Published on April 28th, 2022 | by Kate Martin Rowe2
If, At First, Love Doesn’t Sweep Over You
“Can you come out to the car? She’s refusing to get out.” The voice on the phone was hard and automatic.
My husband and I had been waiting all morning for a call from the Department of Family and Children’s Services with news of when the social worker would arrive with our new foster daughter. After several years of soul-searching, my husband and I had agreed to adopt a third child. We had already spent six years building a family through foster-adoption, a process that had brought us the two children we now called our own. Trying one more time was absurd. It would undoubtedly mean more uncertainty and unbearable heartache. But I could not ignore my longing for another child, the inexplicable sense that there was a missing space in our family. I thought it would be a gift to our children if they had one more person of color in the family who could understand what it meant to have white adoptive parents. I also thought that having a bigger number of adopted siblings would be a small counterweight to the devastating loss of their biological ties. Still, none of this was logical.
Our foster family agency had contacted us two weeks earlier about a three-year old child who needed a permanent adoptive home. Anabelle had some serious challenges, the caseworker said. She’d spent the previous two months in the home of a relative who had agreed to adopt her but then changed his mind. “He says she’s stealing and lying. And she has a lot of tantrums,” the social worker said. She said that Anabelle had a speech delay and had not yet been evaluated for an intellectual disability so we would have to decide whether to take her without knowing the scope of her challenges.
“My sense is that this child will need A LOT of attention,” she said. But she’d thought of us because the court had already ruled for permanency and she knew we wanted to adopt. Plus, we had experience bonding with an older child. Our second child, Delilah, had arrived in our home at twenty months old with significant health challenges and developmental delays. We’d told the social worker in our initial interview for re-opening our certification that the long and challenging period following Delilah’s arrival had been profoundly difficult but also profoundly rewarding. Now that she was five years old and thriving, it was hard to remember just how difficult those early months were.
I hung up the phone and grabbed a red plastic farm that made animal sounds and had been a favorite with our older kids. Scott and I walked slowly to the social worker’s car.
Anabelle was crouched on the floor behind the driver’s seat, head bowed, her long black hair covering her face like a veil.
“Hey, Anabelle,” I said. “We’re so excited to meet you.”
“NO!” she said without moving. I looked at Scott. He raised his eyebrows.
The social worker seemed exasperated.
“C’mon, Anabelle,” she said. “This is Scott and Kate. They’re very nice. Don’t you want to come inside and play?” Her voice had taken on the overly sweet register of an adult trying to soften a child.
“NO!” Anabelle said again. A rush of panic went through me.
I ran the plastic hay bale along its track so that the farm played Old MacDonald.
“Hey,” I said, softly. “Look at this fun toy I brought.” Anabelle said nothing.
This would never work. She would never look up. We would have to carry her in, kicking and screaming.
“We have lots more inside. Do you want to check it out?” I said.
And then, she looked up. Here she was, our new daughter: big black eyes, eyelashes, round cheeks, and a smile.
Once inside, Anabelle proceeded to investigate our toy selection. She removed toys from baskets, turned each one over, played for a moment and then discarded it on the floor. In a matter of minutes, it looked like an earthquake had struck.
Another social worker arrived, this one from the nonprofit agency that had licensed us as foster parents, and her eyes widened at the mess. She watched Anabelle throw tantrums at every disappointment or frustration, which was every few minutes. She listened to Anabelle’s speech, most of which was unintelligible. She understood, as we now did, that Anabelle had a significant speech delay. Anabelle was nearly three and a half, but her size aside, she seemed more like an eighteen-month old. She suggested we let Anabelle have whatever she wanted for a few days to help ease the transition.
After she left, I went into the bathroom and locked the door. I pulled at my cheeks. I splashed water on my face and tried to breathe. I had wished for this. Dreamt it. But now it felt like the worst mistake of my life. How could I have gotten it so wrong?
Anabelle’s moods quickly came to consume our days. Tantrums lasted for hours, or they bled into each other, one after another. Any small disappointment or frustration could trigger the flood, and sometimes they came even when we said yes. There were tantrums about toilet paper. Tantrums about hand-washing. Tantrums about snacks. Tantrums about having to put on shoes. Tantrums about TV. Tantrums about getting in or out of the car. Tantrums about seat belts and shoes and socks and jackets. She was an automaton of dysregulation—a mess of snot and tangled hair.
“NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” she’d scream. She’d grunt, point, and screech. She became overwhelmed by emotions, her frustration, disappointment, or embarrassment tipping instantaneously into grief and rage.
There was something visceral and primal in her behavior that often triggered my own disgust or fury. She licked yogurt off the floor. Her nails were caked in dirt, and whenever we tried to clean them, she screamed. She tried to climb the kitchen counters when we put something out of reach. She refused to go to bed. She refused to stay in bed. She didn’t want to sit at the table to eat. She didn’t like the food we served and threw it off her plate. She liked to be in other people’s personal space, to put her feet or fingers or hands on us, to play rough. She’d wrestle our son to the ground, or whack him with couch pillows. She rammed her body into our two older kids, or splayed across someone’s legs or lap and refused to get up. My son and daughter loved this rough play, but without fail, it would go too far and someone would end up in tears.
In the middle of the night, Anabelle would come into our room with requests or complaints. She wanted water. She’d had a bad dream. She wanted to get up. She wasn’t tired. She wanted to watch TV or for us to read her a book. When we said no, she’d launch into a silent pantomime cry she’d perfected, head bowed, feet stomping, shoulders heaving, or she’d just scream. She’d throw her body on the floor, or become like one of those toy sticky hands, her limp limbs and hands clinging to things we said she couldn’t have. Be reasonable! I wanted to scream. I became terrified of these nighttime disruptions. As soon as I heard our door click open, I’d startle awake, my chest seizing.
I tried to stay present during her tantrums. But sometimes I yelled and cried, or tipped into my own disassociated rage. Sometimes I locked myself away in rooms. Mama needs a break, I’d say and walk away.
Anabelle’s therapist said that childhood trauma often expresses itself like this. It would be worrisome if Anabelle’s behavior wasn’t challenging. The tantrums were a sign that she felt safe enough to work through her grief. She needed our presence to help her move through them, the therapist said, but Anabelle’s big feelings wouldn’t be reasoned, hugged, or distracted away. She said that healing would not be linear, and I should let go of the idea of progress.
I was terrified that Anabelle would never get better. That I would always feel cold and ambivalent toward her. It’s not that I felt completely detached. I often felt protective of her. I felt loyal and responsible. Sometimes warmth or compassion would come over me. And I felt hopeful that we would both feel connected in time. But none of this seemed like enough, none of it was pleasurable, or felt anything like love.
There was also the shame that I had brought this misery on our family. I’d been the one who’d wanted another child, who’d advocated and negotiated for so long. How could I complain or feel sad? Even when Scott reassured me that this is not at all how it had gone down, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we’d made a terrible mistake. I’d been naïve to think that our love was big enough for her.
Over time, Anabelle learned to talk about her feelings. She said saw her birthmother in the sky. She drew a picture of grief moving through her body like water. When she had more language, she began to talk about her losses. “I miss Mama C__,” she’d say, which is what she called her biological mother.
“This is hard,” I’d say, sweeping her hair off her forehead. I tried to help her name the emotions. “Do you feel sad?” I said. “Mad? Confused?”
“I feel lightning in my body,” she said once.
Anabelle started making up stories about her past. She said Mama C__ had died, or that she was hurt or sick. Sometimes the stories were about people we’d never heard of. She had another family, she said, who lived in a house just like ours. It was red, just like ours. They had a van like ours, a yard like ours, a trampoline and a dog, all just like ours. Her grandpa had died, she said. Or he was in jail. Her birth father had a dog who died, or her father was sick and dying. She often cried as she told these stories.
She played out imaginary dramas everywhere: navigating a flood in the living room, or enacting a complex family conflict with couch pillows. She could entertain herself for hours, playing pretend with a salt shaker, or talking to a ladybug in the yard. Her therapist said she was working out her grief through play. For a long time, Anabelle wanted us to “pretend” to be her parents with her as our pretend baby—we had to change her diapers, give her a bottle, and soothe her when she cried. She refused all nicknames, except one: “Me baby,” she’d say. “Call me baby.”
Now it’s been two and a half years since Anabelle moved in. We’ve weathered so much, including a global pandemic. Anabelle has become more resilient and flexible. She can communicate her feelings. We’re witness to the wonders of a blossoming personality. She loves to help around the house, and she’s an enthusiastic cook. She loves to snuggle. She is enthralled by books. And every day, she makes me laugh.
I wish I could say that we’ve miraculously fallen in love. Many days are still hard. She has loads of tantrums. Transitions are insanely difficult. She’s still in speech therapy. I despair that I don’t feel the kind of love I so desperately want to feel. And yet there’s a new warmth when I touch her skin, or feel the weight of her in my lap. I feel a flutter in my belly, a new tenderness, when I lean in to kiss her goodnight.
My therapist says that maybe Anabelle is a teacher for me, sent by the universe. Maybe she’s helping me get to know my own original traumas. Mothering her is giving me the opportunity to learn to love more of myself—the ebb and flow of my own rage and sadness, my own impossible history.
I believe we will love each other someday, Anabelle and me. I will never stop believing in our love. Some days, I think I see it on the horizon. Or I think it’s already arrived, even though it doesn’t feel like love. I wonder if it’s in the moments when all we can do is hold each other and breathe. When she looks at me, full of rage, red-faced and crying because she’s lost a special toy or privilege, and screams, “That’s why I hate this family!” When I find myself sobbing on the bathroom floor and recognize the pain in my throat as shame or anger.
She is bringing my pain close, and I am learning to hold it, maybe even love it. To love my limitations and my longing, which is a love for the in-between. Even though it doesn’t feel like love, maybe it’s a space where love can grow.