I know when it started. The beginning came on a suffocating airplane sitting on the tarmac in Port Au Prince, Haiti. What I wonder some days is when it will end. That day, over three years ago, I sweated with five hundred other passengers waiting to deplane with butterflies in my stomach. I had arranged to spend three weeks volunteering at a missionary orphanage in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. If you don't think that sentence is weird, it is because you have never met me. I am not a Christian and at that point in my life any close friend would have said I was not a "baby person."
Over eight years of marriage, my husband Matt and I often fielded the hints or outright queries about our nonexistent bundles of joy. The honest answers never worked. We were having fun. I was not sure if I wanted to bear kids. We might adopt someday. And then, life changes you. We decided to have a biological baby before adopting and had a miscarriage. Somewhere in that experience, I lost my nonchalant attitude and found myself counting days, crying and longing to be pregnant again. Focusing on our long-time interest in adoption came naturally. Here was something I could control, unlike the open question of whether we would conceive and I would carry a baby to term.
And, so, there I sat, after months of research, nervously waiting to experience Haiti. There were things I knew that day; that attachment in adoption can be hard, especially with adoption from Haiti where kids have to spend a year or more in an orphanage while adoptions are processed; that Matt was not ready; that the orphanage might not accept our application. There were also things I did not know; just how hard 'hard' can be; how insecure and vulnerable a mother is; that I was two days pregnant with our first son.
Clichés like eye-opening or life-changing can not touch that three week span. In Haiti, babies die on the street, children starve to death and clean water is more precious than gold. Sanitation and safety, the foundations of our orderly world, are not provided by the government. The orphanage housed seventy infants in three smallish rooms and thirty older children in another house. For three short weeks, I strove to give the eight children assigned to me the individual attention that they craved. I met people who lived a life a service and faith that I had difficulty understanding. From within the protected orphanage compound, with electricity, safe water and an armed guard, I glimpsed and tried to internalize the horrible struggle of life and death in a third world country. I watched parents beg the director to take their starving babies and I witnessed the staff's pain at their inability to accept them all. I went home inextricably bound to the idea of adopting one of those children.
My husband and I talked to the point of insanity about our adoption decision. Adoption needs to be a selfish thing. When we announced our adoptions, people often responded that we were wonderful and the children were lucky. We are no more wonderful than any other parents and, like all children, ours will doubt their luck at times. We wanted to adopt because we wanted children, because we wanted a bigger family, and because we liked the idea that our family would be diverse. We wanted to adopt two children because we felt strongly that if our family was to be black and white, every one should have someone else who looked like them.
International adoption is expensive and it takes a long time. We were not sure we had the heart to go through the process twice. We decided to adopt a baby girl and an older boy four years old or younger. We read about 'older child adoption.' We talked to our social worker. We thought we understood the challenges and pitfalls. We heard words like reactive attachment disorder and post traumatic stress disorder and post-institutionalized behaviors and we thought, naively, optimistically, tragically, that we could handle it. The deep truth, though, is that, like birth defects, like miscarriage, like fatal accidents, we never considered that these lurking horrors would apply to us. We had a dream and a plan for our family: a large, diverse, happy blend of big, easy-going, red-headed boys like the one that was born to us in a gush of screams and tears on an early October morning, and small, dark beauties with impish smiles like the pictures of our son, dressed in sunny yellow with a huge smile, sent to us from the orphanage with our referral package.
On another October day, exactly a year after our biological son was born and fourteen months after we had first fallen for their pictures, almost two years after my first trip to Haiti, we stood in blinding sunlight inside the orphanage compound and held our fourteen month old daughter and five year old son in our arms for the first time. Joy and disbelief at our sudden family mixed with anguish and despair over the crucial time we had missed in our children's lives.
For a few months, months filled with highs and lows, lessons, missteps and small triumphs, we lived our dream as a family of five. Our honeymoon ended abruptly in their third month home. Our son's terrible anger surfaced. He lashed out at me and at our toddlers. Our parenting style provided a consequence for misbehavior. If he ignored a request to stop hitting, he sat on the couch for five minutes. Simple moments of discipline caused screaming tantrums that lasted for hours, incoherent rages in which our son clearly lost all ability to function. He felt a desperate need to be in control at all times in order to protect himself. Despite all of our preparation, despite everything we thought we knew, that need was painfully at odds with my picture of a parent-child relationship.
I read and read about attachment disorders and control issues in older adopted children. The best advice was in my head. Do not show anger, do not react, instead respond from love, keep him close. Yet, our relationship spiraled downward. He acted out, I struggled to remain calm. My downfall was our babies. I simply could not control my reaction when he targeted them. My fears, of failing to protect them, failing to give them a safe and happy childhood, failing to create the large, happy family that I wanted to raise, triggered my own stress reaction and I lost control. I snapped at him and sent him to his room. He raged and beat the wall and drooled. Just when he most needed me to pull him closer, I would send him away from me, physically, because I needed the space to avoid yelling and screaming at him, but more damaging, emotionally, because I could not deal with my anger and fear. I failed him as a mother again and again.
Our family shut down. We did not go out because we were ashamed of our inability to parent our son and insecure about his insatiable need for attention from other adults. We felt trapped and at the same time horrible guilt. We had ruined our family. We had made life a living hell for our eighteen month old daughter and son. Worst of all, we were failing to reach our oldest child and help him through his pain.
Friends tried to reassure us. All older siblings target their younger brothers and sisters. Pinching is normal. He is just five. I tried to believe it, but I knew that it was far deeper and more troublesome than that. We did not love or trust each other, this little boy and I. I felt compassion for him. Objectively, I understood that his anger and jealousy came from a hurt and fear of abandonment so great that it shut down his brain. But when he pinched my year old daughter or pushed my year old son, I saw only malice, not sibling rivalry. And I admit that when I sent him to his room, he saw only barely controlled fury without the foundation of unconditional love. I struggled to approach him with the appearance of love, a soft voice and kind eyes. In the end though, I reacted to him the way I reacted to another woman's child pushing my children on the playground instead of as my own beloved child. I just happened to be responsible for his care.
Researching attachment therapies on-line brought a desperate word to my attention. A word I had never heard in all of my adoption research. Disruption. The technical term for the act of dissolving an adoption and placing an adopted child in a second adoptive family. Prior to attempting to parent our son, I might have harshly judged someone who adopted a child and then 'gave them up' or maybe 'gave up on them.' Sitting at my computer, the word rang like a perfectly pitched note through my whole body. That was it. That was us. We were disrupted. Our lives were disrupted. Our children were disrupted. As an adjective and a verb, it perfectly described our family.
The literature called it a last resort after all other options were exhausted. Unable to sleep at 3:00 a.m., Matt and I wondered if that should be true. We had already learned, through research and counseling, some hard facts about the difficulties of bonding with an attachment-disordered child. Children who lack the critical building blocks of trust needed to be regressed and treated as babies. They often struggled in families where they were not the youngest or only child. Should we wait to see if things improved? If we tried therapy first, should we try for months or years? Were we putting our son's needs first or was selfishness driving us to look for an easy way to ease our situation? Shouldn't our son have the best chance to move on and love another family that better met his needs? Shouldn't our little ones grow in an environment free of this horrible stress and anger? Shouldn't he get to be the baby he needed to be? Were we wise or cruel? Failures or champions? Did love mean letting go or showing him that we would be with him no matter what?
A wise counselor cut through the emotional red tape and pointed out some simple truths. He needed time and undivided attention. I was stretched to the limit. He needed to be babied. I already had babies. I was unable to prioritize his needs over the needs of our younger children. She reiterated and cemented some facts in our minds. There is a reason that most adoption specialists recommend against adopting out of birth order. Children with attachment-related negative behaviors often thrive as the youngest or only child. Second placements succeed at a very high percentage rate because the second family is prepared for the behavioral challenges and the situation is tailored to the child's needs. She provided a little balsam for our raw emotions. Some children, she told us, just need a transitional family. Some families and kids are a poor fit. They usually succeed in their second home, sometimes without ever demonstrating the same negative behaviors. As much as I hated being a 'poor fit' for my child, I knew that it was true.
Dreams end. Hearts break. On another beautiful, sunny day in June, just a little over eight months after we brought him home, our son left our lives as simply as he had entered them. He waited for his 'new parents' on our front porch with the same eager anticipation that we had seen in his eyes when we walked into the orphanage and met him for the first time. My brain desperately repeated the attachment facts, but my heart broke for the millionth time when he walked away with them without looking back.
I still cry. There is so much guilt. I still lie awake at night and relive those months. What could I have done differently? With more patience, could I have broken through and begun bonding? I still wish he was ours, but happily so. Selfishly, but honestly, a lot of the pain involves my self image. I still wonder if I am a terrible mother. The answer hurts because it is not simple. The answer is no. And yes. I am a wonderful, dedicated and determined, well-read, usually-patient, often-hurried, sometimes quick-tempered, incredibly loving mother to our three babies. I was a terrible mother for him.
Stacey Conner is a mom to three kids
three-and-under through birth and international adoption. With a fourth baby
due in July, life is messy, but never boring. She loves chai tea lattes, bed
time and being at home with her children. She hates finger paints and play
dough. Her family lives in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs about life with
three toddlers, adoption, trans-racial parenting and other issues, big and
small, at www.anymommyoutthere.com.
Editor's Note: For those leaving comments, please be slow to judge, quick to feel compassion for all involved, and thankful to have never found yourself in this difficult situation. --Martha Osborne