I have been asked a few times now if any part of becoming a mother through adoption was different from what I expected. What stands out the most is that I honestly didn’t fall in love with her right away. Don’t get me wrong, when I held her in the hospital, minutes after she was born, I loved her. But it was a love like I feel for any adorable, sweet, innocent baby. I didn’t feel that overwhelming, motherly, I would do anything for you, love-at-first-sight that we hear about. I was looking into the face of a stranger. She was a cute stranger, but a stranger non the less. Simply telling me this was my child didn’t make me feel it. I have taken a lot of comfort in friends who gave birth to their children and experienced something similar, realizing that this happens to parents of all types. Just as it took time for me to get to know and fall in love with my husband, I needed space to fall in love with my daughter.
It also took a while for me to feel like a mom. I walked around for months needing to remind myself that I wasn’t the babysitter. This is my child! But in my sleep deprived haze it didn’t feel real, and innocent comments from well meaning friends reinforced my emotions. We live in a world of people who don’t know much about adoption, and of course everyone had questions, most of which we were happy to answer. On an almost daily basis I was asked things (often from people we are close to) such as how tall her mom is, or what her dad looks like. I don’t begrudge any individual for poor choice of words, I would have probably made the same type of unconscious slip had I been in their shoes. Yet the repetitive insinuation that her mom was someone else served only to reinforce that I was not her mother. Unconscious bias has become a buzz word in modern race relations, and I always understood the textbook definition. But my experience those first few months reinforced to me how repetitively hearing innocent yet inaccurate words, compleatly devoid of malicious intent, can shape the way we see ourselves. (If it could have this impact on me over the course of a few months, imagine the impact of a lifetime of societal bias!)
At first my responses were gentle, knowing the intent had been innocuous. “You mean her birth mom? She’s…” But after a while I realized I need to use my own words to reinforce that WE are her parents. “Her dad’s sitting right over there. Do you mean her birth dad?” I take no offense from individuals, I know they mean no harm. But the repetitive mislabeling from society as a whole can wear on you, and I had to do something to counter the effects.
Over time I have fallen compleatly in love with her, and now I do feel like a parent. I don’t think I can put my finger on any one moment when my love became more real, though her first smiles certainly helped. However what made me feel most like a mom in those first few months came from the most unlikely source.
We are lucky to live on a block with a wonderful blend of friendly neighbors, many of whom we know by name. Some we have dinners with regularly, others we just wave at in passing. But they were all so excited to meet our new addition when we brought her home. As we were walking down the block with her on one of those first trips around the hood we were greeted with “Is that your baby? Did you adopt her?” The source was Frankie, a loud, vivacious character who has had his scuffles with the law but is always friendly and warm when we pass him on the street and makes it his priority to look out for everyone who lives on our block. We only spoke with him briefly that day, but in the weeks that followed we saw him many times, and he always gave a holler of “Here comes the proud papa!” or “You take care of that baby, Mama!” It was so simple, but it made such a difference. Without a second’s hesitation he was recognizing us as her parents, and though I’m sure he had no idea the power of his words, it was huge. Frankie may be an “unsavory” character by many definitions, but he cares about this neighborhood and the people in it. With just a few enthusiastic words, this man we barely know made me feel like a mom.