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My Heart Knows a Difference

By Jennifer Palmer


Does a parent’s heart make a distinction between adopted kids and biological kids? Is the attachment, the bond, the connection the same?


“How does this experience compare to, well, to before?”

She asked the question cautiously, not wanting to offend, her gaze moving from my face to my husband’s to baby Katie huddled against my chest. I was recovering from an emergency C-section and was grateful for her company, for the meal she brought with her, for honest questions about love, about the nature of family.

She’s a good friend, one who knew our story—that we had tried to adopt a baby girl, Cara*, a year earlier, that Cara’s birth father had contested the adoption, that he had succeeded and we had lost. Cara had lived with us five months before the judge’s ruling came, and this friend had been there by our side, praying and crying and hoping through it all.

I knew exactly what she meant by her question and I was not bothered that she asked it. After all, it’s a natural question, one I ask myself on a regular basis. I wrestle with it, mull it over, wonder—does a parent’s heart make a distinction between adopted kids and biological kids? Is the attachment, the bond, the connection the same? Ultimately, the big question is this: was the love I felt for Cara the same as the love I feel for Katie?

The obvious answer—the one people expect, the one adoptive parents long to give, the one adopted kids are desperate to hear—is yes. Yes. Yes. The love is the same. The bond is the same. The daughter I chose, who grew in my heart but not in my womb, is the same to me as the daughter who shares my genetics. My heart knows no difference.

The obvious answer is yes, but I don’t believe it is an honest answer, at least not for me, for my experience. Other adoptive moms may feel differently, but for me, the truth is more complicated than that. The truth is harder than that.

The truth is that my heart does know a difference. Not a difference in genetics, not one in biology, but a difference all the same, a difference that can only be attributed to adoption, to the way each daughter came to be a part of my family.

My heart knew all along that there was another who could and did call Cara her daughter, that this sweet girl had another family, one not my own, who had some claim on her. It knew she came to me through loss, that such loss can and often does pose an obstacle to a strong mother-daughter bond, that there are those in the world who would never see me as her “real” mom, no matter what happened. My heart knew that there was risk here, in this relationship. It recognized the terrible, awful risk that they would take her from me, that a judge would rule she wasn’t really mine and I would be forced to say goodbye. It could not ignore the tremendous stress, the horrible fear, the drama and the tension and the heartache of that interminable summer of court dates and visitation and lawyer’s fees. And so it was guarded, careful in its love for Cara. The bond, while very real, was tenuous, only as strong as my feeble courage would allow.

The early months of Katie’s life were an entirely different experience, marked as they were by peace and calm and joy. No drama, no stress. No fear that they might take her from me. My heart was free to love without inhibition, without the instinctual reserve that was present previously, and I forged bonds with her that were strong and unafraid.

And so my heart knows the difference. The love is not the same. Not because of any differences in biology, not because of genetics, not because of anything specific about the girls themselves, but because of anxiety, because of stress, because of circumstance.

I wish this were not the case. I wish that I had the capacity to love without fear, no matter the risk, that I could give an unreserved and exuberant “yes” when asked if I loved Cara in the same way that I love Katie. I wish my heart did not know a difference. I wish I were strong enough for that.

And yet, I know this, know it as surely as I know my own mother loves me: I loved Cara. I loved her. I loved that baby girl with a fierce, protective, mother’s love. A love that washed over me, filled me, swept me up in its currents the moment I first held her in my arms, though I selfishly tried to resist it. A love unlike anything I had ever felt. I loved that baby girl. I loved her. I loved her.

How does one measure love? It isn’t as though you can put it on a scale, ladle it into a measuring cup, stack it against a ruler. I do not know how to quantify love, how to compare one love to another, but if one possible measure is what you’d be willing to endure on another’s behalf, then my love for Cara knew no bounds, just as my love for Katie knows no bounds. Though the experience of loving these two girls differs greatly, the expression of that love does not.

And so, if the question is whether there’s a difference, whether my heart makes a distinction between my two daughters, the answer is yes. Much as I might wish otherwise, my heart knows a difference.

But if the question is whether I love my biological daughter more than I loved the one I tried to adopt, the answer is an unequivocal and emphatic no. No. No. I would have laid down my life in a heartbeat for Cara, just as I would lay it down for Katie if necessary. And as somebody who is much wiser than I am observed: greater love has no one than that.

*Name changed

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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