Adoption Advocacy: A Family for Elise
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Unexpected Holdups in the Adoption Process
Our first toddler adoption was a little boy from Korea. When his foster mother handed him off to me, she cried, and I cried. He barely whimpered. I felt relieved that he took to me so easily. I carried him in a baby carrier and slept with him at night. By the time we left Korea, I figured we were on our way to good attachment.
Once home, I carried him frequently, rocked him at bedtime, and slept with him at night if he woke crying. When he woke at night, he howled if I held him close. He preferred to rest his head on my forearm, his body a careful 12 inches from mine. Just adjustment pangs, I thought, confident he'd soon warm up to me.
After a month, he was still stand-offish, and I was frustrated. Why didn't he feel more comfortable with me? I blamed myself. Worked harder. Hugged him more. But he still remained standoffish. And just as troubling, it seemed that my usuall in-love, mommy feelings-- the ones that had come so easily with my other five children -- just wouldn't come.
After reading about toddlers and attachment, I paid closer attention to his behavior. He would whine to be picked up, then arch away and slither down my hip, or he'd lean limply outward, making his 23-pound body feel like lead. On my lap, he leaned far away. If I didn't hang on, he would tumble off. And when I hugged him, he cried and thrashed as though my hugs were torture.
If I smiled at him, his eyes skittered away. If I tickled him, he resisted laughter with every iota of his being. He seemed constitutionally opposed to having fun with Mom. Not only that, he'd pinch tiny bits of skin on my arm, or pull one hair on my head—accidentally, I first thought. Except that those things happened too often to be accidental.
None of this was big stuff. But considered together, it left me with a constant low-level irritation and a feeling of being rejected. When I recognized his behaviors as a sign of attachment difficulties, I was both scared and relieved.
There was a reason I was struggling with my feelings towards him. I wasn't a rotten mom. I felt differently about him because he wasn't doing his part in the dance of attachment.
Attachment, after all, is a relationship—a two-way street. A mother falls in love with her infant partly because of the lovable things the baby does—nestling in, quieting when being cuddled, enjoying being fed, smiling and cooing, preferring Mom above everyone.
So why was he so resistant? It wasn't because he was a rotten kid. No. It was fear, plain and simple. He'd spent his first seven months of life in a hospital, with no chance to become attached to anyone. His next 13 months had been with his foster mom, who handed him to a stranger—me—and walked away.
He feared losing another mommy, so he was doing everything he could to make himself unlovable. Resisting hugs, avoiding eye contact—it was all self-protection.
It broke my heart to realize how wounded he was. But it also spurred me to act. Since we'd missed out on his infancy, I decided we would redo some of it. I treated him like a much younger child. He went everywhere with me. I slept with him. I fed him bites at mealtime and bottles at bedtime. I played on the floor with him. I began rocking and holding him close every day, giving him kisses and reassurances that I would always be there.
This cuddle time made him cry -- he resisted it fiercely at first. But I persevered. And each day, as I cradled him and told him how much I loved him and wiped away his tears, I found myself truly falling in love.
I still second-guessed myself often. It was tough, tiring work, and I worried that stirring up so much emotion wasn't good for him. But each day after being held and allowed to cry his sadness out, his spirit unfailingly seemed lighter. He seemed relieved that I'd stuck with him through his tears.
His eyes sparkled. He accepted cuddles. He was playful. He'd have hours or days of better behavior, and I'd get glimpses of the child he could be. Over the days and weeks, cuddling bothered him less and less. His rage subsided. He even began to seek out hugs and love.
I still remember exactly where I was when he came and climbed into my lap and asked for a hug all on hs own. It was possibly the sweetest hug I ever got in my life.
After six months, I could look back and see how far we'd come. We still had work to do, but by then he was so much better—more loving, giving hugs, sharing laughs with me. It was harder and slower than I ever imagined, but completely worth it.
Now, at age nine, he is a normal well attached, happy kid. Recently he was playing a game with cousins where you had to answer questions. Everyone was asked what they loved. Other kids said ice cream and pizza. He said, "I love my mom."
Three years after our son came home, we decided to adopt another child. When we were referred a 10-month-old girl from Ethiopia, I hesitated. I had hoped for a younger infant. Even though our son at that point was doing well, I was so afraid of dealing with attachment problems again.
But when my husband saw that picture, he knew in his heart he was looking at his daughter. Bolstered by my husband's certainty, I added my signature to the referral papers, and prayed everything would be okay.
A month later, our agency's director visited Ethiopia and decided that our daughter was probably six months older than the original estimate. Estimated age on homecoming: 20 months. Exactly the age our son had been.
My heart clutched. Yes, we had gotten through it with our son, but, oh, I did not want to go through those highs and lows again. I cried for days over that new birth date, even though I knew that a number on a piece of paper didn't really change the child. She was the age that she was, and in spite of my fear, by that point I also was convinced she was meant to be ours.
I gave myself pep talks. Our experience with our son made us better equipped to parent a child with attachment issues. I reread my favorite books on attachment and gathered my courage.
And then came our daughter. After living with her birth family for her first year of life, our daughter had spent the next 10 months in a busy Catholic orphanage. She was one of 15 or so toddlers in a tiny, crowded room with one or two caregivers. Halfway through her stay there, she was moved to a different room with different caregivers, but the same overcrowded conditions. Not an ideal start at life.
The day the nuns handed her to us, she was very still. She barely moved for two days, just watching us. Then she began reaching her arms out to me. I carried her everywhere, fed her bottles, and slept with her at night. By the fourth day she had turned into a sparkly, delightful cuddle-bunny.
For weeks I waited for the honeymoon to end, but it never did. When she had been home seven months, while cuddling at naptime, she said to me, "Thank you, mommy. Thank you, happy, me."
She came to me with an open little heart, fell in love with me immediately, and never let go. I know now what a gift that is.
I still wonder why our two children responded so differently to the trauma in their lives. Maybe our daughter had excellent nurturing in her first year, and that's what carried her through those long months in the orphanage. Maybe our son found those first seven months in the hospital so traumatic that he was unable to bond with his foster mom. Then again, our daughter is a people person, and our son is more reserved.
Maybe it simply comes down to personality. We'll never know for sure. We do know, however, that we are tremendously grateful—for our son's healed heart and for our daughter's miraculously unbroken one. Though their adjustments were very different, both children were meant for our family.
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