Explaining “I Did Not Love My Adopted Child” to My Very Real, Very Loved Daughter

In the the wake of the Torry Hanson case, I wrote a piece for Slate Magazine (where I’m a regular contributor to the DoubleX section) that my editors there titled “I Did Not Love My Adopted Child,” or, if you came to it from the first page, “I Didn’t Love My Foreign Adopted Kid at First, Either.” I liked the second title better–and actually proposed changing the first; I wanted to call it “Adoption Sucks–But that’s No Reason Not to Do It.” But the title held, and it worked–I don’t have any way of knowing exactly how many people read that piece, but certainly “a lot” is probably an understatement. And that’s exactly what I wanted.

I hoped what I wrote would be as helpful to people as Melissa Fay Greene’s essay “Post-Adoption Panic” in the book A Love Like No Other was to me. I came back to her words so often in the difficult months after we brought Rory home that the book falls open to her pages. I treasure her description of her son: “a fit-throwing, non-English-speaking, snarling Bulgarian four-year-old,” and I recited, like a mantra, the advice she attributed to a friend “You can just pretend to love him…Just fake it.” That’s what I hoped for, and I think I succeeded–at the very least, I encouraged people to believe that it’s ok to work hard for the happy ending–but, of course, I have to live with my words, and their title, forever. And the big question, asked by everyone from commenters to friends to a caller on Talk of the Nation, is–how are you going to explain this to Rory?

I’m not sure I’ll have to–at least, not in the sense of her suddenly being confronted with this from out of the blue. Because the thing is, like Greene, I was faking it, and–because unlike Greene’s son Jesse, Rory had had a mother, a loving, devoted foster mother who I hope will always be a part of her life–I firmly believe that, at least on some level, Rory knew it. That’s what I think of, when I picture Rory reading my words. She knew I didn’t love her. And she knows I love her now. And I’m even more determined that by then she’ll know I’ll love her now forever.

She was there, after all. The awful truth is that, although she was every bit as miserable and anguished and angry as I described her, she was ready to love me, or at least to need me. She had just been torn away from everything she ever knew, and her foster mother told her to love me–to love us, to go to us, to adopt us as her own–and she was willing, probably because it was her only hope. I was the one who didn’t meet her halfway. She knows that there were moments when, as she sobbed hysterically (actually, with her, it was usually firetruck screams of rage) over something–no, she can’t play with my phone, no, she can’t drink all my coffee, no, she can’t stand on the trash can, no, she can’t flush the toilet over and over and over and over, no, Wyatt shouldn’t hit her but she hit him first, I saw her, no, she can’t just take Lily’s doll, no, that’s not her cookie, she already ate her cookie–and I knew, because I’m not stupid, because I DID read the books and I DID think about what we were doing and I DID think I was prepared–that she was really screaming about being taken away from everything she’d ever known and loved–she knows, in short, that there were moments when all she needed was comfort and I put her down and I walked away. Those were most emphatically not some loving moments.

And she knows that I don’t do that any more.

So what I think is that that’s part of our story. I’ll have to be sure to put words to what might have otherwise gone unspoken, and that forever, when we talk about that summer, it will be the summer when we were learning to love one another. That I will have to, when I talk about our becoming a family, use love the way I used it in the article–to mean our secure and ongoing connection. I will tell her that I was always committed to her, and that even in the hardest moments, I would never have sent her away, never have hurt her, never have let her have her world torn apart again, and I will tell her that I never meant to fail her, but I know that I sometimes did, and that the fact that we learned to love each other anyway will always be one of the abiding miracles of my life. I think our love will be even stronger for having all that out where we can see it and own it.

And it will also be the summer when she fell asleep on the tag-a-long and fell off the bike, and ate Doritos at the pool, and learned to swim and jumped off the diving board for the first time. Because, you know, I write about this a lot, and I think about this a lot, but mostly, we just live our lives. I didn’t love Sam the day he came home from the hospital nearly the way I love him now; I hated Lily for coming between me and Sam, and for all the fierce love I feel for Wyatt now, when he was a newborn I’d have left him by the side of the road if I’d had to do it to save Sam and Lily, who I’d known and loved for so much longer–and I write those words, and I don’t worry about them reading them someday. Love grows. That’s what it’s meant to do. And then it never, ever goes away.

A different family could tell a different story–I loved you before I met you; I loved you before you were born, I have always loved you. For me, that would mean that I loved the idea of my children as much as my children themselves. That’s not us, that’s not me, that’s not our story. That’s not what I mean when I use the word love. I did not love “my adopted child.” But oh, I love my daughter now.

So, thanks to everyone who commented. Rick, I hope I made someone feel less like a failure and more like a future love story; Stacy or Amy, I hope you’re a little less worried about Rory now; Shirlee, Missy, I hope you’ll understand, at least a little, and everybody, really, thanks. I could say a lot more about this. I could write a whole book about this. Stay, I guess, tuned–but know that Rory went to bed tonight with a bunch of kisses, an extra hug and a smile on her face. Of course, when I said “I love you, good night,” she said “Meow,” but I didn’t take it personally. Everybody knows cats can’t talk.

11 Responses to “Explaining “I Did Not Love My Adopted Child” to My Very Real, Very Loved Daughter”

  1. shirlee says:

    I understand a lot. I’ve always understood.

  2. JK says:

    I never doubted. I knew it would be hard. I couldn’t really say anything at the time because I know you, and I knew it wouldn’t work to try to say anything. 🙂 I knew it would be okay. TAW is hard to do well, but you do it well.


  3. Matt says:

    I understand a lot. I’ve always understood.

  4. Kitty says:

    What beautiful words to express the love your family has!

  5. Lowell says:

    I stumbled on your blog when you were quarantined in China and have read since then. I want to say how proud I am of you for telling the truth of adoption and how you truly felt. I am a father to a beautiful girl from China and we too have had some ver tough times. I have also talked to other adoptive families that go through the same thing. The adoption world wants to sugar coat adoptions and pretend that there is no hard part to it – but there is. Do I love my daughter now – absolutley. We also have some dear friends that were on the journey with us in China and the mom went through the same thing adopting a 7 yr old.
    So for all of us that know the “Truth” about adoption and how hard it is and having to “fake” it till we make it.
    GOOD JOB!!

  6. smk says:

    Nice article! I’m glad you expressed this, it does help alleviate my worries for your adopted daughter. Keep it up, because everyone, not only adopted people, need to hear they are valuable and loved. Blessings!

  7. ellen says:

    Beautiful..thank you for putting the grey areas into eloquent words and for never falling back on cliches to sum up your family. I look forward to the book tour, lol.

  8. Christopher says:

    What beautiful words to express the love your family has!

  9. Ben says:

    Some things are complex, they can’t be summed up in a soundbite or a headline. I believe your story is one of these things. Thank you for telling it to us.

  10. Rob says:

    Adore this post!