I love the show “Parenthood”. I love the characters, the family dynamics, the twists and turns of inter-weaving inter-generational lives playing out themes of marriage, raising kids, inter-racial families, and more recently, the adoption of a school-aged child. Julia and Joel, after experiencing a heart wrenching loss when their domestic infant adoption falls through, decide to approach their local social services agency and open their home to any child that may need one. Seemingly a day later, with no preparation, a social worker rings their doorbell in the dead of night and brings them Victor, a cute, quite, and mysterious 8 year old boy.
Two episodes into the season, we see Joel and Julia, with no visible assistance from any social worker, trying to integrate their new son into their lives. Or, rather, walking on eggshells around him while trying to act like everything is normal. Julia alludes to some reading that she’s doing (good) and that they have to establish trust and help him feel like part of the family (also good), but we also see Victor spending entire days lying on the couch, shooting whipped cream into his mouth straight from the can, and watching violent reality TV shows (not so good), all while ignoring the family activities going on around him. Finally, after a series of upsetting events, Joel and Julia argue about how best to manage Victor, to which Julia, defeated, finally states “I feel like I’m waiting to love my son”.
FINALLY, a genuine moment in this story – for many adoptive parents, and certainly for those adopting school-aged children, this is such a common feeling. However, the guilt and fear of judgment prevents many families from sharing these feelings with their social workers and support systems. While it is understandable that this is a scary thing to approach (“If I don’t love him now, will I EVER love him?” is a common thought that families struggle with), it is essentially important, when bonding and attaching with a new child, to keep a few key things in mind:
- Love takes time. Everyone needs time to get to know each other and build genuine emotional bonds that will last a lifetime. If you don’t feel “in love” it does not mean that you or the child are doing something wrong. In fact, this can be looked at as a good thing – if a child has had multiple placements and many disappointments, she has built healthy defenses by learning to distance herself until she feels secure. Use that time to show her that you are trustworthy – providing consistent, kind, and thoughtful parenting with healthy limits, expecting nothing in return, is the clearest way to tell a child that you will be there forever, no matter what.
- Affection takes time. Those first days, weeks, or even months, it may not yet feel right to have a hug or a snuggle on the couch. Instead, a quick pat on the head might do, or kicking around a soccer ball in the yard can be a shared physical activity without the intensity of physical contact. Find that balance between smothering and distancing – maybe insist on holding hands to cross the street (appropriate for any child under 5), braid their hair, or play Twister. Be creative and don’t forget to have some fun – it’s hard for a child to want to snuggle with you if you look angry or tired!
- Talk about it to the right people. Find your right outlet – other adoptive parents, your social worker, a supportive therapist, your spouse, partner, or best friend. Use good judgment; if an acquaintance has given you the message that she thinks the adoption of your child was a bad idea, that’s probably not the person to share your feelings with.
At the end of episode 2, Julia and Victor have a little breakthrough – he is emotionally vulnerable, she promises help, follows through on it, and is rewarded with a conversation and an awkward hug. Not monumental when it comes to raising an 8 year old boy, but I was sitting on my couch, excited for these characters and all the adoptive families I have worked with, for that one moment, where even in its tiny doses, they can start to feel the love they’ve been waiting for.
Stella Gilgur-Cook, LCSW, Assistant Director of Outreach, Spence-Chapin Services to Families & Children