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Bonding With the Adopted Child

Like any other new mom, Stephanie Chernak loved her son Julian from the moment he was born in a hospital in Knoxville, Tenn. She cradled him and held him close to her chest, kissing his tiny pink forehead as she rocked him gently, relishing those first few minutes of brand new life.

But what makes Chernak’s experience truly special is she didn't give birth to Julian. She was in the first moments of bonding with an adopted child, a challenge she shares with many other adoptive parents.

“It’s a good thing for adoptees to feel bonded to the biological mom so that his first experience is one of trust rather than mistrust.” –Marlou Russell, author and Los Angeles-based psychologist specializing in adoption issues

The Newborn Experience

“Our situation is very atypical,” Chernak said of their adoption story—husband Jamie also was in the birthing room when Julian was born. “I saw Julian before the birth mother did. I remember at one point Julian’s birth mother said to us, ‘I’m giving birth to him, but he’s your son. He’s your son, he’s not my son.’ Literally the moment he came out he was mine. He was ours. (We) were taking care of him as if I had given birth to him.”

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Chernak, who lives in Los Angeles and works in post-production for Technicolor, says having a relationship with the birth parents was integral to the successful bonding process with her son, who is now 10 months old.

“It’s scary, but it’s important," says Chernak, who met the birth parents the day before Julian was born. "I’m not sure what it would have been like if we’d adopted [Julian] at 3 or 4 months. Without getting to meet the birth parents and knowing a little bit about them, we would have had no idea what to expect.”

Marlou Russell, a Los Angeles-based psychologist specializing in adoption issues and author of the book Adoption Wisdom: A Guide to the Issues and Feelings of Adoption, says she thinks time spent with the biological mother helps a baby transition to life with adoptive parents.

“Whether the child is 15 years old, 10 years old or 5 minutes old, they are going through a period of mourning,” she says. “Part of the bonding process is being aware of what the child has just been through—whether that child has been living with foster parents or biological ones, or coming from a temporary living situation.”

The Grief Period

Even if the adoptive parents are in the birthing room, the baby is still going to experience a period of mourning, Russell says.

“It’s important for the birth mom and the baby to say hello before they say goodbye,” she says. “A lot of adoptive parents are nervous about this, but what they don’t understand is that bonding experiences build on one another. It’s a good thing for adoptees to feel bonded to the biological mom, because then his first experience is one of trust rather than mistrust.”

Russell adds that both sets of parents also experience grief during the adoption process.

“Adoption rarely happens if things are going well,” she says. “Biological parents are grieving whatever is going on in their lives that is preventing them from keeping their baby, and adoptive parents are grieving whatever their fantasy was, which is typically having their own biological child. You have to process the losses before you address the gains of adoption. Acknowledging these losses is the first step toward a healthy bonding situation.”

Confronting this sense of loss is something Diana Hall (not her real name) knows well. Hall, a Boston-based physician, adopted her daughter, Lucia, (not her real name) from El Salvador, where she had been staying with a loving foster family, when she was 15 months old.

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“That first time with us was incredibly hard on her,” Hall recalls. “She was up all night crying. She had no idea what was going on. We hadn’t really understood how hard it would be. It was awful. We just held her and walked with her all night. It was a little heartbreaking. It wasn’t a happy time for her. It was a happy time for us, but for her it was a loss.”

Moving Forward

According to Russell, bonding with the adopted child follows basically the same sort of rules as bonding with the biological child. Parents should spend as much time with their child as possible, she advises, especially at the beginning while the child is getting used to his new surroundings.

Russell also advises adoptive parents to talk to their children about their loss—even if they are infants—in terms they can understand.

“I tell adoptive parents to say to their children, ‘We are so glad you are here and you are a part of our family, and we know that it’s been quite a journey for you,'” she says.

Follow their lead, Russell adds. See what makes them happy, and engage them in childhood activities like playing with toys, riding a tricycle and reading books. A mother's (and father's) voice is especially soothing to a young child, so the time you spend with your adopted child is most wonderful gift that you can give them.

This long, emotional and often tempestuous journey equally applies to the adoptive parents.

“I honestly believe it took a long time for me to feel like [Julian] was mine,” Chernak recalls. “I was madly in love with him the moment he was born, but to actually feel I’m his mom took about six or seven months.”

Whereas parents of biological children have themselves as a reference point for what traits their child might possess, adoption is more of a lifelong path of discovery.

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“There are a lot of unknowns, but what’s the most amazing thing is that you get to watch as your child’s personality unfolds," Hall says. "You get to witness it for the very first time as they grow and mature and blossom.

"[Lucia] is just this happy, wonderful, easygoing person. She’s a terrific dancer. She’s got so many talents. I could not imagine how I could love her any more than I already do. I never think of her as my adopted child—she’s my child. It’s like I’ve given birth to her.”

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