Today I bring you the final installment of a four-part series from my guest, Sarah. When I published my post, Have We Made Attachment an Idol, she wrote a comment so insightful and beautiful that I asked her to develop it into a guest post. That post was so rich that I asked her to expand it, and before we knew it, we had a four part series. I am very honored that she is entrusting her story to me – it is tender, raw, and hopeful.
When I read Lisa’s post about attachment being an elusive idol within the adoptive community I wrote to her. I wanted to quietly, gently suggest to her and the group of adoptive mama’s who have done *the work that it is okay to let go of the expectation of a warm and secure attachment. That it is okay to put that expectation down. It is okay to let go of the crushing feelings of shame – the feeling of being a complete failure. Your child has a role to play here – they have the right to decide – with their heart, their mind and their spirit if they are going to attach to you or not. You, adoptive mamas, also get to make this same decision.
The healing that needs to happen to allow our children to trust, to love, to be loved is not within our control. We must do *the work, we must then let go of the outcome.
How a child copes, processes and makes sense of their life-story is variable. I know and love folks that have been adopted who are the most intact, resilient and loving people. I call these folks ducks. When the hard stuff of life comes flying at them it just rolls right off. You will not have too much work to do if you are parenting a duck. However, many of us are more like porcupines – the hard stuff gets thrown and it sticks to us, gets stuck in us. Scares us. Changes us. If your child is more like a porcupine then you will have more work to do. (And just to complicate matters even more, I would bet that many kids who have been adopted are actually porcupines masquerading as ducks).
Deciding what *the work is, is up to you, your child and your family. I’d like to gently suggest that it goes beyond soccer camp and a beautifully coordinated family Christmas picture. Love is not enough (unless your child is a duck). The science of today supports this, just as importantly the stories of adult adoptees support this.
When you decide to adopt a child, especially an older child, you are making a commitment to a little life – a little heart, mind and soul that may have already been fundamentally changed by the loss of their first family. What looks like ‘bad behaviour’ is often the outward signs that a child is suffering – anxiety, dysregulation and sensory-processing challenges may manifest themselves in response to loss, grief and suffering. This is the stuff for doctor/therapist-types to be assisting with. This is not the job of parents to do alone.
In my mind the work of parents is to create the safety, the stability, the support for your child to begin again. For that, in essence, is what they are doing. They had a life. That life is now gone. Their task is to make sense of that story and to begin writing new, hopefully beautiful, chapters. A strong, supportive, fun, present family-life is the best place for a child to begin writing these new chapters.
The rhythm and ritual of family-life is where attachment will grow. Family movie nights tucked under warm blankets with heaping bowls of popcorn help, Saturday morning breakfasts with pancakes and maple syrup help, colouring together at the kitchen table helps, predictable evening routines of calming baths and bedtime stories help. Lollipops, whoopee cushions, frozen tag, dance parties, funny movies & favourite foods all help. The things that bring about smiles and laughter help.
Healing work is not all about trudging through trauma – it is also about finding joy and cultivating light. Look for the moments when your child’s eyes are shining – when they are smiling in a big, carefree, unabashed way. Do more of whatever brings that about.
Attachment will grow slowly from these moments of ritual and comfort. These warm moments will begin to counter what is happening in your child’s inner landscape – which may be darker and more chaotic than you can imagine, or that your child is capable of voicing.
Attachment is a relationship – it is the dance, the flow, the way we relate to each other. We often only concern ourselves with our child’s attachment to us, let us not ignore that the other half of this relationship is our attachment to our child. When many of our kids are acting out – violently, loudly, incessantly it is impossible to expect that we are going to securely and lovingly attach to this child. I believe it is impossible to attach (warmly & securely) to a raging mess- we just aren’t hard-wired to do this. Newborns are warm and cute and cuddly for a reason. If your family-life feels like a constant war-zone then notice what it is doing to you and get some help. Lower your expectations and get your feet on your own healing path.
Healing will happen in a relationship. Support, facilitate and encourage that your child does the work that they need to do to make sense of their life and help them write a new beginning. The chapters may be painful and messy at times but they can also be filled with the best kind of joy and beauty.
I’ve been looking forward to this post since Sarah and I first began communicating. Her voice as both an older adoptee and as an adoptive mother is so valuable to me. Two of our children came to us at older ages, Dimples at nearly six, and Beza at ten. Like Sarah writes, “They had a life. That life is now gone.” It is a very different experience to adopt older children, especially preteens and teens, and Sarah’s voice is a gift.
Sarah welcomes your thoughts and comments. She hopes this post will be a discussion and opener and we can engage on this topic together. She’ll respond to your comments and questions as she is able.
Once again, I thank Sarah for trusting her story to me and giving us a glimpse into the experience of being an older adoptee.
Encourage one another.
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