I never dreamed that there were children who were so self focused that nothing, and nobody, appeared to matter to them.
I certainly never dreamed that I would ever adopt such a child. The world I came from was one where people cared for one another, more or less consistently. It was a world where other people’s feelings mattered. Even a world where one allowed the feelings of others to inï¬‚uence one’s own behavior. Being nice was an important measure to strive for.
It was a world of reciprocity; a world where one good turn deserved another; a world of give and get. One loved other people because they loved you, and vice versa. It didn’t matter who started it – that was the way of all good relationships. Fair was fair; a relationship had to be 50/50 to succeed and everyone knew that, and furthermore everyone accepted that. Guilt was an important, and legitimate, motivating force in relationships, a power that one could always call upon to impact the other when being reasonable was not working.
Of course, I had heard of unconditional love: it meant that I would love you unconditionally, assuming of course that you would stay within the boundaries that would allow me to do that; and I could expect the same of you. You would love me unconditionally as long as I behaved in such a way as to deserve it. It never once dawned upon me that “assuming of course,” and “as long as,” and “deserve it,” each meant “conditional.”
So it was a shock to me to adopt an eight year old boy – just barely eight years old – who not only did not get it, but appeared to have no interest in getting it. Such children today are often diagnosed with the great bugaboo of the adoption world: RAD, or reactive attachment disorder. But thirty years ago, there was no such diagnosis. Kids like my eight year old were most often labeled “bad” or “impossible” because they “simply did not care.”
Of course, I should have known from the first night, the night of the day they left their mother: When this young boy came out from the bedroom he was to share with his barely ten year old brother to tell me – referring to that brother who was crying and crying for their mother, “Would you tell that boy to shut up? I can’t get to sleep.”
I should have known.
That eight year old did not care. He was, as I realized one very scary day, emotionally as cold as ice. He stole, he lied, he was sneaky – as sometimes were his two older brothers, whom I adopted at the same time. But his stealing, lying, and sneakiness wasn’t like theirs. Theirs (the only word I could come up with back then) was “human,” and his wasn’t. They would feel bad when caught or confronted; they would feel guilt and shame. But not him. He appeared to feel nothing other than bothered by me for holding him accountable.
Loving him was the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life. Because he gave nothing back – nothing – ever. There were times, especially in the beginning years, when I felt helpless with him, and hopeless of ever being able to build a parental relationship with him where I mattered to him. Many times I wanted to just give up.
And one day, I actually did. I had him pack and prepared to bring him back to the agency. But as I drove out of my driveway (he was, perhaps, nine) I realized that I was giving up because he wasn’t giving back to me. He wasn’t allowing me to feel good about loving him, ever. He wasn’t making me feel loved by him.
And then the realization hit me: he was demanding unconditional love from me and wouldn’t tolerate anything less than that. He wasn’t buying into my world with all my nonsense beliefs about relationships. A parent’s love is unconditional? “Show me” is what he might as well have been saying to me.
I changed some that day. I turned the car around; I kept him; I struggled to believe in him. Then, four years after he came, I had to make the decision to finalize his adoption. I was advised by almost everyone I trusted to give him up. And I came to a crossroads: I could give up on him blame-free and (relief, relief) justified – or I could accept the deep, horrible, scary, and uniquely lonely pain that he caused me.
I made my choice and changed forevermore the day I did. I recognized that loyalty – while important – was not love; that reciprocity – while hoped for – wasn’t required; that controlling another person wasn’t relating to them; that “deserving of love” is a non-sequitur; that not only does “like” have nothing to do with love, but that love exists in a whole different place – far beyond – feelings; and that my now almost twelve year old was my son forever – because I decided that he was. And because I decided -not discovered – that I loved him.
I finalized his adoption; I pulled my hair out for the next six years. But I never once regretted adopting him nor loving him. He changed eventually, beginning when he was seventeen and a half. I watched him change; I watched him the day he recognized, for the first time, that he had done something wrong. He didn’t just hear me tell him (read: scream at him) that he’d done something wrong; he actually believed it himself. I could feel the difference immediately.
Today, it is more than thirty years since that first night he came to live with me. I don’t know that I could be more proud of him than I am. And I am grateful to him for teaching me the greatest lesson of my life: unconditional love means – for real a love with no conditions. None. I thought I’d known that, but I had not. And I don’t know enough people who do.
Source: Jack Brennan, Executive Director, Family Focus Adoption Services.
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