Adoption: a different kind of love
Do parents feel the same affection for a child they have adopted as a
"If something tragic happened to my adopted daughter, I'd be
devastated but I wouldn't die. If something happened to either of my
two boys who I gave birth to, I feel I would die," says Tina Pattie.
"I don't love my daughter any less but it's a different kind of love.
With my sons, my love is set in stone. It's that 'die for you love'
that would never change, no matter what. With Cheri, it's a love that
develops and grows. It's more of a process than an absolute."
Ask most adoptive parents whether they think their love for their
children is any different than it would be if they had their own
offspring and you can generally expect a resounding no. Very likely,
they'll be offended it even crossed your mind.
But in families such as Tina Pattie's - where there are both
biological and non-biological children - it's a question that is put
to the test. It's a question that gets to the very heart of what it
means to be a parent.
"I don't care how close you are to your adopted son or beloved
stepdaughter, the love you have for your non-biological child isn't
the same as the love you have for your own flesh and blood," wrote
Rebecca Walker, the estranged daughter of the prize-winning author
Alice Walker in her book, Baby Love. "Yes, I would do anything for my
first [non-biological] son, within reason. But I would do anything at
all for my second [biological] child without reason, without a doubt."
Her comment attracted much controversy last year but Tina relates to
it. She had always wanted three children, so when she was told it
could jeopardise her health to have a third baby naturally, she
persuaded her husband to adopt. Her preference was for a baby but none
was available and they were offered a little girl five weeks off her
"I was totally and absolutely shocked to find that in the early years,
I felt no love at all for her," recalls Tina. "It didn't even feel
right to say she was my daughter. The word 'daughter' describes a
relationship, a connection - things we didn't have."
There was no one point at which Tina began to love Cheri, now 17. "It
was a drip, drip, drip kind of process. Now, I love her a lot. I'm
really proud of her and close to her but it has taken time," she says.
Tina has spent a lot of time "unpacking" the disparity in her feelings
for her children. "I think there are several things going on. First,
she wasn't a newborn baby, like my sons had been. There's nothing
quite like a newborn baby. Second, when you get a stranger in your
house, you're not going to love them straight away, you're just not.
"Then there was the fact that Cheri was a hugely damaged and difficult
child. Even now, I wonder that if she'd been sweet and easy instead of
angry and violent whether it would have been different. Instead, I
turned from a calm, patient mother into a monster. I'd never felt rage
like that, ever. But even in the blackest moments, when there was no
connection between us at all, there was never a question that I would
Mary Cooper did adopt a newborn baby but she too found it difficult to
use the word "daughter" in the early days. "This was 37 years ago,
when I was a psychiatric social worker and had my own three-year-old
son," she says. "It was assumed I'd know it all but I was not prepared
for the difference between giving birth and adopting. You don't have
nine months to prepare, you don't go through the birth and you don't
breastfeed. I was completely a nurture not a nature person - I didn't
think nature mattered - but I've changed my mind. I wasn't aware of
the differences that I would feel or that Louise would feel as a
result of us not sharing any genes. With my son, there was an instant
bond. With Louise, there wasn't and every way you turned, it seemed
she was different to us. If we had brown sugar, she wanted white. If I
cooked something, she wanted (an instant microwave meal).
"Even now, if my son comes to stay, we have plenty to talk about. It's
natural and easy. With Louise, we have much less in common. I don't
love either of my children more than the other but the nature of the
relationship is poles apart."
Unfortunately, Louise did not interpret it this way as she was growing
up. "I felt like my brother was the golden boy and that I was the
black sheep and I felt less loved than him because of it," she says.
"In fact, it wasn't until I was 27 that I told anyone I was adopted. I
was ashamed of it before then. But then I started thinking about
finding my real mother, which I did, and somehow that journey made me
realise that my parents didn't love me less, just differently."
Nancy Verrier, author and publisher of The Primal Wound: Understanding
The Adopted Child, believes all children who are separated from their
mother suffer a trauma that will affect their bond with their new
parents, regardless of the age at which they enter that new family. "I
wouldn't say that I love my adopted daughter or my biological daughter
differently - I would do just about anything for either of them - but
I would definitely say the bond is different and I know now that is
inevitable," she says. "An adopted child has had their bond with their
mother broken once, so they're not going to let it happen again."
For many children, this manifests itself in testing-out behaviour, she
says. Even if this type of child is adopted as a baby, they tend to
keep a psychological distance. Because they never quite fold into the
new mother when she cuddles them, the phenomenon has become known as
the stiff-arm baby. At the other end of the spectrum is what's known
as the Velcro baby. These children react to the fear of their new
mother leaving by being very clingy.
If anyone had told Nancy when she brought home her three-day-old
daughter that rearing an adopted child would be different from rearing
a biological child, she says she would have laughed at them.
"I thought; 'Of course it won't be different! What can a tiny baby
know?' Now I know it's nonsense for anyone to suggest the bond can be
the same. We are tuned in hormonally to what our natural children
want. Psychologically, the mother and child are still at one for some
time even when the umbilical cord is cut. Genes continue to play a
major part in the relationship throughout life. The way you cock an
eyebrow, how you stand or walk, gestures you make - all these are
things that make children feel as if they belong. But because a lot of
people don't expect adoption to be different, they can feel shock,
hurt and resentment when their adopted child doesn't react to them in
the way they'd like them to."
Some parents try to compensate for this loss. Bill Aldridge, who has
three adopted and two natural children in their 20s and 30s, says:
"There was always a sense for us that our adopted children required
additional love to make up for the extra challenges they'd faced. I
wouldn't say we loved them more but our feelings for them were
combined with an overriding desire to make everything all right."
Bella Ibik, who grew up in a family of five birth children and four
adopted children, says her parents also went out of their way to make
the adopted ones feel special. "We were made to feel chosen, as
opposed to the others who just came along - to the point that one of
their biological children grew up with a bit of a chip on her
shoulder," she says.
Bella, now 41, says she still feels surprised by how much her mother
loves her and still has a need from time to time to examine the
differences in her mother's feelings for all her children. "Yesterday
we commemorated the 23rd anniversary of my brother's death. He was one
of her blood children and I often wondered whether she'd have
preferred it had it not been one of her birth children. We talk about
everything, so I asked her and she answered as honestly and
diplomatically as she could. She said that no mother would ever wish
death on any of her children but that when I saw her cradling his head
and talking to him when he was in his coffin - a childhood image I
will never forget - she was thinking of him having grown inside her
and she was thinking of giving birth to him."
Bella isn't convinced that whether her siblings were adopted or not is
the be-all-and-end-all in the nature of their relationship with their
mother. "Evie, her youngest, is her absolute golden child who can do
no wrong. I'm sure that's because she came along just after my mother
had been very ill and she sees her as her anchor in the storm. My
point is that sometimes I think it's impossible to pull out adoption
as being the only reason for a parent feeling differently towards her
Because today's adoptions often involve older children who come from
backgrounds of neglect or abuse, they require what Jonathan Pearce,
the director of Adoption UK, calls therapeutic parenting. "Of course,
this is different to raising a biological child, just as it is
different to raising an adopted child 30 or 40 years ago. It's a
parenting that I think should include ongoing training - just as you
have with any other demanding job," he says. "Does that mean the
feelings are any different? Yes, they are. Is the love any different?
I just don't know. It will vary from one family to the next."
Carol Burniston, a consultant clinical child psychologist, believes
the requirement for adopters to parent therapeutically gives a tiny
minority of them a psychological get-out clause, which again affects
the nature of their relationship with their children.
"I worked with one adoptive mother who was suffering from a
problematic home life who said: 'If it comes to it, I'll keep my
children and let my marriage go.' You would expect a parent of a
biological child to say that but for an adopter there was something
very powerful about it. With a small number of adopters, there is
something going on in the back of their minds that if they can't bear
it any longer, they will give these children up."
For Lisa Bentley, who adopted a troubled 14-year-old when she already
had four birth children, there was never a moment when she thought
about giving up. "In fact, I'd say that the love I have for her is
strong and powerful - more so in a way than for my birth children -
because there's nothing taken for granted about it," she says. "It's
come from getting through enormous battles and from an undying
Angela Maddox believes the relationship between parents and non-
biological children has more chance of being positive if any birth
children arrive later. "We adopted three boys, now aged 22, 20 and 19,
and when we later had two birth children unexpectedly - now aged 16
and 11 - the feeling of almost knowing your child before it's born
took me by surprise. But I think the fact that the boys were already
in our family helped them feel more secure than if it was the other
way round. They had us first."
Angela says that while her husband relates to Rebecca Walker's
philosophy, she doesn't. "My love is endless for all my children. You
can love any child as your own. There was the different feeling around
the birth but that's all."
A few parents even believe that giving birth is irrelevant in the
bonding process. Unusually, Molly Morris - who has given birth to five
children and adopted two - says, "I've never been able to make a
distinction between children born to us and those we adopted. It's the
nursing and handling, not the giving birth, that has given me the bond
with my children."
Pam Hall disagrees. "There's something almost beyond words about the
attachment you feel for your own baby. That's not to say you can't
love another baby or child but it's quite a different quality of love.
I think parents who have given birth already are usually - although
not always - better placed to work at a relationship with a non-
biological child because they've been through that. They don't go
through life longing for it," says Pam, who has two birth children and
an adopted child in their late 30s.
Pam, who has worked with adoptive families as a psychiatric social
worker and an analytical psychotherapist, explains that parents who
have had birth children tend to have a different motivation for
adopting than those who haven't. "They generally aren't starting the
process of adoption from a position of infertility, looking for a
substitute for their own baby."
That's not to say it's always an easy ride. "I've worked with adopters
who have been racked with guilt that they didn't have the same
feelings for their adopted child. But that's all the more reason that
we should stop this pretence that adopting is the same as having your
own children. I'm not suggesting anyone should outline every detail of
that difference to their children. That would be dire. But they do
need to own the feeling and be OK with it."
Lucy Hoole, a 25-year-old adoptee, agrees. "There is something quite
taboo about suggesting that parents feel differently to non-biological
children. But I'm OK with that difference and see it as part of my
life story that's made me who I am."
* Some names have been changed.