Our oldest son came to us from foster care when he was 13 months old. He was happy and healthy, and we were overjoyed to be his parents. We were aware, however, that this would be yet another huge change in his world. New parents. New crib. New highchair. New family. New toys. New clothes. Again. For the fourth time in 13 months.
While our son enjoyed his pre-adoption visits to our home, when he finally moved in, he was stressed. We did our best to keep consistency with his last home in all the little ways we could. We bought the same brand of diapers and baby cereal, and we brought a sippy-cup over from his foster home. We stuck to his routine as much as possible, and we played the same radio station that his foster mother played in her home. We loved him and reassured him, when he remained confused and overwhelmed.
Our son’s lovely foster mother also did her best to ease him into his new life with us. She showed him our picture and talked to him about his new mom and dad. She guided us through all his likes and dislikes. We all did everything we could, but it was more than such a wee child could grasp, in the beginning.
We found that the best thing we could do to help him develop an attachment to us was to keep him close. After two weeks, he started calling us “Mum-mum” and “Da-da.” He was full of energy and loved to play all day. We could see him start to relax and settle in.
To mitigate our son’s history of loss and preserve one of the positive relationships from his early life, we maintained contact with his foster mom. He loved his visits with her, but all the big emotions would hit him later, in his sleep. For three years after his adoption, our son would have a severe night terror, after every visit with his foster mom.
Even though we knew his early life had been unstable, we were still caught off guard, in his first year with us, by some of our child’s issues. After he had been home a few months, we decided to take a weekend trip a few hours out of town to visit family. I remember rushing around on Friday afternoon, trying to make sure I was remembering all the accessories required to travel with a toddler. Meanwhile, our little boy was growing increasingly whiny and cranky. Each time I left the room to grab another item, I would come back to find him furiously pulling everything out of the bag. He began clinging to my leg and trying to prevent me from packing. I grew frustrated, but I brushed it off as regular toddler behaviour.
After more whining, and more packing, I sat all our bags by the front door. Our son sat himself down amongst them. I mused about how cute it was that he was waiting to go. Then, as I moved towards the bags to pick them up and bring them to the car, I saw it—the flash of terror in his eyes will be etched in my memory forever.
My little boy launched into a full-blown tantrum. I realized that he thought he was being moved again. All the afternoon’s behaviour had been because he thought I was packing his things to send him to a new home. He had never travelled anywhere for any purpose other than moving. He had absolutely no concept of stability. It was heartbreaking.
We spent that weekend constantly reassuring our son that we weren’t going to leave him. But we took several trips over the next four months, to see family members out of town, and his anxiety around having his stuff packed up continued.
It was only in January—after a series of Christmas visits—that he understood the pattern of leaving then coming home, and we saw his tension levels drop. After several months in our home, he seemed to be finally trusting that this was permanent. While it was a great relief to see him settling in, it also broke my heart knowing that we would have to start him in daycare in a few short weeks, because my leave was coming to end—just as the attachment process was starting for him.
The transition to daycare shook my son once more. He would cry each morning and beg for “no bye-bye.” I would see that same desperate flash of fear in his eyes. He was never sure that we would actually be back to get him. He seemed to fear, each day, that the daycare was to be his new home. His terror over being separated from us lasted for more than two months.
Eight years later, our son still struggles with attachment. He reacts to any small loss—in his life or in movies or books—with big emotions. He has severe separation anxiety and needs to be constantly reassured to feel safe in relationships. If that sense of security is missing, he reacts by trying to control his environment and the people around him. This can hurt his relationships with teachers and peers. I can’t help but wonder if our child’s mental health would have been less impacted if he’d had just a bit more time to bond with us.
The opinions expressed in blogs posted reflect their author and do not represent any official stance of Adopt4Life. We respect the diversity of opinions within the adoption, kinship and customary care community and hope that these blog posts will stimulate meaningful conversations.
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