When my dear friend Andrea recommended that I write this article for No Hands But Ours, I was intimidated. I still am. As a mom of eight young adult daughters (ages 21 – 25), seven that joined our family through the gift of adoption — five after the age of 18 — I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of attaching and connecting with my girls. And the surface that I have scratched is marked with smudges of my own failures, fingerprints of selfishness and water stains of my tears, and theirs. This thing that we call attachment, this idea/expectation/dream of a fully bonded, comfortable and enriching relationship with my kids — all eight of them — still eludes me many days.
I say that to say that I am no expert, and as I considered writing an article that might come across as an “expert point of view,” I froze. I’m still convinced that I agreed to write it only because the email came in before my morning caffeine kicked in and I love Andrea. Having agreed, when the time came to put my fingers on the keyboard, I froze. I froze because my girls can read, the only audience that I truly care about — God and my family — will know if what I write is a puffed up version of reality. They all know me like no one else reading these words ever will.
So, here are my real-life words of solidarity with you — parents walking in the hard, heavy and heartbreaking arena of first family loss. It’s messy. Yet, in the mess there resides a Redeemer who not only sees every tear but keeps our tears before Him, bottled within the promise of beauty from the ashes of our broken moments.
Rather than read the words before you as “expert advice” being passed on from someone who has it all together, read it as a fellow traveler on the road toward hope who’s fumbling, failing and figuring it out with you.
Don’t misunderstand me, there are days of deep, deep connection with my girls. Days where I feel like I’ve hit the mark and the contented feeling of healthy relationship washes over me as I drift off to sleep. It’s from the prospective of both fulfilling attachment and broken connection that I write this article. You see, for me, attachment/connection/relationship isn’t an either/or, it’s a both/and. I haven’t yet found myself at a state where I can stop my efforts, cease my striving, and say that we’ve either “arrived” and are fully attached to our kids, or not. I have instead found myself in a continual state of being both attached and broken in relationship with my girls, their stories and their struggles. Isn’t that how relationship works? We’re broken together. Only experiencing full wholeness from within the abiding presence of and reliance upon Jesus to fill in the gaps and mend the fractures.
My message to you today is simply that attachment work doesn’t end at a magical “18.” 18 isn’t a passing off or arrival of attachment-centered and connection-driven relationship, it’s merely a continuation. That cute sassy little 12-year-old will one day be an adult with her own life, and she will still need you – whether she admits it or not. That tough little 14 year old boy will one day be a man with a family of his own, and he will still needs you — whether he shows it or not.
Here are a few things that help me get it right and keep my heart and mind centered on lifelong, connected relationship with my girls:
Love them, and let them find themselves.
The hardest part of the teenage and young adult years is the necessary and God-given desire for independence — a separation from “you” so that I can be “me.” This drive to find their own identity draws our precious ones into all manner of stuff — behaviors, situations, relationships, decisions — that make us angry, cause us to worry and even hurt our feelings.
It’s important to remember two things:
First, this isn’t about us (don’t take it personally). It’s about them and their journey of finding out who they are.
Second, our primary job is to love them, no matter what. Stay steady in your expression of and commitment to loving them through whatever the current situation may be. Instructing, guiding, correcting and letting consequences teach is much easier from the foundation of love. We naturally want to make it more complicated than love, but don’t. Take a breath and repeat, “Show love. Show love. Show love.”
Other people have a valuable place in your kids lives.
“You’re not going to believe what ________ just told me!” followed with an exact statement that you’ve made a hundred gazillion trillion times. “________ told me that I should consider _______ and I think it’s a great idea.” Oh, really? I’m glad _______ thought to tell you, why didn’t I ever think of that 😃 …
*insert major eye roll*
In truth, aren’t we all kind of like this though? Sometimes it’s the simple act of someone outside of your normal circle seeing something that rings true with other consistent messages in your life that finally makes it take hold and stick. Trust me, I get it, when we’re speaking of attachment these issues are magnified and sometimes our kids cling to other relationships in unhealthy ways, or push us away, talk badly or lie about us, or just shut us out to focus on the other person — teacher, friend’s parent, co-worker, pastor, or person they just met at the fast food drive up. Repeat after me, “I can’t control them, I can only control me.”
We can’t spend our time anxious and bitter about the other relationships they have in their life. In the course of their lifetimes, our kids are going to manage hundreds of relationships. Some relationships will be healthy, some not so healthy; some based on truth, others based on lies; some real, some perceived; sometimes they will find true friendship, sometimes they will find betrayal; one mentor may be awesome, another will lead them astray. The bottom line is relationships heal and relationships hurt, and both are good. Find teaching opportunities in these moments, and always be a safe landing zone for life’s ups and downs.
Remember, there will come a time that they choose.
In those precious and exhausting years that our children are living at home and dependent on us for their very survival we often dream about the day that they will be on their own, paying their own bills, eating all the peanut butter out of their own pantry in one sitting and no longer leaving a trail of unwashed laundry in our house. Then that day comes, and we realize that we focused on all of those things and didn’t think about the most important one —relationship. Trust me, I get it. When we are adults we can choose where and with whom to spend our time/energy/effort, and so can our little ones when they become big ones.
Praise publicly, rebuke privately.
One of my greatest sadnesses is when I see a parent totally expose their child on social media or in anything other public forum (i.e. the family dinner table.) We are to lift up and love each and every child, in front of them and in front of everyone else. When my children come to me to complain, tattle or otherwise expose their siblings, I listen and help them process, but I work very hard to pull the conversation toward positive and praise. In conflict, much to my children’s chagrin, I only deal with the behavior of the person in front of me. I don’t care what your sibling did, it takes two to perpetuate conflict, let’s talk about your role and how you could have avoided the conflict or solved it. I will speak with the opposing sibling similarly. We cannot align ourselves with anything that tears down our children in front of others. Yes, correction is needed but in the same way that we expect our children to honor us, we should honor them and handle that correction privately as much as possible.
Remind yourself that relationship is a lifetime journey, not a childhood sprint.
I’ve watched two of my girls marry the love of their lives, and another is headed down the aisle to her forever in a few short months. I have four beautiful grandchildren. Neither marriage, nor parenting their own children stop the attachment-centered work that we do in our girl’s lives.
Actually, my children’s major life shifts often become touchpoint of attachment work that is both profoundly beautiful and profoundly broken. As parents of adult children we are similar to the pole in the game of tether ball. The chain is our children’s relationship and connection to us that is always there, even when they are away from us. Much like the ball in the game, life is full of opposing forces that are vying for your child’s attention, sometimes beating them up a little and always moving in one direction or another. But occasionally, that chain of relationship brings a child back to wrap themselves around us just long enough to catch a break and get back out their to their life.
Life is hard. Make sure your relationship is safe and soft enough to run back into and rest.
Create traditions, and uphold them.
Traditions draw us back together; for our family the big one is Christmas and Thanksgiving. We go big on those holidays and our children love it, and are modeling it in their own adult lives. Whatever your traditions are – make them big. These are the things that bond us and create a lifetime of memories that warm our hearts and fill our dinner tables.
These are just a few lessons that this life of walking with my adult children from hard places, through hard places and to hard places has taught me. Hands down, the most important thing — always — is connection to Jesus and to each other. We can’t and shouldn’t do this alone. We can and should draw on the deep well of grace, mercy and forgiveness that is modeled for us and present to us in Jesus Christ.
Don’t forget that you are worthy, you are uniquely designed for your story, and you are fully equipped for this lifetime journey of relationship with your children.
I’ll end with this favorite quote from Mother Teresa that is framed on my desk in front of me as I close this article. I read it every day. It helps me stay in the game, no matter what.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
~ Mother Teresa.
Pam Parish is the author of two popular devotionals for foster and adoptive families. Her first devotional Ready or Not, A 30-Day Discovery for Families Growing Through Foster Care & Adoption, has become standard preparation and inspiration material across the country and internationally for families navigating the journey of foster care and adoption, whether just starting out or already parenting. Her second book, Battle-Weary Parents, A 30-Day Guide for Parenting in the Trenches, is a go-to resource for families who find themselves worn out in the hard places with children from hard places.
She is also the founder of Connections Homes, an Atlanta-based non-profit impacting the lives of young adults who are homeless, without family or aging out of foster care. She and her husband Steve were high school sweethearts who will be celebrating 26 years of marriage this year. They are the parents of eight young adult daughters and have four grandchildren. One of their daughters came to them through the gift of birth and seven through the gift of foster care and adoption. Pam blogs about foster care, adoption and family at pamparish.com, you can also find her on Facebook and Instagram.