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“Will I love her?” Love & Attachment in Adoption – by Dr. Daniel Nehrbass

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“Our baby was maybe two days old and as I sat with her alone in the hospital room I completely broke my promise that I wouldn’t fall in love too soon. I’ve since managed to forgive myself!” Paul, Upbring Adoptive Father 

The question “Will I love him/her?” is often top of mind for potential adoptive parents. Dr. Daniel Nehrbass did an excellent job of answering the question in his commentary below. The article is reprinted with permission from The Adoption Advocate, a publication created by the National Council for Adoption to educate policymakers, families, child welfare specialists, and others on today’s most relevant child welfare and adoption issues. 

The insights and issues the essay explores are especially appropriate for discussion during November, National Adoption Month. The author, Daniel Nehrbass, Ph.D., is a former pastor and professional counselor, and is executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions.

When my best friend heard that my wife and I were planning to adopt, he asked, “Do you think you will be able to love your child as much as you would if she were your own?”

Those of us who have adopted know that our adopted children are “our own.” Yet this question posed by my friend revealed a fear that lay within himself, and in the minds of many prospective adoptive parents.

My wife and I met when we were in the eighth grade. We married seven years later, at the age of twenty. We talked about adoption before we were married, but did not envision how large a role it would play in our life together. Three years into our marriage, we received a diagnosis that determined conception would be impossible for us.

Two years later, in the midst of the foster parent licensing process, we learned that we were pregnant. After our son’s birth, we adopted two children from foster care and had two more biological children as well, bringing us to a total of three girls and two boys in our home.

From experience I can say that it is possible to love adopted children just as much as those born to you. Yet I recognize that I cannot speak for others, nor can I tell them what is possible within their own families. If someone tells me, “I don’t think I could love an adopted child equally,” perhaps he and I should both trust his judgment. Perhaps he knows something about himself that I don’t know.

The Capacity of Love

When I used to give people the “Trust me…you can love adopted children equally” speech, I assumed that everyone was equally capable. I envisioned love primarily as an emotion. The primary change in this line of thinking occurred when I realized that love is better envisioned in terms of capacity, rather than emotion.

Think of love as a jar that holds water, or a room that holds people. Jars come in different sizes; rooms range from tiny to enormous. Capacities vary greatly. If we all have our own individual capacity for love, then I cannot speak for anyone else who wonders about their own capacity. Nor can I speak for you.

I can speak for myself, however, and I can speak of families I have counseled. Nearly all of these adoptive parents would say that they love their children with all their heart. Those who also have biological children in the home would add that they love their children equally. And most would say that they, too, have come to realize that they have great capacity for love; it is not merely a feeling, it is an ability. A choice.

Adoptive parents are not the only ones who know this, of course. Other parents know it, too. Many parents can remember a defining moment when they had to make a decision about how to think of love. For me it came almost immediately after our son, Thai, a seven-year-old Vietnamese boy from California, was placed with us. He spoke not more than fifty words of English, yet by the end of his first week, he had asked me: “Do you love me?”

No biological parent has ever been asked this question in the first week of parenthood. How was I to answer Thai? At the time I still knew very little about him. We were still getting to know one another. But when he asked me “Do you love me?” I was prepared with my answer. I gave him an immediate, confident, genuine “Yes!”

I was able to say this honestly because—long before he asked—I had come to the understanding that my love is a capacity, not merely an emotion. When I told Thai that I loved him, I expressed the following genuine commitments:

  • I am committed to you for life, no matter what.
  • I want what is best for you.
  • I will make great sacrifices for you.
  • I will forgive you when you misbehave.
  • I will demand nothing, but I will cherish even the smallest expression of love in return.

Love is not some external force that comes out of nowhere: it is your own capacity, which grows with time and work and commitment. If you have this capacity, you will love your child.

Love is Commitment

When my wife and I put our firstborn child in the car and drove away from the hospital, I thought, “I can’t believe they’re letting us do this! Why are they letting us take this child?” I knew that no one from the hospital was ever going to call to see if we were okay. They were done with us. It was up to us to care for our baby’s every need.

I can say with complete honesty that my love for our son during his first week of his life was no more or less than the love I just described for our adopted seven-year-old during his first week in our home. I loved holding him, and felt overwhelmed with positive emotions—feelings of joy, tenderness, and delight. But my love for our newborn son was primarily felt in terms of commitment—just like my commitment to our adopted son. My love for him meant that I was committed to him for life, prepared to make sacrifices for him, determined to do whatever was best for him, and always ready to forgive him unconditionally.

So how will you answer your adopted child when she asks, early on, “Do you love me?” I define love in terms of commitment, and action. Love is acting lovingly. Love is commitment. If you can truly commit to loving your child, then you will.

[Dr. Nehrbass made further observations that are excerpted below in the interest of space.]

 Additionally:

  • If you understand love as your child’s unique way of reaching out to you, then you will recognize his love for you.
  • As you share your life together, and prove trustworthy in meeting your child’s needs, she will love you.
  • If you can love unconditionally, then you will love your child. 
  • Love is sometimes much easier to see and understand in retrospect than in the moment. If you understand this about love, you will see your child’s love for you.
  • If you are patient, you will see your child’s love for you.
  • Empathy is another essential part of love. If you can see yourself in the face of your adopted child, then you will love her.
  • The love of a parent is always focused outward. It demands nothing; it only gives. If you take this approach to your child, then you will love him.
  • Conclusion: Love is focused on others.

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Upbring Adoption has counseled individuals about making adoption plans for more than 60 years and was one of the first agencies to offer open adoption. We believe that adoption is a lifelong process and offer  adoption services that include:

  • Unplanned Pregnancy Services. Confidential options counseling, support and resources to help you explore your choices – anywhere in Texas.
  • Open Adoption. Allows birth parents and adoptive parents the opportunity to stay connected.
  • Adoption Planning. Work closely with an adoption specialists to create the best life possible for your baby. YOU are in control throughout the entire process.
  • Financial Assistance. Upbring helps with medical, living and other expenses directly related to your pregnancy as allowed by Texas law.
  • Finding a Family. Choose the life your child will have. Select from a group of families trained, screened and approved to provide a safe and secure forever home for your baby.
  • Legal Help. We help you facilitate all legal documents necessary to finalize the adoption placement.
  • Free Services. ALL services we provide are FREE to our birth parents.
  • Post Adoption Services. Adoption is a lifelong process and it’s common for birth families and adoptive families to need support down the road. We are always here to help and offer a variety of services to meet your needs.

Please contact us if you have a referral or questions regarding our services – 512.781.4275; [email protected].   To learn more about our adoption programs, please visit Upbring.org.

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