By J, A Canadian Adoptive Parent
My husband and I have adopted five children, as well as having one biological child. The first child we adopted—a daughter—was just shy of age three, when she came to us. She had been in and out of care many times. In between foster homes, she was returned to either her biological mother or father (they were not together) or various aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. She was also often left with neighbours, friends and unfamiliar caregivers. As a result, she demonstrated myriad symptoms of attachment disorder and developmental trauma: hours-long tantrums, almost every day, for the first eighteen months that she lived with us, poor sleep, night terrors, eating and bowel issues.
Our new daughter showed a lack of stranger anxiety and would go to any woman, asking them to be her mother. She was indiscriminate in asking any man for hugs and kisses or to sit on their laps. She destroyed property when she lost control. And when she was anxious, she would also suck on two of her fingers so hard and so constantly that she had cracked and bleeding knuckles on her index and middle finger constantly for the first five years that she lived with us.
The second child we adopted—a son—came to us when he was two, after bouncing back and forth between his biological mother and a foster home where he was one of five children under 24 months old. I imagine he spent many hours alone in his crib, as there were so many babies for his foster mother to attend to. When he moved into our home, he was underweight and unable to communicate, except through garbled sounds. The doctors deemed him a “failure-to-thrive” baby.
The next child that we adopted joined our family just before he turned 12. He was the eldest of about 16 siblings. His birth mother used drugs, and several of her children died due to birth complications. Those who lived were all placed in adoptive families. Our son spent the first 11 years of his life in and out of foster homes and group homes, with several returns to his family of origin. He had many behaviour issues, including verbal and physical rage that manifested at school, in the community, in his foster homes and finally, in his group homes. He could not remember how many homes he had lived in. He could not remember the names of all his past caregivers. He had never finished a full academic year in one school. He was, when he came to live with us, considered “unadoptable” or “not likely to ever be adopted” by his case workers. His profile had been shared, multiple times, at the Adoption Resource Exchange (ARE), but most potential adoptive parents considered his file too complex.
Our youngest son came to us at three weeks of age. One would think, with his less complicated life history that he would have the fewest issues. As it turns out, he is the most challenging of our children, as he was exposed to alcohol prenatally and has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). FASD is a life-long and incurable brain injury. For our son, it has meant he has had medical, developmental and behavioural issues from the very beginning of his life. He has suffered from multiple ear infections and chronic colds, and he was considered a colicky baby. As he entered his toddle and then preschool years, he had severe tantrums that initially were physically violent, and then as he gained his voice, became verbally violent as well—even at a young age. These behaviours increased when he started kindergarten. Being away from home caused him serious distress, and he would run out of his classroom, run off school property, tip over desks, tear posters and pictures off the wall, hit, kick, slap and bite his teachers. These physical and verbal meltdowns escalated with each year of school, until we were able to figure out the root cause. Like many children, our son was not formally diagnosed with FASD until his teen years. Up until the formal diagnosis, it was difficult to get the supports in place that he required.
Our most recently adopted child, a girl, came to us the week before her second birthday, directly from her family of origin, where addiction and mental health issues had made her home life chaotic and unpredictable. She had great difficulty sleeping through the night and would wake up crying in fear and saying that the “man’s eyes were looking at her.” This fear of the “man’s eyes” lasted for two years. Like her sister, she had challenges around food, and we are still working on boundaries with her and explaining what a stranger is, to help her stay safe.
Each of our children’s unique set of adverse childhood experiences made it hard for them to form secure attachments and trust that their relationships with us would be for life. And each of our children needed our uninterrupted attention and care, so they could start to feel safe and loved. Yet, as adoptive parents we did not receive the same amount of parental leave that biological parents do. Had I given birth to our kids, we would have had 17 weeks of maternal leave and my husband and I could then have shared 37 weeks of parental leave with job security. But because our children came to us through adoption, we received 15 weeks less time off than biological parents do.
Our kids all demonstrated different needs through myriad of behaviours that my husband and I had to decipher. It was only by getting to know our kids and figuring out their unmet needs that we could help them to let down their defences and start to attach. And for us to unpack the layers of trauma, we needed time: time to adjust to our new roles as their parents, time to make physical changes in our home, and time to repair the physical damage done to our home, as our children let out their grief and anger.
We also needed time to familiarize ourselves with each of their diagnoses. Between all five kids, that meant: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Learning Disabilities, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder and Developmental Trauma. Often we were missing important information about our child at the time of their placement—from diagnoses to medical history to life experiences to crucial details about their families of origin. These were all pieces of the puzzle that would help us to understand our children and give them what they needed to thrive.
Above all, we needed time to learn just how to be, as a family, each time we welcomed a new child, and the dynamics shifted. But the importance of time to attach isn’t just about individual families. Studies show that kids without healthy attachments to their primary caregivers are more likely to struggle to form and sustain relationships, more inclined to drop out of high school, and less able to find and keep jobs. They also have a higher incidence of mental, emotional and physical health concerns. If we don’t prioritize their needs in the early days, their issues eventually become society’s issues.
Isn’t every parents’ goal to raise their children and youth to become happy, healthy, interdependent and functional people? Well, for this to happen with our kids, we adoptive parents need more time. Our children deserve those 15 extra precious weeks of attachment leave to bond with us and begin to learn how to love and trust again. The quality of the rest of their lives depends on it.
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. Find out how to share your story.