Wednesday, November 02, 2011
Adoptive vs. Biological Parenting
Now that I'm officially an adoptive mama I wanted to spend a few minutes writing out my thoughts on our experiences with biological parenting and adoptive parenting.
I've been really blessed to have many, many people in my life over the past few years who have been blessed to become parents by birth and by adoption. It's surprising how many of my friends adopted first and then became pregnant, many of them where pregnant within months of their gotcha days, especially since statistically that experience is very rare as pointed out here. Several of them have written blog posts about their experiences as birth & adoptive moms, which you can find here, here, and here.
Our story, as you know, is different. We had relatively minor fertility challenges that we thought could be fixed by a few doses of clomid. We were blessed with the pregnancy of our son about 9 months after we started trying. In those 9 months I ovulated 2x with the first time ending in a very early miscarriage (<6 weeks) and the second ending with the birth of our son in October 06. We assumed we'd get pregnant the natural way at some point, probably within 12-18 months. It has been more than 5 years now and we've had no other pregnancies. We were shocked in 09 to find out that we were effectively sterile and had been since birth.
It was only then that we began considering adoption. Foster care adoption was most appropriate for us and subsequently we fell in love with foster care in and of itself, having only adopted 1 of the 8 children we've cared for. In all honesty we've only been adoptive parents for a few days, but I think it's safe to say that we have at least a preliminary experience with it, especially since our daughter has lived with us for 16 months.
Almost unanimously, my friends who adopted and then gave birth have indicated they feel the same toward parenting their adopted child and their biological child. Though their children may be different and therefore may require different types of parenting or they may have different interests/personalities and therefore the parents have different relationships with their children, generally they feel the same kind of love toward their children.
That is not the same experience we've had. Interestingly, I also have a few friends who have adopted from foster care after giving birth and they too have expressed a different experience. I have a theory about this, but I'll get into it later.
I definitely have a different type of love toward my biological son than I do with my foster children and even toward our daughter. Please hear me - I'm not saying I don't love her or that I don't treat them the same - that is not it at all. What I'm expressing is an internal "feeling" of love more than the outward expression, and I happen to think it is based on biology and time.
I was shocked as a new parent at how much my body responded to my son. I leaned toward attachment parenting to begin with and therefore did the whole cloth-diapering, baby-wearing, breast-feeding, co-sleeping thing with my son. I have always felt very connected to him. When he was a baby and he cried (and still today!) it pained mie. I had a strong physical reaction to his cry in general. When he's sad I get sad. When he's angry it affects me. When he's hurt - you get the point. My body goes through a bit of stress with my biological son's expressed needs. Now that he is older, the physical reaction is less intense than it was when he was an infant, but it's still there. To top that off, of all my children I've had a longer relationship with him. Where biology has begun to fade, the history of our relationship has begun to play a stronger role in our connection and just as in any long-term relationship the history has an impact on the emotions I feel toward my son and our relationship.
With foster children (and adoption from foster care) initially there is no biology and no relationship. Children you've never seen before who have at least some other experience on Earth apart from you suddenly show up as members of your family. There isn't a biological connection that helps bridge the gap to this child while you build a relationship history. At some level, you have to make an active, conscious choice to love your new children while you get to know them where they are. Arguably, some mothers have to make an initial conscious choice to love their newborns and infants as they are not easily enamoured with them and their constant demands. I understand that, but it wasn't my experience. I was immediately smitten with my son and would have laid down my life at any moment without question for him from the time I knew he was in my womb. This wasn't an active choice - it was something innate in mie. On the other hand, that innate reaction just isn't there for my foster children, instead it is a choice to love them and be a mom to them.
That choice isn't difficult. It's actually pretty easy. I do have some strong motherly instincts, lots of experience with children, and I believe the children placed in my home have inherant worth as human beings who need love. That easily drives mie to love them, but it's not the same kind of drive that is innate as with my son. In some ways, this actually makes me a better parent to my foster children. Their cries and behavior don't cripple mie like my son's have at times. This has allowed mie to not panic when my foster kids vomit all over the place or when I'm making a cup of milk for 2 2-year old shrieking girls at the same time, neither of whom are content getting their milk poured second. In other words, it's just given mie more tolerance to their screams and cries which enables mie to handle the behaviors for what they are rather than reacting to the stress it causes mie internally. It's more like a job (which I do really well at, by the way) where I'm able to just keep working to care for them from my brain rather than relying on my senses and innate reactions to tell me what to do.
The loss I believe is the closeness I feel to my kiddos. I've mentioned before that it only takes about 2-4 weeks for our family to adjust to life with a new placement, including having them feel like "ours" and so I do get to a point where they feel like my children and I don't really think of them any other way in public (I say I have XX kids instead of 1 and XX foster children). But that emotional, instinctual connection isn't there like it is with my son, not initially at least. Because I continue to actively love the children regardless - I cuddle them and kiss them goodnight, I fix their booboos and hug them when they are crying, etc. - they come to see mie as mom and they appear to have connected with mie on that level. In many ways they have all taken a piece of my heart with them when they left because they were my kids too. Nevertheless, it is a different feeling than I have with my biological son.
Thank God our feelings don't dictate our actions.
Now that our daughter is adopted, she won't be leaving, and everything is final, I have to say that it is still different. I love her as much as I love our son; there is no distinction between the two of them in terms of how much I love them. But again it feels different. I think this is at least in part because we're still adjusting to the idea that she is really our daughter and that CPS is out of the picture with her. That's such a foreign concept at this point! There have been little moments like on Halloween where she just did so many cute things - it was like discovering our daughter for the first time despite the fact that she's been our foster daughter for so long.
I echo this post - being a foster parent supportive of reunification goals makes you guard your heart when faced with a dual-plan of adoption. You just have to guard your feelings a little bit until all is said and done because in this world, plans change, things happen, and in the best circumstances in any case there is some loss and grief to handle - no matter the end outcome.
I love my son. I love our daughter. I'm so grateful for both of them. Now that our daughter is getting older and the longer we have history with her I do believe that "feeling" of love and attachment will continue to grow in my heart as it has with my son. It has already started. I think she's beautiful and charming and fun to be around. I appreciate her so much. I love to see the two of them together. I know she already has my husband wrapped around her finger. I don't ever expect that I will feel the exact same feeling of love toward my son and my daughter. I expect it to continue to be different and I expect my love for both of them to continue to grow even if the feelings I might experience in any given moment change (hello teenage years to come!). But that's ok. I don't need everything to be the same. I gave up on THAT when we started pursuing foster care ;)
So what's my theory? I have this theory, though only very mildly substantiated by a handful of anecdotes, that your first child becomes your standard. What happens with that first child somewhat dictates your standard for what the parent/child relationship is and until you have more you have nothing to compare it to. For people like me who had a biological child first and experienced that close of a physical bond like we did, I believe that becomes your point of comparison and the experience you have with future children will be naturally compared to that first bio-child. We naturally compare as humans. For those who first experienced an adoption, presumably that child was very much wanted and loved and the emotions associated with receiving a first placement become the standard. I don't know - maybe that's not a good theory, but it so far has remained consistent.
In any case, bottom line, parenting is not what we feel inside - it is how we demonstrate our love with actions to the children who we're assigned to care for. If nothing else, that remains consistent whether biological, adopted, or any other type of parenting relationship.