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When You Don’t “Feel the Love”


by Dr. Laurel Shaler

 

As we pulled up to a house with the longest driveway I’d ever seen, I noticed a pony meandering through the large front field. Immediately, my husband, Nick, and I double-checked the address. We were surprised to learn we were at the correct home. Feeling simultaneously excited and nervous, we slowly made our way down that seemingly never-ending stretch of pavement with great anticipation. We parked the car and walked up to the front door, knots in our stomachs and our hearts pounding.

 

Before we had even knocked, the big brown door opened. On the other side stood a lovely older woman holding a baby. As I stepped over the threshold, she placed that little girl in my arms. At that moment, I knew—I knew—we were meant for each other. The rest, as they say, is history. And it is history in the making. Our adoption story is nothing short of amazing.

 

The two children we adopted—forevermore our children—are two of the approximately 120,000 children adopted annually in the United States.(1) The majority of these children are five years or younger at the time of their adoption. Our daughter was two months and five days old on the mild February day we met her. The baby boy who followed a few years later was a mere three days old.

 

Our adoptions were completed as soon as the judge’s gavel hit the desk with a resounding thud. The words “It is so ordered” remain some of the most exciting words that have ever been spoken to me in my entire life. Yet, the impact of adoption, the good and the bad, the pros and the cons, the love and the loss, is never-ending.

 

While the circumstances surrounding adoption are all unique, many individuals and couples who are adopting experience their own joy and sorrow, and the children who are being adopted certainly endure this (even when they are too young to recognize or acknowledge it).

 

I believe we have to start with the presupposition that while most (I wish I could say all!) who adopt desire to love their children well, not all these parents feel the love. This can come as a surprise or a disappointment that needs to be addressed and worked through for a parent and child to bond. Even for those who do feel love from that first moment, as I experienced, not all are adequately prepared to demonstrate love in a manner that is the most helpful. Being prepared for what may come can help you adjust. If you are past that point but struggle with regrets, maybe understanding now what you were experiencing then will help alleviate some of your guilt. If you “felt more numb and scared than connected and competent,”(2) know that you are not alone—over half of the parents in one survey reported these same feelings following the adoption of their children. By the way, many parents feel the same way after having biological children!

 

Less than three months after our son was born, the COVID pandemic just about shut the world down. Like many other parents, we lost all childcare, so my husband and I took turns caring for the kids while the other worked. I worked from home and was there most of the time (except for my twice-daily walks to get out of the house). I was finding myself stressed out when it was my turn to watch both kiddos. Looking back, I realize I was struggling with anxiety at the time. Not only was I adjusting to life with both a daughter and a son, but we were in a pandemic. My husband had also received deployment orders, so we were preparing for that as well as experiencing the ongoing ups and downs of my father’s cancer treatments. The worry that I dealt with is logical considering the challenging circumstances. Yet, even when adoptive parents are not facing all the “extra” stuff, they can experience mental health challenges following adoption, most often postpartum depression. One study comparing postpartum women to adoptive mothers found that the adoptive mothers had “comparable levels of depressive symptoms.”(3) The women who had a history of infertility experienced “more depressive symptoms during the year following adoption.”

 

It’s important for women who are planning to adopt or who have adopted recently to be aware of the potential for depressive symptoms and to seek professional help as soon as possible. Some symptoms to watch for include feeling down, thinking you should not have adopted, feeling guilty, or changes in appetite or sleep patterns (which may be hard to separate out from the lack of sleep most new parents experience). It’s possible that these experiences might interfere with the bonding and attachment that takes place between parent and child, so getting help as soon as possible is good for not only the parent but the child as well.

 

Adoption is not easy, but it can have a lifelong, positive impact for both the child and the parents.

 

1“Trends in U.S. Adoptions: 2010–2019,” Child Welfare Information Gateway, April 2022, https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/ adopted2010_19.pdf.

2 Susan Caughman and Isolde Motley, You Can Adopt: An Adoptive Families Guide (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009), 201.

3 Sarah L. Mott et al., “Depression and Anxiety among Postpartum and Adoptive Mothers,” Archives of Women’s Mental Health, July 3, 2011, 335–343. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00737-011- 0227-1.

 

Adapted from Loving Adopted Children Well: A 5 Love Languages® Approach by Gary Chapman and Laurel Shaler (  2024). Published by Northfield Publishing. Used with permission. 




Dr. Laurel Shaler is a nationally certified counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, licensed professional counselor, and licensed social worker. She is a professor at Liberty University in the Department of Counselor Education and Family Studies.

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