict travel requirements, she would have traveled there twice—the first time to meet the child she would adopt, and again, after a waiting period, to confirm her commitment to parenting him and to legalize their ties. But prospective adoptive parents are either incorrigible optimists (that was me) or people of deep and abiding faith, and it does not really sink in with most of them that things might end badly—might really end badly—until it is too late.

Hansen's case isn't the first to end this way. She's not even the first parent to return her child to Russia—a couple from Georgia took a 9-year-old girl back in 2000, saying they could not get her the help she needed. Russia is notorious for difficult adoptees—its institutional system is more rigid than those in other countries and often offers less opportunity for young children to bond with a caregiver, which is considered key to transferring trust and affection to an adoptive parent later. But there are tragic adoption stories from every part of the world. A Florida woman left her adopted Guatemalan kindergartener in the airport immediately after bringing him to the United States. (He remained in foster care until she sought, and regained, custody of him 16 months later.) Not every tough case ends in tragedy or rejection, but plenty of adoptive parents (including some of my closest friends) cling to some sort of "Plan B" as they get through the first months home with what is essentially a stranger—an angry, troubled stranger that you've promised to love unconditionally for life.

Hansen adopted a 7-year-old boy from a country with a long history of troubled adoptions of institutionalized children. I adopted a 3-year-old raised in the best possible circumstances for an abandoned girl-baby in China—a foster home, with a loving couple whom she called Mommy and Baba, who'd parented her since she was 2 months old. With their help and support, she was transitioned to us with as much loving care as the Chinese government would allow. Yet we still struggled. My daughter screamed for hours for Mommy, and we both knew I wasn't the mommy she wanted. She kicked, shouted, and defied me; she slugged her new brothers and sisters when they tried (always at the worst possible moment) to hug her. She said she did not like us; she begged to go back to Baba Mike. Her bottomless well of need meant I often had to ignore one of my other three children. I was sure I had ruined all of our lives forever.

It got better—it's still getting better; we work daily for our happy ending. Well-meaning is a term that takes a beating, but Hansen (and I) obviously meant well. With some crazed exceptions, few adoptive parents go through this process intending to do harm. The problem is that harm has already been done. Even the best adoptive parent is just the clean-up crew.

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