It seems to be the lament of many adoptive mothers I meet: “I didn’t really feel it.” Somewhere along the line, adoption has become associated with the myth of love at first sight. I surely cannot say that no one feels this, but I can say that not everyone does, and not everyone has to. Because the truth is, love is a thing that grows.
I’m sure there is truth in the stories many tell of that moment they saw their child for the first time and knew instantly that God had ordained him to be theirs, and fell in love. But I think so much more often, the action of love precedes the actual feeling.
I knew many of my children months or years before I became their mother. When I first met them, I had no idea that we would one day share the bond of family. Even when they first moved in and we filled out the foster-care papers, I was tentative. I didn’t really feel like a mother. I felt like a stopgap in the system, a temporary solution. Even as we took steps to make their adoptions permanent, after God had made it clear that we would be a forever family, I fumbled, often feeling more like a babysitter or, on good days, a fun aunt.
Photo caption: My sweet family, when there were only 9 of us!
Parents who are still feeling this way, be encouraged: you didn’t miss the miracle. The love-at-first-sight moment isn’t really what it’s all about and might not happen for all of us. Some days, love isn’t a feeling; it’s a choice.
You may be the mama who opens her arms wide to the baby you’ve seen in photos, only to watch as the child clings tightly to the orphanage worker and cries in fear of you. You might be the mother sitting in your hotel room oceans away from your home, watching a little one’s chest move up and down while she sleeps and feeling just devastated by how much of her you do not know. You might be the mother staring at the teenager who, after years of your pouring into him, still refuses to be loved, who pushes you away just to see at what point you will walk away. And I just want to tell you, it’s okay. You didn’t mistake His call, and you didn’t miss the miracle. Love is a thing that grows.
From the moment I met my children, I loved them in the way that a heart must love another human being, especially one in need of care. I felt God had made it clear that I was to raise them. This intensified my love into a fierce, protective, sacrificial love, but it didn’t change the fact that it takes time to make strangers into family. That part is a daily choice. From the day I signed those papers, I knew they were mine; I was choosing to be their parent. But just like the choice I had made to adopt a child, I would also have to choose, again and again, to love them. I would choose to love them each morning and each evening and sometimes many times in between. This often felt like failure. If God was giving me children, why didn’t parenting come a little more naturally? Wasn’t deep, connected, instantaneous love a miraculous gift? In my experience, it was more of a choice than a feeling. It was a process of choosing repeatedly to love and pour into the small person in front of me, even on days when I felt more like a babysitter than a mom.
I wish I could tell my young, striving mother heart a thing or two. If I could, I would bring her weary frame a cup of coffee and reach out across the years to hold her hand as I whispered to her all the things I did not know.
I didn’t know that one day, love for them would consume me.
Photo caption: Me and my girls on my wedding day. Photo credit: Float Away Studios
In those early days of laying sleepy heads on pillows and training tiny hearts to know Jesus, I had no comprehension of the wild, devastating, uncontainable love I would feel for them. I didn’t know that they would somehow become extensions of me, that when they hurt I would hurt more deeply than I ever had before, and that when they showed delight over a success or an excitement for God’s Word, my heart would swell within me and I would be unable to contain tears of joy. I didn’t know that sometimes I would look at them and feel so much love that my heart would physically ache within my chest.
I didn’t know that I would blink and they would be grown up. That I would feel like their little lives were slipping through my fingers and I would want to just soak them up, pause the time, and savor the moments. That I would never feel that I had done well enough, loved hard enough, or taught them enough, but that wouldn’t keep me from pouring out every ounce of myself anyway.
I didn’t know that I would see the sparkle of my eyes in theirs and hear the lilt of my voice when they spoke, or that I would smell the same scent of my skin when I kissed their foreheads, or that over the years their laughs and their mannerisms would become more and more like mine. I didn’t foresee that I would sneak into their rooms late at night just to watch their chests rise and fall and that I would study the way their little fingers curled around the edges of their blankets, and that no matter how big they grew, I would still have the curves of even their fingertips etched in my mind.
I didn’t know the rejoicing I would feel as I watched them serve others, or when I saw them devouring Scripture, praying, or longing for more of God. And I sure didn’t know the inadequacy I would feel as I realized more and more that I was shaping them, helping God make them into the people He intended them to be.
And at the end of the day, I had no idea just how powerful and humbling it would be to acknowledge that it would only be God who could change them, redeem them, and save them; not me. Only He could work in their hearts and know their futures. Only He would have been with them all the days of their lives and would remain with them each day and receive all the glory.
If I could reach back in time and whisper to myself, I would say, “I didn’t know Jesus the way I do now—before I became a mother—and that alone makes it all worth it.”
It’s not lost on me, the miracle that has taken place to allow me to feel all these things. I look at these young ladies, and so much of it seems like a blur. I can’t pinpoint all the “aha” moments, but somewhere along the way, it happened. The daily choice to love became a habit, and the habit became a lifestyle, and we became a family.
Somewhere in all the laundry and homework help and consistent discipline and constant, tireless love, I looked at my child and saw in her pieces of me, and God confirmed what He had spoken to my heart many years before: she is mine.
The youngest stands with her toes pointed out and her hands on her hips, and I might as well be looking at a mirror. The oldest smiles gently and speaks truth and reminds me exactly of my mother, as if it could somehow be genetic. And when that one smiles, all her bottom teeth show too, and she is confident in Jesus and wants big things from life, just like a teenager I once knew. And this one loves justice and learning how to cook new things, while another shows patience in caring for younger children, something I enjoyed just as much at her age.
And for us this is the miracle: not that we experienced love at first sight but that God has given me a love for these once-strangers that is just as strong as if they had grown in my own womb. That somehow, after weeks or months or years of choosing this kind of love, I suddenly find myself in the place now where I have no choice, where I could not stop loving even if I tried, because they are part of me. The miracle is that God has given me His eyes for them, and in my moments of saying “She is mine,” He has given me a glimpse of His heart for me.
To every mom who is cradling her little ones, or even her big ones, and wondering when you will stop feeling like a surrogate; to the mama clumsily jostling her newborn for the first time; and to the one staring out over the expansive distance that has grown between her and that hard-to-parent teenager: I long for each of you to know that your heavenly Father sees you. And He is glorified by your trying, your pursuing, your loving. Love is a choice, and as we choose it, it grows. We keep choosing love, and He keeps choosing us, and this, my friend, is the miracle.
My hope is that you will cherish God’s welcome invitation to know Him increasingly as you answer the high calling that is motherhood. No matter how He has enabled you to be a mom—in marriage, in singleness, through foster care, through childbirth, as a mother of one, as a mother of many—keep being faithful to Him as you parent your children. He’s shaping them through you, and He is shaping you through them.
And to the mother who has given her foster children to forever families but still has a child-shaped hole in her own heart; to the mother now called “birth mom” who has given her child into a better life out of love; to the mother whose baby now rests in the arms of Jesus: you are brave, you are beautiful, and you are loved.