When Jackson was born, my life changed in an instant. But, unlike the rosy picture that many paint of becoming a parent, I didn’t feel any different right away. Yes, I immediately fell in love with this new addition and knew that the course and focus of my life was permanently altered, but instead of being flooded with maternal instincts, I felt worried and unprepared, like I was suddenly living a life not my own.
In the two-plus years of hindsight I’ve garnered since, I realize that a lot of that anxiety was fueled by the reality that I’m not Jackson’s biological parent — and my fears over how that would impact my ability to mother him and my relationship with him. When Ashlee and I set out on this journey several years ago, we agreed that she would carry our first child, as she’s slightly older than me, and I’d follow a few years later. I knew at the time that we may bond with our eventual child slightly differently because of the biological connection, but I didn’t anticipate the doubt that that setup would sow in my psyche.
As soon as Jackson arrived, amid the cooing were lots of comments about how he is Ashlee’s twin (they still get that!) and all of the physical features they share. She was also thrust into the post-partum life — struggles with breastfeeding, intense pain from her C-section, hormonal swings — challenges that I, obviously, didn’t understand the depths of. Overall, in those early days, I felt slightly out of place and a whole lot of awkward.
I responded to those feelings by overcompensating: making scrapbooks, trying to capture every moment of Jackson’s early life in photos and videos, stocking the freezer with months of handmade baby food. I knew I didn’t have that inherent tie to our son, so I sought to build that bond through actions I thought he may one day appreciate. Looking back, all that really did was stress me out!
If I could give New Parent Me (and other non-biological parents worrying about their bonds with their little ones) some advice, it would be to give it time. While Ashlee had nine months to start forming that relationship with Jackson, I didn’t have quite that experience, so instead that bonding began after he entered our world. And, like any relationship, it shouldn’t be forced.
Once Jackson began being able to understand us a bit and communicate back — even with his gibberish and mannerisms — our individual relationships with him just exploded. We both started to learn more about his likes, his dislikes, his fears and his interests — and he ours. We joked about how Ashlee’s penchant for picky eating must be a genetic thing, while I proudly gushed over new skills I’ve been able to teach Jackson (like his very first rendition of “Happy Birthday” tonight!).
The older Jackson has gotten, and the more comfortable I have become with the concept of being a parent, the stronger our bond has gotten — and it’s been amplified by the pandemic. Jackson and I have spent considerable time together in the last seven months — he went from full-time daycare to four months entirely at home with me and now back to part-time daycare.This crazy period has, among many things, forced me to stop trying to overcompensate. The daily upheaval that comes with working from home with a toddler has made it impossible to strive for perfection in parenting. However, adjusting to that new work-from-home routine together has allowed our bond to build organically.
Each morning, after we eat breakfast on the couch together, we brush our teeth together and then Jackson destroys my bedroom as I get dressed and usually (half-heartedly) helps me put it back together. I know that he’ll jump up from whatever toy he’s playing with when I ask him to help me put away dishes or throw in the wash, and he knows that, when I break out my laptop and talk about having to send emails, he gets a few minutes of TV time. We both love the outdoors and go on several walks each day, where I can anticipate the houses he likes to sit in front of and what piles of leaves he’ll find just right for diving headfirst into. During the countless walks he and I have taken during the pandemic, he went from a babbling baby to a full-fledged toddler with whom I have surprisingly engaging conversations as we stroll. All of these mundane moments have become our “things,” and they’re things we both revel in doing with just one another.
And Jackson and Ashlee have their own unique set of “things” as well. While I can get quickly preoccupied from playtime by household chores or other distractions, the two of them can play hide and seek under blankets on the living room floor for literally hours. Together they build the best forts and, at storytime before bed, Jackson always looks to Ashlee to do the funniest voices.
Jackson and I have bonded over our love of outdoor adventure, while he and Ashlee have bonded over their love of imagination, interests that emerged regardless of whose genes he carries. Thankfully, the barrage of one-on-one time Jackson and I have had this year have helped me see just how little biological ties matter when it comes to parenting. At 2, Jackson doesn’t know the first thing about biology or how he was brought into the world — all he cares about is that he has two parents who love him unconditionally and with whom he’s forming unwavering bonds (and trucks; he really cares about trucks!). I’m never going to have a biological connection to Jackson but I can have a deep emotional one, which has been able to flourish as I shifted my perspective on what really makes a parent. Jackson may not have my eyes, but I can help him see the world through my eyes and look at it through his — the foundation of a powerful bond.