Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Hard Work of Adoptive Love

He plopped himself on my lap, sprawled across it with his now somewhat gargantuan body draped across me. The slightest sign of peach fuzz has appeared on his upper lip, his voice solidly in a much lower register that even had his dad puzzled last week asking "Who's that?".  I can't truly call him my "first born", and not just because he was not carried in my womb but because our family is now and forever an enigma which is hard to explain because of our out of sequence formation.  However he is my "first home" and the first I ever held in my arms knowing that this child was mine to keep forever...or at least until the day comes when he completely belongs to himself and I can claim him no more, a day that creeps slowly closer.

He is as tall as I these days, solidly built, and living into the image that was so easy to conjure even when he was a preschooler whose firm grip on my hand was always strangely reassuring.  He hops up, and the other end of the LaJoy family scale jumps on, the littlest LaJoy who is not so little anymore, he and his older brother the bookends of the family, both brought into our lives as tiny ones, eventually bracketing others who entered needing acceptance, love, patience and time...time to figure out who they were and what their roles are...a process that continues to this day.

The physical part of parenting adopted children is something that is almost never discussed, and yet is probably one of the single most important facets of bonding.  Oh, we share about the practical aspects of taking in a child whose life began before we appeared.  We know the facts, we understand the risks, we watch for signs of the alphabet soup diagnosis that signal the need for interventions.

But who tells us how to go about shrinking that invisible yet all important personal space bubble?  Who has hints for us about when to prod and push, how to gently encourage the more intimate kinds of relationships that both parent and child deeply yearn for and yet have no idea how to initiate with a stranger, a stranger whose very role might bring up terrible flashbacks to earlier parents whose presence was less than loving.

Whether adopted in infancy or as older children, the issue of touch and the development of intimacy is imperative and yet somehow a bit taboo.  Perhaps it is our own fear of rejection or our need to present a picture to the world that all is wonderful.  Maybe it is that we don't have the words for what is not yet happening and how we aren't even sure that we should try to make it happen.  Sometimes, we settle for much less than what it can be, all because we are scared to try.

It's easier with infants and toddlers, or so we think.  Sometimes it isn't.  Even the youngest child can reject us physically, using their body to tell you what they do not have the words yet to proclaim..."Don't touch me!  I can't trust you!  Everyone goes away and so will you, so I am NOT giving it up to any big person again...I'm tired of being hurt and left."  They wiggle and squirm, they wrestle and cry out in agonizing screams that are unlike anything ever heard by most parents.  They throw things, the pinch, they bite.  Parents hold back tears of their own as they begin the laborious process of acting lovingly even when they don't feel it...when they can't feel it...and they hope and pray their child doesn't sense it.  Moms and Dads hang in there, rocking tiny, angry children whose gaze never meets theirs, whose bodies are stiff as they endure being held.  Sometimes, surprisingly, as language comes, they even declare that a hug "hurts", for it is so uncomfortable and their vocabulary so limited that is the only way they can describe that what should feel comforting and reassuring actually causes them to feel imprisoned and trapped.

It gets easier, if one hangs on.  Little by little, the child begins to wriggle less and less.  They may not tolerate being chest to chest, but you can have them sit with their back to your chest, their faces directed outward to avoid the intimacy of eye contact...and one day you notice they are relaxing into you, maybe turning their head around for a response.  They begin to let you touch them more, although they may not be able to return affection yet, at least not in obvious or usual ways. Smiles creep in occasionally, and the screaming lessens.  You realize that you can now rest your hand on their back without them bucking away from you, and your heart sings at such a tiny breakthrough.  In time, as you begin to remind them repeatedly, they break the habit of looking away and can even hold your gaze for a few moments.  More time passes, and they absently reach for your hand when walking the aisles at Walmart, and tears spring to your eyes as it is the first time your child has willingly and of their own volition held your hand.  It may be two years post-adoption, but you've made it.  The physical expressions of love that everyone else takes for granted continue to appear, and you breath easier knowing that the worst is past.

With older children, it is far more complicated, far more sensitive, and requires much more awareness and sensitivity.  Tweens and teens are so conflicted as they are entering new relationships which require deep intimacy in order to be successful, and it comes at a time when naturally their development requires them to begin distancing themselves.  What a pickle to be in!!  Then there is the practical side to it all...what is appropriate and natural in infancy and toddlerhood can be taboo at this age.  Bathing with your infant promotes closeness, co-sleeping, blowing on bare tummies and tickling toes...these acts all draw us into relationship with little ones,  but are not possible with older children.

And yet, how they so long for all they never had!  They long to cuddle too, they want to feel precious to someone, they NEED emotional intimacy and to be taught how to achieve it without ever having witnessed it or experienced it.  What is a parent to do?  Where do you even begin?  What won't feel completely awkward with a larger body on the edge of adolescence?  You HAVE to make the efforts, you HAVE to find ways to create space and opportunity for life giving touch.  Every human needs it to be healthy.  Those who have had too little of it die inside, they grow hard and cold.  You have to awaken that part of your older child, so that one day when they have their own child in their arms they can relish the feel of their child's skin on their own, they can offer their own child what was once denied them.

You start slowly, you allow space, you have patience.  A hand gently placed on an arm when making a point. An arm draped over a shoulder when laughing over something.  You read the signals and remove it if you sense a single moment of disturbance.  You never, ever make it about your need to be hugged or feel loved by your child.  You let them gradually get used to physical contact...to even have a hand placed on a shoulder can feel incredibly foreign and uncomfortable if you have never had that sort of experience before.  It is not a rejection of you, it is a discomfort with the unfamiliarity of it all.  It is also about trust, and you have to earn it, sometimes working hard to overcome what has been unfairly laid at your feet due to the actions of others.  It doesn't matter why, it just is, and you have to work with it.

You tousle hair as you walk by, you offer to brush hair, you play games by comparing hand and ring sizes, you try on colognes at the perfume counter and compare as you giggle which smells ghastly and which you would actually wear...but the act of sniffing a perfumed wrist is surprisingly intimate in a non-intrusive way.  You play basketball or football with them, using it as an opportunity to encourage closeness as you show them how to throw the ball with your hand over theirs, or grip a bat as you guide their body movements..no pressure ways to increase comfort level with contact.  You allow them to "make you up" giving them a tray full of blush, eye shadow and lipstick and let them go to town on you, yes, even if you are clownlike in appearance afterward and you all laugh like crazy over it as your hair is sticking up in odd directions looking very much like a disturbed version of Pippi Longstocking.

You laugh, you burp, you fart, you giggle...you do all those things that are not allowed in public but are your secrets...and you don't scold until your relationship is tight, instead you join them and see who can be the smelliest or the loudest.  Crude? Yup.  Effective?  You bet.  You go clothes shopping, you tug at clothes here or there, you evaluate, you ask what they think.  You walk and tell secrets, your arm over their shoulder pulling them close so no one else hears...then you release and give them space.  You have camp outs on your bedroom floor, you whisper in the dark, you hear one another breathing quietly in the night.  You read together, snuggled on a couch, and a head eventually falls to your shoulder.

Then, you do what many would never have the guts to do but which is imperative that it is done...you name it, you call them on it, you explain it.  You say outright "I'll bet it is SO uncomfortable to have a total stranger giving you hugs, that must feel so weird, especially at first!"  or you share your own discomfort honestly and laugh or grieve about it together "I wish I had been able to hold you in my arms when you were a baby, I wish I could have protected you.  Sometimes I feel totally ripped off, and then I realize we are so fortunate to have what we have now." or you can say "When we first met, I was afraid to hug you because I was scared you would push me away."  It is important that you join your child in this unfamiliar journey, that they have the opportunity to see that they were not the only ones trying to figure this all out.  Trust me, it will not make you appear weak, it creates an opening for your child to see you as sharing the same fears and doubts as they have.

Eventually, one day when you are out walking, a much larger hand is timidly placed in yours.  Eventually, the good night hugs become something more than perfunctory, and they last longer and longer as your child melts into you as if they can never get enough of what they missed so long ago.  Eventually, they sneak up behind you and kiss you on the cheek...an act which requires such incredible courage because of the risk they take in doing it and the unfamiliarity of such an act.  It is utterly precious.  Gradually, without you even noticing it, your patience pays off.  They lean into you when your sitting side by side on the couch, they reserve your place next to them at the table, when laying on the floor next to your side of the bed on camp out night, they reach out to you in the dark and grab hold of your hand wanting to let you know that they are glad you are parent and child and lacking the words or courage to say it.

The process is different when adopting, love takes time to develop and grow.  It is amazing to watch, and even more amazing to be a participant.  A child's heart is gently pried open, as long as a parent is not needy themselves and can remain patient and accepting of where the child is on their personal journey.

Our "middles", two of whom are actually our eldest, all respond in different ways.  Kenny's love is so open, so simple and gently offered. His had to move from random to specific, from "Gee...they feed me and don't beat me, isn't that great?" to "Wow...they really LOVE me for who I am, they'd do anything for me, I've never had that before!"  His ease with physical affection made it less tense at first, but underlying it all was the knowledge that there was no depth, and that had to be developed.  His arms flung open wide for anyone who had a smile and treated him decently.  It took a long time for him to internalize that there was a difference between kindness and committed, dedicated love.

Olesya so desperately wanted to be loved and accepted for who she was, and needed someone to help her see she was far more than she thought she was.  She was a snuggle bunny from day one, but it was and sometimes still is not yet fully unreserved.  From the outside, it looks like it, for she is easy with her affection, but from the insider's view it is clear to see that much of it is in an effort to earn love, for she has yet to really understand it is offered freely.  We have moments, and they are coming more and more frequently, when the hugs are rich and nothing is held back.  That is something you can't really describe, but can sense and feel.  Then there are others when there is a hint of desperation for acceptance, a lack of confidence that she is loved completely and that breaks my heart.  I know that for her, it is at a subconscious level, much as the lack of eye contact was for Josh.  There is a total lack of awareness of this fear of fully letting go, but I think in time it will be resolved and one day she'll realize her own worth, and that will change every relationship she has.

In the meantime, we continue to encourage and actually even point out things to think about in terms of affection and how it is practiced.  With older adoptees, we wrongly take for granted what is understood to be true.  We need to provide love language, vocabulary for emotions for it has never been taught.  We as their parents need to teach about relationships like we do with toddlers and preschoolers, but for some reason we assume someone else has already done that work simply because they come to us in larger bodies.  We forget there was no one by their side educating them in the ways of the world, in the ways of love, in the ways of forgiveness and courage and acceptance of the imperfections of others.

And there is no one there to teach them how to hug, how to accept love.

Angela was prickly, reserved, cautious and guarded.  She had good reason to be.  Her love had to be earned, and could only be done through strength that matched her own...and bested it.  She needed to learn, and still is in the process of it, that love can be firm and soft at the same time, that showing affection and love is not a weakness but can sometimes be the hardest thing of all to do.  She needs to discover the strength it takes to let go of yourself so that someone else can enter your heart, and I see her finally really understanding that gentle, warm affection can be the sweetest thing in all the world, and these days she clamors for it.  Today with her new found insights, she smiles when seeing an older couple at church hold on to one another as the slowly make their way to their pew, and she comments on how kind someone is when she witnesses gentle expressions of love.  No longer is it seen as a weakness to wear your heart on a sleeve. During a conversation recently while in Denver with her and warning her that we were in a big city and she needed to keep a watchful eye when we entered a restaurant she asked me "Mama, if someone try to hurt you, I bet you hurt them a lot back...I think you could be very tough if you need to, especially to protect us."  but then she added, much to my delight "But what I like best is that you don't have to be tough all the time, we know you are but with us you are sweet and give good hugs.  I like a mom who is like that, my first mom could only be mean.  That's not really tough in a good way, not the way you are tough, and she was maybe too scared to be sweet and give hugs.  Maybe she didn't even know how."  Later,  she threw her arm over my shoulder as we walked out the door of the restaurant, protecting me in her own way, silently showing me her love.

It took two years to get to that point.  Patience...patience...hanging in there...hugging when it wasn't meaningfully returned...remembering that it wasn't about me and her meeting my needs, working our way from a light touch on the shoulder which was often rebuffed to a hand run gently through her hair to playing footsie under the table, to now cradling her in my arms at night.

These are the parts of adoption no one speaks of, they are the most necessary yet the least likely to be addressed.  Yes, you can achieve the same kind of warmth and easy going affection you have with biologically related children, and frankly, compared to some families you can have even better relationships and stronger bonds.  There are times when I am completely bowled over and humbled by the warmth and true depth of relationship we currently enjoy with our kids.  I also have incredible respect for what we have all been through as a family, recognizing that what would have broken others somehow strengthened us.  That doesn't just happen by accident, and we also are not the wisest and most loving parents on earth either...ask anyone who knows us in "real life" and they'll surely be able to attest to our many failings! Hahaha!   For us, we know a huge factor was the inclusion of God in all we do, for our relationship with God and what we have learned along the way about the nature of God has informed us about how we need to be with our children.

But it isn't simple, and it requires a lot of inner strength, awareness and sensitivity on the part of the adoptive parents.  It takes a desire to want a relationship that is rich with meaning and depth, and then the courage to keep reaching for it even in light of what can be long periods of rejection.  It takes trusting the process, providing space when it is needed without being anxious about it, and being willing to also let your child see your vulnerability as well, for it makes you human and creates opportunity for compassion to form.

In time, healing occurs, hearts open, and love is practiced with great zeal.  Eventually, you have big kids sitting on your lap, you have arms draped over your shoulders, you have real love.  It is worth every single moment of effort you put into it


Dee said...

What a beautiful post, Cindy! Bravo. I've never seen one that addresses this so thoroughly and compassionately. You are such a terrific writer.

Anonymous said...

Not perfect parents? Well, as close to perfection for your children as God could find...How blessed your children are to live in this family; how blessed you are to have these children; how blessed you are to have God, and how blessed is God to be held so closely by you.

And thank you for letting us in on this difficult, trying, rewarding, loving relationship,

Karon and John said...

Cindy, beautiful is too simple of a word. This post moved me, and supported me as I struggle with so many similar issues with my little Isaac. Yes, he came to us young (3.5 years) but with a lot of well earned distrust. This post should be required reading for all AP's. It gives us permission to also grieve and hurt, but the power to heal abd strengthen. Is it ok if I cross post parts of this on my blog?

Carrie DeLille said...

I love you girl! Thanks for the awesome post...sadly, sometimes they become adults without ever reaching some of those steps, but we will never lose hope!

Anna said...

I wish I had been able to read this before adopting our little one. She was raised in a beautiful orphanage, she was loved. But it was not a family. Not "home". We have spent the past almost 16 months learning about one another, bonding, attaching. I am so so thankful that I have listened to my heart, my inner nudgings and kept her home instead of sending her to school. So many people have not understood with her having DS why we would choose to not enter the system. Its been hard, but so so good. Yesterday the Lord led me to a blong linked to another and so on about post adoption depression, now this. God is healing both of us, teaching me about grace with a little G through Grace with a big G. THank you so so much for such an incredible post.