Listening to a an old episode of This American Life (#317 – Unconditional Love). One of the stories is about a couple, Heidi and Rick, who adopted a seven-year-old boy, Daniel, from an orphanage in Romania. Because of the terrible condition Daniel faced during his time in the orphanage, and the lack of affection and physical contact with the the adults taking care of him there, Daniel developed a condition known as “attachment disorder”. At one point, he started to believe that Rick and Heidi were his biological parents, and began hating and resenting them for leaving him at the orphanage for seven years before taking him home. The belief persisted for a while, even after Rick and Heidi exlained to him over and over again the difference between biological parents and adoptive parents. It’s a heartbreaking story, for the boy, for the parents, although it has a happy ending. What struck me most is the mother’s completely unsentimental perspective about the whole thing.
The question of whether or not it’s possible to teach love is not an academic one. There are plenty of people who will face this issue. Adoption these days is on the rise. Most of these children will be fine, but some of them won’t. And at least on its face the story of Heidi and Rick and Daniel seems to offer an encouraging example. Heidi and Rick were able to take a 7-year-old with no direct experience of adult affection, and with a certain amount of pain and suffering, turn him into a loving son. The only problem, is that the actual participants in this story, see things differently.
Interviewer: Do you feel like you can teach love?
See, Heidi actually has a very humble view of what is, and is not possible. What should, and should not be expected as far as love is concerned. In fact, she tells me, that in her own mind, what she wanted from Daniel all along, was very, very modest.
Heidi: I don’t think the goal was ever love. The goal was attachment.
Interviewer: Do you feel like you can teach attachment?
Heidi: I mean, I think you can work really hard to create an environment where you can form attachment. You want to create these situations where it’s more advantageous for them to attach, than to keep doing things their own way and being in their own world, isolated.
Heidi seems utterly practical about the whole thing, even about whether or not her son now loves her.
Interviewer: Do you feel loved by Daniel?
Heidi: Yeah, I feel loved by Daniel. I don’t think he wants to hurt me, I don’t worry about that at all.
“I don’t think he wants to hurt me, I don’t worry about that at all.” It’s a very unsentimental view of her relationship with her child. But that is probably exactly what had made Heidi so successful. That is, Heidi is an unusually pragmatic person. She’s not a flowering earth-mother, with a wealth of love to give. She’s fundamentally realistic, tough-minded, and these are precisely the characteristics that are needed in this situation. If you’re the kind of person who actually needs love, really needs love, chances are, you’re not the kind of person who’s going to have the wherewithal to create it. Creating love is not for the soft and sentimental among us; love is a tough business.
“What should, and should not be expected, as far as love is concerned.” “Creating love is not for the soft and sentimental among us; love is a tough business”. This reminds me of my own mother’s advice when I was expecting – motherhood is a task and a skill, and like any other skill, it requires effort, training, learning from mistakes and experience. My mom, who so dislikes the way motherhood is often romanticized and idealized, and thinks every parenting book should carry this disclaimer – “there is no magically-occurring sacred bond between mother and child, you have to create it, work at it every single day”.