For mothers who experience infertility and loss, disrupted adoption, or even joyous overnight motherhood, it can take time develop a bond.
I loved my baby instantly, before I even met him. As soon as I got the call that his birth mother was in labor, I was all in. But it took almost three years before I felt like he was not only her son, but mine too. Being chosen as Levon’s mother, not by the universe but by a living, breathing person that I may have to answer to someday, is an extraordinary honor and responsibility, and for the first few years of his life, that weighed heavily on me. His birth mother was an invisible third wheel that lived in my head and blocked me from feeling like I was his “real” mom. I consulted her on every decision, not in real-life, but inside my thoughts, terrified of ever disappointing her.
Most adoptive moms I talk to have the opposite issue – they overwhelmingly feel that they are their child’s mother but worry that their child won’t feel the same way. Perhaps that’s never been a concern of mine because my own mother is adopted and absolutely considers her adoptive mother to be her mom. Levon’s adoption is open, meaning we know his birth family and are in contact with them, and I can tell you with certainty that I will have no issue if he grows up to feel like he has two mothers. Having a relationship with his birth mother in no way diminishes my role in his life, in the same way that my extraordinary relationship with my stepsons in no way diminishes their mother’s role.
I believe a large part of my struggle with Levon was the result of my experience as a stepmother. My stepsons’ mom is very present in our lives, and when I parent them, I do parent on her behalf. It is my job to respect her role and reinforce the rules that she and my husband have established, and it took me a long time to emotionally realize that adoption is not the same as co-parenting. Obviously I understood it logically, but emotionally, I was stuck.
I share this to let you know that it’s okay if you feel the same way. It’s okay if you negotiate with your child’s birth mom in your head every time you make a decision, even if you’ve only met her once. It’s okay if your baby was born a year ago and you’re still afraid someone is going to come take him away. It’s okay if you panic that your baby is going to die every time he gets the tiniest cold because you lost your last baby. And it’s okay if you love your child more than anything in the world, but also feel like he’s not completely yours.
Like every other aspect of parenting, bonding is part of the journey, and we don’t all get there at the same time.
Jessica Butler is the co-founder of Raise, stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to Raise, she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and six-year-old son, Levon.