Voices: This is what I wish I could tell Katherine Heigl

I was shocked and saddened by Katherine Heigl’s admission that she “never saw” her daughter Naleigh after she adopted her back in 2009. In a recent appearance on The View, Heigl spoke about having to go to work three days after her daughter arrived, because “women are expected to have it all”.

Motherhood is a complex reality and I wouldn’t think to judge another woman’s choices. After all, for so many of us in the 21st century, it’s more about having to do it all, than wanting to have it all. But I was certainly surprised that Heigl was allowed to adopt without making a commitment to be there for her daughter in the early days of placement.

When I became a parent in February 2020, I did so only after agreeing with our adoption agency that I would take a year off work, and that in the first month, my wife and I would both be at home. We weren’t even allowed to introduce our child to any other adults in the first month, so keen were our social workers that she bond with us and only us.

In our case, the pandemic ensured that we didn’t just have one month of isolation, we had five. But while being confined to our four walls with a traumatised toddler was dreadfully hard, it gave our new family a solid foundation on which to keep building. Today we have a confident, well-adjusted five-year-old who happily knows that she is the centre of our world.

For adopters like me, mothering often feels like a verb rather than a noun. It is by doing the acts of parenting a child and by physically being there for their needs, that we build love, reliance and the understanding for them that they are important.

When you haven’t grown a baby in your womb, but been handed one by the state – whether that’s domestically or transnationally – there is a chasm. Not just between you and the child, but in the emotional life of that child, which only consistent love can try to heal.

Attachment is the key to healing this gap. Attachment built up through eye-contact, through gentle body to body movement, through touch and reassuring murmurs, whatever the age of the adoptee.

This doesn’t just impact a child’s relationship with their new parents, it is the bedrock of all their future relationships. The more you can help a child settle with you in the first weeks and months, the stronger their resilience and the greater their self esteem will be for them as an adult.

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For would-be-families who can’t conceive naturally, they are so often told “you can always adopt”, but this throwaway line contradicts the reality of adoption. When a child has been relinquished by or removed from its parents, it has undergone a severe trauma.

The adoption itself can even be felt as a continuation of that trauma for the child – and healing is only possible through a long process of proving that you are always there for that child.

In 2009, the understanding of this wasn’t as developed as it is today, and – without judgement – I feel for Katherine Heigl who clearly didn’t get the same good advice as I did when becoming a mum. I can only hope that this action hasn’t impacted on their long-term bond, or on her daughter’s chances of a successful future.