April is here and with it’s arrival we usher in a new series on No Hands But Ours. This month we will feature posts on attachment. Because bringing a new little person into an already established family isn’t easy. This month we will share real-life stories from mamas going through the attachment struggle at all stages of the process.
Springtime in South Texas is one of the most beautiful times of the year. Part of what makes it gorgeous is the blooming of the bluebonnets. Our state flower is unassuming and delicate, yet also hardy enough to withstand the fickle weather that accompanies their peak season.
The explosion of color starts with just a few flowers dotting the ground and then it literally seems like overnight the grassy highway medians become awash with a sea of blue. I never cease to be amazed by how the landscape can transform so quickly into something so beautiful.
Earlier this year, long before the bluebonnets made their appearance, our daughter walked into our lives. It was January and she was almost four. Although we had three children before her, being a good mommy to this new daughter was eye-opening from day one. I often found myself thinking that the number of children I had at home had made no impact on my parenting skills; having her was like starting over from square one! Not that we didn’t make efforts to be prepared, because we had! We took all of the training required by our agency. We read The Connected Child. We even talked with already-home adoptive parents about their experiences.
The first two weeks in her home country were really about making it through each day. The attachment that occurred there was survival-based. I had to hold her hand when we crossed a street. I had to carry her when it appeared that perhaps the traffic zooming toward us might not slow down for pedestrians! She and I bonded over her medical need, which required daily care for her wounds and blisters. The smallest signs of attachment were noted with excitement. When we arrived back home, I honestly felt pretty good about the progress we had made with bonding. It was hard and it was definitely challenging, but based on how quickly she seemed to adjust to us so far, I felt that in our home environment we would jump quickly into full-blown attachment.
But there were other struggles that would complicate the attachment process that I wasn’t aware were coming. Once home the relief I felt in that first deep breath was gone as soon as it exited my body. I immediately began to feel trapped. The enormity of the task ahead settled fully on me and I began to back into a little box. Of course, this was not a literal box. In fact, many people had no clue that the box existed. On the outside, I functioned fairly normally. I got up, dressed, did chores, cared for children, but on the inside I was suffocating.
Despite my internal struggle, a bond was forming. God blessed even the little bit that I had to give during this time, but the joy that should have been mine was curiously absent.
On top of this sense of helplessness I had, pesky sleep issues began to plague us and further hampered bonding. In our situation, this looked like our new daughter refusing to go to sleep unless Mama was in the room with her. It looked like long hours of me, just sitting there, feeling more than slightly frustrated that I was missing out on critical time to talk to and be with my husband.
Every evening I could literally feel the walls of my strong-as-steel box close in around me. She wouldn’t let her Daddy near her when it was time for bed. In fact, for a while she wouldn’t have much to do with him at all. My anxiety levels rose in the hour preceding bedtime knowing that it would be yet another session of having to “give in” to the needs of this girl of ours.
These first few weeks were attachment agony. I smiled at her and played with her because I knew I was supposed to. I held her and rocked her when she would allow it because that’s what the books said I should do. I fed her food to her even though she was fully capable of doing it, just to foster attachment, but I was struggling. I felt like the process should feel more, I don’t know…more natural!
During this phase, the beauty of the baby steps gained every day was often lost to me. By the end of each day I was emotionally exhausted. I had nothing left to give, and attachment routines were the last thing on my mind. I knew bedtime was difficult for her because she was clearly afraid that we would disappear and not be there when she woke up. Rather than making me feel needed and excited to have the opportunity to foster more attachment, I felt trapped by circumstances. My husband was at a loss as well. He so badly wanted to be able to help out, but she just wasn’t having it. We were frustrated and spent.
One day, utterly at the end of myself, I asked a been-there-done-that friend about this sleep stuff. I was desperate for wisdom… how was I supposed to get this girl of ours to go to bed without me having to be in the room with her for hours? Her response was gracious, helpful, and eye-opening. I began to see that the time I viewed as lost was actually not lost time at all. It was valuable time. It was attachment time and I had been haphazardly tossing it aside.
I totally stole the routine she used with her daughter and started doing it at every sleep time. We would read a book. We would sing a song, and then we would say a prayer. Naptime or night time, the routine was exactly the same. Within a week, I witnessed our girl tucking her Minnie Mouse into bed using this routine. Within two weeks, she was so comfortable with it she ended the time of a grown-up having to be in the room with her.
It started with a momentous afternoon nap. I brushed the hair back from her forehead, gave her a kiss, and said, “Julianne night-night”. Normally at this point she would nod and point to the chair for me to go sit in while she fell asleep. But this time, she nodded and said, “Mommy coffee?” She knew! She knew that every afternoon I attacked my coffee machine demanding it create liquid sanity for me! I said “yes, Mommy coffee”, and then walked out of the room, leaving the door open enough for her to hear the actual coffee making process occur, and she fell asleep quickly. The evenings were still a time when her insecurities seemed to be exposed. One evening though, she processed the knowledge that even in the dark, we would still be there.
Our evening routine now looks like our naptime routine. She asks every night, “Mommy coffee?” I’m not an evening coffee drinker, but that’s not what she really wants to know. Her question is asking me if I will still be here when she wakes up. She’s asking me to reassure her of my presence, even while she sleeps. On the nights when her Daddy puts her to bed she says, “Daddy coffee?” And we reassure her in the language that she understands right now. “Yes, Daddy coffee”.
Even if she had continued to need someone in the room with her, EVEN if it had taken weeks longer for her to be comfortable falling asleep without us, I realized that it wasn’t about getting “my” time back in the evenings; it was about recognizing that the time wasn’t mine to begin with.
Attachment for us these first weeks has been about learning selflessness. It has been about recognizing that problems with bonding don’t always stem from the child. It has been about seeing that true attachment really does take time, and energy, and effort. I know that there will be days when I feel like I’ve failed; when I feel the walls of that box start to close in around me again, but tomorrow is another chance. Mercies are new and the slate is fresh.
Attachment so far for her has looked like learning routines and feeling comfortable with them. It’s been about playing, and finally knowing that it’s okay to cry when she gets hurt. It’s been about squabbling with siblings, and being comfortable enough to put her hand in mine without fighting it.
This year, the bluebonnets started making their annual appearance shortly after the walls of the nasty little box I was in began to disintegrate. Turns out, it wasn’t the box of steel I felt like it had been, it was just paper, and easily destroyed by the gaze of the One with eyes like fire. He saw me in that box. He knew the struggle I was having, and in the ultimate show of kindness, He reached out His hand and pulled me up.
“She is yours in the same way that you are mine. “
Our daughter may have been born in China, but she is a Texas girl. I mean, her birthday is even the SAME DAY as Texas Independence Day! It’s like a divine sign that she was born to say “y’all” and eat bar-b-que.
She’s more than just a Texas girl, though. She’s OUR girl. I remember the day I looked out and saw all four of my children playing together and felt my heart swell with joy. They are ALL mine. Not just in name, they are mine because I love them for always.
Making an orphan a daughter is a process. Daughterhood may be legally granted with the scrawl of a signature on paper, but it takes time for that bond to be true and real. The attachment and bonding that happens between a child and the parent is just a continuation of the redemption that occurred halfway around the world. It’s taking something that was far away and distanced and making it your own.
I had secretly hoped for a bluebonnet explosion of bonding; that it would be overnight and immediate! What I learned is that I needed to look for the early (less noticeable) flowers of successful attachment and appreciate them as well.
I cannot expect that a day or two of new bonding efforts will yield a crop of attached behavior. But I am patient. I can wait, and each day I can enjoy the view for what it is. I can watch her bloom into a daughter, and know that as much as I love her, she is even more loved by her heavenly Father who desires to show His love for ME in all of this process as well.
Confession: I wrote and re-wrote this story about a hundred times. Every day the attachment and bonding process looks different. Every day (sometimes more than once a day!) I felt like I needed to change some detail about these words… like I couldn’t pin down what I wanted to say. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the details, when what’s important is the big picture. The same is true for bonding. Enjoy the details, the baby steps, but don’t forget to look at the big picture. Don’t lose yourself in the details. I have to say… the big picture the Lord is painting for our family looks really good so far. No edits needed.
— guest post by Whitney