piggyback ride

Growing a loving, secure attachment between parents and their children is a weighty, complex calling in any circumstances. When families include biological children alongside stepchildren or adoptees, that complexity is amplified. Here, Abby Wong-Heffter, a member of our Teaching Staff, reflects on these realities, pulling from her therapeutic work with parents pursuing adoption and from her own experience of mothering stepchildren while preparing to give birth to a son.

It was a late afternoon on a surprisingly warm, spring Seattle day. The front door was open and I was lucidly aware of the wafts of grass clippings and sounds of my then-fiance mowing the lawn. As I drifted toward sleep I felt the weight of my soon-to-be son in my arms. He had just turned four years old, and I was well aware that this moment would soon become a rare one. His propensity for snuggling would wane with age. But, for now, we moved into the kind of intimate space that shared sleep affords. I felt the deep satisfaction of a kind of sweetness I had hoped for and dreamed of for many, many years. Is this what motherhood feels like?

I have relished countless moments such as these with both him and his older sister. And, I have anguished over a multitude of others. It is complex to mother another mother’s children. I accepted that there could be very painful elements of stepparenting. Though it has yet to occur, I have prepared for the likely day when I’ll hear, “You’re not my mom!” in a voice of protest or even rage from one of them. The aspect that most sobered me, and at times still breaks my heart, is that they will ALWAYS long for their mother in ways they will likely not long for me. I have prayed I will grow to bless this reality. I never want our kids to feel a pull to be more loyal or show greater preference for one parent over the other. I want to honor their mother and their sweet and good attachment to her. Meanwhile, I also must choose what to do with a heart that wants to be primary, first, and only.

I will choose to love them as a biological mother loves her children.

I purposefully do not speak of them as my “stepson” and “stepdaughter” because somehow it conjures for me a sense of distancing, a sense that our relationship is sterile or merely bound by a lawful union. At the same time, I have made peace that to them, I am not “Mommy” but “Abby.” You see, I determined that it is right and good for me to be their “bonus” mom (the term I used in my vows to them on our wedding day). But, for my heart to give itself fully to them, I designated that they are my son and daughter. This distinction was of absolute necessity to me before I married their father, because I chose to commit to them as much as I chose to commit to him. I will choose to love them as a biological mother loves her children.

It’s about to become much more complex. I am pregnant and will give birth to my first biological child in less than two months. When my husband and I began the difficult discussions of whether or not we were going to attempt to grow our family, one of his greatest hesitations was that I would potentially love a biological child more than I love our son and daughter.

This issue is not new to me, but it is very new to be literally embodying it. I have shared conversations over decades with my own mother about how she engages loving my adopted sister, especially when her experience parenting my sister was so vastly different than parenting my brothers and me. Additionally, I had hundreds of dialogues with hopeful couples when I was a case manager at an adoptive agency. “Will I love this child as much as I love my ‘own’ children?” they asked.

What so many of these questions and worries boil down to is an issue of attachment and how you define love. I am not naive. I can already attest to something that feels magical between myself and my unborn son. I don’t have to intentionally commit myself to him, rather, in so many ways, it is happening unconsciously and naturally. Every kick I feel and earthquake-like roll he makes connects me to him and stirs great longing and anticipation for the day I get to hold him in my arms. Every time I’ve seen his growing form on an ultrasound screen I fall deeper in love.

But, for the many adoptive parents I have counseled and coached, attachment does not always come “naturally” between them and their children. Children who have known deep neglect and abuse prior to joining their new “forever families” often engage their adoptive parents with rage, avoidance, dismissal, rejection, and sometimes even violence. These mothers and fathers anguish over what it means to unconditionally love when expressions of love are not reciprocated. I have sat with mothers and fathers who feel deep shame about how difficult it is to raise and nurture their adoptive children and how they assume that being a “good parent” should mean that they do not feel deep anger or war as much as they do for healthy relationship.

I am lucky, so far. It hasn’t been difficult to connect with my son and daughter. They very affectionately and warmly opened their arms to me. They accept my parenting (and discipline) of them as they do their dad’s. Hopefully, they will continue to attach to me through the attunement, containment, repair, soothing, and regulation that I offer them. This is how I will love them and it does take intentionality. Because, to love is to be intentional and to make a daily commitment. I chose them.

To love is to be intentional and to make a daily commitment.

When my new son is born I will be flooded with oxytocin, the “bonding” neurochemical. This bath of oxytocin “triggers nurturing feelings” as it “stimulates powerful contractions that help to thin and open (dilate) the cervix, move the baby down and out of the birth canal.” Every time I breastfeed I will experience an increase of oxytocin. He will, too. I don’t have to command his body or mine to respond as such, it happens naturally. This is how, biologically, we are created to attach.

My son, daughter, and I did not share these early moments of oxytocin bonding. But, through how I parent, there is great potential for us to share in these neurochemical melodies. I obviously cannot speak to what is on the other side of this waiting time that is pregnancy; I do not yet know what it will mean to parent this child and how it will be different than parenting my other two children. But, I wager my entire therapeutic and theological orientation on this: I will need to commit myself, choose intentionality, and daily offer the same basic things to my biological son as I do the other two. His growing attachment to me—and for it to be a SECURE attachment—will require more than an involuntary release of oxytocin. It will require me to love.