I glanced at the clock. It was 2:50. I felt my shoulders tighten involuntarily and a sick feeling start in my stomach. In 15 minutes, the most difficult part of my day would start: my daughter would walk through the door. It was the part of the day I dreaded the most.
I wasn’t an inexperienced mom. We had two biological daughters and another child from China we had adopted years before as a toddler. I had thought wistfully about homeschooling her, our second daughter from China, when we were paper-chasing to bring her home. However, she had significant disabilities, and we knew she was going to need specialized, expensive equipment and training that we did not possess. Her only access to that equipment and training would be through the school system. So, we had decided with regret that she would not be homeschooled with our other children.
Now, with her home, I was so thankful we had her in public school. It was the only respite I had.
How did we end up in this place?
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. She was eight years old when we brought her home. She has been living in a specialized foster care home in China with many ex-pat volunteers. She spoke excellent English from the beginning – better than most guides in China. We had Skyped with her for months before we actually met. We were able to have true conversations almost weekly.
We had a lot of background information from the foster home. She always had a smile, was always happy to help with tasks, and was described universally by people who had met her as “cheerful and sunny”.
When we met, she had been almost overcome with excitement as she dragged me through the home, announcing to one and all, “My mom is here!” On the day we finalized her adoption, she was beaming from ear to ear as she told the photographer that she was now my “real daughter” and not her “fake daughter” anymore.
So how had we ended up here – where the last thing I wanted to see was her school bus in the afternoon?
The first three months were our honeymoon. She was hyperactive and hypervigilant; she had meltdowns. She was indiscriminately friendly – we expected that. What we did not expect was the gradual realization that the bubbly, giggly girl we thought we had adopted was actually a façade; a persona she had apparently worn for years. What was really in her heart was shame and terror.
Her meltdowns got worse. What had been one-hour crying fits turned into two or three hour fits of rage. After the first chair was destroyed and the first door kicked in, we started restraining her, afraid she would hurt herself or her sisters. In those rages, she would try to hit, kick, bite herself or anyone around her. She would scream how much she hated us, and how she wanted to hurt herself and us.
We never knew what would set off a rage; our efforts to redirect or head them off almost never succeeded. Rages happened almost every day.
In the quieter times, we had glimpses into her heart. One day when telling her she would make a great mom because of how well she played with her sisters, she responded with, “I’ll never be a mom. No one will ever want to marry me because of my disability.”
Her happy personality disappeared. Our attempts to touch her in any way usually precipitated a rage. She told us repeatedly how much she wished she had any other parents but us. As is typical for children with attachment issues, she was charming to anyone outside our family. At school, she instantly became the favorite of the teachers. She did her best to become her classroom “teacher’s pet”.
The only saving grace in that situation was that her teacher was willing to be educated in attachment issues and worked with us in teaching her proper boundaries.
My prayers at that time were very simple: “Lord, I know you put her in this family for a reason. I am trusting You that we are her family. Heal her heart to accept our love. And heal my heart to truly love her.” Over and over and over, through days and months and years, I prayed those words.
At six months post-adoption, we started seeing an attachment therapist. I do not know if we would have made it as a family without her. We had read all the books, attended classes, knew all the right vocabulary for attachment issues. However, the importance of having another adult who could non-judgmentally look at your family and offer hope and tangible suggestions cannot be overemphasized.
She explained our daughter’s “only so far and then no more” behaviors as related to bonding. We stopped trying to hug or kiss her. We started activities that she could do beside us: prepare dinner, fold clothes, rake leaves; anything where we were interacting without physical contact.
She was hyperactive but because of her disability, many sports were not open to her. Having an outlet for her energy calmed her. I learned to purposely regulate myself, so she could draw calm from me. It was the most exhausting thing I had ever done; to provide regulation for a nine year old as if she were a baby. There were many days when my husband would get home, and I would have to walk out the door for 30 minutes to settle myself for the evening.
The therapist helped our family, but it took 18 months post-adoption before we started to see significant changes in our daughter. There were weeks that, instead of her, I would go to the therapy appointment myself so as to have time to try and understand what was happening.
I needed concrete suggestions as to what to say when at 14 months post-adoption, she would come home from school and say, “I made a pretty bracelet in school but I gave it to my teacher because I like her and I don’t like you.” In the moment, I responded calmly, but I needed more than, “I am sure it was a pretty bracelet and your teacher liked it.” I needed our therapist to help me when the situation would re-occur (as it did). I needed validation that what I was doing was what she needed. I needed a plan.
Our adoption social worker was well-meaning, but she admitted she did not have a depth of experience needed dealing with children with such severe attachment issues. Our church family only saw the cheerful face she presented to the rest of the world. Although everyone was supportive, I did not want to share too much. I felt this was our daughter’s story we were working through, and it was not my place to share her trauma.
At 18 months post-adoption, and a year after starting therapy, things started to improve. She was tolerating touch in small doses. She trusted us enough to relate the physical and sexual abuse she had suffered. She shared how she was sure she would end up on the streets as a beggar, since she had seen other adults with her disability begging in China. She allowed herself to feel and acknowledge emotions, especially anger at whoever abandoned her.
She decided she had missed life as our baby, and wanted to try that. As she hated milk, we did bottle feeding with green tea. She began thinking about her future, and to accept that she could be an independent adult someday. She finally accepted that we had not left her for years at the orphanage, but had come to get her as soon as we found out about her.
I started to truly connect with her at about 18 months as well. She began to seem cute, and her endless chatter no longer so annoying. I began to be able to predict her behavior, which gave me confidence that I could really be her mom.
I finally started to feel that we really were meant to be her family.
At three years post-adoption, we decided that homeschooling was finally an option. We had learned how to manage her disability, but more importantly, we felt like a family. I no longer dreaded her arrival home, and looked forward to having her around all the time. It was the right decision. It gave her the security she needed to finally let down her last barriers and accept that we would never hurt or leave her. Her hyperactivity and other issues disappeared.
At four years post-adoption, we graduated from therapy.
It has been eight years since we adopted our daughter. And I cannot imagine our life without her. That is a phrase I hated in the early years. All I could do sometimes was imagine a life without her. I thank God He upheld me, and did not let me lose faith in His healing.
As I poured myself into our daughter, He also poured Himself into me. He gave me more love and compassion than I was ever capable of before – He is my refuge in times of trouble.
This has not been a light-hearted post. I know, though, that when I went through this time, this is how it felt to me. There may be others feeling this way…
Will I ever love this child?
Will they ever love me?
We’ve been home six months, isn’t stuff supposed to be settling down, not getting worse?
I am a wholehearted advocate for older child adoption. We have adopted four more older children since this daughter. Three have had slipped almost seamlessly into the family. The fourth, who had significant trauma and behavioral issues prior to adoption, has struggled, but has gradually begun to heal as well. I am grateful for the expertise we now had in dealing with trauma behaviors in helping him heal his heart. I am confident that his heart will heal as has the heart of our daughter.
In the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that are not. – Romans 4:17
He called my heart and her heart back from the dead. He brought into existence a family where it had not existed before. He will not leave you, but will rescue you.
– guest post by an anonymous mama