I’ve started to write this post many times. Each attempt has found me closing my computer, and telling myself that this part of my story is too real, or too raw, or maybe just too much. But over and over again, as I’ve spoken to moms who are living out this journey, I realize that all of us are walking (sometimes stumbling down) an often messy path, especially during that first year home.
And I will start this with a disclaimer — this is not the story of a pro mom, but that of someone with absolutely zero mothering experience setting out on a journey to a little boy. I made A lot of rookie mistakes. I’m still so much of a rookie that I don’t think I realize all of the rookie mistakes I made (and am still making). So, for what it’s worth, and in the hope that this will resonate with even one of you, I present to you: my first few months as a mom.
Becoming a mother through adoption is challenging in every way — mental, spiritual, physical. When we arrived home from China with our little one, I remember walking into walls I was so dizzy with jet lag, feeling as if my entire world had been literally half-turned upside down. This precious boy was so beautiful to me, but I didn’t really know how to be with him. In some ways I already loved him — I had been developing this love while I looked at his pictures what felt like millions of times as we waited to travel. In other ways, he was a stranger.
In honest retrospect, I guess I didn’t realIze that I wasn’t really his mama yet. Signing those adoption papers may have given me the title of mother, but it was nominal. I wanted that instant gratification of connection to him, but I didn’t yet understand how hard I would have to work for it. At best, I was my son’s new ayi — an ayi whom he clearly did not want.
I look back at the China pictures now, and see myself awkwardly giving my baby his bottle, beaming with pride at the nap that he was taking in the carrier strapped to me, willing myself to forget the 40 minutes of fight it had taken him to exhaust himself to sleep. I see the pictures of my husband down on the floor with him, blowing bubbles and playing stacking cups and throwing the beach ball around our suite at The Garden hotel, and I remember standing in the corner of that room, looking down at them, feeling like a complete impostor.
My son didn’t want me to hold him, he didn’t want to play with me, he didn’t want to sit with me in the van as we traveled to various tours and appointments. He didn’t want me.
Fear had started to creep in early while we were still in his home province, I think. “What if it is always like this? What if he never thinks of me as his mother?” I began to really shut down while we were in Guangzhou, jealous of his easy relationship with his Baba, perhaps withdrawing from them both in some sort of Hail Mary attempt at self-preservation. I wanted not to take it all personally, but in my heart, I felt devastated. And while I knew that my response was not a rational one, I could not help it. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. My family and friends proclaimed all over my wechat, Facebook, and instagram how fabulous it was that I was a mom, and I smiled and liked comments, and said “oh, isn’t it wonderful?,” when in my heart, I was feeling that I could not be any less qualified for my new role.
I remember driving to our consulate appointment. Finally my boy had allowed me to hold him, and our guide talked at length (in my head, at least) about how it was too hot for him to be in the carrier. She told me that he didn’t like it in there, that I should take him out, and that she would hold him while we drove. “But what about cocooning? He needs to know that I am his mother!” My mind raced with anxiety about attachment, and a misplaced sense of entitlement too. This guide did not know what she as talking about, and I could not believe that she would try to interfere with how I had decided to parent my child. I needed him to know that I was his mother. Maybe if he knew it, I’d start to know it too. I’m pretty sure all my son knew, though, was that I was a strange looking, crazy-haired, angry lady.
Many of our family pictures from China are of Keith, holding our little one, confident in his new role as Baba Bear, and fiercely protective of his new son. What you don’t see is me, my insecurity morphing into anger, resentment, and fear as the hours ticked slowly by, marking my countdown until we could get on that plane for the long trip home. Sweating through the Nanyue Tomb and fussing in whispers at Keith so that the guide wouldn’t think I was more nuts than she already did, wondering how anyone could possibly stand to sightsee in the heat. (It was November.) Sweating across Shamian Island, marveling at the beauty of its architecture and the gorgeous foliage, and all the while, wanting to run away so that I could just be alone for one minute. We didn’t even stay at the Pearl Market. I was so overwhelmed at the thought of making a decision at that point in my life, we just had to go back to the hotel.
At some point, though, my deep sadness at his rejection of me started to change into something else entirely. I started to feel relief. It was too much to hold my new son at every meal. It was too much to deal with trying to wrangle him into the stroller. I needed peace, and it was becoming clear to me that any peace to be found in my lifetime was fleeting. I let Baba take over, and I began to give up.
After years of infertility, I had realized my dream of motherhood. In China, I felt as if I was squandering it. Things didn’t improve when we got home. After 24 hours of travel (during which my husband had to hold our son even on trips to the bathroom so as to avoid him screaming in terror if I attempted to touch him) we arrived to our happy, proud family at the airport. I burst into tears the second I saw my mom, a jumbled mix of pride, relief, jet lag, and sheer exhaustion. As those first days passed, my husband took over most of the care for our boy as I retreated further and further into myself… and the couch. I wanted to be what everyone needed me to be, but it turned out that there was a reason I was unable to get pregnant for so many years — I simply was not cut out to be a mother. That was the tiny voice I heard, day in, day out. That voice in my head was relentless.
I cried. I yelled. Not at my son — but at his dad. Baba took the brunt of my anger, because I was so flabbergasted that he had had this seamless transition into parenthood, and I had been left behind. Cue Baba’s return to work, and my start to maternity leave. After working full-time as a busy public defender for many years before I went on leave, staying home for months on end was often torturous to me. I didn’t know what to do to pass all of those hours in the house. I could only play choo choos so many times. Everything was a battle – diaper changes, putting on clothes, eating meals. To top it off, my son hated the crib, and the only way he would nap was in the car. So I drove. And drove. And drove some more. There were many days that I’d put him in the car before nap time just so I could get up off of the floor and out of my house. It felt as if the walls were closing in on me there.
I’d read every single adoptive parenting book, and read them again when we got home. I needed to find the answers to why everything was such a struggle for me. But my son wasn’t talking yet. I couldn’t give him choices. He didn’t know what the blue cup or the green cup was, or what snack he wanted. I couldn’t reason with him. If I forgot myself and used the word “no”… well… prepare for nuclear fallout.
Days slipped by into weeks. We fought through every day, and the second Baba walked into the house at night, my boy ran to him, thrilled to have his playmate and favorite caretaker back. I cried. I ate. I cried more. I ate more. Peanut m&ms were my best friend, and as I watched my boys playing in the living room floor, mindlessly eating handful after handful, I felt comforted. There was no sugar high – I’d become immune to that long ago – but eating chocolate helped me feel something that seemed like it might be approaching normal.
I remember when I was in China, I posted on Facebook in a big adoption group that I was struggling because my son was rejecting me. Many sweet mamas commented that they had had a similar experience in country, and that I just needed to ride it out until we got home. I understand that many people do have that experience. For me, it didn’t work that way. It took a very long time of patient, deliberate work for my son and I to bond. We are still bonding – I’d say this is a lifelong journey, and that it took at least a year for him to really want to cuddle me as much as he does his Baba. It took at least a year for him to run to me when he’s hurt.
And what I wish someone would have said to me, and what I will say to you now, struggling mama, is this:
It is ok to struggle. You are ok. You aren’t a terrible mother.
It is, in fact, not even about you.
Your new child has just been taken from everything he ever knew, and handed to strangers.
Likewise, you have gone through an enormous change — maybe you’ve just become a mama for the first time, or maybe not. Whatever your life circumstances, you have found yourself at the bottom of what might feel like a very steep, seemingly insurmountable hill. And you know what? It is ok if it takes you a while to try to start climbing. It’s ok if you sit in the ugly place where you are for a second and let it all wash over you — that you acknowledge that despite all of your preparation and reading and work, this is hard stuff. It’s ok if you make a little progress, and then tumble back down to the bottom of that hill. And it’s ok if you camp out halfway up and take breaks while you try to figure out this little person, and your own emotions.
And you know what else I wish I would have known (maybe I did hear this, but I didn’t internalize it…). It’s also ok if you need to go talk to a counselor, or take an antidepressant for a little bit to get through the initial transition, or if you need to start meditating, or pray every day, or cry every day, or take 15 minutes completely to yourself every single night when your husband gets home from work. It is ok. You are ok. Maybe what I should have called this post is “Take Care Of Yourself So That You Can Take Care Of Your New Child,” because that is what you must do.
I think that it’s important that we tell each other that no matter what we are going through, and no matter how isolated we feel, we are in good company. Admittedly, some of our roads are bumpier than others, but it is important that we continue to tell each other that the pristine outfits and smiles and holiday photos of Facebook are not what we are all living when we turn social media off and enter into life with a new child.
So often when we talk about attachment, we speak about it in terms of work that we are doing for our child. We think about increasing felt safety and connection through play. And that’s what we should be doing. But I guess I also think that maybe that doesn’t tell the whole story — I think that we also have to talk more about the work that we do as Mamas and Babas to move our own heads and hearts towards the secure end of the attachment continuum.
It was my inability to get out of my own head that held up my relationship with my boy. It was not until I started reframing my own thoughts about mothering that I was able to meet my son’s needs and begin to earn his trust at the deepest level. Therapy helped. Floor play helped. And time.