On vacation my girls, my mom and I wandered through the outlet mall for awhile.  On various clearance racks I found t-shirts for the boys and for the little girls.  So near the end of our wandering when we walked into Old Navy, I figured that might be a good place to find t-shirts for our teen daughters as well.

I should have known better;  like most teenage girls, they are persnickety about their clothes and habitually get overwhelmed by choices in stores.  But since I’d already found things for the other kids, I wanted to get them something. A quick cruise around the store didn’t spark their interest. To simplify things, I headed them toward a display containing basic T’s in 6 different colors.  I’m always glad to have more simple t-shirts myself, and I figured they’d be useful neutral additions to their wardrobe.

“Pick something,” I said with a smile. “What color do you want?”

They looked uncertain.  They hemmed and hawed.  They picked up things and set them down looking disinterested.  Five minutes went by.  Meanwhile the other members of our party were done shopping and the grandbaby was showing signs of needing to nurse.

“Pick something,” I said.  My smile was starting to feel tense, but I tried to make my voice coaxing.  “I want to buy you something.”

But they couldn’t–  wouldn’t — make a choice.  I toyed with the idea of just grabbing two shirts and saying, “Here ya go.”  But then they’d be sure to hate the choice I’d made, which would translate to clothes sitting in the closet, unworn. My mom suggested quietly that I just give them money, which I knew they’d happily take.  But dangitall, I wanted to give them a gift, something to bring back as a memory from this trip, not hand them cash like this was some business transaction.

Finally we left, having purchased nothing.  Yeah, I could (should?) have been happy they’d saved me a few bucks by refusing to let me get them something.  But I was livid, and I knew exactly why.  This was not just about a couple of t-shirts  This was about all the times I’ve tried to show the girls I love them and they’ve turned me down flat.

Of the times I brought thrift store finds home, excited, hoping they’d like them, only to be met with wan smiles, and have the clothes languish in their closets until I insisted they wear them.  Of the hugs I’ve given that were returned with noodle-arms.  The times I’ve invited them to play games or go to the store with me and they’ve opted out.

Yes, I can force it.  And sometimes I do.  But it can be discouraging to feel such resistance to my overtures even now after they’ve been home nearly five years.

Sometimes things are good between us— like today when I broke the oven door and my 14 year old and I spent 30 greasy minutes trying to wrestle the thing into submission before calling the repair man in defeat.  We shared some absolutely lovely laughing moments.  But all too often I’m met with resistance.

I know that some of the ups and downs are normal teen stuff. Girls often have a hard time getting along with their moms– I know I did when I was 14.  For awhile I fantasized about being adopted by a rich family where I could be the only child and wouldn’t have to do chores.  I’ve told my daughters that, and I understand it’s a tough age.

But still–when a child home almost five years says you’ll never really be her mom, that signing papers doesn’t make it true, it is a knife to the heart.  A failed shopping trip, though a small failure in the grand scheme of things, feels like twisting that knife.  If we can’t even have a successful shopping trip together, what are our chances of a real relationship some day?

I comfort myself remembering how well they do when interacting with people other than me. Folks rave about how great the girls are, how sweet and fun– and I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve seen that sweetness from across the room. I just wish they’d show that loveliness to me more often.  When I do sneak a real smile out of someone, almost always the shades go quickly down over that light, veiling their hearts, snuffing the connection that flared for just a second.

I’m the second momma, you see, the substitute for the one they really want.  Maybe it’s anger.  Maybe it’s fear.  Maybe they love me way down deep, more than they dare show. (Oh, I hope so.)  But their automatic default too often is to push me away rather than to connect.

The years have scarred me, and make it hard some days to keep my perspective.  The truth is, eight of the kids think I’m just fine.  But I want these others to love me too, so much that some days my self-worth as a momma feels hinged on their acceptance.  I know how foolish that is;  they’re hurt kids, wounded souls. It’s only a little about me. But I care passionately for them and want them to feel truly enveloped in the love of our family.  No matter how wide the rift, they are part of my very soul, and I will continue to long for and work toward relationship.

I talked to the girls after the shopping incident, explained that gift-giving is one of the ways I show folks love– that I’d been trying that day in Old Navy to say ‘I love you’, and that I’d heard rejection in their refusal to accept my gifts.  I think they understood then, at least a little, why I’d come unglued over t-shirts.

While unpacking from the trip, I came across a handful of gummy bears in a baggie.  I stashed them back in a corner, thinking of a bedtime snack.  A few minutes later my 14 year old came into the kitchen, spotted them, and asked for them.  I said no, saying there weren’t enough to share with everyone.  It was true, but really it was more that I wanted them myself.

Later that evening I nibbled a few, but my conscience wouldn’t let me forget she’d asked for them.  I knotted the bag up and set them aside. The next day I came up behind her and tucked the baggie quietly into her sweatshirt pocket with a wink, then walked away quick before I could even see her reaction.  Come to think of it, maybe that’s exactly what I need to do more of:  quick stealth ‘I love you’ actions, without looking for or expecting any immediate reaction.

Sometimes I get so set on loving kids how I want to love them that I forget about loving them the way they want to be loved.  I’m not sure if that handful of gummy bears was received as the gift of love that I intended it to be.  But I’ll keep my eyes open for other chances like that.  Maybe one of these days I’ll actually get somewhere. Until then, I’ll just keep on loving my kids to the best of my ability, and hold onto the faith that God is watching over us all, and that He has a perfect plan for all our lives.


More about our family and adoption


  1. You made me cry this morning. This is where we are. I know folks are trying to be reassuring by telling you it’s normal teenage attitudes, but you know the difference as their mom. I’m praying daily to maintain that empathy I used to have when my kids first arrived home, because I’ve found myself hardening in ways that I don’t want to. This is hard business, loving without getting much in return. Hang in there, and hang on to Jesus. He’ll be the one to heal them if He so chooses. I want to be open for Him to use me in that process, but it’s a struggle to feel like I WANT to be used like that some days.

  2. Thank you for this post. My little guy is not yet 3 years old, and has been home for almost 2 years, and yet we are having massive struggles. He’s so lovely and charming and friendly when others are around, and saves most of his temper tantrums, etc for me.

    Even though my situation is obviously different having a much younger child, it is always encouraging to hear from other adoptive moms about their struggles, to know I’m not alone and… it’s not about me.

    It was so easy, especially at first, for me to think there was something wrong with me, I was doing something wrong, and that’s why my son just couldn’t really love me. I realize now that it’s obviously not true, but it is still a struggle to not take it personally.

    I hope and pray that with therapy and lots and lots of attachment work, healing will come.

  3. Thank you for this post Mary. Even 10 years after adopting 3 preteen/teenagers siblings it is comforting to read about basically the exact same struggles we had. Our daughter was 11 when we adopted her but the ages of 14-18+ were abysmal. I don’t know how you do it with 2 girls at that age! I would have so loved to have this posting and website to read back then, so know that you are doing a great service especially to adoptive moms to share these difficulties. So many times I felt absolutely alone and became exhausted from explaining to friends and family experiences like your shopping trip to Old Navy. Friends would say that our kids’ behaviour was “normal” teenage behaviour, but I knew it was not. I am still fascinated to read your adoption related posts even though our kids are now in their twenties. Still nice to know I wasn’t alone even now!

  4. Mary, I so get it! There’s so much I’d like to say, but please know… You are not alone. Many of us get it and are grateful that you were willing to share with us your story.
    Love and prayers,

  5. You’re great, you’re doing great. I was a horrid evil teenager to my poor mother who had already been through two bouts of cancer. I am absolutely appalled now at how I treated her and scared to death of how my own daughter will treat me. I’m sure my mother will laugh.

    I “came back” as my mother calls it at around age 25.

  6. With my oldest adopted daughter (who never attached) I used to open her door and throw in kisses or small pieces of chocolate. We called it hit and run love. It was great because she couldn’t refuse it and I felt better having done something, anything.

  7. Hi Mary,
    Thank you for posting this topic. We have quite similar issues in our home and it does help to read others perspective.
    We are fortunate to have a few families nearby for support. Recently another parent was sharing her struggles and how it has grown her in her faith and parenting. I fully agree. After some of the most difficult days, we feel closer to God.
    She said, ‘by the time we get to heaven we are going to shine!’
    I know she didn’t mean this comment as boastful but to suggest God is working on polishing off our rough and grimy exterior with these gifts He placed in our care.
    There are many days I wish it wasn’t so painful, but I am very much in awe of God’s power to grow us and become more like Him every day.

  8. I understand!!! In our family of a sibling group of 7 the 2 girls were the hardest to bond with…there are still days when Iam not Mom..but rather my first name. I so often have to take myself back to Jesus and sometimes I wonder if I am normal…if I get wounded easier b their actions of rejection than other adoptive moms. Thanks for ur honesty!! And for the difference you ARE making in some girls lives!!! It sure hurts to love but I am convinced that the “greatest of these is charity” and because of that we will see rewards!!

  9. Hi Mary,
    I have not commented all the years that I have been reading your blog because of my bad English (I am a German adoptive mom to an Ethiopian girl age 14 now). I just want to tell you how thankful I am to read about this topic. After 2 wonderful years with our daughter (age 8 – 10 then) we thought we had mastered the beginnings and then there would be a constant progress, but she fell into a deep crisis which is still lasting, including many struggles, misunderstanding, rejection, depression and aggressive behaviour. We are beginning to understand that she is much more wounded than we ever thought. When I am very desperate I remember that only Jesus can tell my girl to come back and join life like he did in the story of Jairus’ daughter!
    Thank you again for sharing your feelings and thoughts!

    • Yes! ONLY Jesus can do it, in His time….

      • Hi Mary,

        I often remembered your answer to my comment and now I just want to tell you that His time has come and all we prayed for has come true: our daughter has recovered from a very serious illness with the assistance of good doctors and by medical treatment. What we had considered to be teenage adoption problems was in actual fact the beginning of a mental disturbance. We are grateful to God who keeps his promises and to our Saviour Jesus Christ!

        Advent greetings from Germany!

  10. Mary,
    I only have 4 kids, none adopted. Reading this post made me think of what I’ve read recently in the new edition of The Five Love Languages of Children. It was a good and challenging read for me – might just be one of the most influential books I’ve read in a while. (Yours was too!)
    Thanks for this blog. I enjoy reading your posts!

  11. I’m a foster mom. I totally get what you are saying. I struggle with “liking” my kids at time. I “love” them, but that’s not the same as “liking” them. It’s hard to be called “fake mom”. 🙁

  12. Mary~ I love your response to comment #34 and you hit the nail on the head for me and my experience. I have a well of memories and experiences with my bio 17 year old daughter and only 6 years with my beautiful Ethio daughter (15ish). This same sweet daughter has a well of experiences with a birth mom that loved her very much. I can’t make that time and those memories up. We just had to start where we started 6 years ago. I love her and she loves me, but I wish we were closer and I think both of us feel a bit awkward at times. I am going to try to look for more “gummy bear moments”. Thank you for sharing.

  13. Sending you many hugs. I will be praying for all of you, sweet friend.

  14. Hi! I stumbled across your blog post and I was wondering if I might be able to use it on an adoptive mom blog I work with called We Are Grafted In (www.wearegraftedin.com). We also would include a bio, a picture and link back to your blog in the post. Please let me know if I have permission to share this great post!

  15. Thank you for reminding me that I am not alone. It gets lonely sometimes 🙁

  16. Mary,
    I can not thank you enough for sharing. Your struggle echos my own battle as a stepmom. I have a 16yr old daughter whose live I have been since she was in diapers. I have taught her how to tie her shoes, do her hair and have held her when she was sick or scared. And yet since the summer of her completion of 6th grade, I felt her pull away and honestly feel that none of it matters to her. I buy her things and they sit in the closet unused, I tried talking to her or reaching her on her level by asking her what she is thinking or wants but she barely responds. Or smiles then goes right back to doing as she pleases. There so much more to it but at this point,I’ve shut down. I am tired of trying. I am ashamed to admit it but I can’t even bring myself to be around her. I KNOW I am wrong. Truly she means the world to me. But I have done so much for her only to have her treat me with indifference or like she’d rather I not be here. Yours is a story of hope one that I want to learn from. To fight for the small day to day battles. My mom told me that it is okay to lose a battle but you have to continue to fight to win the war.Thank you for the reminder to fight and that I am not alone in this battle.

    Philippians 4:13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

    May the Lord watch over you and your family and may he give you strength and guidance.

    Praying for all of you,


  17. Thank you for this, Mary. We are home 21 or so months with our 7 year old, and bringing more home this year. It’s a tough road to walk surrounded by people who don’t quite understand. Thankful for you and others like you.
    PS: I briefly met Sophie while I was in Addis this spring … Lovely lady.