By Cindy Kintare, A Canadian Adoptive Parent
I wish I could say that adoption is a beautiful thing, but that would be misleading. Loving children is beautiful. Loving children who have been hurt is beautiful. Adoption, as much as it is sometimes necessary, is not, in itself, beautiful.
Eighteen months ago, when our kids moved in, we were a bundle of mixed emotions: happy to be adding these two precious beings to our family, worried about how they would handle the transition, nervous about making mistakes, excited to introduce them to all the people who were ready to welcome them to our family, and completely overwhelmed by how little we knew about what we were doing.
That feeling of overwhelm only got bigger from there. The first few months, commonly referred to as the “honeymoon period,” were lovely. We created some routines, and we went to the beach a lot. We visited family, and we delighted in every moment of affection. We also tried to ignore that niggling feeling that the other shoe was about to drop.
We knew that our children had trauma in their past. We knew that moving them from their loving foster family was going to add to their trauma. We knew that our primary goal was to develop a strong bond, because we had learned that secure attachment is the number one predictor of positive outcomes for a child. Attachment is more important than literacy, I kept reminding my English-teacher self—and attachment takes time.
In addition to learning about these two little strangers in our house, who had lost so much, we were thrown into learning about ourselves as parents. This was more difficult than we anticipated. People seemed to expect us to know how things worked, and we knew so little that we didn’t even know what questions we needed to ask. When you see a parent with a 7-year-old and a 2-year-old, you assume that parent has seven years of parenting under their belt, but we were as overwhelmed as new parents of infant twins. We were just fortunate enough to get more sleep, which I hear is often not the case for adoptive parents.
It was around four months in that we began to see the end of the honeymoon period, and our children’s grief began to show. The most heartbreaking thing I have ever witnessed is seeing our seven-year-old daughter wail inconsolably and thrash like a starving infant. She needed to be swaddled, but she was too big to be swaddled. I had no idea what to do.
We knew we were out of our depth, and we sought help—but help was hard to find. We read the books, we begged for therapeutic support from the Children’s Aid Society, and I desperately looked for a local support group to join. I eventually found one and was able to attend a meeting. It was wonderful and terrifying. Here were parents many years in, who still required the support of other adoptive parents who understood their journey, because they were still experiencing very difficult behaviours due to their children’s trauma and complex needs. I felt like their stories were warning me that the struggles we were experiencing at home were nothing compared to what might lie ahead.
After about nine months, we were finally able to take the Pathways to Permanence course (which should be mandatory for all adoptive parents), and we began to really understand how the trauma of adoption had changed the nature of our children’s brains, and that the effects of this trauma would not be erased by a few months of loving attention. We were going to need help for a long time.
In this course, we also finally met other parents at a similar place to us in their journey, and someone was finally able to recommend an attachment-informed therapist who could take us on and was only an hour’s drive away.
It was also around this time that I realized I was experiencing Post-Adoption Depression, and I sought medical help. As the anti-depressants kicked in and I received some much-needed validation from our new therapist, things seemed to finally be settling down in our house. We stopped counting days without meltdowns and started counting days with meltdowns—and they were few over the summer, after school let out. We thought we had turned a corner. We celebrated our family-versary, and we started to feel like parents who knew a little about what we were doing.
But it wasn’t long after school started again that we really started to see the effects of our daughter’s developmental trauma and how much support she needed. Underneath her bright, effervescent and loving personality, there was a hurt child fighting to not depend on adults who could betray her while also trying desperately to get her needs met. The most frustrating part is that we can’t fix that hurt. All we can do is journey with her and slowly build her trust so that she can learn to truly love and be loved. We are eighteen months in, and we are barely getting started. Attachment takes time.
Adoption is trauma. Every adoptee has lost everything they knew and cared about at least once. Every sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch that they knew was ripped away from them, and they hurt from that loss. They hurt from the betrayal of the people who were meant to love them forever, and who are now inexplicably gone. No child can understand the very legitimate reasons they had to change families—what they feel is rejection, uncertainty, and loss. They hurt from being expected to love and trust strangers who they now must call family. These people who don’t smell right, don’t talk right, and just don’t feel right.
Every adoptive parent hurts, too. We hurt from the loss of those years when our children were somewhere else. We hurt from having to shield our children from exciting events, because we know it would all be too much for them. We hurt from taking the brunt of our children’s legitimate anger and not having that easy parent-child attachment we see in the families around us. Most of all, we hurt from knowing the trauma our children have experienced and not being able to just kiss it better.
We know that he only thing that can help our children heal is attachment, and attachment takes time. In some ways, I think my husband and I were fortunate that I didn’t qualify for parental leave, because if I had felt bound to that timeline, it would have been woefully inadequate, and I would have had to make a difficult career decision on top of dealing with everything else. I have been a full-time parent to our children since they moved in, and we were extremely fortunate that my husband’s work schedule was flexible enough to accommodate our family’s need for flexibility. Knowing the importance of attachment, we even considered having him take his parental leave, so we could both focus on our children, but the reduction in our income would have been too much.
If our society is to truly support all parents, we need to seriously rethink our employment policies. Adding attachment leave to parental leave is an important first step towards meeting the very real need new adoptive parents have for more time with their children. We can pay now in supporting families when we have a real chance to help our children heal, or we can pay later when our children have become untethered adults struggling to survive.
And let’s be honest here: The need for adoption is often driven by poverty. Our society fails to adequately support the biological families of many children who end up in care, making adoption the best option for these children’s survival. After the trauma they’ve already been through, we have a moral obligation to support these children in their new families as much as possible.
According to our therapist, we are making progress in building attachment with our daughter, even though it often doesn’t feel that way. We have a long road ahead of us, but it is a road we are committed to taking because our children deserve the best we can give them. All children deserve the best.
Adoption is trauma, and despite what people say, love is not all a child needs. Our children already have our love, but it is their attachment to us that will help them heal.
And alas, attachment takes time.
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.
We're ramping up our #timetoattach campaign until April 2019, for 15 more weeks of parental leave for adoptive parents and kin and customary caregivers. To really make an impact on our mission to Ottawa, we'd like to share your experiences of what it was like helping your child to settle in and bond.
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