The Slow Crawl of Bonding

Photo by Crissy Pauley/

Photo by Crissy Pauley/

My wife and I have three children, all of them through adoption. As their dad, I have a deep devotion to them, as it should be. I adore my children. The fact that they lack my genes doesn’t make me feel less of a dad to them than I would if they were biologically from us.

Nevertheless, I admit it can get tiresome when people ask about their “real” dad, as if I were some cardboard cutout.

“I am their real dad. At least, last I checked, I was pretty real,” I would say.

And just as real are their birth parents. We do value them, and we remind our children that they are loved by more than just us.

All that said, this isn’t about how real of a dad I am. This is about bonding, about connection, and how difficult it can be at times.

Each of our children quickly attached to my wife, claiming her within weeks as Mama. Despite my being affectionate and engaging from the start, none of our kids had the same speed of attachment with me. This was honestly one of the most difficult aspects of adoption.

With our first child, our daughter, it took months for her to treat me as a father. She treated me as a big brother for quite some time, which led to a whole host of difficulties that would have resembled some strange kind of sibling rivalry. She would act ambivalent at times, focusing on my wife and ignoring me when I’d say good night.

However, a day came when everything began to change. It was my first Father’s Day since I had become a dad, and we went on a hike, just the three of us. The day was about celebrating our relationship, while in nature. It was a long, tiresome, and splendid hike to Marble Falls in the Sierras. At the falls, we had a picnic lunch by the freezing river, and talked and laughed. It was a beautiful day and remains a treasured memory.

From that day on, my daughter truly treated me like a father.

With our second child, bonding came a little more quickly. By then, I had been a father for nearly two years. I understood what it meant to be a dad, and I applied everything that I had learned toward connecting with our new son, then 5 years old. Despite this, he did still act like I was a big brother for a little while. I could deal with it much better this time, because I knew that he would come around. I told him directly: “I will grow on you like mold on cheese.” Admittedly it was easier in some ways due to him not really having a father figure before I came into the picture.

After a few months, it started to feel like I had always been his dad.

And then, a little over a year ago, we welcomed a third child into our lives, a little 6-year-old boy with big ears and a scowl on his face. When we started to see his smile instead, it melted our hearts.

This son, who I absolutely cherish as much as I do our other two kids, proved to be the hardest nut to crack.

The first few months he was hostile towards me. He attached to my wife like a baby monkey to his mama monkey, and so quickly our heads spun, but he acted like I was an unwelcome presence. We chalked this up to a likely sense of loyalty to his birth father, as if I were trying to replace him. This constant hostility, combined with outright defiance, was difficult to deal with when I didn’t have the sweet side of him balancing that out. My wife got plenty of defiance from him, a whole bucketload of defiance, but she also got the cuddly little monkey.

After about 6 months, the hostility mostly fell away, replaced by ambivalence. Any affection was limited to admiration for my skill with playing Super Mario. As if that made me the best thing since sliced bread for the 30 minutes we would play.

By the time we adopted him last August, he was still not bonding with me. I tried everything I could and just waited. On adoption day, his conflicted feelings were obvious, especially in the courtroom, but we were relieved to have him be permanently in our family.

In the last few weeks, our relationship has finally begun to change after an entire year in our house. Several times now he has sat next to me and wrapped an arm around my shoulder while I read to him, or he has just given me a very long hug without asking for a single thing. Finally, after a long year, I start to feel that he’s seeing me as his Dad. Not just the guy he calls Daddy because that’s what his siblings do, but because he is feeling like he is my son. Finally, I get to have the cuddlemonkey resting his head on my chest, the sweet smell of lavender baby shampoo filling the air.

This has been a year that tested my patience. I am human, and even my patience is stretched thin when waiting for my child to feel connected to me in this way. It has been a slow crawl, but we have arrived, and I can only anticipate a stronger relationship to come.

Now let me flash back to about 6 years ago when we first met our daughter. She was 6 years old and all freckles and smiles. She walked into that room like a modern day Shirley Temple and charmed us from the get go. Within a few minutes, a social worker brought in her little baby brother, one and a half years old, with big ears and a scowl on his face. Yes, it was him, the same boy we were able to eventually welcome to our family so many years later after he had been returned to his birth family and then was placed back in foster care again.

And on that day, because I am deaf and I was unable to lipread my soon-to-be-daughter, I focused most of my attention on playing with this little toddler boy with a little plastic ambulance that we pushed back and forth to each other across the table.

Back and forth, back and forth, the beginnings of reaching out that would take us years before we truly connected.


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