We just hit our one year anniversary with our daughter, and I have told more than one person that I think we all deserve medals. We didn’t have a dramatic first year full of major medical challenges or severe behaviors. Ours was the more everyday-garden-variety of adoption stress and trauma. I’m thankful we didn’t walk through harder things, but to be honest sometimes it made me feel even worse that I struggled as much as I did when for the most part, everything went as well as it could possibly have gone.
I’ve talked about our journey a lot here at NHBO, but to summarize… I think about two months after we got home, things started to get really hard for me. That’s when the casseroles and honeymoon ended, and when I felt like a glorified babysitter. When taking a hard look at her delays, I found myself asking a lot of scary “what ifs” and feeling at the end of my rope every.single.day.
I felt bitter towards Alea for taking my attention from Cora, who had been an only child and a total mama’s girl. I felt utterly inadequate for the task of being Alea’s mom. It felt like such a job — not natural at all, and it wasn’t helped by everyone commenting on how sweet and precious and cute she was. It wasn’t that I didn’t see that at all, but I saw a whole lot more that wasn’t sweet and precious and cute and it made me feel a bit monstrous when I considered how very little actual love I felt. After all, I knew what love for a daughter felt like for me. If you’re in this season now, you probably get it. I don’t need to belabor this point. It’s hard. And relentless. And you can give all you have to give and know in your gut it isn’t enough to make it all better.
Several weeks ago, I attended – like many of you – the Empowered to Connect Simulcast. Dr. Purvis said in one of the sessions that research has found that an adopted child adopts the same attachment style as his caregivers within two months of placement. That’s huge! We talk a lot in pre-adoption classes about helping the child attach to the family. We don’t spend as much time talking about helping the parents attach to the child. And as I’ve walked my own journey of attachment with my daughter this year, and had to deal honestly with the feelings I found bubbling up inside, I can genuinely say that my attachment to her has been the hardest part of this journey, and is most likely the root cause of our longer-term struggles.
If you find yourself thinking “Me too!” and feeling a little panicky and hopeless inside, let me skip to the end. Here we are a year later, and I genuinely love both of my little girls. I feel the same deep joy, gratitude, and honor about getting to be Alea’s mama as I feel for my daughter Cora. To be honest, it keeps getting better and better! And as I think over our last year together, here are a few things I learned that helped get us where we are today:
It’s ok not to feel deep love. Sometimes love follows actions and you just need to go through the motions of being an appropriate caregiver and trust that the feelings will follow. It doesn’t make you a bad mom. It makes you an honest one.
Lower the bar.
Forget Pinterest… A day spent cuddling on the couch watching Elmo isn’t a parenting fail. It is a win. So is takeout Chinese or a frozen pizza for dinner. If you struggle with putting high expectations on yourself, cut yourself some slack. And simplify your life as much as you can! You don’t need to be on 10 committees or volunteering all over town for this season. The emotional energy this kind of parenting requires absorbs so much more of us than we might expect, and something has to give.
Recognize you aren’t your child’s healer.
About 6 months after we came home, it finally hit me that I was trying to be my daughter’s savior and heal her emotional wounds. It was an impossible task and I was suffocating from the enormity of it. I stepped back and surrendered that, and instead started each day with the recognition that I would do the best I could AND I would fall short, and I prayed like crazy for God to pick up my slack. It might not have changed much outwardly, but internally I felt like I could breathe for the first time since we’d had her.
With your child, with yourself, with God, with others, with the process… Healing (of any of your hearts) won’t happen overnight. It’s ok!! You just keep going, one day at a time. Let the story unfold how it will and just make a commitment to emotionally and mentally show up. Be present. That’s it! Don’t add extra expectations to it, for any of you. And don’t forget to celebrate the little victories and baby-steps of progress even if they are followed by two-steps back.
Give yourself a break.
I know it is hard to get away with attachment-centered childcare considerations in those early months, but be sure to recharge. Maybe it’s something you do after kids go to bed… A glass of wine with a friend or a quick trip to the bookstore. Whatever you need, give yourself permission to be off-duty sometimes. I think it helps to admit to some core/close people that this journey can feel a lot more like babysitting than mothering early on. And when that emotional attachment just isn’t there, we can snap more easily. I’ve found that in order to be truly emotionally present, I have to be off-duty sometimes so that I could fill myself back up.
But above all, be encouraged!
I believe God is faithful to finish what He starts, and He will knit you together as a family. I can say with a full heart and deep honesty, I LOVE MY DAUGHTER ALEA!! (I feel the need to shout that out, because if you hear nothing else from this post, that’s what I want you to remember.)
I still remember the way I felt the first time I realized I missed her; or the way it felt the first time I smelled the unique scent of her hair and felt joy and not anxiety. I’m so glad the first year is behind us! Our connection is so much better than it was even 2 months ago! And it just keeps getting better. But the first year? My goal became survival. It reminds me of my garden out here in the desert… If I can just keep the plants alive through the wickedly hot summer months, I get an incredible crop of tomatoes in the fall.
Maybe another mom could have walked through the same experience as me and not struggled. But I did, and that’s OK. It doesn’t make me a bad mom. And if you’re struggling too, that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you aren’t the right mama for the job! Take your time and let love grow.
I’m only a year into this journey, which means I have a lot left to learn! If you’ve walked a hard-fought road of attachment to your child, what tips would you offer to me and others? Leave them in the comments and let’s continue this conversation!
— photo by Tish Goff