Mama’s Not Feelin’ It: 6 Things I’ve Learned in My Journey to Attach

April 27, 2015 Attachment, Carrie, parent-to-child attachment, Trust Based Parenting 10 Comments

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

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:

Adjust expectations.

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.

Be patient.

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

10 responses to “Mama’s Not Feelin’ It: 6 Things I’ve Learned in My Journey to Attach”

  1. Eryn Jones says:

    Thank you Carrie for this. I really identify with the third one- except I think it took me a year to realize that I couldn’t be (and was acting like I could be!) our children’s healer! Such a big burden that was lifted internally when I came to that realization and also something I have to repeatedly give over to Him often!

  2. mamagringa says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. It is rare for such honesty to be shared. I am deep in disconnect right now, just over three months in. I hear you loud and clear and hope above all the pain that I’ll be where you are now in twelve months.

  3. Gisela says:

    Thank you for sharing this. We are just three weeks in, and I feel sometimes like I am beating myself up for failing her to meet all of her needs. I was greatly encouraged by what you wrote. Your last few lines brought tears to my eyes, thank you for sharing!

  4. Ashley T says:

    Yes and Amen!! I’m in month 8 and it’s hard! My son is 12 and my biological littles are 8 and 6. Did I mention that this is hard?! Thank you for writing this, it makes me feel a little less crazy.

  5. Chris says:

    Thank you Carrie for this post. I am now 2.5 years into our second adoption and can say that it does get better and better. I felt much like you have described in this post and I knew it was more my issue with attachment than his. He was reflecting where I was at. I would beat myself up at the end of the day for not “feeling” the right way about our son… as you put it more like a glorified babysitter than his mom. He was our second adoption and I felt empty there was no magic in our meeting and I felt rejected when he chose my husband to bond with first despite the fact that I stayed at home with him. Our daughter’s adoption was much more magical. She immediately clung to us and we fell immediately in love with her. Contrary our son cried out in public,from his stroller, for strangers to save him from us, his evil parents. He used to call me “bad mama” and I would be hurt. That just wasn’t magical at all! It really hindered my bonding. Somewhere in the sleep deprived state of the first year I just realized I needed to keep doing the right thing over and over everyday even if I didn’t feel the love inside. I needed to hug him when he cried, read to him, rock him, kiss him good night just like I had our with daughter. I had to act like I was madly in love with him. That pervasive thought and those daily actions were what tipped the balance. God honoured all that effort. My perspective was changed and my son totally began to reflect how I acted. At first he was surprised and then he caved and wanted to please us (in a preschooler way..he became good at exploring his world and pushing boundaries and managing his little emotions and most importantly coming to me his mom for help and guidance). Now, 2.5 years later I have a wonderfully attached little boy. I feel deep inside that I am indeed his mom in every way. I feel that magic mama love feeling now. You know, the kind where you look at your sleeping little boy and think he as sweet as pie even though you know he will be so busy the next day. Its the magic feeling I was missing in the first year, that bonded, I will fight for you to the ends of the earth and back again kind of love that only a mother feels for her child. I can only encourage others to keep doing what they know to be right, act bonded, let your mind (and heart) be transformed, be patient, be encouraged. All that hard work invested into mothering a child well pays great dividends down the road. Many blessing to other moms out there and blessing to you Carrie for being brave enough to post on this topic!

  6. Monica says:

    Just. So. Much. This.

    We had none of the ‘worst case scenario’ -type problems either, but it’s taken 15 months for my relationship with one of my (2) foster-to-adopt little ones to feel natural and easy, and for me to start to feel like her ‘real mum’ rather than the glorified babysitter 🙂 After a good 6-8 months where it felt like everything she did pushed every single one of my buttons (and created quite a few new ones to push!) I can now look at her and see her inner beauty, her innocence and her strengths rather than the deficits.

    The love and fierce protectiveness is there with both kids – but I’m still working on the ‘natural and easy’ with the other (older) child, who is much more reserved and also has had more experiences before coming into my care.

    The best advice I read was to forget about your own feelings for at least the first 6 months after your kids move in with you. Don’t expect to feel anything, don’t analyse it too much, and above all don’t judge what you may or may not seem to feel. This is a crazy-hard thing you’re undertaking, and everyone needs time to adjust.

    After 6 months (for me it was more like 10 months) you can look around and start to explore what you might be feeling. I wish I remembered where exactly I read that – I read so may things trying to keep it together in those early months! – because the author of those lines kept me sane.

    Love and light to all of you brave parents taking on this most monumental of tasks – and especially to those of you in earlier stages of the journey!

  7. Kate says:

    Unfortunately, I am 3.5 years into our adoption and I still feel more like a babysitter than my son’s mom. It’s been and continues to be a very rough road. I am still struggling to attach to my child and see beyond his struggles to who he is. I have no advice to give, just a simple thank you for sharing your heart. It helped me feel less alone.

  8. Marcie says:

    We’re four years in with one of our three adopted daughters. While I can say that things have gotten better in some ways, some things remain. My daughter’s personality still clashes with mine. Her behavior, while improved in many areas, is still terribly frustrating in many ways. Overall, and on a daily basis, she still grates on me. And we have puberty to contend with now, too. I don’t say any of that to discourage other moms, but to let you know that some things don’t change as fast as you’d like. Through it, YOU’LL change. I am definitely not the person I was 4 years ago. I still don’t love my middle child the same way I love my youngest (who was also adopted). And that’s okay. It’s enough for now, and it’s certainly more than she had in the orphanage. I am a good mom to her. Some days, our relationship is good. Many days, I’m pretty much still just going through the motions of love… choosing it when I may not be feeling it. But I choose it. And I choose joy.

  9. Mandie says:

    Thank you. It took me a couple years to fully attach. Not everyone understands and I’ve had people I thought I could trust say some hurtful things. Never mind that they had never adopted. I remember the first time mama bear came out in defense of my son and I was taking deep breaths so as not to rip someone apart for him. Afterward, when I realized what had just happened I felt immense relief that I had finally arrived, I finally felt like his mom. The most important thing I have learned is the power of taking action even when you don’t feel, feelings follow.

  10. B says:

    We are two+ years into our adoption and it has about plowed me over. I think it’s so important for other adoptive parents to know that they are not alone and many struggle to like their child. It’s been a dark, hard road for us. I still don’t even know if we’ll make it. Some may take a year, some may take much longer, some may not make it at all. But God still holds us in the palms of His hands and will not leave or forsake us!

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