Sunday, September 24, 2017

When You Don't Love Your Child

I’m going to tell you something I’ve only told a few people in my life: I struggled to love my child.

You might judge me for this, and I’m okay with that. I used to be afraid of what other people might think—other mothers—if those words ever left my lips. Would they think I was a bad mother? A bad person? A monster, even?

Because mothers love. That’s what we do.

Well, that’s what I tried to do.

But I couldn’t.

So I kept this sorrow, this shame, hidden for years. Until today.

First you need to know there is a happy ending. Love is there now. It’s real and it’s growing. But it didn’t start that way.

Here’s my story.

In 2001 I had a hysterectomy due to severe endometriosis and adenomyosis. I had given birth to two children, but after years of treatments my body simply could not give me what I wanted. Not only was I barren, but the pain caused from my mutinous uterus sentenced me to the couch for hours each day. I was burdened by guilt and grief. I could not make children, and I could not take care of the children I had.

The night before the procedure I requested a blessing from my Bishop. It was an opportunity to him to put his hands on my head and be the mouthpiece for God. I was standing on the precipice of permanent infertility, and I wanted to hear it would be okay. I needed to hear it.

I was told everything would be okay, that I would recover, and all would be well.  But then, I was told two something very unexpected. I was told I was not finished adding to my family.

I’ll admit, I opened my eyes and looked up as I secretly reminded God that a hysterectomy was the removal of the “oven.” Of course I knew He knew that. But then . . . why would He say what He did?

I tucked the promise deep in my heart and went about recovering from the surgery. After a few hiccups (which is a post for another day) I regained my health and life back. I was off the couch and active with my children. I began jogging and even trained for a 5k.

Life seemed to go one, as it always does.  Then in 2008—seven years after my surgery—a thought that had entered my mind in the past finally made it into my heart: adoption.

I talked my husband about it, and we both felt good. So we started the process of fostering and adopting through the state of Washington.

It was an arduous process. The classes, the statistics, the videos about childhood neglect and pain. I drove home many night with tears in my eyes. I wanted to adopt every child and give them all the love they never had and all they love they deserved!

After we became licensed we met many foster children looking for a forever home. Little did I know this would be even more difficult than the training. Our social worker would introduce us and we’d spend and afternoon or two, or they’d spend time in our home, in order to see if they were a good fit for our family.

The social workers thought we were looking at logistics: age, issues, and the like. What they didn’t know is that God was very active in our search for a child, and I every time I met a child and prayed, I received the same answer, “They are not yours.”

This made no sense to me. Why not? Why can’t I keep them, help them, love them? Why would You prompt me to go down this path when You keep telling me no?

This was especially difficult when we had two young foster boys stay with us for six weeks. Oh, how we wanted them. Then, one night as I was bathing the youngest, the answer came again, “They are not yours.”

It broke my heart.

I see now the wisdom in His words. I was instrumental in gaining them placement in a home who, just two months before, had received inspiration to build on their house and bring two more boys into their family. God knew that. I didn’t. And God knew that they needed to come to my house as an intersection, so they could make it to the forever family He intended for them.

But I didn’t know it then. I simply knew God didn’t see me fit to love any of the children that had crossed my path. And it was too much to bear.

So, after much struggle, my husband and I decided not to adopt. I figured I would be blessed for being willing, and God would somehow fulfill His words in some other way.

I stopped calling our social worker. I stopped looking at websites and children’s profiles. I tucked away the thought of more children and replaced it with other things. I was free from the emotional turmoil, and was content. . .  for the most part. There was a sliver of shame, of grief, and of sorrow that I could not shake. So I shoved it inside, took a deep breath, and kept going.

Then, one day—July 6th 2010 to be exact—I received a phone call. It was a social worker I’d never met from an agency I’d never heard of. She had an emergency placement for a little six-year-old girl. Somehow our family bio was on the top of a pile of papers on her desk. Strange, she said, since she nor anyone else in the office had seen it before. But there it was, and would we take this little girl that night. 

I asked for an hour and called my husband, son, and daughter. We prayed individually, and when we all felt good about it, I called her back. Yes, we will take her. But just for a few days until they can find a permanent home for her. We were not planning to adopt any more.

She came that night at 6:30pm, with fast food in one hand, a juice mustache, a glint of fear in her eyes, and a smile almost wide enough to hide it. She was darling, and I felt a pull at my heart strings.

Still, I couldn’t do commit. I couldn’t even ask God. I couldn’t have Him tell me again I wasn’t up to the task. (My interpretation. Not His.)

She stayed for a few days, and those days turned into weeks. The social workers told us we could adopt her if we wanted, but I was still not able to commit. I was afraid.

Then, one night as I tucked her into bed, I pushed the hair from her eyes and a voice whispered, “She is yours.”

My husband was cautious but excited, as were my two older children. We were really going to add another child to our family, forever.

I spoke to the social worker who put things in motion. I trusted God’s answer and was excited to give her all the love I had.

The initial few months was good, with expected bumps in the road. The more comfortable she became with us the more her negative behaviors surfaced. The more comfortable I became with her the more I “mommed” her. She tested us, she tried us, she wanted us, she didn’t want us.

It was work, parenting a child with a trauma childhood. It was hard, loving a child who didn’t know how to love you. But I had faith in my ability to love. That was why God brought her to me, was to love her, I thought. Because remember, that’s what moms do. They love.

But I struggled.

The love for her didn’t come naturally as the social workers said it would. I didn’t feel that instant connection with her. Oh, I tried. I prayed. I cried. I went to the temple. We went to counseling together. I read her books and tucked her in bed.

But it was hard.

The behaviors and issues she had brought with her made it extremely difficult to like her at times. She came lying and manipulating. It wasn’t a matter of right and wrong. Not for a trauma child. It was the way she survived. You get what you want how and whenever you can, before someone takes it from you or hurts you. She had a shell around her formed from lies and screams and smiles that was nearly impenetrable. It wasn’t her I saw. It was her behaviors. And it’s hard to like someone who doesn’t seem real. It’s even harder to love someone who doesn’t love you back.

The Savior talked about loving your enemy. He said, “But I say unto you Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)

She cursed me, said she hated me, despitefully used me, and even persecuted me. And He wanted me to love her still. I wanted to love her still.

But I didn’t. Not that way I thought I should.

I found myself feeling unqualified to be her mom. There were times I didn’t want to be her mom. I felt deep shame for these feelings. Why would God give her to me when there were so many other kinder, more loving mothers? Why her? Why me? He asked me to do this one thing, to love her, and I was failing her. I was failing Him.

I was a failure.

And who paid the price? My daughter.

I shared these feelings with my husband one day, who said all the right things to me.

But still I ached.

God was asking too much of me. I wanted so badly to feel the boundless outpouring of love for her I had expected to, I had wanted to. And yet. At times, the well was dry.

For a long time I kept this shame inside. I joked and ate through the pain, gaining thirty pounds since she’d walked through my door. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, because I was sure I was the only mother horrible enough to struggle with loving her child. Because mothers love. That’s just what they do.

Except me. The mother who was the greatest failure of all.

I told myself if I couldn’t love her the way I thought I should, then she would never know it. No matter how challenged I was, how much I struggled because I was weak and a failure, she would never go a day without feeling I care, without feeling I loved her.

And she never did.

This was one of the reasons I never spoke about it. How would she feel if she knew I was struggling to love her? She had already had so much devastation and pain in her life. I would not be the cause of more.

So I kept quiet, except to God and to my husband a two or three choice friends.

Their words were all kind and good, but did not have the power to take away my shame and failure. What mother doesn’t love their child? What kind of monster was I?

This was a burden I carried secretly for a long time. I felt alone. So alone.

I wish I could tell you it hit me in a moment, that I can remember the exact time and place I was when things started to change, when my perspective started to shift, when the answers started to come. I can’t. But I can tell you it was after many hours of prayer, fasting, talking, and temple visits.  And, I can tell you three things I learned that have changed (almost) everything for me.

1)    My expectations shaded my reality. I realized, and if you look back at how this was written, that most of my struggle came from the way I felt not matching the way I thought I should feel. I fully expected that love would flow as fast and rich as it did when I held my bio children for the first time. Anything less than that wasn’t love in my eyes. When that love didn’t come, I felt I had failed. And with that failure came sorrow, fear, grief, and failure.  When I released myself—my love—from this expectation which was based on unfair comparison, I was able to see that I did indeed love her. It looked different, and felt different, much like the love I have for my husband is different. That love is a choice, it is worked at and nurtured. But it is still love. And so it is with my adopted daughter. It is a choice, and I am nurturing it.

When I release my feelings for her from the idea of what love should be, or the comparison to other hues of love, I can finally see it for what it is: love.  Though it may not have been as strong as I’d liked, it is still love nonetheless. This love for her led me to realize this next truth.

2)    A mother’s love isn’t one color, or one strength. I felt a great joy and relief when I allowed myself to see that my love wasn’t different for just my youngest, but for each of my children. I love each of my children differently. I love my son differently than my oldest daughter. I love my oldest daughter differently than my youngest daughter. My love for each of my children touches different parts of my heart. Sometimes it brings me joy, and other times it causes me pain. My love for them is different, and that’s okay.

3)    Perfect love can be given through me. This one was, perhaps, the biggest epiphany for me, and the one I’m going to talk about the most.

Moroni speaks at length about charity, which is the pure love of Christ. I always got hung up on the verse he penned (or chiseled) in Moroni 7:46 in the Book of Mormon, which reads: “Wherefore, My beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing.”

It’s easy to see, if I stop there, which I did many times, why I felt so awful about struggling to love my daughter. Without love, I was nothing.

Moroni continues: “Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail.”  This didn’t make me feel any better. I was supposed to develop this perfect love for her when sometimes I couldn’t even love myself because of my failure. I was screwed.

But, here is where things turned for me.

I began to understand what charity was.

Charity isn’t love I develop. It is Christ’s love which is given to me as a gift. I do not have build the capacity to love like Jesus does—perfectly. I simply need to qualify myself for the gift of His love for myself and others. As I strive to be worthy and seek after it, He will bless me with His charity.

It’s not about me. It’s about Him.

This was huge for me.

As I began to understand that it’s not about my capacity to love, but my capacity to qualify for and accept His love, the words of Moroni became clear.

“But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him” (Moroni 7:47).

Those three words, “possessed of it,” changed my world.

As I try to love, I can ask God to bless me with His love for her and the love I feel is multiplied.

Elder Chi Hong Wong said, “We begin to develop the gift of charity through our sincere efforts to emulate the Savior. However, the full measure of this gift is bestowed upon us by God as we earnestly seek it in prayer.” (Wong, Ensign, 2016)

What great relief and peace this brought to me! I knew how to pray, so that’s what I did. I asked for charity, to feel His love for her.
And then I did.

And it was beautiful.

My God is her God, and He loves her dearly.

I felt it. I knew it.

And here’s the amazing thing. You see, when we seek for and allow the love of God to pass through us, I believe some of it is left behind. That, I think, is how we grow in charity. And every time I pray for it, and feel His love for her pass through me to her, I am left loving her more.

It’s a beautiful cycle. Try to love. Ask for His love. Feel His love. Love more.

These thing all together—adjusting my expectations of love, recognizing that love can look different, and perfect love can be given through me—breathed life into my beat-down soul. 

I was not a failure. I was not a horrible mother. My child really was loved by me, and by God.

The trifecta of realizations left me feeling hopeful and well, loving.

Then one more answer came quietly one day, as I was pondering love:  It isn’t my love that will save her. It is His.

In the quiet moments where doubt and fear still try to creep in, I remind myself that even if my worst fears had been true, even if I hadn’t been able to love my daughter, God did. And Jesus Christ did. Through the power of the Atonement, the Lord’s love is what will save her.

Mine will help ground her, soften her, encourage her, heal her, but it won’t save her.

That took another layer of pressure of myself.  I don’t have to save her. I simply have to keep doing what I’m doing: teaching her the gospel, studying about parenting trauma kids and using what I’ve learned, trying to see beyond the layers of issues and behaviors to the real her, and loving her in my way the best I can.

I realized my daughter was brought to me, in large part, because I have the gospel of Jesus Christ in my life. This means I can point her in the direction of perfect love. I can help her develop a relationship with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. There she can find the healing balm of grace and mercy. There she can find perfect love. There she can receive all God has planned for her: joy, family, fulfillment, and yes, more love.

I have stopped trying to be the perfect mom giving the perfect love, and have simply allowed myself to love her in my way and help her feel God’s love.

An interesting thing has come from all of this discovery and growth: I have felt more love from my Father in Heaven and my Savior. I recognize Their awareness of me. They know my weaknesses and shortcomings. They see my faults and sins. They understand the desires of my heart, both good and bad. And they love me.

As I’ve pleaded to feel their love for my daughter, I have felt their love for me in so many ways. Their perfect love has mended my once-broken heart and buoyed my tired and aching soul. Their love has calmed my fears and extricated the shame from the deepest parts of my heart. It has given me confidence in myself and my abilities, and hope for the future—hers and mine.

Their love has freed not only her, but me. It has helped me to see what I can do with their help.

It’s also helped me to see that I really do love her.

And I always have.

Today I shared a small portion of these feelings with a group of women in church. I wasn’t expecting to. I really didn’t want to. It was scary, to stand in front of a room full of mothers and say the words, “I struggled to love my child.” But I did it.

I did it because, though I risk judgement by some who simply won’t understand (and that’s okay), I am not alone. It doesn’t happen this way with every adoptive mom, but it does for many. It even happens with some moms towards their biological children.

Sometimes it seems really hard to love your child. It’s a horrifying and shaming feeling.

And this is why I want to share this now. Because I want moms to know it’s okay to struggle. I want them to know that God’s love is big enough for both of you. I want moms to know that, most likely, you do love your child, it just looks different than you expected it to.

To those moms I want to say: You’re not a monster.  You’re not a failure. You’re not alone. You have the capacity to love. You are who your child needs. You’re not failing God. You are a good person, a loving person. There is no shame in the struggle to love. Struggle shows you have desire, and that’s what God wants: a willing heart.

Take your burdens to the Lord so He can ease them. Ask for His love for your child to flow through you, and He’ll leave some behind.

Be kind to yourself. You are doing better than you realize. You really are.

And know that God loves you. His love is bigger than your pain, and stronger than your fear and shame. It is true: charity never faileth. 

With His help, we can be everything each of our children need. Everything. Even when we aren’t enough. With God and Jesus Christ, our children will have more than enough.

So, rest your weary heads and hearts and see with Their eyes.

You just might see you really do love your children.

And that you always have.


A mother's note:

One of reasons I've never shared this before is because I am fiercely protective of my daughter. I do not want anyone to judge her harshly, or see her in a negative light. A traumatic childhood can create issues for nearly any person. This post is about me and my struggles- not a letter of dissatisfaction or complaint about her. This was about my struggle, not hers, or any deficiencies she might have (we all have them, right?). Her behaviors are what I struggled with, and when I began to realize my false expectations and further truths about love, and also that I wasn't required to love her behaviors, but to love her, I found peace and truth.

She has her struggles, but we all do. My daughter is awesome. She is confident, quick to help and eager to forgive. She loves to make people happy. Her laugh is infectious. She loves God. She is strong and growing and blossoming into a beautiful young woman. She is making choices that bring her joy.

My daughter is valiant, special, and divine. In fact, all my kids are. So please, if you still feel like judging, throw it my way. But, out of respect, please don't think or speak ill of my child. She's amazing. She is a gift from God to me, and I love her. I truly do.

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