Keeping Up Appearances: Self-help vs. Reaching Out

We were lucky to have support of friends who had been through the adoption process during our first year and a half as a new family. But I know it would have been beneficial if we had had more, especially a local peer support group, so we could have spent less time doubting ourselves during the challenges. The more understanding we gain, the better parents we can and will be.

Ben*, our happy, affectionate, very busy toddler, moved in with us nearly 2 months after we got the call that we had been matched; a month after we met him for the first time. I had to quickly wrap up things at work and worked full time through the transition period training my replacements until our son moved in with us. I was barely out of the shock that I was now a mom to a 19 month old boy, when my parental leave and status of full time mom began. 

Ben* is very loving and affectionate. He is also a typical toddler who goes through extreme mood swings. Being a new parent, we weren’t fully prepared for his behaviours. In addition to this, he was suddenly in a new home, with new people, and unable to communicate his fears and confusion. He would frequently act out by grabbing my hair in his hands and pulling. Even when tied back in a ponytail he would get a grip near the roots and rip out my hair. He also would bang his head backwards on the wall or his high chair. We added padding in areas to prevent him from injury as we tried to understand the behaviour by searching online for answers. Our frustrations increased as suggestions found didn’t help. There were additional factors that needed to be considered which parenting sites did not address.

Finally I stopped hiding my concerns and reached out for help. I wish I had done it sooner. I have a friend in child development and asked her about the head banging. She told me it was actually a way toddlers soothe themselves and recommended I check my own anxiety as they feel and react to it. She also cheered me on and said not to give up on myself. We needed to hear this positive reinforcement! After she explained the behaviour I would tell him to hug himself, and would hug myself for him to mirror the action. This calmed him and soon the banging incidents stopped. The hair pulling took longer, but thankfully ended as well. If we had had someone to share with from the beginning where we did not feel any judgement, it would have made it easier for us, which would have benefited Ben*.

If we had had someone to share with from the beginning where we did not feel any judgement, it would have made it easier for us, which would have benefited Ben*.

If we had had someone to share with from the beginning where we did not feel any judgement, it would have made it easier for us, which would have benefited Ben*.

Why didn’t I reach out sooner? I was afraid to tell anyone I was struggling -- we had gone through so much to become his parents. We didn’t want to seem like after all that, we weren’t capable. So we glossed it over to people, smiling and sharing cute pictures.

During the first month there were times I cried and questioned if I was cut out for parenthood. I wasn’t the ‘natural mom’ my friends said I would be. I called my mom or sister everyday with questions, or just for comfort. Then my husband suggested we try an idea from an adoptive mom we knew. We marked the days on the calendar either a good day or bad day, depending on how each day went. She said even when it all seemed too overwhelming we would start to notice slowly that there would be less bad days, more good. I had 4 bad days in a row before there was a good day. Then it got better. It was great to have this tip from someone who had been there.

Finding balance at home was tricky and straining on my relationship with my husband (as is with all new parents).  At first my husband didn’t understand how much I needed his help, how much our life had changed, taking away the previous luxury of excessive ‘me’ time. For instance, I needed him to spend an hour with Ben* at the end of his workday so I could have a break to make dinner. Ben* was very clingy and wanted to be carried by me most of the afternoon, so dinner prep was awkward. He was 28 pounds that I wasn’t used to carrying and my body ached! To add to everything, the first week he was teething and we had no hot water for the weekend as our gas was shut off Friday afternoon when we detected a small leak. In short, we were tested! Fortunately we soon got our schedules adjusted to make things work for our family.

As happy and content as I was on parental leave, spending my days with Ben*, was isolating too. Peer support would have lifted some of the confusion and loneliness. Suddenly having a new family member, who already has a personality, who is scared and confused, who you do need time with to build the attachment bond, is overwhelming. We can’t help but feel under a microscope with CAS visits as they take their notes during probation; something most new parents don’t have to deal with on top of navigating parenthood. Luckily, we had a great adoption worker who encouraged me to go to drop in centres as she knew how much I needed to get out and talk to other moms. However, I was too shy and self-conscious the first few months to go after my first drop-in experience where Ben* was stubborn and tested me. I felt there were some judgemental caregivers at the centre and I felt very uncomfortable. In contrast, peer support where we can be open, honest with fears and frustrations, and also share exciting moments of bonding and discovery can only make us better, happier, healthier parents for these amazing children we are blessed to have in our family.

Establishing local peer groups throughout the province and encouraging new families to join these groups is necessary.  Building communities with other adoptive families in order to share experiences, resources and normalize adoption for our children is an invaluable gift with immeasurable benefits.  Just one simple solution towards helping keep families together, allowing their children to reach their full potential.

*name changed