My daughter lived in my psyche for two decades before I met her, but my thoughts didn't carry melodies of the mother-daughter dance. I had no memories of tender moments between a mother and her child. Mostly they were of the horror I felt at risking a repeat of the physical and emotion abuse my mentally ill mother rained on me, during my childhood and young adulthood.
During those decades, as a solution to ending the cycle of abuse, I vacillated between searing I would never have children and a cautious and growing optimism that the hard emotional work I was doing would allow me to become a parent.
On the day I met my daughter I promised her I would strive to be the mother she deserved. I felt the responsibility of being the best parent I could be so that I wouldn’t become yet another stumbling block from her difficult, early life circumstances.
I am a social scientist by profession and a researcher at heart so I spent my time waiting for my daughter reading about what might be expected of me as the parent of a post-institutionalized child. In addition to reading about general adoption issues, I focused on attachment issues. I felt it was so important to be able to recognize signs of attachment difficulty (or hopefully, signs that my baby was open to attaching), learning attachment promoting activities, and preparing to welcome my daughter.
Happily, my seven-month-old daughter gave indications that she had her attachment abilities still alive within her. She made strong eye contact, quickly came to prefer me over others, and was happy to let me fully care for her. The first bottle I prepared for her was so telling. Her tiny hands came up to hold it, but as soon as she felt me continuing to hold it she released the bottle and never touched it again in all her months of bottle-feeding. I could feel her relax into my body that first time as her eyes searched my face. It is an understatement to say she was simply open to my mothering. In retrospect, I think it was she who started to draw me to her.
As the days of motherhood unfolded, I found that there were times when I felt overwhelmed by my daughter's physical and emotional demands and I would simply 'space out'. I would suddenly realize she'd been crying in her crib and I hadn't 'heard' her, or she would be sitting in my lap and a poke or a baby sound from her would pull me back to attention. She definitely noticed when I was not fully present with her and did not like it. I had to force myself into a constant 'mental checking in' to keep me from tuning-out when I was tired or overwhelmed. While this served my daughter well, it was exhausting for me. There was little room in my life for other things and I knew this was not a sustainable pattern.
Over time, I was drawn again to the attachment literature I had read in preparation for parenthood. As I re-read old resources and found new books on the subject I came to see myself in them! I could see myself as the 'avoidant-attached' child who had grown into a dismissively-attached adult! This was such a revelation to me; I gained a deeper understanding of some of my characteristics and behaviors.
Of particular help to me were the books that included adult attachment styles, not just children's, and information about how adult attachment affected parenting. I saw a way of healing myself and becoming a better parent to my daughter. I found these books tremendously empowering and I was excited and impatient to make the necessary changes in my internal geography!
I spent a year of focused emotional work including therapy, lots of reading, reflecting, writing, and sharing with trusted friends. In this process I learned that how I was parented affected how I mothered my daughter, and why I needed to heal hurts that were deeply buried beneath the surface. I stared this emotional work out of my profound commitment to my child.
Resilient Parent-Resilient Child
I no longer need the constant vigilance to keep myself tuned in to my daughter. It happens naturally now, even when I'm tired or overwhelmed. I have more confidence in my relationships and I'm not nearly as afraid to state my true feelings or needs. I've been able to re-envision my life being connected to people, rather than being on the outside, looking in at people in satisfying relationships.
During therapy, I considered why I have been able to bounce back from some tough childhood experiences and move toward an 'earned secure' attachment style with in my adulthood. I also began to wonder why some international adoptees have been able to manage the effects of their very difficult beginnings and why others seem totally overwhelmed by what they’ve experienced. I was introduced to the concept of resiliency during this time and I recognized it as an invaluable life skill or trait, and one I wanted to pass on to my own daughter. In scientific terms, resilience is "a universal capacity which allows a person, group or communit to prevent, minimize or overcome the damaging effects of adversity" (Grotberg, 1995). Or, as the popular quotation says, "the ability to get knocked down ten times and get up eleven". Some people are born with the resiliency skills, but many have to work to build and internalize them. The traits of a resilient child or adult (from the International Resiliency Project) are as follows:
- People around me I trust and who love me, no matter what
- People who set limits for me so I know when to stop before there is danger or trouble
- People who show me how to do things right by their actions
- People who want me to learn to do things on my own
- People who help me when I am sick, in danger, or need to learn
- A person people can like and love
- Glad to do nice things for others and show my concern
- Respectful of myself and others
- Willing to be responsible for what I do
- Sure things will be all right
- Talk to others about things that frighten me or bother me
- Find ways to solve problems that I face
- Stop when I feel like doing something not right
- Figure out when it is a good time to talk and take action
- Find someone to help me when I need it
The previous points are from Edith H. Grotberg, PHD, who conducted the International Resiliency Project.
A resilient person has a cluster of those characteristics. These may be innate for some people, but all can be learned, modeled, and/or taught, which is what the true value of resiliency is! You can learn to bounce back or help your children learn to bounce back, even if you're not a natural 'bouncer'.
Teaching or learning resiliency is adding new ways of responding to situations. It is learning new dance steps for old tunes and even writing whole new songs to dance to. These are invaluable skills for all of us, but particularly so for parents of adoptees and our children whose early lessons on how life works may not be serving them well.
There are many books written on learning resiliency in personal and professional life. To start with, it is helpful to get a sense of how resilient you are. A quick and interesting resiliency test can be found at http://www.resiliencycenter.com/resiliencyquiz.shtml . After you get a sense of how resilient you are, you may want to pursue different resources for beefing up your resiliency.
What I've Learned
Don't give up on yourself or your child! It is very often possible to heal from difficult childhood circumstances. Each step toward healing is empowering and allows bigger challenges to be successfully taken on. Emotional well-being is a process, not a destination. There are different issues to address at different points along the way. For me at least, there was a point where the process changed from a survival mode (I have to do this emotional work or I just cannot function) to a journey of increasing richness, and satisfaction with the results. Resiliency is perhaps the most important skill in life. It helps you pick yourself up when you trip. It will keep a person forging ahead, seeking happier, healthier options. It allows a person to truly be in the moment, rather than bogged down in past difficulties. It provides a level of creativity and innovation in thinking and actions that can add richness to any life. It provides a foundation for strong personhood. It dramatically enhances parenting ability.
Resiliency is what keeps a mother dancing to lovely tunes with her child, rather than being trapped alone on the sidelines with an ugly noise from the past replaying in her head.
Debbie Carr-Taylor is an adoptive mom. She was a research sociologist for the federal government before becoming a mother.
Resources: Books that may help
- The Resilience Factor: 7 Essential Skills for Overcoming Life’s Inevitable Obstacles
- The Resilient Self: How Survivors of Troubled Families Rise Above Adversity
- The Power of Resilience
- Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How they Shape Our Capacity to Love
Re-printed from the amazing book, "Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections", with permissin from EMK Press.