Attachment. Not much more could not be packed into one single word, especially in the adoption world.
We spent all of July focusing on this most-important topic and decided to continue into August – but with a bit of a twist.
This month, we’re answering your attachment questions. Because we all have them – we just don’t always have a safe place to ask.
My daughter, adopted at 2.5, is now 10. I feel like we are not attached. What can I do to try to attach myself to her? It feels forced and very uncomfortable for me.
Jane had come to see me several times already, asking for help to handle her daughter adopted as a toddler from China 8 years earlier. Her intake forms had all sorts of boxes checked off and comments in the margins. Jane told me how she talked too much, cried daily, constantly pushed her to her limit.
I need more tools to deal with her. What I’m doing clearly isn’t working.
We got into it all. We talked about her story and what children with hard starts learn about themselves and how the world works. We talked about everyday hard things and correcting strategies that would build their connection. But, as we were moving along, I noticed that Jane seemed to be hesitating. It was subtle but clear. While fully engaged in the therapeutic process, on time to every appointment and fully present while we were together in that space, she seemed to be holding something back.
It took a lot of courage for her to share what she did as we debriefed at the end of the session. She told me a story from their recent vacation as they waited to board a plane. Another family was waiting nearby, a family not all that unlike their own. Jane told me how normal they seemed, squabbling here and there, impatient at times to get going. Then she started to cry.
As they waited just like we were waiting, I watched the mom start combing her daughter’s hair with her fingers, running her fingers through her long hair slowly. Then she braided it. She didn’t have a ponytail holder or anything to secure it. She braided it. It fell out. Then she braided it again, and it fell out again. And, it struck me as I watched them — that mom is playing with her daughter’s hair just to play with it. She didn’t have to do it, but she was. I don’t do that. Not because I don’t want it, but because I just don’t feel it. And, I wish I did.
I thought of Jane when I read your words. You were brave too.
What can I do to try to attach myself to her? It feels forced and very uncomfortable for me.
Some feel it from the start. When my husband held our daughter for the first time and took a deep breath of her, she was his and he was hers. That was it. But, it’s not always that way. Some of us have to work at it. Like I did. Fake it until you feel it. That’s the catch phrase we often hear. But, what does that mean? What does faking it look like? And, until? Does that mean it’s a guarantee that we will feel it? When?
Stop. I need you to take this in. You are what your child needs.
Being intentional to build a relationship rather than having it “come naturally” doesn’t make you any less of a mother for her. The fact that you have a desire for connection and you want to do the work to get there in spite of how it feels to you shows that you are what she needs! At this moment, there is no one else on this planet as interested in connecting with her than you.
That connection can happen. There is always hope in relationship. It is never too late. As stuck as we may feel at times, we are never so stuck that we cannot move towards each other in some way.
I don’t expect you to braid her hair. I get that even with admiring that type of connection and wanting it, it feels too big, too hard, too forced. But, that doesn’t mean you give up. What is one thing you can do that demonstrates a step towards your child? What is one small thing you can do maybe even today?
Maybe you could put everything in front of you away and give her your full eye contact and your full attention in one conversation today.
Maybe you could touch her back for a fast second as she puts her dish in the sink.
Maybe you could laugh a little when she says something she thinks is funny (even if you don’t).
Maybe you could simply peek in at her after she falls asleep and admire how pretty she is.
I could give you a long list of maybes, drawing from small steps I know other moms and dads have taken, but what one small step looks like for you is best decided by you. Whatever you decide, just try it. It may not be met with a warm response. It isn’t a magical formula with a guarantee. But, it’s something. And, one something can grow in momentum.
The sweetness of relationship and the pleasure of connection for both your daughter and for you is worth it.