At a recent meeting with all the players in our foster daughter’s case — social workers, attorneys, birth parents, adoption experts and Bill and me— I was asked to give a summary of Teenaisa’s progress since our last meeting, three months previous. I told the group all of Teenasia’s recent successes—being promoted up a level in both gymnastics and swimming; scoring a goal in just about every soccer game; behaving well (for the most part) in school and at home; scoring on grade level in reading and math. Thinking about how far Teenasia had come in the past three years, I smiled.
“You’re really infatuated with her, aren’t you?” asked a man in the room who had made it clear in previous meetings that he did not want Teenasia to be adopted by Bill and me. He said it with a sly smile and clearly meant it as an insult— using the word “infatuation” in place of “love” to suggest our feelings for T were surface only.
I looked at him, but did not respond. His words were so off base that they didn’t even sting. Infatuated. Thinking about it later, I could have responded that I wish I were infatuated with Teenasia. Infatuation is quite a bit easier than love.
Infatuation comes early in a relationship, before we know the person fully. During the infatuation stage, we delight in a person’s good qualities; everything about the person is sparkly and new. Talents are lauded as unique and remarkable, while troublesome behaviors are dismissed as quirks and eccentricities. Infatuation is a fun stage — it’s most delicious when you’re dating the person, but I found the feeling of infatuation to be lovely with each my babies (including toddler Teenasia) as well.
Love, specifically parental love, has little in common with infatuation. Parenting and loving Teenasia has been the most difficult endeavor Bill and I have faced as a couple. At the same time, it’s been the most meaningful and rewarding experience of our marriage. Many times, parenting Teenasia, I have been grateful for my background as a distance runner. Competitive runners understand that satisfaction and pain can exist simultaneously — that a good race does not always mean a pleasurable race. So it is with parenting. Loving a child rarely involves cruising along, unthinkingly. Parenting is an intentional loving response to the needs of a child — and the more complicated the child’s needs, the more difficult it can be to discover what the loving response must be. To keep with the running analogy, parenting a child with complicated needs is a race with a lot of hills.
In our effort to parent Teenasia well—to love her most effectively, and in a way that best brings out the Teenasia she needs to become — Bill and I have read piles of books on children with a history of trauma. We’ve scoured the Internet for information on children whose attachment to primary caregivers has been broken or compromised. We’ve networked with other adoptive families and have pumped friends who work in the foster care or adoption fields for information and assistance. We’ve prayed.
In doing the often-exhausting work of trying to love Teenasia as she most needs to be loved, I have experienced along the way, a fear that borders on terror that I lack the giddy sense of head-over-heels love for her. I recognize and appreciate her gifts but am not charmed by them; I see her failings but cannot brush them aside. Yet, in any given day, more than half my thoughts are about her. The most serious conversations that Bill and I have concern the possibilities in her future. When she shows progress, my heart leaps for joy. When she backslides, I am flattened.
There have been times when my fear has risen to the point that I have wished that I could trade in the depth of feeling I have for my daughter for something sweeter and lighter. But that is not who I am, and it’s not what she requires. Infatuation, breezy and exhilarating as it may be, cannot last. It either withers into nothingness and evaporates entirely, or it is replaced by love.
To love is to respond to the needs of another. And the more we know a person, the more we understand his or her needs — both small and profound. In just a few cases in each lifetime, we are privileged to actually see what another human being may need to become more fully him or herself. Just a few times in a lifetime, another person’s survival is dependent on us being able to recognize who that person is, in the depth of their being.
And what is parenting but reaching into the soul of a child and pulling out the true person who resides there?
Sorry, sir, that’s not infatuation. It’s damn hard work. It’s love.