Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Adoptive Mommies and Attachment

There was a question left under "comments" about my last post and I thought I'd address it here where Amanda might be sure to see my response:

"I have a question and you might have answered it before. Did you have a difficult time attaching as well or was it just Josh's attaching to you?

Boy Amanda, what a loaded and terrific question. I read your comment this morning and have thought about it all day long, trying to gain some perspective by revisiting that time a bit in my mind. The more I thought about it, the more it hit me on a gut level that this required real and total honesty, and that once I sat down to write I might not like what came out or what kind of light it placed me in. When I began this blog and saw the number of hits I was getting, it became much more than a way to record Kenny's adoption for our family. I have vowed to be as truthful as I can be about our experiences, in the hopes it might help others who are adopting or have already adopted, and I remembered how alone, afraid and flat out awful I felt during those first terrible months (heck, who am I kidding it was two years!!) when we struggled with Josh's Reactive Attachment Disorder. So here goes, and if I come across as an awful mommy, please forgive me.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have never been one of those sobbing, overly emotional adoptive moms whose tears flow easily when they first meet their new child. Curiosity and a sort of distanced adoration were the over-riding emotions at the time. I obviously felt something very deep upon accepting the referral of each of our sons, but I have never called it "love", as they were complete strangers to me and I have never understood how anyone can think they are in "love" with their new baby whom they have never held or met before, nor do they even know what their personality is like. I am not cold or unemotional about it, perhaps practical is a good term for how I have always approached this first meeting with our new sons. Weeks later, after travel was completed and we were all settled back at home, there have been moments when "it" happened, and I looked into the eyes of my child and realized that another chunk of my heart now had a new name embroidered upon it.

I have never see this as having trouble attaching, but frankly as being more normal and natural than those I have described who speak of deep abiding love for a child they have yet to meet. Now mind you, this is just "normal" for me, and I understand that each of us has our own way of approaching adoption and work at attaching in their own ways, so I am not saying any way is "wrong" per se, but that it would be wrong for me to pretend I felt emotions that I really didn't feel.

With Josh, it was an entirely different ball game. I remember visiting him without Dominick the second day, and leaving the orphanage after spending a very uncomfortable hour with him squirming and screaming. Boy, did the tears spill then! When I left the orphanage that evening, sitting there in the back seat of the car with that incessant Russian techno-dance music blaring it was all I could do to not break out in gut wrenching sobs. I immediately recognized signs of attachment disorder but it was far too soon to label it that due to the newness of everything for him. But deep in my heart, I knew we had some serious things ahead of us to work through. I was so scared, and so filled with sorrow that saying my heart was heavy is far too much of an understatement. It felt as if someone had injected lead into my chest. The thing that was without doubt through all of this was...

We were committed.

Leaving the orphanage with Josh did nothing to allay those fears, as his tiny little body bucked and sweat poured from his face as he screamed non-stop for hours. The following days spent traveling to Almaty and finally home were challenging, at best. His inability to sleep much at all, our inability to offer him any comfort through cuddling or snuggling all made this a very trying trip, and did nothing at all to help the bonding process begin for me. His distress was so extreme, his cries so constant that Russian maids in our hotel in Almaty burst into our room, no doubt thinking this child was being abused. And yet...

We were committed.

We came home, and this time that was supposed to be so special was marred by exhaustion, challenging behavior, food fights, and unending crying and discontent. When I held him, he cried. When I put him down, he cried, arms reaching upwards as if begging me to hold him only to have him immediately and violently push me away. He simply could not stand human touch, it was foreign and created a relationship that he was not at all ready to step into willingly. He never looked into my eyes and in hilarious fashion almost spun his head around as if a character in a "B" rated horror movie to avoid eye contact. Did I love him? Nope, not even close. That is as honest as I can be. I didn't have the chance to relax and love him. This was the hardest I had ever worked in my life at anything, and love hadn't even entered into it yet. I felt deep compassion for this little child, this son of mine whose heart had been so terribly stomped on that he couldn't seem to break down the ice walls surrounding it and allow me in. And still...

We remained committed.

Time drug on, week after exhausted week, night after nightmarish night. We tried Holding Therapy with a specialist, EMDR with another specialist, I made countless phone calls begging someone to help...then I gave up for awhile thinking I would just muddle along and see what we could do ourselves. 4,5 6 months later and still I had a child who was no closer to letting me in than I was the first week we were home. If anything his behavior was more over the top, more defiant and in truth he was more scared than ever of letting go and loving this new mommy who was constantly in his face and wouldn't back down. He was terrified of being hurt again, of being let down by yet another adult in his life. Did I love him yet? No...I did not, at least not in the way I knew a mother should love her child. But...

I remained committed.

You see, one of the hardest things about attachment disorder, and probably the least understood about it is that it is really all about "MOM". RAD kids have been hurt by mom or have an inability to connect with and trust a primary caretaker. Their basic needs for nurturing have not been met and they learn early on that they can not count on adults to keep them safe. These children can be so charming around others, so adorable and even well behaved with those with whom there is no risk of having a close relationship, that people do not have a clue what is going on behind closed doors. They don't see the hostility vented, the anger thrust at the new mother figure in their lives, and no one believes it when mom finally opens up and shares it! "Come on, this cute little guy? No Way!" was the general response received when I finally summoned up the courage to share. And imagine how it feels to have the big build up to an adoption and then the end result is...well..not what you had dreamed of...and then you have to paste on that smile that you dredge up from somewhere and when asked how things are going you quickly recognize that your less-than-enthusiastic response sounds so hollow to your own ears.

To hold a child in your arms who is now yours forever and yet physically pushes you away repeatedly day after day, who often does not acknowledge your presence and yet giggles and smiles for complete strangers is beyond heartbreaking. It hurts in a way nothing else can. I had Matchbox cars thrown at me from the back seat while driving, and food fights with him for months. When we tried to bring him to bed with us he hated my touch so much that even in his sleep (when he slept) he would automatically crawl to the very end of the bed to escape being physically close to me. When pushed too strongly to get close emotionally Josh would become dissociative for hours afterwards, "zoning out" and becoming unresponsive.

All of this occurs before you have ever had the chance to develop a real relationship or to create any wonderful memories that you can cling to when the going gets rough. You are immediately thrust into the fire with a complete stranger, one who is not nice at all, not warm and cuddly but instead is cold and prickly and acts as if he hates you! Not at all the kinds of experiences that are conducive to building a loving relationship. And just when I felt as if it is the last straw...

I remained committed.

Mother's Day 2004 should have been an occasion filled with great laughter and joy, our second son was home! Hurray! Instead it was a day filled with a sense of finality, a day when I recognized that if we didn't get help soon, we were not going to make it. I spent the day crying, wallowing in misery and dread of what the future held. I could see myself living for 18 years with someone who was still a stranger to me, someone who never connected emotionally and eventually turned out to be another serial killer. No, I am not at all do you think the Ted Bundy's and the Jeffery Dahmer's of the world are created? RAD kids when older are the monsters you read about who stick cats in the microwave, who set fire to the tails of dogs, who come at their parents with butcher knives in their sleep. My dreams of a happy and loving home were long gone, replaced instead with the hollow sense of passing by my own son in our halls every day hoping our shoulders didn't touch because I was repulsed by him. I was not there yet, not by a long shot, but I had this imaginary crystal ball in front of me and could clearly see where we were headed.

If I am being 100% honest here, on that day I could also see that in time my patience would be used up, my tolerance limit well surpassed, and that I had the potential to hurt my child because all pretences of loving him would be gone. I was deathly afraid of my heart slowly hardening to the point where it would never thaw towards him, that I would give up and resign myself to it all and then I would be the kind of mother no child deserves. I was not there yet, but it was easily within the realm of possibility and I finally let myself admit it.

How many times can a person step back in the ring with someone who is hitting you repeatedly with the emotional equivalent of powerful left hooks? How long can you continue to keep from reacting when your soul wants to scream at the top of your lungs "Will you just knock it off? I only want to hug you!!!"? What does it take to push a mother over the edge? And making things that much more difficult was having no one believe what you were saying about the kinds of challenging behaviors you were experiencing at home. Night after night of having him wake up screaming from nightmares at least 6 or 7 times and often 10+ times a night was wearing me out physically, and being rejected repeatedly was wearing me out emotionally. Love? You want me to actually love this kid too???

But I remained committed.

We eventually found help, and I came to an understanding that much of this was going to be a test of wills, his against mine. I had to outlast him, to be more stubborn, to continue to act in a loving manner despite his determined efforts to push me away. He had to be given enough time to realize that this time, finally, he could let go and trust that a mommy would stick around and would be there for the long haul. I needed the help from outside to give me the courage to hang in there, to listen to me and reassure me that I was not headed to the Funny Farm but that the private behavior in our home was not imaginary and was understood by someone.

Time heals all wounds is not always accurate, but in this case it sure helped. Slowly, ever so slowly, Joshua began to unlock the door to his heart and let me slip in occasionally. His anger began to recede and a smile would be cracked here and there. I remember the first time I really heard him laugh, the first time he called me momma 7 months after coming home. As his heart was softening, so too was mine, and gradually I didn't have to force myself to "be in character" and pretend to be a loving mom, because I found that I did love this little boy, this resilient, courageous toddler who had the guts to give love a try just one more time. Heaven forbid what would have happened to him had this relationship left him once again feeling bereft. I shudder to think of it.

Fast forward 3 1/2 years, and today Josh and I have an incredible relationship. It is not artificial, it is real, it is deep, it is all I could have dreamed of and yet never dared hoped we would achieve. In many ways, he and I have both visited the abyss and helped lift one another out. I have been blessed with close relationships thus far with each of my sons, even Kenny and I are developing a wonderful mommy-son connection but my relationship with Josh is special, it was hard earned and we each have battle scars to prove it. While I can't say that I love him more than Matthew or Kenny, I love him differently, and his daily hugs and kisses and desire to nurture me too at moments are beyond sweet. My appreciation for his affectionate qualities is greater, as I can easily see what could have been the ultimate outcome.

So in answer to Amanda's question, yes it was very hard to bond with Joshua...the struggle originated with his inability to connect, but it came close to creating the same in me. Had that happened I would have been a very different mother to Matthew and likely never would have adopted Kenny either.

The key to this, for me, was faith. I never, ever would have been able to stay the course or show love when I certainly felt emotions ranging from ambivalence to anger if I hadn't felt beyond all doubt that this was the child that God intended for us to parent. The one constant throughout it all was that I knew God had something to teach me and that He had not steered us towards Josh to sit back and have a good belly laugh, but because I need to delve deeper and learn more than I ever had in my life. I held firm to the belief that God would not have placed Josh with us if He hadn't thought we had the strength to handle it. So during those bleak early morning hours when I was sobbing as I tried to rock Mr. Don't Touch Me to sleep, when I begged him to look in my eyes just once hoping that by some miracle he would see the potential for love there just waiting for him to grab hold, I reassured myself over and over that God has plans we are not always privy to, and I had to wait for it to be revealed to me. I also often thought of God's love for me, of the times I had rejected Him in my life and how He must have felt when I turned my back. I used His love for us as a role model for myself and Joshie, telling myself that God hung in there with me so I could hang in there with Josh, hoping that like myself coming back to God, Joshua would one day come to me with open arms.

I see it now, I learned so much about love and dedication and emotional pain during that long period of my life. I learned that I had the moxie to do the hard stuff, that I was being tested in some ways and I was passing the exam by simply not giving up. With hindsight I now see that Josh was also sent to prepare my heart to accept an older child without reservation or fear. I am 100% certain that Kenny would not be in our home today if Josh hadn't walked me through Hell for awhile. After all, we had already seen much of the worst that could be thrown at us and succeeded...what could Kenny possibly throw at us that we couldn't handle? I think that one reason we feel Kenny's adoption has been so overwhelmingly successful is that we are not at all disturbed by the little things that might have really proven to be difficult for us otherwise. RAD was really a series of building blocks for where we are now, and believe it or not I am grateful for that time with Josh, and I am ever more grateful for the young boy who stands before me today whom I never would have imagined was living inside that angry, resentful infant we brought home. His tenderness today is in large part because he has known pain, he has hurt inside in ways that you and I can never fully understand, and yet he showed more courage than most adults ever would in similar circumstances. I have great respect for my 4 year old son. And it was all because even when I didn't feel love, I remained...



Nathan, Amanda, Violet & Anara said...

Wow Cyndi - thanks for sharing that. I remember reading a little about your experiences before adopting Anara. Thanks for reminding me to remain committed. Thanks for your honesty.

Cliff & Chandra said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. It must have been very difficult for you to put all that down and tell us about it.

Anonymous said...

I thank you for your honesty. God bless you and your deep committment to His will.

Laurie said...

I have tears running down my cheeks right now. You and your family are truly a reflection of God's great love. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. As an adoptive mom who suffered though post adoption depression with my son 5yrs ago I am in awe of your strength. My son did not have RAD and yet I struggled to bond with him. We are firmly bonded now but the first year was tough. If we do adopt again and I am in your situation your words will ring in my ears. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Cindy.

You have shown great courage on your difficult journey. It is a reminder that, sometimes, love is about determination. It is about not letting go and not giving up. It is continuing even when you don’t want to. It is hanging tough, when it would be oh so much easier to let it all go.

I think every adoption is a miracle of God’s love working in our lives.

Here are some verses I’d like to share, that I have found helpful for tough times:

“but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31

“though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand.” Psalm 37:24

“I know, O Lord, that the way of human beings is not in their control, that mortals as they walk cannot direct their steps.” Jeremiah 10:23

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” Jeremiah 17: 7-8

This is the verse that sustained us on our journey to become a family through the blessing of adoption:

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Jeremiah 29:11

Peace and blessings from Virginia,

Peggy B.

Becky said...


Thank you for taking the risk of being so honest. I am like you, I need to know someone before I can love them. I too committed to a photo and a name but love came later - my own self-protection maybe. I too struggled to adjust and accept my new role as 'mother'. I had a post-adoption depression as well (plus some other health and work factors but it all hit at once) and while my son was ready to bond to me, I had to remind myself many times that I had made the commitment and I needed to reach back to him. Like you, years later, I am so glad that I did. Thank you again for sharing. Becky

Mom to 2 Angels said...

Thanks for your honesty in this journey. I can't imagine what courage it took for you to stay committed. We have dealt with some symptoms of attachment disorders, but NOTHING like you described. Both of our kiddos had indiscriminate friendliness to any stangers, but they did still show love and affection towards mom, too. Then eventually they became more wary of others.

Michelle said...

There is such an expectation for mothers to be able to miraculously bond with their children instantaneiously - bio and adopted. It took me months to bond with my bio daughter - then you just get closer and closer. I think I attached to Z much quicker than to my daughter. Thanks for talking about the uncomfortable!

wilisons said...


This post came to me when I needed it the most. Until adopting my 2nd, I had no idea about the extent of my 1st child's RAD. For the past 8 weeks, RAD has been the shadow looming over our lives. I have days where I cry and miss the time of blissful innocence when we were a normal, happy family. Living with RAD children is more difficult than anyone can imagine. It is very reaffirming to know that I am not alone nor am I crazy or a terrible parent.

Thank you!