Recently, I was on a video shoot for my job as a professor at a small Christian college. The producer, knowing I am a working mom, asked me what advice I had to other women about “leaning in.”
“I think sometimes working moms or dads will need to press pause and lean out of work and into their families. I think the most important thing is that moms and dads pray for wisdom and discernment.”
Before Bryson and I became mama and baba, our lives naturally centered around our careers and ministry. I earned a doctorate and had a successful career as a business professor at a Christian college. I was good at my job and I loved it. I was starting to publish my research and was excited about my future research possibilities. I adored my students and knew that I was doing what God created me to do. I loved using my mind and was so passionate about teaching marketing. I cherished the opportunity to mentor students and have conversations with them about their future. I knew I would do this for a long time. I was the primary “breadwinner” for our family.
There was a moment though when it seemed like time moved in slow motion during our adoption process. Bryson and I traveled to hear Dr. Karyn Purvis speak at the beginning of our first adoption. I heard conviction in her voice when she said something such as some adoptive parents will need to stop working to help a child and their family find healing. I think somehow, in my gut, I knew when she said this she was speaking about my family.
Over a year later, I would meet my almost two year old daughter in a humid hotel room in Nanchang, China. She made me a mama but it took a long time for me to really become her mama. It sounds so obvious now, but she was terrified of us. We couldn’t change her diaper for days because she was too scared. And really, that makes so much sense doesn’t it?
Her voice was sweet. Her mind was so brilliantly smart. Her affect was flat. Her world was rocked. And we were strangers. Her heart was completely grief stricken. The concept of family was new to her.
Friends told us it would get better once we got home from China and it did not. My daughter initially developed a trauma bond with my husband, and I worked so hard to engage her. Even though there was a bond with my husband, it wasn’t rooted in a healthy place. We did everything the books told us to do, we followed all of the training, but we needed the assistance of a Theraplay and TBRI trained practitioner (Ms. Kristen Hale) soon after coming home. We learned from her therapist that our child had an insecure attachment style and was emotionally a six month old.
I knew there was the real possibility for attachment challenges. It was another thing to live it. Home became a hard place to be instead of a sanctuary. I knew I needed to be the one to stand beside my daughter as we found healing. It was such hard, important, and emotionally involved work, that I knew it needed to be my sole focus.
In the early summer, I sat down at my computer and told my bosses that I couldn’t return to my full-time role. I was devastated and I remember gasping for air through the sobs. I felt success in my role as a professor, and absolute failure in my new role as mom. It was terrifying to leave the job I loved and the one I found my success in – the community, the financial security, the students and my colleagues, and the challenging work. It sounds dramatic, but I mourned the loss of this role.
Motherhood wasn’t what I had imagined. I pictured cuddles on the couch. I pictured my daughter running to me when I came home, not away from me. I envisioned us playing together on the living room floor. I desired for connection and engagement. But that version of motherhood wasn’t mine that first year, and so I began the hard work of altering my expectations.
I knew in my gut I had to alter my expectations for our mother and daughter relationship, because resentment was not invited. She did not choose any of this. The reasons why attachment was a challenge were not her fault. She was the child, I was the adult, and this mama bear was going to fight for her little girl.
A helpful way to reframe my perspective came from researching about the brain and childhood trauma. I told myself that if my child had a medical condition affecting her brain, I would seek out the best specialists, I would travel as far as I needed to, and I would deplete my savings in an attempt to find healing. Thinking about her brain seemed so much more concrete than the word attachment — though earned secure attachment was the goal. I pushed myself to be intentional about creating experiences that would help her brain make important connections that it had not before.
Now, over two years later, I am back at work full-time. We have recently had a year of hard transitions: two surgeries, a second adoption, an audit, career changes, a move from small town Arkansas to a big city in Oklahoma, two new schools. And despite this, our attachment is thriving.
Recently, my cousin marveled at the transformation in my daughter and asked what I attributed it to. I attribute it to seeing a Theraplay practitioner the first 18 months home and pressing pause on my career. TBRI and Theraplay together, under the accountability and support of a trained clinician, transformed my family. There was a lot of time driving to attachment therapy, but it was time well spent. Reducing my stress and increasing my focus by pushing pause on my career enabled me to be more attuned and nurturing during a high investment period for my family.
Even as a driven, career-minded woman, I know in my gut that my daughter needed all of me. I know pausing my career made an enormous impact.
During my doctorate years before I became a mom, I had to press pause on a lot of family events because it was a high investment time in my academic career. I’ve learned that this is likely the rhythm of life. Sometimes, we will have high investment periods in one aspect of our lives, and at other times we will need to lean out and invest in another.
My daughter Lydia has an incredible memory. Just last week, she was sharing that when we became a family, she did not know us. She told us, even at two years old, she felt like she lived with strangers for a very, very long time. She said it took her a long time to feel like we were her mommy and daddy. When you take time to think about Lydia’s memory of the first months home, it makes more sense than the often romanticized instant adoption “connection.” We were strangers. She felt it, and looking back, I felt it too. Connection takes time. And adoption leave policies at many companies and organizations do not provide adoptive families enough time to make those important connections. It’s unfortunate.
When I think back on that first year, it felt like everything was hard. It felt like progress wasn’t happening fast enough. Extended family were frustrated. But we had to press pause with them too, in some ways. She had to be our focus. But looking back, I cannot believe how much healing has taken place in only 30 months. I cannot believe that a complex human being could change and learn to engage in such drastically different ways so quickly. Thirty months is not a long time. I’m so thankful we didn’t delay getting help.
Sure, we still have moments when we need to simplify our lives and reel back from the typical hectic American schedule, we still have moments where we go back to Theraplay basics, but our day-to-day looks far more like my initial image of motherhood: snuggling on the couch, playing on the living room floor, giggling, running to see each other when we reunite, and also moments of processing our stories and how they’ve intersected. Even in the hard conversations about our stories and acknowledging the tremendous loss that plays a role in adoption, we are engaging in what I longed for: connection. Because I learned to press pause in a big moment, it’s given me a rhythm of pressing pause in lots of smaller ones for the sake of connection.
Our decision to press pause on my career took an enormous financial cost on our family, but the reward of seeing my daughter engage in relationships in healthy and rewarding ways has been worth all of the stress, the cost, and simply cannot be quantified.
I think sometimes women feel pressure about career and motherhood. It is often like society wants us to champion a side. There are some who say we must lean in, there are some who say we must lean out. For me, it’s been seasons of both. For my family, it’s made a difference.
And in writing this post, I’m not promoting a working mom or a stay at home mom anthem. My decision to lean into my family was really about being attuned to my daughter, and responding to what she needed. Me. Completely. That’s what moms do everyday. We attune ourselves to meet the needs of those we love. It made a difference.
– A working mom who leaned out for a time.