Pressing Close and Pushing Away: The Dance of Ambivalence in Adoption Relationships

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I sat with a therapy client while she cried this morning. She is the adoptive mother of a two-year-old daughter and is working with me on her ambivalent feelings about adopting a second child. "I'm forty four years old, that must be too old to be a mother, who in their right mind would start again at forty four, what would people say? And what about the money? How will we afford it? And my work? I love my work. I know I'll have to cut back with a new baby, but I do love my work. I'm pretty selfish. I have to have time to myself, time with my husband, what about that?" On and on she went, spinning the rational and logical reasons for her ambivalence. I listened quietly without interrupting.

She said that they had just come back from a summer vacation to see her family on the east coast. Her mother had given her pragmatic, no-nonsense answers to her concerns: "a parent's age is not the same issue it was when I was raising you, everyone has financial concerns about having children, your work can wait while you raise a new baby." My client told me that this had all been very reassuring. A reasonable and practical response to a reasonable and practical quandary. She wasn't really sure why she had kept her appointment with me today, her dilemma looking so simple and silly after all.

I looked at her carefully, willing to stay with the conscious logic of all this for a while more if she needed it. She stared intently at the clock on a low table, its crystal weights spinning this way, then that way, then back again, perhaps a quiet mirroring of her own inner struggles.

Reaching over the arm of the sofa for the Kleenex, she blurted out that something terrible had happened on vacation, something that made her feel so angry and resentful and trapped as a mother that it had shocked her. Something that had to do with her beloved adopted daughter about whom she was never ambivalent. Her little girl had refused to go to Grandma, my client's mother. Had actually pushed and hit at her to keep her away! "I was so angry at my daughter, Dee. I didn't even want to be around her. I let my husband do all the parenting for the rest of the day. I told her that I was profoundly hurt by her behavior."

Profoundly hurt by the behavior of a young toddler? I wondered to myself. "What feelings came up for you when your daughter pushed your mother away?" I asked my client as she carefully folded a soggy Kleenex into fourths on her lap. "Panic and rage. That I'm next. That someday she'll push me away like that too, so fierce and determined! Sometimes when we're with other people she just seems to want anyone but me. On our vacation, she loved being with her aunts so much, so much more than with me, and I felt so alone and rejected." I asked how her daughter had acted toward her when they got home from vacation. "Oh, at home I'm always the one she wants."

It's normal for all children to push their parents away from time to time as they entertain possibilities of independence and more exciting lives somewhere else, but adoptive parents sometimes feel more threatened by this behavior. I was reminded in that moment of the many times my own adopted children have thrown me over for a new-and-improved-and-unfamiliar-and-not-boring friend or relative, climbing into strange laps, holding new hands and hardly looking back! I felt again the clutching and grasping feelings of "don't leave me, don't love anyone more than me, don't remind me that I'm the substitute mommy". "She's very social, isn't she?" I'm asked. "He certainly isn't shy, " they chuckle. "Why don't you just say what you're thinking?" I would scream inside my head. "That my adopted children would go off in a heartbeat with anyone promising ice cream and a good-mommy time! That any mother will do since they can never have their OWN REAL MOTHER!"

I must have smiled as I recalled my own adoption demons because my client looked at me, puzzled and anxious. "I just don't think I can take that kind of rejection from a child again," she breathed. "You can and you will," I assured her. It's one of those adoption commitments we make that nobody really wants to talk about. We have to be willing to mirror our adopted children's primal experience of feeling unwanted and alone. We need to know from personal experience that we can survive being pushed away for a while, and so can our children. We need to move together through the steps of being rejected and then accepted. As children, we are all pushed from our birthmother's womb into a new and lonelier world. Adopted children are pushed from their birthmothers' lives. That is a primal, core experience adopted children will relive and act out by pushing away from adopted parents to test the parents' love and commitment, and to test their own feelings.

"Even if you don't adopt a second child, if you adopt ten children, you will feel the sting of rejecting behavior from your children from time to time," I told my client. In adoptive families, the normal dance of rejection and adoration that all parents experience with their children has several tricky steps. For adopted children, there are other parents out there, somewhere. The risk for of loving another mommy too much is overwhelming sometimes. At a young age, our children are aware at a very deep place that big love is connected to big loss. They listen to our reassurances that their birthmother loved them so very much that she made an adoption plan for them; that she loved them so much that she picked someone else to parent them; that she loved them so much that she went away forever! We follow those loaded words with our truth as adoptive parents: that we, too, love them so much it hurts, that we wanted them so very much and that we waited so very long for them to join our family. Terrified that out of all this overwhelming love for them, we will leave them too, they push us away from time to time, refusing to come close.

When the adopted child pushes away and expresses ambivalence towards us, we are tempted to rush in and quickly close the gap (to be the rescuer). To head furiously in the opposite direction (the be the abandoner)! We panic at the thought of any breach in our attachments as adoptive families. What we experience at these times is the tension between the archetypal opposites in adoption: I have been abandoned/I have been rescued.

My oldest son said to me on his tenth birthday, "Mom, I don't know if I love you or my birthmother more." I was driving him to his soccer game and I gripped the steering wheel and stared straight ahead, trying not to show my surprise. I quickly shifted from mother to therapist, something he really hates, and said, "Well honey, maybe you don't need to know that. Maybe you can love us both!" My wise ten year-old son frowned at this trite response. He was quiet for a while and then he said, "I'll know who I love more when I've been with you longer than I was with my birthmother."

I wanted to cry. My sweet adopted son had been keeping a calendar in his head, counting each day until he could love me without betraying his birthmother. His ambivalence about me helped him hold onto his love and loyalty for her. We don't have to act out either of the polar responses to ambivalence and rejection in adoption. Our job as healthy adoptive parents is to simply stand still. I can stand in the gap of my child's ambivalence, resisting the first impulse to either rescue or abandon. I can stand in the gap of my own ambivalence, needing neither rescue nor abandonment of my own normal feelings. In the natural rhythm of adoption attachments, I will be the shoreline, welcoming my child when his attachment flows to me, and staying fixed but in sight when the attachment ebbs as he tests himself and me. High tide and low tide, the ebbing and flowing of connections, is the adoptive family's journey.

Credits: Dee Paddock

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