An Unimaginable Decision

Can loving your child ever mean letting him go?

Earlier today, a woman named Anita Tedaldi appeared on the The Today Show to share her story about her decision to disrupt the adoption of her son after eighteen months. (You can watch the video and read her written personal account here.) In her combined accounts, Tedaldi describes how she had always wanted to adopt a child and how this desire had stayed with her as she married and then gave birth to five daughters. She writes of excitement so strong that her fingernails dug gouges into her steering wheel during the six-hour drive to pick up her one-year-old child, marks which are still visible today. She tells of her expectation that bonding with her son would come as automatically as did bonding with her daughters, of her dismay and shock upon discovering that this relationship was different and of her failed attempts to grow that bond both with a therapist and on her own.

And then she describes her growing, gnawing conviction that she was not able to be the good and loving mother to her son that she believed he deserved.

Tedaldi relates in painful detail the progression of conflicted thoughts and wrenching emotions that led her to relinquish her adopted son to another family, one where another child with attachment issues had already been placed with success and where the parents were experienced with attachment disorders. Tedaldi said goodbye to her son through a curtain of her own tears and a whirlwind of feelings, including “desperation, relief, sadness, guilt, shame, and acceptance.” His new family reports that he has transitioned well and that he seeks out attention from his new family in a way he never did with Tedaldi’s.

As an adoptive parent, my initial and gut reaction to this story is one of squirming discomfort. Part of parenting is accepting that there will be unexpected challenges along the way, and the decision to bring a child into your life, regardless of whether it is by birth or adoption, brings with it an irrevocable commitment. This woman already had five kids; she should have known this. Moreover, any adoptive parent is guilty of not doing the necessary preparatory work if she is blindsided by attachment issues. Regardless of what she expected, a good mother (or father) does what she needs to do to parent her child.

But my next reaction asks the question: who am I, really, to judge?

There is another way of looking at Tedaldi’s story. When I read her essay and hear her story, I see a woman who struggled mightily against her own expectations and guilt over the possibility that she was failing her son. I see a mother who rose above her self-criticism and doubt as well as certain condemnation by others to make a painful decision that was in the best interests of her child. It appears that the child in question is thriving now in a way he never achieved under Tedaldi’s care. I think an argument can be made that Tedaldi did, in fact, make a responsible parenting decision, even though she surely knew that this decision would haunt her for the rest of her life.

When four-year-old “Emmie” came home to us from Korea at the age of four-and-a-half months, I found myself on my own, unanticipated bonding journey. We’ve been lucky in that Emmie was so young when she came to us, she had been well-treated by foster families in Korea and we have not had to grapple with Reactive Attachment Disorder or any real and sometimes debilitating attachment issues that can and often do crop up in adoption. But the bond between me and Emmie took longer than I ever anticipated to develop and solidify, and I can relate, in very small measure, to the feelings of guilt, shame and doubt which Tedaldi expressed. In my case, I worked through these issues and nothing could ever persuade me to relinquish my Emmie. It’s unthinkable; she is my daughter.

It is so easy to compare stories such as Tedaldi’s with our own stories and those of family and friends and say, “I made it through the tough times and she should have, too.” It’s so easy to judge Tedaldi a bad mother who didn’t love her child. But I think by jumping to this conclusion, we do a disservice to all women and men who struggle with the unanticipated trials of parenting. Yes, in the end, perhaps Tedaldi didn’t love her child enough. But I’m not prepared make that statement in her case right now. I wasn’t there, I don’t know her or her family, and I’m not qualified to condemn her actions when I think it’s equally possible that she loved her son in a way I’ve thought about but can’t really imagine: like some of our children’s birthmothers, it’s possible that she loved her child enough to let him go.

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