I was not a natural as a newborn’s mother.
I was unsure, tentative, sensitive, and defensive. A co-worker laughingly joked that I had the “worst adjustment to motherhood anyone had ever seen.” I laughed with him but what he said was true. I had no idea what I was doing, couldn’t ask for advice, and took every observation of my parenting as searing, soul-crushing criticism.
I am a birth mother to one child and adoptive mother to three. The birth and adoptive experiences are in no way comparable except that, in both situations, one is taking on responsibility for the protection and development of a child.
Having a birth child is visceral and fraught with worry from the moment the first cell splits. Everything from there forward is a test of body and heart and instincts. The birthing process is intensely physical and largely out of control – one is carried forward during a birth, either on the wings of angels or drugs. Or time. For me, it was time. When I finally relinquished my bravado during labor and asked for drugs, the nurse said it was too late in the process for the drugs to have an effect. Too bad I hadn’t asked earlier.
Adoption is much more cerebral. One makes a studied decision to adopt, because, except for those people who actually get direct instructions from God, adopting is a calculated risk. Is a foreign adoption a better bet than a domestic one? Is an older child easier to adopt than an infant? What about sicknesses and disabilities? And then, once an adoption is finalized, the challenge is very focused. How do we make this child feel part of the family? It is a strategic and tactical challenge because, let me tell you, love is not enough.
With adoption, I felt strong and competent, not that some of our problems didn’t bring me to my knees, but I rarely doubted myself. As a new birth mother, I did nothing but doubt myself.
It began that same night.
The nurse brought my newborn to the recovery room where I was by myself in a hospital bed looking out a window onto a city street. It was so cold outside and the hospital so old that there was frost on the inside of the window. I remember wanting to etch my name or draw a flower on the window’s frozen glass but it was too far away to reach so I just held my baby and waited for the nurse to return to take her back to the nursery. What was wrong with me that I didn’t want to hold her or feed her? The nurse nodded and smiled while taking the baby back in her arms, cooing to her all the while, “Mom’s pretty tired, honey, let’s give her time to rest” and I felt her disapproval fall on me like the snow blowing outside.
Once I was home, the woman at the La Leche League told me to keep trying, that breastfeeding was a natural function and I should just be patient. So I kept trying and it seemed to work. I nursed so much that my nipples became raw and cracked but still I wondered if I was doing it right. The baby was eating and sleeping and crying, not on any schedule, just seemingly randomly, and then my in-laws visited when the baby was about three weeks old. “How do you know if she’s getting enough to eat?” My mother-in-law, the sweetest person I’d ever met, stood in the kitchen holding my daughter and rocking quietly back and forth. I quit breastfeeding a week later.
It wasn’t the nurse or my mother-in-law. It was me. It was my self-doubt crawling out of my skin and landing on the faces of well-meaning people.
These were feelings I never had as an adoptive mom. Instead, I felt fearless and almost heroic, fueled by the comments of friends and even strangers about what a good thing I was doing, how great it was that we were giving abandoned children a second chance, much of it over the top praise, often embarrassing, but I let it drip on me like honey. I carried extra cups to gather it all up and save it for later. It was shameless and wonderful at the same time.
Last night, I looked at my very pregnant daughter and thought, bring cups for honey, my dear. I’m going to build you up like you rescued twelve orphaned children from a burning building. That’s what you deserve. That’s what every new mom deserves.