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My husband and I were used to the shocks of instant parenthood
    ... so this time around, why can't I bond with my child?


"Sarah O."
Feb. 2005

Having adopted our first child two years earlier, my husband and I knew we were ready to do it all over again. We were actually looking forward to doing it even better the second time around.

And why wouldn't we? We had survived all the trials and tribulations that adoptive parents face -- adjusting to the shock of becoming instant parents, bonding with a child who does not accept our affections unconditionally, coping with the stresses of preparing a nursery and child-friendly home with very little notice, tying up loose ends at work before an untimely parental leave, and handling the many questions and well-wishes from family, friends, neighbours and co-workers.

We had also endured the pressures that all parents face -- adapting to a drastic change in lifestyle and finances and coping with the demands of sleepless nights, schedules, potty training, bottle weaning and of course the terrible-twos. We considered ourselves to be pros, well-equipped to take on the challenge of a second child.

Our family became complete and our dreams came true when we welcomed a beautiful healthy 13-month-old girl into our lives. We weren't scared this time. We would handle the unknowns because we knew that ultimately, as was the case with our oldest daughter, this child was going to be "ours" and we would learn to love her beyond words. As simple as that!

What we hadn't anticipated and certainly weren't prepared for was the intense emotional turmoil that our family would face as we tried to attach to this new little person.

The first few weeks were incredibly difficult as we watched our new daughter, who was described to us by her social worker and foster parents as happy and social, turn into an angry aggressive child. As early as the seven-day post-placement visit from our social worker, I found myself asking questions about bonding and "typical" attachment timelines. I needed to be reassured that our daughter's reaction to her new life was normal and just as importantly that my feelings of indifference toward this child, my child, were not abnormal. We never expected love at first sight nor did we expect the adjustment to be easy. But we did expect that as dedicated parents, we would make our daughter's transition into our family a positive experience for all of us.

I began reading about attachment, talking to other adoptive moms, and taking comfort in "I knew someone who ..." stories from any resource I could find. I was reassured that the process of bonding was different in each adoption and not to worry, just to let it happen.

But several months later, it still hadn't happened, at least not for me and my new child. My husband and oldest daughter had made a connection with her and she seemed to reciprocate their feelings. But I was in a state of emotional agony, frantically trying to love her and feeling desperate that it wasn't happening. She was an unhappy little girl and I was an unhappy mom. I found myself faking my enthusiasm toward her and feeling crushed when she rejected me over and over again. Instead of appreciating our personality differences, I started judging her, taking her actions personally. I started fantasizing that somehow she would be taken away, removed from my life so that I could regain the control I once had.

Our entire family dynamic had changed. I was constantly on the brink of tears, many times calling my husband at work for support. I no longer enjoyed my hobbies, and everyday tasks turned into huge challenges. I lacked the energy and enthusiasm to play with my children, letting the television babysit them for hours at a time. When we did venture out, I would find myself making excuses to perfect strangers when my new daughter misbehaved -- "Oh, we just adopted her and she's having a difficult adjustment." Even the relationship I shared with my oldest daughter was strained as I wasn't giving her the attention she needed.

Anger and sadness turned to feelings of guilt. Guilt that I was no longer the good parent/person I had considered myself to be. Guilt that I had so desperately wanted a child and wasn't appreciating the gift I had received. Guilt that my husband had the burden of my despair on his shoulders. Guilt that I had disrupted the stable life my oldest child once knew. Guilt for not being strong enough to handle my emotions. Guilt that my new daughter had found herself in an unhappy home when she could have thrived with another family. And especially, guilt that this innocent little girl would go through life feeling that she wasn't loved by her mother. Something was happening to me that I never would have believed could happen -- I was falling into a state of depression.

Throughout the entire process, our social worker was incredibly supportive, visiting often, providing advice and insight and never judging me or my feelings. I trusted her completely, knowing that she always had our daughter's best interests in mind. But nearly six months after the placement, I made a desperate call to her that admitted defeat. I still hadn't attached to my daughter, my life was in turmoil and I was completely overwhelmed. She recommended a professional counselor who worked closely with adoptive families. For the first time in my life I needed to see a psychologist. I felt I was no longer the strong self-assured woman I had considered myself to be, and I was ashamed of myself.

Depression is a strange thing. I experienced emotions that I had never felt, and at my lowest point, believed that I could never be well again. However, with the support of my husband, social worker and a counselor, I began to understand that my feelings were not abnormal, that I wasn't a bad person and that I had to take care of myself and my injured emotions in order to create a bond with my daughter. I realized that what was standing between the two of us was not our difference in personality. Instead, I had spiraled into a state filled with insecurities, anxieties and the inability to cope with the changes in my life, and I needed to make myself better. My husband and I became more pro-active, sharing parental leave, focusing on the good and trying not to dwell on the not-so-good, and generally building a positive home environment for both our children.

By dealing with my feelings of anxiety and by taking back control of my life, I began to look at my daughter in a different light. All of a sudden I was learning to appreciate her stubborn personality and other traits that I had once thought as insurmountable obstacles. Both she and I were laughing more and crying less. The less anxious and edgy I was, the more she responded to physical contact and affection. Without even seeing the transformation, we had become friends.

It's been nearly a year since we became a family of four. I can't help but smile to myself as I try to put into words how different my life is now. I am the old me again, perhaps in some ways a more improved me. There are still moments when I feel a little overwhelmed, but what mother of two small children doesn't feel this way?

My daughters are the world to me. I love them equally but certainly differently, and I expect this will always be the case. I know there will be interesting, stressful and wonderful times ahead for my family. And with a healthy mind and an open heart, I am looking forward to each and every one of them.

"Sarah O." is the pseudonym of an adoptive mother in the Ottawa area. Published with her permission.

First published at Family Helper web site,, Feb. 7, 2005.

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