Latter-day Saint Life

My Struggle to Love My Child + How God Taught Me I Was Not a Failure as a Mother


A mother's note: One of the reasons I've never shared this before is because I am fiercely protective of my daughter. I do not want anyone to judge her harshly or see her in a negative light. A traumatic childhood can create issues for nearly any person. She is an amazing young woman. This post is about me and my struggles—not a letter of dissatisfaction or complaint about her. I share these thoughts with her permission.

I’m going to tell you something I’ve only told a few people in my life: I struggled to love my child.

You might judge me for this, and I’m okay with that. I used to be afraid of what other people might think—other mothers—if those words ever left my lips. Would they think I was a bad mother? A bad person? A monster, even?

First, you need to know there is a happy ending. Love is here. It’s real and it’s growing. But it didn’t start that way. Next, you need to know that in 2001, I had a medically-necessary hysterectomy. Despite receiving a blessing that said I wasn’t finished growing my family, I thought I was finished. Eight years later my husband and I prayerfully decided to adopt. A year after that, when our family bio miraculously appeared on the right desk when an emergency placement was needed for a little 6-year-old girl, it seemed God had answered our prayers.

A few weeks later, as I tucked her into bed, I pushed the hair from her eyes and a voice whispered, “She is yours.”

We were really going to add another child to our family, forever.

My daughter came from a tough life and multiple foster homes. Though she’d been given love, the trauma of her childhood created issues beyond her control. It was work, parenting a child with a traumatic childhood. It was hard, loving a child who didn’t know how to love you. I had faith in my ability to love. That was why God brought her to me, so I could love her, I thought. But the love for her didn’t come as naturally as the social workers said it would. I didn’t feel that instant connection with her. Oh, I tried. I prayed. I cried. I went to the temple. We went to counseling together. I read her books and tucked her in bed.

But it was hard.

The behaviors and issues she had brought with her made it difficult to like her at times. For her, many things weren’t a matter of right and wrong. Not for a trauma child. You get what you want how and whenever you can before someone takes it from you or hurts you. It was the way she survived. She had a shell around her that was nearly impenetrable. When things became difficult, it wasn’t her I saw. It was her behaviors. Her protective façade. And it’s hard to like someone who doesn’t seem real. It’s even harder to love someone who doesn’t love you back.

The Savior talked about loving your enemy. There were many good times, for sure. But, there were other times when my new daughter cursed me, said she hated me, despitefully used me, and even persecuted me. And He wanted me to love her still.

I wanted to love her still.

But I struggled to love her the way I thought I should.

For a long time, I kept this shame inside. I joked and ate through the pain, gaining 30 pounds after she’d walked through my door. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it because I was sure I was the only mother horrible enough to struggle with loving her child. Because mothers love. That’s just what they do.

Except me. The mother who was the greatest failure of all.

I told myself if I couldn’t love her the way I thought I should, then she would never know it. No matter how challenged I was, how much I struggled because I was weak and a failure, she would never go a day without feeling I cared or without feeling I loved her.

And she never did.

This was one of the reasons I never spoke about it. How would she feel if she knew I was struggling to love her? She had already had so much devastation and pain in her life. I would not be the cause of more.

I wish I could tell you it hit me in a moment, that I can remember the exact time and place I was when things started to change, when my perspective started to shift, when the answers started to come. I can’t. But I can tell you it was after many months of prayer, fasting, talking, and temple visits. And, I can tell you three things I realized that have changed (almost) everything for me.

1) My expectations had shaded my reality. I realized that most of my struggle came from the way I felt not matching the way I thought I should feel. I fully expected love would flow as fast and rich as it did when I held my biological children for the first time. Anything less than that wasn’t love in my eyes. When I released myself—my love—from this unfair comparison and expectation, I was able to see that I did indeed love her. It looked different and felt different, much like the love I have for my husband is different, but it was love. I realized that, like with my husband, love is a choice; it is worked at and nurtured. But it is still love. And so it is with my daughter. It is a choice. I am nurturing it. It is real.

2) A mother’s love isn’t one color or one strength. I felt great joy and relief when I allowed myself to see that my love for each of my children touches different parts of my heart. Sometimes it brings me joy, and other times it causes me pain. My love for each of them is different, and that’s okay.

3) Perfect love can be given through me. This one was, perhaps, the biggest epiphany for me.

Moroni speaks at length about charity, which is the pure love of Christ. I always got hung up on the verse he penned (or chiseled) in Moroni 7:46 in the Book of Mormon, which reads: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing.”

It’s easy to see, if I stop there—which I did many times—why I felt so awful about struggling to love my daughter. Without love, I was nothing.

But Moroni continues: “Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail.” This didn’t make me feel any better. I was supposed to develop this perfect love for her when sometimes I couldn’t even love myself because of my failure.

But here is where things turned for me.

I began to understand what charity was.

Charity isn’t love I develop. It is Christ’s love which is given to me as a gift. I do not have the capacity to love like Jesus does—perfectly. I simply need to qualify myself for the gift of His love for myself and others. As I strive to be worthy and seek after it, He will bless me with His charity.

It’s not about me. It’s about Him.

This was huge for me.

As I began to understand that it’s not about my capacity to love, but my capacity to qualify for and accept His love, the words of Moroni became clear.

“But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him” (Moroni 7:47, emphasis added).

Those three words, “possessed of it,” changed my world.

As I try to love, I can ask God to bless me with His love for her, and the love I feel is multiplied.

Elder Chi Hong Wong said, “We begin to develop the gift of charity through our sincere efforts to emulate the Savior. However, the full measure of this gift is bestowed upon us by God as we earnestly seek it in prayer.” (Wong, Ensign, 2016)

What great relief and peace this brought to me! I knew how to pray, so that’s what I did. I asked for charity, to feel His love for her.

And then I did.

And it was beautiful.

My God is her God, my Father is her Father, and He loves her dearly.

I felt it. I knew it.

These things all together—adjusting my expectations of love, recognizing that love can look different, and understanding that perfect love can be given through me—breathed life into my beaten-down soul.

I was not a failure. I was not a horrible mother. My child really was loved by me, and by God.

Then one more answer came quietly one day, as I was pondering love: It isn’t my love that will save her. It is His.

In the quiet moments where doubt and fear still try to creep in, I remind myself that even if my worst fears had been true, even if I hadn’t been able to love my daughter, God did. And Jesus Christ did. Through the power of the Atonement, the Lord’s love is what will save her.

I realized my daughter was brought to me, in large part, because I have the gospel of Jesus Christ in my life. This means I can point her in the direction of perfect love. I can help her develop a relationship with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. There she can find the healing balm of grace and mercy. There she can find perfect love. There she can receive all God has planned for her: joy, family, fulfillment, and yes, more love.

I have stopped trying to be the perfect mom giving the perfect love and have simply allowed myself to love her in my way and help her feel God’s love. There have been bumps in the road, for sure, but love is abundant.

To those moms who have faced the feelings I described, I want to say: You’re not a monster. You’re not a failure. You’re not alone. You have the capacity to love. You are who your child needs. You’re not failing God. You are a good person, a loving person. There is no shame in the struggle to love. Struggle shows you have desire, and that’s what God wants: a willing heart.

Take your burdens to the Lord so He can ease them. Ask for His love for your child to flow through you, and He’ll leave some behind.

Be kind to yourself. You are doing better than you realize. You really are.

And know that God loves you. His love is bigger than your pain, and stronger than your fear and shame. It is true: charity never faileth.

With His help, we can be everything each of our children need. Everything. Even when we aren’t enough. With God and Jesus Christ, our children will have more than enough.

So, rest your weary heads and hearts and see with Their eyes.

You just might see you really do love your children.

And that you always have.

Lead image from Shutterstock
You can also find a more detailed version of this story on Michelle's blog, Salt and Juniper.

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