The Frontal Cortex

Instant Love

It’s not the usual version of love at first sight: it’s much better. Elizabeth Fitzsimons was adopting a Chinese baby. The girl was a year old, but she already suffered from a long list of medical ailments. She’d had a tumor removed from her back, and suffered nerve damage during the surgery. She had a terrible rash, was dangerously thin and wouldn’t smile. Elizabeth was now faced with a profound dilemma:

Back at the hotel, we hounded the women from the [adoption] agency: Why wasn’t this in her medical report? How could a scar that size not be noticed? It was two inches long, for God’s sake.

They shook their heads. Shrugged. Apologized.

And then they offered a way to make it better.

“In cases like these, we can make a rematch with another baby,” the one in charge said. The rest of the process would be expedited, and we would go home on schedule. We would simply leave with a different girl.

Months before, we had been presented with forms asking which disabilities would be acceptable in a prospective adoptee — what, in other words, did we think we could handle: H.I.V., hepatitis, blindness? We checked off a few mild problems that we knew could be swiftly corrected with proper medical care. As Matt had written on our application: “This will be our first child, and we feel we would need more experience to handle anything more serious.”

Now we faced surgeries, wheelchairs, colostomy bags. I envisioned our home in San Diego with ramps leading to the doors. I saw our lives as being utterly devoted to her care. How would we ever manage?

Yet how could we leave her? Had I given birth to a child with these conditions, I wouldn’t have left her in the hospital. Though a friend would later say, “Well, that’s different,” it wasn’t to me.

I pictured myself boarding the plane with some faceless replacement child and then explaining to friends and family that she wasn’t Natalie, that we had left Natalie in China because she was too damaged, that the deal had been a healthy baby and she wasn’t.

How would I face myself? How would I ever forget? I would always wonder what happened to Natalie.

I knew this was my test, my life’s worth distilled into a moment. I was shaking my head “No” before they finished explaining. We didn’t want another baby, I told them. We wanted our baby, the one sleeping right over there. “She’s our daughter,” I said. “We love her.”

It’s hard to understand this decision. For starters, it is completely irrational. How can you love something that you don’t even know? Elizabeth had only spent a few days with this child, and most of that time had been in hospitals. And then, of course, there is the complete unselfishness of the decision. Why would you choose to make your life more difficult? Why would you knowingly sacrifice your future for an infant that you just met?

I was recently talking to the adoptive parents of a Guatemalan infant. I asked them (somewhat presumptuously) when they began to love their baby. They looked at me like I was an idiot. “Right away,” they said. “As soon as we saw him.” They went on to say that, while they couldn’t imagine how their love for this baby would grow over time, the bond was instantaneous. It was literally love at first sight.

Such stories give me hope for the human condition. (I’m a sentimental fool, I know.) We can try to come up with scientific explanations for this love. Perhaps adopting just triggers the circuits built into our brain by kin selection, or maybe the flood of oxytocin triggered by the sight of a helpless infant interferes with rational thought. But these explanations are beside the point. This instant love is ultimately inexplicable. It defies every logic, and that’s what makes it so heroic.

What happened to Elizabeth’s baby? The story has a happy ending:

There would be other scares, more seizures and much physical therapy to teach her to sit, crawl and walk. She took her first steps one day on the beach at 21 months, her belly full of fish tacos.

NOW she is nearly 3, with thick brown hair, gleaming teeth and twinkling eyes. She takes swimming lessons, goes to day care and insists on wearing flowered sandals to dance. I say to her, “Ohhhh, Natalie,” and she answers, “Ohhhh, Mama.” And I blink back happy tears.

Sometimes when I’m rocking her to sleep, I lean down and breathe in her breath, which now smells of bubble-gum toothpaste and the dinner I cooked for her while she sat in her highchair singing to the dog. And I am amazed that this little girl is mine.

Comments

  1. #1 Ted
    May 17, 2007

    It’s hard to understand this decision. For starters, it is completely irrational. How can you love something that you don’t even know? Elizabeth had only spent a few days with this child, and most of that time had been in hospitals. And then, of course, there is the complete unselfishness of the decision. Why would you choose to make your life more difficult? Why would you knowingly sacrifice your future for an infant that you just met?

    I was recently talking to the adoptive parents of a Guatemalan infant. I asked them (somewhat presumptuously) when they began to love their baby. They looked at me like I was an idiot. “Right away,” they said. “As soon as we saw him.” They went on to say that, while they couldn’t imagine how their love for this baby would grow over time, the bond was instantaneous. It was literally love at first sight.

    Such stories give me hope for the human condition. (I’m a sentimental fool, I know.) We can try to come up with scientific explanations for this love. Perhaps adopting just triggers the circuits built into our brain by kin selection, or maybe the flood of oxytocin triggered by the sight of a helpless infant interferes with rational thought. But these explanations are beside the point. This instant love is ultimately inexplicable. It defies every logic, and that’s what makes it so heroic.

    This is a very nice, emotional story but could you please define love (as in …this instant love is ultimately inexplicable)?

    Maybe we should revisit this instant love when the kid gets to 13-19, exuviates the cuteness and turns into some hostile creature from outer space that’s firmly committed to your early death.

    I have a number of natural offspring and have considered adopting, but have been put off by the atrocious job I’ve done on my natural ones — I’m not sure I or the spouse are capable of learning from experience, although we’re optimistic idiots and kept hoping to get it more right progressively over time. I am also really stupefied by this “instant love” notion given the postpartum depression that appears common(?), and my own (apparently unnatural) initial revulsion(?) at the lizard-looking being staring back at me once I got done counting the appendages. After 20 years, I now have less revulsion of the lizardy things, but that could be just familiarity and resignation to fate.

    So your story demonstrates heroism? To be compassionate is to be heroic?

    To me heroism is weird in some aspects and can be a loaded word: The guy that throws himself on the grenade makes a very irrational decision that we appear to extol once we frame it acceptably — “Well, yes, he was loony as hell, but loony for all the right reasons. Good thing no one medicated him in time.”

  2. #2 Daniel
    May 17, 2007

    Love is not really a tangible thing that we can easily define. Most of us, alot of us, at least, sort of know what we mean when we use that word.

    When you meet someone and fall in love “at first site,” you are ready to be in love; you are available. I think when the couple went to meet the baby that they were adopting, they were prepared to love it; they were ready. And when they saw that it wasn’t quite what they had in mind, they just loved it anyway, because they had their love all saved up, and ready to give.

    Most of us will never be in a position to choose a child that we will take care of and raise. But alot of us acquire pets. Some people who would never have a dog, or cat, find one abandonned in a dumpster, and just take it home for rescue, and keep if forever. Alot of people out looking for a pet, don’t pick the cutest one, or the best one, but they pick the one that has some sort of need, and they acquire it take care of it, and love it.

    I am not trying to equate adopting a child to getting a pet. I am just using the example of loving a pet, as an experience that many people have.

  3. #3 Derek
    May 17, 2007

    One thing to consider is that adopting parents don’t start to bond with their child emotionally at the point they meet them, but before, in the same sense that bio parents start bonding with their fetus long before it becomes a child. In the Chinese adoption process, parents will have waited likely a year after submitting their documentation and receive a referral for their child (a picture, information from the orphanage, and the medical report referenced in the article) likely 2-3 months before traveling to meet the child. As an adoptive parent of a Chinese girl, I am very familiar with the stories of people falling in love with the person in the picture they receive long before they meet the child in person.

    I know personally that I was reasonably attached to the idea of our child before we knew who she was and more so after reading about her and seeing her picture. I expect the same is true of people planning to get pregnant and during pregnancy. In effect, it’s like we are all being emotionally primed for the connection to the child.

    That said, there are plenty of stories of people who did not feel an immediate connection with their child, but found within a few days that a deep bond had developed.

    In the case of the woman in the article, she most definitely wasn’t entering into meeting her child as a blank slate.

  4. #4 Elf Eye
    May 17, 2007

    I must confess that I did not love my daughter the moment I saw her. I was exhausted and nervous after the long flight from Roanoke to Lima, and the little creature in the basket, while undeniably cute, was merely a Baby, a representative of a class and not a real individual. It was amazing, however, how little time it took for a bond to develop. By the end of my third day in Lima, this baby was my daughter, and I was as distraught as any mother when she suffered diarrhea that, in Lima, could have been life-threatening. Oddly, I know that if I had arrived in Peru a day earlier or a day later, a different baby would have been assigned to me, and the bond that I would have formed with this other baby would have seemed just a ‘right’.

  5. #5 Elf Eye
    May 17, 2007

    The last phrase of my comment should read “just as ‘right’.” Sorry.

  6. #6 Jennifer Ouellette
    May 18, 2007

    I sent his post to my mother as a belated mother’s day gift. I’m an adopted child; all my siblings are also adopted. And we were always told that we were loved and wanted from Day One, the moment my mother laid eyes on us. I simply can’t fathom the people who insist that an adopted child “just isn’t the same” as a biological one.

    Thanks for posting such a lovely reaffirmation of adoption and parenthood…

  7. #7 Manitoban
    May 20, 2007

    I am pleased to hear that this adoption went well. However, I feel I have to give a warning to anyone considering adopting an older child (around 2-3 years old). We did that, specifically stating that we could not handle a child with mental disabilities although we felt we could cope with a physical disability (in the interview, we had to explain to the social worker what fetal alcohol syndrome was).

    Our child, who was 2 1/2 when we adopted him, turned out to have FAS. He became very angry towards us, on separate occasions threatening both my wife and me with a carving knife. From the age of about 9 the least admonition could send him into a temper tantrum so we felt we were walking on eggs all the time. Our older boy used to shut himself in his own room to get some peace. ‘Jason’ is now 30 and unable to keep a job or a girlfriend as he finds it difficult to assess another person’s feelings and has been abusive.

    In all this time, we have been repeatedly asking for help but have always been told ‘You are doing fine’ or that his condition is not serious enough. One agency recently told us they could not do anything unless he was convicted of attempted murder.

    In every case that I know of in which a 2 or 3 year old child was adopted (including by an experienced social worker) there have been major problems with extreme rebelliousness. In our case it was exacerbated by the FAS.

    I can understand the temptation to adopt a toddler but I must strongly advise anyone considering it to instead adopt a baby who is unaware of the situation or an older child who can understand what is going on.

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