We have been home one year as of January 10, 2017, and I can finally say that I love him. I can’t tell you when exactly it happened. There was not a lightening bolt moment. Nor was there an instant bond or attachment from the moment we met.
I spent the better part of our first year suffering through each long day, considering every sunset a milestone and laying in bed beside him every night hoping that as one night layered upon another it would eventually lead us to mutual love and attachment.
I hoped and prayed that every morning waking up next to us, hearing us say we would never leave him, and seeing that we were trustworthy would eventually lead him to a sense of security, safety and confidence.
And I prayed that it would lead me to a deep love for and attachment to him. Something I had no idea would be so hard to come-by.
From the day we stepped off the plane from China and into the chaos of life with an adopted child, the one year mark seemed like a distant beacon whose light we would never reach. To me it held some sort of magic. I believed that at one year things would be better, we would be a normal family, all of the issues that come with adoption would have drastically improved, and I would be better. The one year mark symbolized survival. We made it through the hardest days and the darkest nights and it would only get better from there.
At six months I started panicking.
This is still really hard, I thought. We aren’t even close to having all of our issues behind us. At our six month post placement visit, our sweet social worker looked at me and said, “Do you love him yet?”
Oh no, I thought, she can see into my soul. I am not acting like I love him enough. She knows I am a bad adoptive parent. These thoughts flashed through my mind as a returned her gaze wide eyed.
She broke the silence.
“It’s ok if you don’t. I have adopted children too, and it takes time.”
I let out a sigh of relief and my posture relaxed. I love him sometimes, I confessed to her. But some days (most days) it is still really hard. There are times I miss how our family was before. It was all so much easier then. He makes everything so incredibly hard. He hits his brothers and sister and my mama bear instincts come out. He hits himself and it breaks my heart and makes me angry. I don’t know how to get him to stop. Nothing the books say to do seems to work. He is too hypervigilant to sleep, antagonizes his sister and spends all day whining that everything is unfair.
His rage is set off at the drop of a hat, or more literally the drop of a crayon. When he doesn’t get his way, he threatens all of us by saying, “I am going back to China! You are not my family!” By the end of the day I am so spent physically and emotionally, yet I cannot even look forward to a night of sleep because he will be awake, needing us to sleep with him, grabbing for me in desperation if I even stir.
Our social worker left with some encouraging words and resources and told me to call her if things did not start improving soon.
What is soon, I wondered…
Later that week I sat with my neighbor, sweating on her screened-in porch in the July heat.
She adopted a little boy four years ago, and has been a huge source of encouragement for me.
When will it feel like he is mine I asked?
When will it feel the same as my other children?
It won’t ever be exactly the same, she said to my shock. It will get better than it is now, but it will always feel a little different. Not better or worse, just different. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But you will feel like he is your child, and he will become just as much a part of your family as your other children.
It will get easier. One year was huge for us, she said, a turning point.
There was that magic phrase again.
Would there really be noticeable change in the next six months?
I continued to worry, what if it never gets better than this? What if the magic anniversary comes and everything Is the same? What hope will I have then? I can’t live my whole life in this state of anxiety! I was so afraid that my world would crash in around me – even more than it already had.
But, despite this underlying fear, we kept doing the work.
We kept looking in his eyes, telling him we loved him, making him family collages and baby books. We continued singing him songs the attachment counselor taught us, praying with him and for him. We tried to maintain our consistency with discipline and teach him strategies for dealing with his anger. He started school in the fall and with that came a more consistent routine and more people to pour into him and love him.
His sister taught him to play with her and there were moments I would stand in the middle of the house in shock because they would be quietly playing together in her room. This child who had absolutely no idea how to play was now making imaginary voices and playing make believe.
One day in the fall I realized his tone was no longer a constant whine. And that the angry outbursts and tantrums, though still there, were not as frequent. The self harm, though present, was not as violent, and I was learning how to stop it and distract him.
We were all making baby steps.
As Christmas approached and our one year anniversary, I noticed a shift happening again. But this time it was regression. After siblings birthdays and all of the holiday fun and chaos, Christmas Eve was a disaster. He was a mess. I was a mess. And those old feelings and thoughts that he was only making our life harder resurfaced.
As many adoptive parents know, the holidays can be a trigger for our little ones and so it was for Elijah. I was sobbing in the bathroom of a cafe during Christmas Eve brunch because he had scratched up his face and tried to choke himself all over a pancake not being cut the way he wanted.
This is it, I thought, ignoring the truth of how far we had come. It’s always going to be this hard and this awful. We have been home almost a year and this is still happening.
I eventually composed myself and we went home, missing the Christmas Eve service and laying low for the day. After I cooled down and had some time to think, I realized that it was different this time. Though his old patterns triggered old emotions for me, life was not the same as it was 11 months ago when we stepped off that plane.
At some point over the last few months my emotions had evolved. Although I was upset and angry at him at times, I no longer questioned my love for him. He was my son and I loved him like a son. Yes, I felt anger towards him, but in the same way I sometimes feel anger toward all of my children. Though he still had the ability to ruin an entire day, I no longer questioned whether or not we had made a mistake by bringing him into our family.
As our one year Gotcha Day anniversary approached and I started filling out the paperwork for our social worker visit, I remembered her question from six months ago about whether or not I loved Elijah yet.
I knew this time I would be able to say an honest yes.
When she arrived, she asked with concern if things had improved, and as she read through some of our issues six months prior I realized just how much. She reminded me that at our six month visit I had told her that Elijah was antagonizing his sister. And now, though they have their moments, they are best friends.
She asked how my attachment was and I was able to say that though he drives me crazy at times (like all my children), and there are days still so hard that I cry in the panty, I truly love him and feel like he is my son. I miss him when I am not with him and I hurt when he hurts. I want him to believe he is loved and safe, not just so that it will help his behavior but because I want him to know and believe he is ours.
I know we still have a ways to go. But I can celebrate that we have come so far. He still hits himself, and tells me he wants to go back to China. He knows the unhealthy ways to get the attention he so desperately craves. We are still learning and growing as a family of six. There will always be highs and lows in this journey and new triggers in each new season. But I feel less afraid about having the capacity to handle them.
I have to remind myself that yes, he has been with us one year and that is a wonderful and huge milestone. However he spent 10 months (I assume) with his birth family before abandonment and then two and half years in an orphanage. One year with us is small in the grand scheme of things. However, as I said in the beginning about the days, each anniversary will be one more year that he has been with us.
He will see that we are not going anywhere, he will gain more security and confidence….