The Complicated Calibration of Love

Navigate the parent-child relationship with adoptees and foster kids.

Posted Jun 18, 2019

Photo by Carrie Goldman
Source: Photo by Carrie Goldman

Love. Such a simple word that encompasses so many possible meanings. I feel love for people in similar and different ways. Love for my husband. Love for my parents. Love for my sisters and my extended family. Love for my friends and their families. Love for my colleagues.

And, the most intense and complex of them all—love for my children. Complex because my children are the only ones who simultaneously crave, reject, embrace, need, challenge, inhale, absorb, return, share, fight, accept, and question my love on a daily basis.

They light up with my love; it shines through in their smiles and their eyes. They fear the loss or withdrawal of my love, even when I show them a hundred ways to Sunday that my love is unconditional. They want to quantify my love, even though it can’t be measured. And no one has a more complicated relationship with love than a child who was adopted.

How do I convince my 15-year-old, who came to our family through adoption, that I love her as much as I love her younger sisters, who came to our family through our biology?

On a broader level, how does the world convince her she is loved and valued?

The same world that thrust a great injustice upon her by separating her from her first mother and her siblings, the world that passed her along to a doting foster mom to whom she attached and then was separated, the world that dropped her into our outstretched, naïve, and eager arms, our greatest joy intricately tied to her greatest sadness, the world that views her story as a happily-ever-after and now expects her to be grateful, happy, well adjusted, and perfect at all times—how does she learn to trust the love of that world?

I love her so very much. And I need to convince her of my love every single day.

To match the giving of love with the exact need of any recipient is a moving calibration. There is no reliable unit of measurement for something so imprecise as human affection. We try. We offer up our love in words and actions, hoping to meet the ever-changing needs of our lovers, our children, our friends, and our families—every relationship that matters takes some work.

Sometimes we find a period of time where all is in balance with a person we love. Oh, the bliss of those days or weeks or months where the love offered and the love received is in sync. When time spent together matches the intensity and desire for each other’s company, affections, attention. No one is chasing. No one is fleeing. 

But then one person in the relationship inhales the sour breath of the beast that is insecurity, a beast whose presence twists the very air between two humans and makes greater the flaws that beckoned it in the door. Insecurity, also known as fear, feeds on the dark and scary parts of the mind, growing in strength and power as it distorts what is real and what is imagined.

Sometimes insecurity grows too large until there is almost no space left for the relationship. But the antidote to such despair is hope, and hope, fortunately, needs less fuel to stay alive. These dynamics occur in any relationship, and the intensity can be magnified by a thousand when one of the partners is an adoptee.

I believe that the choice to be a parent is built on hope. The choice to be an adoptive parent is built on mountains of hope, oceans of hope, forests filled with the hope that a thousand seeds planted might one day yield a mighty tree.

How do I help my daughter choose hope day after day? How can I help her find happiness? How can I show her I love her enough, that her birth family loves her enough? How can I get her to love herself enough?

I ask myself these questions every day. I search for the answers in every place I can. I read books and blogs by adoptees, both those who are in despair and those who have found peace.

In moments of discomfort, I force myself to sit with the anger and rage and pain of the adult adoptees who write with derision and disgust about adoptive parents, because I can learn from their stories. With renewed hope and frank relief, I read and then reread the words of adult adoptees who are doing well, seeking to glean insights on how to help raise a thriving adoptee.

Their stories are invaluable. I observe and listen and wonder what combination of internal resilience, good parenting, genetics, access to birth history, love, acceptance of grief, and endless empathy is needed to raise an adoptee to wholeness.  

My oldest girl is my first daughter, and I am not her first mom. Therein lies the conflict. She did not choose this situation; it was foisted upon her and packaged as “you’re so lucky” by the world.

I’ve come to believe that the way through all of this is in allowing and validating all the feelings and viewpoints, even the ones that don’t fit the happily-ever-after narrative. It is an indisputable fact that my daughter lost something immeasurable and irreplaceable when she was adopted, and, yes, she also gained a family that brings her huge amounts of laughter, love, and stability.

Radical acceptance of things outside of my control has helped, as has the acknowledgment of unpleasant truths. I did not create the circumstances that led to my child being placed for adoption; those wheels were set in motion long before I ever knew of her existence. Yet, as an adoptive parent, I have come to see that I am also part of a larger system that contributes to her pain. Both of these realities co-exist.

She is allowed to feel all the feelings. She can be the adoptee who is pissed off at what happened to her, and she can be the adoptee who is doing well. There’s room for both. She can be furious at me, because I’m not her biological mom, and she can love me to fiercely for being her “Mommio,” as she calls me.

Like our biological children, our oldest daughter does have many aspects of her life that are lucky. Lucky to have parents that adore each other, lucky to be able to travel and go to a good school and live in a comfortable home, lucky to have an enormous and doting extended family, lucky to live in a city where we can practice our Jewish faith, and our neighbors support us. 

And, unlike our biological children, she is terribly horribly unlucky in many ways. Unlucky that she isn’t growing up with her first family, unlucky that she has to wonder if we love her sisters more (we don’t), unlucky that she has to worry about whether we think she’s good enough (we do), and unlucky that she has to battle legitimate fears of abandonment in every relationship she enters.

What seems to be working best for our family is to just open our arms and our hearts and our ears and accept it all, every last conflicting bit of it. Our oldest daughter rages against the unfairness of being adopted. She hates being adopted. And she adores our family more than anything in the world.

As far as the proper calibration of love, we subscribe to the belief that we always have an endless supply of love to offer. It is simple to add one more piece of love to the scales.

When she makes a mistake, we add a piece of love. When she has success, we add a piece of love. When she questions if her share of the love is enough, we drop a few more pieces of love onto the plate. When she is hungry and no amount of food can fill the emptiness, we serve love with a side of love and love for dessert.

Last year, she programmed herself into our phone as “Most Loved Child,” and we all laughed about it, even her sisters, because we all know that it is her way of poking fun at the beast of insecurity that lurks in adoption. I still smile every time she calls, and my husband answers the phone with, “Hello, Most Loved Child.”

Those are the moments of balance when the love is just right. It’s in the laughter, the raucous family dinners, the loud and crazy game nights, the watching of our favorite shows, the groaning at Dad’s jokes, the roughhousing with the little sisters, the Shabbat dinners and the family trips. The astonishing moment when everyone is OK, and the love offered matches the love needed to feel content.

Yes, that is when the calibration of love is just right, and in those moments, I can see the roots and shoots growing from the seeds planted in the garden of hope.

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