Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What's Love Got To Do With It?

There's been an interesting discussion in the comments to this post, and I wanted to bring it "above the fold," because I think it's an important issue.

First mother Lorraine was put off by the line, “Dad says our family loves my birthparents very much even though we'll never know them,” in the adoption-themed book for children. She commented, in part:

That kind of love comes easy. No problems. No competition. No parent who looks like your child. The sentiment comes too easy and ends up sounding fake.

Hearing from birth mothers as I do,and as one myself, I am not aware that LOVE is what emanates from adoptive parents towards first parents who are living, breathing people they have to deal with.

Adoptive parent Anonymous agreed, saying, in part:
I've thought for awhile that the concern we adoptive parents express for Chinese birth mothers and the difficult situation they faced is somewhat condescending and patronizing given the fact that we don't actually have to deal with them. We get to sound as charitable, well meaning, concerned, etc. as we want without ever having to actually do anything.

And adoptive parent Bump said, in part:
I don't feel anything for my daughter's birth mother. I don't know her. And there you have it. I'll respect her for my daughter's sake, but I don't know who the hell she is.

Hmmm, lots of food for thought. I certainly don't disagree with these comments. Perhaps my feelings are not the norm. And I don't really want to convince anyone else that they have to feel the same way I do. I'm just trying to get my head around my own feelings, and since blogging helps me with that, here goes!

My initial response was that there are many different kinds of love. I was looking around for a definition that fit what I was talking about, and came across this: "A deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude toward a person, such as that arising from kinship, recognition of attractive qualities, or a sense of underlying oneness."

That seems to fit for me -- affection and solicitude toward a person arising from a sense of underlying oneness. I feel a oneness toward these unknown women, based on the fact that we are mothers of the same child. I feel love for them, for what I see of them in my children. And I don't know how to love my children without loving their birth mothers. (Note: that's just me! I'm not claiming everyone has to feel the same thing I do!)

I think Lorraine and Anonymous and Bump would question whether the first part of the definition above could possibly fit -- how deep could these feelings be? How can you love someone you don't know? Isn't it insincere to express love for someone you don't know? Isn't it hypocritical to say you love a birth parent you don't have to deal with as a troublesome person in real life? If you don't know them, how can you like them, much less love them?

It may be, in fact, only a definitional thing. I can (and do!) love many people I don't like (maybe you're luckier in relatives than I have been!). Haven't you had a troublesome in-law or sibling or parent whom you love deeply, despite the fact that they are very hard to like most of the time? Love, in my view, doesn't require like! I might need to know someone to like them, but not to love them. I feel love for relatives I've barely met -- the part of the definition that talks of "affection and solicitude arising from kinship" resonates for me. And that kinship applies to my kids' birth families, too. We are a connected family through these children they birthed and I've parented.

I understand and respect those who feel differently about birth family, especially unknown and unknowable birth parents. I get that it is hard when you can't visualize them, don't know anything about them, to have genuine feelings for them. And one can't manufacture feelings that just aren't there! Should one even try? If so, how could it be done?

We have all read that it is important for our children to have a positive impression of, positive feelings for their birth parents. Even if one doesn't feel love, one can express positive things to help one's child develop this positive impression. But is it also important that WE have a positive impression of, positive feelings toward them? I'm thinking of a scene from Adopted: the Movie, where Jennifer's adoptive mom says she never thinks of her birth mother, that she doesn't have any feelings for her. It's a painful moment for Jenn, who feels that if her mom can't think about or have feelings for her birth mother, she can't really see Jenn as she really is, a Korean woman. She feels that her mom is rejecting the part of her that is Korean when she rejects her birth mother.

Of course, one can have positive feelings without identifying the feelings as love. But do we have to have some feelings? Would any of us tell our children (as adults) what Jenn's mom told her, that we have no feelings for and never think about their birth parents?

Suppose you are interested in exploring your feelings for your child's birth mother; suppose you want to HAVE feelings for her. How would you go about it? Here are some suggested exercises in an article about birth parents in international adoption:
When you imagine your child's birth mother, what images do you have? If negative images pervade, ask yourself, where do these images come from? Are there facts and circumstances unknown to you that might change this picture? Have you ever written a letter to your child's birth mother? Although she may never see it, this can be a good exercise. Think about what you would want to ask her about herself? What would you want her to know about you? Is there a fact about your life that if disclosed to the birth mother, you would want to explain? Imagine that a sister or someone you love is a birth mother. How would you want the child's adoptive parents to think, feel or speak about her?

Anyone else have thoughts/feelings to share?!


Mei-Ling said...

I think first world social privilege fits into the equation.

My adoptive parents respect and honour my Taiwan parents. They do not love each other. Why would they? The only thing they've got in common is, well, me.

Also, it's very hard to talk about someone you know so very little about.

But based on things at blogs, at forums, at message boards, the "I'll respect the birthparents for my child's sake, but I truly don't know" is a great intention to start off with - as adoptive parents DON'T know - but then because they don't know, it often tends to lead to the "worst case" scenario.

"I don't know, so I'll just assume the worst COULD be happening as I speak. I don't know so I'll just dredge up the worst-case scenario - ie. drugs, alcohol, jail, dumpster food - because I DON'T know."

Are the women in China "less than"? In terms of social and economic privilege, absolutely.

But just because one doesn't know doesn't mean they have to assume or imagine the worst.

It doesn't mean they aren't capable of being regular, loving, grieving mothers.

Mei-Ling said...

My post

delves into this topic in a more subconscious level.

Margie said...

This topic is the one that has been in my mind more than any other adoption related topic since the very beginning of our children's lives with us. I don't think I'll ever wrap my head around it completely, even if I have the opportunity to meet my children's parents one day.

Two thoughts jump to mind in reaction to this post and the comments you reference (I need to go back and read the other one later):

One is that, for me anyway, respect and acknowledgment of my children's first parents has eclipsed love as the feelings I have for them. I love them for the fact that they gave our children life. I want to love them as I love my family and friends. But that love is ephemeral, because we haven't met. Loving the idea of someone isn't the same as loving that person.

The other is that respecting and acknowledging them for the individual human beings they are IS something that feels real to me. It also provides me a way to actually support them, by supporting the work other first parents are doing (in our case in Korea) to improve social acceptance and support for themselves.

That said, I'll never lose hope that some day I WILL meet those of my children's first parents who are still alive (we know that one has passed away). I will always have hope that the love I want to share with them can become real.

Margie said...

I should have added that what has influenced my point of view most of all are two things: having had the opportunity to hear first-hand Korean mothers who lost their children to adoption tell their stories, and having met, heard, and in several cases become friends with American first mothers.

Diane said...

My children are reflections of their first families- so, yes, I love their first families. It may be an unrequited love, a love that is thrown into the wind and never returns, but it is love.

I loved my children before I 'knew' them. Certainly that love evolved when we met and continues to evolve every day.

I agree with Mei-Ling, it is extremely hard to talk about people who we know virtually nothing about. But, that doesn't give us a solid excuse to stop talking about them.

I love my girls' foster mother and she was FAR from perfect. Loving her has taken a great deal of soul searching and forgiveness. But I love her and respect her for the good she tried to achieve while raising my girls.

As we search- I am not nearly as concerned about the emotional complexity of finding a birth family as I am worried about the emotional complexity of only finding one birth family.

osolomama said...

Put off by the line too. How can you truly love someone you do not know? This line is curiously dismissive. "We love them; end of story."

I suppose it could be argued that it's good for the child to hear this but imagine for a moment your child asking, "How do you love them? *Why* do you love them?" What are you going to say then? You need to come up with something deeper and more personal because children are not fools and they'll sniff out a platitude in 5 seconds flat.

It's a lot more complicated to join up with a new family. Indeed, some of the feelings experienced on both sides might not be loving. That wouldn't mean you couldn't eventually break through to a kind of love, if you were fortunate enough to find each other.

Having said that, I do have emotions associated with Simone's first family. Deep curiosity. Respect. Humility associated with their predicament compared to mine (mine being practically non-existent). Gratefulness.

Cassi said...

Can I come at this from a different perspective? As a first/natural mom who adopted her son back?

My son's childhood involved both physical and mental abuse from an adoptive mom who battles an alcohol addiction. And though I know it sounds harsh - when I hear more and more of what my son went through, I despise his adoptive mom for what she did to him.

But, even with that, there is still part of me that feels a warmer emotion - not sure I'd call it love, exactly - because my son is a part of her as well and there are certain parts of who and what he is that are a part of her and her impact on my son's life.

I don't think my anger with her at this point will allow me to actually admit there is any love for my son's adoptive mom. But there is affection, or understanding, or . . . whatever you want to call it . . . for her because she too is my son's mother, good or bad, and she too is a part of who my son is now and will become.

To not have some kind of feeling for her in my heart would be, to me, discounting parts of my own son.

I hate everyday the terrible things she did to him but I love him and I love everything about him and not to have caring feelings in some part of my heart for his adoptive mom would, in my opinion, demean those parts of him that she created and are a part of.

malinda said...

osolomama asks, "How can you truly love someone you do not know?"

LOL! I spent 3 hours on this post trying to explain how; obviously I didn't do a very good job! I'll simply say again, that for me, it's fairly easy. I understand those who don't agree, whose definition of love is different. My mileage varies, I guess.

osolomama also asks, "but imagine for a moment your child asking, "How do you love them? *Why* do you love them?" What are you going to say then?"

Great question! I'm a great believer in thinking these things through ahead of time and practicing the answers, so hope readers will do that.

I'll say what I feel -- "I love them because they gave you life and made sure you had a life by keeping you safe and warm until you could be found and a family found for you. I love them because I see them in you, and I love you." Real feelings, however expressed, are not platitudes.

I agree that kids can sniff out platitudes, but as you can tell, I have lots to tell them on the subject, and have in fact told them so!

I worry more that children will sniff out a prevarication -- "Oh, yes, I respect your birth parents" -- when there is no genuine feeling behind it. The feeling doesn't have to have a particular label -- I label mine "love," but have been careful not to insist that others do the same. But I'm concerned that if adoptive parents don't have any positive feelings toward birth parents, the kids will suss that out in a nanosecond.

malinda said...


I appreciate your different perspective. It seems to me like adoptive parents and birth parents alike would have a problem with positive feelings toward a parent who has abused their child. You're showing great compassion in recognizing the role your son's amom had in his development, in seeking the good and not just the bad.

It's what a friend of mine calls "other love" -- finding compassion and understanding for those different from ourselves.

malinda said...


Thanks for posting the link to your blog entry on this subject -- very helpful!

malinda said...


I also credit the voices of American first mothers -- they have really helped shape my point of view as well! I think every adoptive parent -- whether domestic or international adoptive parents -- should read "The Girls Who Went Away." Since there is little opportunity to hear from Chinese birth mothers, I've learned so much by listening to those closer to home who have lost a child to adoption.

That was one of my points in a previous post about "Birth Mothers and the Exotic 'Other'" -- Chinese birth mothers are NOT that different from any other woman who has lost a child.

osolomama said...

Actually we're not so far apart! Many of the emotions are the same but I wouldn't label it love.

Wendy said...

I agree in that the definition of love, the same as friend, is defined differently by all. Do we love all of humanity, some yes and some no. Do we consider a person from work, a fellow blogger, a random customer a friend? It all depends on defining.

a Tonggu Momma said...

I define love not as an emotion, but rather as an action. This complicates things even more for me when I'm discussing a person (or people) I've never met. It's easy for me to tell others and myself that I would be patient, kind, selfless, forgiving and humble with my daughter's first parents, whom I'm not likely to meet any time soon. And yet... my daughter is an extension of them. She is part of them. And I love her.

Anonymous said...

I don't really think that love has much to do with any of this at all.

You know, I had my son's adoptive mother tell me, "you have always been in our hearts", AND "I think it was better that "H" was raised by us rather than by you." Conflicting comments? Yes,. and I did not deserve the latter. I was not the stereotypical drug addict/hooker/etc., and yet she felt that it was appropriate to tell me that she was a better parent - based on what? Perhaps she was trying to quell her own fears, I don't know. She did use the old tried and true, "thank you for giving me...." crap. What she didn't say was that she was sorry for my loss, for my son's loss.

I just seriously don't think love has anything to do with infant adoption. My son's adoptive mother did not love me or even give a rat's ass about me when I lost my son. She told me that, "she wanted someone to take care of." End of story - and she didn't go to the 'old folks home' to find someone to take care of because she had a more precise image of what she wanted - a baby.

Separating a mother and child is not based on love, and being part of infant adoption is based on separating a mother and child. So let's please don't try to figure out how to be weepy when that is not at all how you feel. You're happy, joyous, celebratory, thrilled to death that you have a son or daughter to call your own. Don't worry about faking the love for the parents who lost. I don't know anyone who can, and I sure as heck don't want to be on the receiving end.

Mei-Ling said...

"You're happy, joyous, celebratory, thrilled to death that you have a son or daughter to call your own. Don't worry about faking the love for the parents who lost."

I think Anonymous hit the nail on the head with this one.

Wendy said...

I can't speak for infant adoption, my daughter was over two, but I have to say that adoption for me was not all joy and happiness. My daughter has lost *her family* (there is more than one) more than once. I think there are those of us who do know what pain is being inflicted and have a grieving process of our own. Taking your child from the only family they have known (foster or birth) is full of pain. I think only someone sub-human could be a part of that separation and only think of their joy.

I know I am not the only ap who had serious conflict and moments when you wonder if what you are doing is right for the child. Yes, we are the lucky ones. Yes, we made the decision (sometimes w/o all of the facts and information) to continue the adoption; however, it does not mean for all of us that there is fake love for our children's first/second/third families.

As for me, I don't see my daughter as a gift from her first family, that came from the Chinese govt. in the form of approval. I do see her as very much a part of both her first family and foster family and it is because of all of us that she is the wonderful child she is.

As far as loving, I do love her foster family (I know them) as much as my own. We are lucky in that our relationship has grown over the past three years and we are fortunate to be able to share our lives and kids.

As for her first family, I love them too--in a very different way than someone I know. Maybe love may not be the right word for some, but it is for me. It is not fake, it is not touchy-feely, hugsy-wugsy love, but it is a feeling of love nonetheless.

mama d said...

Every day, three rumble tumbling masses of DNA frolic in my house. They laugh and love, cry and scream. I did not make the parts of them that I can see. Two of my children have a genetic condition only because their biological parents carried the same recessive gene. The third may also be effected by conditions either genetic or environmental.

To deny love to the people who literally created my children is to deny love to the entirety of my children. And, picking and choosing what and whom to love isn't part of my personal journey. It would be like picking a favorite among my kids.

There's also quite a bit rumbling around in my own head about first loves and preparedness to adopt. But, I'll leave it there for now.

RamblingMother said...

I wish my daughter's birth mom was "troublesome" (using the word in the post or a comment) as that would mean I would know her personally and for my kiddo that would be the bomb (in a great way). For G, I, like you, love her birthfamily/firstfamily (mom and dad specifically as I am sure she has those-not sure of sibs). Like you I can't love G well without loving them whether I know them or not. I am not sure personal knowledge has to be a part of the equation. I have heard adoptive moms of Chinese daughters also say they didn't think of the birth mom or didn't think highly of them for abandoning the child/ren. Those comments sort of took me back some. G and I talk about her bio family on her terms and so far very positively, she is 5 though. Some of the negative feelings haven't totally surfaced nor connected yet.

Bump said...

"You're happy, joyous, celebratory, thrilled to death that you have a son or daughter to call your own. Don't worry about faking the love for the parents who lost."

That's just flat out cold and callous.

lighthousegal said...

When my DH and I went through marriage prep years ago, I was presented with a concept that took me years to understand - love is not an emotion, it is a decision. There are endorphin stimulated highs that we call "love", but the day to day, still there when life gets rough type of love is truly a decision. While I had made that decision many times with my DH, I also have made that decision with my 2 girls, both of whom who were adopted at 12 and 13 months of age. I made that decision while trying to keep my oldest safe and myself sane before we were able to find a diagnosis and subsequent help for sensory processing disorder, or when I was sole, exhausted care giver for my youngest who totally rejected my DH during the first 3 months she was part of our family. Now it is my decision to love both sets of birthparents - to respect them for bringing both of these children into the world when abortion is so accessible and encouraged in their country of birth, for making sure they were placed where they could be found at great personal risk, for having to live without their daughters and to live with the decision (rather it was their decision or someone elses) which resulted in me having these 2 children in my home.

The chances that we will ever have the honor of meeting these people are very slim. I can only surmise what they are like based on traits in the girls and things that I have read. But I chose to love what I do know about them, and I can say it with all honesty to my girls.