What is love?
I write this post cautiously. Hesitantly. This is such a raw and emotional subject, prone to be interpreted in countless and varied ways, subject to the reader’s experience or worse, inexperienced opinion. Prone to be interpreted differently than I intend. My experience will be different than yours. And yours will be different than the next. Yet, we need to talk about this. To bring the question out of the closet. It is a question that those of us who have been down this road often ask ourselves silently. A question that when gathered with our closest and most trusted village, we ask openly. It is question that creeps into our minds and our hearts and try as we might to push it back, to push it away, it is there:
Will I love her the same? Will I love him the same? Will I feel the same way about our adopted children that I do about my biological children?
I will admit, this is a tough one. A tough one to ask and even tougher question to answer. There are so many factors that weigh in on that seemingly simple question. It’s similar, yet different, to wondering if you will have a favorite child. If you are parenting more than one child, there is a high chance that you actually do like one child more than another…studies prove this, even though only a minority will admit to it. But does like equate to unequal amounts of love be divvied up and dished out? I don’t think so.
Personally, I find it helpful to first define love. What it is and what it is not. Let’s start with the negatives. Love is not a feeling. Love is not an abstract concept. Love, like faith, is a living and breathing entity. Love is active and present. Love needs to be nurtured. Love requires hard work. Very hard work. Sadly, more work, selflessness, forgiveness and grace than many are willing to give. Because it’s hard, friends. But then again, anything worth its weight in life will require hard work.
To find a solid definition of love, I thought of no better place to look than in the infamous and out of context wedding verses found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
You see? Love is not a feeling! I don’t feel exactly the same way about any of my children. About anyone who I am relationship for that matter. Do you? Do you feel the same way about your mother as you do your father? Do you feel the same way about your agreeable child that you feel about your oppositional, yet highly inquisitive child? You may like that one child doesn’t want to provide you with a third alternative every time you give them two choices, but love? My guess is that the amount of love you hold for each child, though mysterious and immeasurable, would be, should be, equitable. Mysterious and immeasurably equitable. At least, that has been my experience.
Do I try to be equally patient with each child? Yes! (Am I equally impatient with them too? Yup!)
Do I try to validate each child’s uniqueness and meet her or him right where they are? Yes! (And all of my children also get their equal share of “You are not the boss here!” and “The world doesn’t revolve around you!”)
Do I protect? Always!
Do I hope and trust and persevere? (Ummm, hello? Isn’t this the definition of mom?! It is written into our DNA!)
So, if guilt is holding you hostage for not feeling the same way about any particular child or if you are worried about not feeling the same way if you decide to adopt, please, please, let yourself off the hook. At least in the feelings department. We probably don’t feel the same way about any two people.
Listen, when it comes to biological children, nature does its part to jumpstart the process and provides built in quality control measures of sorts. And this is no joke, friends! Do you remember that horrible, sinking, gut-wretching feeling you may have experienced the first time you had to leave your firstborn baby with another caregiver? Like, you almost couldn’t do it. Right? Do you remember checking and double checking and triple checking your infant every night…just to make sure she was still breathing and her heart still pumping? That is nature. It is mysterious and powerful and a huge reason the human race perpetuates.
But what about adopted children? What about when there is no nature? What happens?
Great question. When nature isn’t there to instinctively tell you what to do, there is a huge. gaping, God-sized hold. God being the key word in that sentence. Because only God can fill that hole. When our toddler daughter first came home, she was so traumatized. She was malnourished, scared, and hurting. Hurting in ways that I may never fully understand, but hurting in a way that was evident through her loud…louder than I have ever heard loud…terror-filled screams. I am not kidding when I tell you neighbors nearly a quarter mile down the road could hear her.
Through no fault of her own, her life’s beginnings had traumatized her and rewired her brain and body to operate in constant survival mode. It’s what saved her. Yet, what helped her survive felt like it was going to kill us. A family unit is designed to operate on love and trust, but her trust had been broken at the most basic of levels and her deafening screams of terror were all she had in her tiny body to help her survive from moment to moment, to ensure she would not be completely forgotten.
And listen. Nature was certainly not telling me to run toward that scream. In fact, nature was telling me to hightail it outta there as fast as I could. To keep on running and never look back. “I was in danger,” nature screamed to me. These weren’t “I’m hungry” or “I need a diaper change” cries. This was pain from a deep abyss exiting via the mouth of a very scared, very hurt baby girl. So, this may not be the answer you want, but nature was not there to help me. I wanted to run away.
BUT, this is where nurture kicked in. Nurture told me to go toward the screams. Nurture told me to hold my baby girl as close as I could and whisper God’s sweet truth of love and redemption to her. Nurture led me to hold her close and carry her everywhere I went for months on end. Nurture led me to lie on her bedroom floor night after night and hold her hand until she drifted off to sleep. And then comes back into that room and hold her hand again every few hours when she woke up screaming and flailing around.
And this is what I learned about love in that experience: when nature isn’t quite there yet, we need to nurture until the nature kicks in.
Make those hard 1 Corinthians 13 choices. Choose patience. Choose perseverance. Choose protection and choose hope. Forgive yourself when you fall-and fall you will-then get up and try again.
Because as I made those tough choices and begged God to help me love the way God loves, as I sought this authentically and with every fiber of being, God began to do the hard work of redemption. In me. In our family. In our children. As our bodies and our spirits meshed with each other, over time, God began to build in us a parent-child relationship that many are privy to beginning in pregnancy. God began to build sibling relationships that are second to none. But it is not easy. Love is never easy. Whether we are talking about a biological child, an adopted child, a spouse or a parent, it is daily commitment.
And even though nature gives some a jumpstart into the bond of family, it is important to remember that nature itself exists in a state far from perfect. Illness, disease, inequities, injustices, and natural disasters point to something less than perfect. And so it’s nurture that gets behind the wheel and attempts to make right the many wrongs in our world.
So, do I feel the same way about my children? No, I don’t. Sometimes I feel frustrated by one’s defiance. Sometimes I feel prouder than proud to be one’s mama. Sometimes I feel like quitting. Sometimes I feel happy that one cleaned up after herself. Sometimes I feel upset that one didn’t. Sometimes I am on top of the world. Other times the weight of our reality crushes the breath right out of me. And the list goes on…
But, do I love them the same? Do I choose to get in the ring each and every day and fight for a love that I believe God called our family to? Yes, I do. John 15:13 tells us, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And while I hope that no one in our family would ever have to make that choice, I can say with all honesty, that I would throw myself in front of a bus for any of my five children.
And as strange as it may be to have to measure love in such drastic terms, when you don’t have nature to work from, you find yourself dreaming up all sorts of crazy ways to assure yourself that your love is real and valid and equitable.
If you are worried that you may not feel the same about adopted children, I encourage you to explore those feelings. Dig deeper, find out what is really at the heart of the matter. If it’s fear, that isn’t from God. If it’s a lack of trust, praise God: there is a growth opportunity in there for all. If it’s just a valid concern that you need addressed prior to committing to adoption, then fear not:
Feelings change, but love perseveres.
What has your experience been?