The XX Factor

Can You Be a Loving Parent Without Loving Your Kid?

Do I love her yet? Do I love her yet? Like the incessant refrain of the Verizon commercial, that question recurred in my mind again and again for months after we adopted our fourth child. Eventually I had to stop listening-not so much because I knew the answer as because it was time to stop asking. “Do I love her yet” led not to me declaring my love but to endless internal dialogues on the question of what love is, how it’s expressed, and whether it’s unwavering steel or something that offers a little more give. I’d compare my feelings for one child against my feelings for another in a March Madness bracket of parenting, I’d muse over Sophie’s Choice in the car. I had work to do and meals to cook and kids to tend, and I couldn’t do it all in an endless haze of self-examination. I quit asking, and somewhere along the line, I started loving.

I know (now) that I’m not the only adoptive parent to go through that process, but the New York Times Motherlode blog, spinning off from an entry on the Web site of the Daily Mail , raises it from the biological parenting perspective. What if you give birth to a baby, and then-for some period of time, or for all eternity-you don’t love the child that results? What then? Novelist Rebecca Abrams wrote about her year of distancing herself from her daughter, then 3, when the love she felt for a new baby eclipsed any feelings she had for her first child. A Motherlode reader wrote to Lisa Belkin, asking how to help his wife, who was so ill after the birth of her second child that she never bonded with him and now admits to not liking the young boy. Belkin asked for readers to respond: “How do you help a mother who feels no love for her child?”

Readers responded in ways that ranged from primal (“the most damaging wounds I ever suffered were inflicted by my mother … these children are emotionally neglected and the damage may be more insidious”) to defensive (this “seems unnatural”) to supportive ("this whole conversation isn’t really about not loving your kids in any absolute way. It’s about the ways that circumstances can get in the way of parents feeling that love”) to angry ("[I]wonder why people with the inability to give to something that they have created and brought into being bother to have them”). Much of the advice, though, from every camp, was exactly the same: Fake it. Fake it ‘til you make it. “Love,” Melanie from Boston declared, “is not how you feel but what you do.” It’s sort of oddly magnificent, that so many people, many even while declaring they can’t imagine not feeling the love for their kids, know exactly what they’d do if they didn’t.