Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Words from the Adoption Trenches: Almost a year after we brought our daughter home

It has been almost a year now since we met "J" and adopted her. I have been quiet on the blog-front because we have been dealing with becoming parents. i.e. - no free time! :) But here is a post about our first-year experiences, and some advice and words of wisdom, which I hope will be useful to other adoptive families about to embark on the same journey.

Our experience may not be like everyones. First let me share some context: we are first time parents, and we are also in our 40s (43/44 years old). That means we have had 43 lovely years of doing what ever we wanted with our free time and money.

There are benefits to having children when you are older (you are more financially stable, you have done your partying, you have traveled the world and done all the dreams and adventures you wanted to do, and you have generally lived it up, and you are far more wise and educated). But, the drawback is that you are used to doing what you want, when you want, and you have less energy in some cases too. That is not easy to give up!

Here is what we have learned this year:

Advice #1: Attachment will come, even if at first you are not sure it will. 

When we first met our daughter, J, she was immediately clinging to my husband, and quickly wanted nothing to do with me at all. She completely rejected me the first week we had her. She would not sit by me, or hold my hand, and refused to even let me push her on the swing. Only Daddy could do it. Daddy was everything. She would smile and laugh at him, and scowl at me. It was SUPER hard. So then I was desperately afraid to be with her alone. At first we thought my husband might need to return to the USA earlier than me for work. So I would have been there alone with our newly adopted daughter. I remember my anxiety at that prospect. I had these fears that we would be in public, and my daughter would run away screaming "that is not my mommy", and what would I be able to do?  I remember the 2nd and 3rd days after we brought her with us to the hotel I was going into the bathroom alone, closing the door, and sitting on the floor in tears, trying to deal with the anxiety, fear, and depression of her rejection. I kept saying the following things to myself:

  • OMG, what have I done?
  • I made a mistake!
  • This child will never love me!
  • I obviously cannot be the mother she needs!
  • She will have attachment disorder forever!
None of it turned out to be true.

By the 2nd week she came around and started to attach to me. We were lucky. It happened quite quickly that she turned the tide. Some parents wait 3-months, 6-months, even a year for that to happen. 

The crazy thing is that we learned all about this process in our training. We learned that adoptive children need time to attach. It is normal. Why should they love you right away? You are a stranger. The older they are, the longer it can take. Adoptive parents fly to the new country so excited about this child they have been waiting for, but that child has never met or seen you. Adoptive parents think the child should be 'grateful', but, why should they? You are actually taking them away from all they know. Why should they like you for it? We also learned that it is common for the new child to cling to one parent, and reject the other. There are many psychological reasons the child does this. Their clinging to the one parent does not mean they have actually attached to them. That instant bond is not any better or healthier than their pushing the other parent away. But a child's mind does not work in logic. It works in emotion. And emotion is not reasonable or logical. 

But knowing these things and being able to deal with them when they happen are two different things. Sure, theoretically you 'get it'. But, emotionally, it really sucks! Logically you know why the child is doing this. Emotionally, you are devastated and scared, wondering "what does this mean?" 

Now, almost a year later, J has fully attached to me. I can say she gives me unconditional love. I think in some regard, she will always be a Daddy's Girl. J came form a culture (Colombia) that puts a LOT of importance on the father figure. In the orphanage she had a lot of mothering figures, but never a father figure. So J did cling to Dad right away, desperate for that father figure she had been missing and which is so important in her culture. But, she has fully attached to me as well, and we are bonding. 

The last thing you should do is force attachment on a child who is not ready. When they reject you, you may try harder to make them love you, clinging to them, and smother them. Let them come to it on their own terms, in their own time. Do fun things together that build the memories they need to bond with you. Also, be careful of resentment. Because after waiting years, and going through a million hoops-of-fire to adopt this child, and they reject you, you may resent them without even realizing that you resent them. Try to not let that take hold of you either. 

Attachment will come, in its own time. I know it is hard to wait. Believe me. I have been there. 

Advice #2: You do not know what you are doing, and that is okay, because no parents do.

At first we were stressing ourselves out, trying to be the 'perfect' parents. Except, the definition of 'perfect' varies widely from family-to-family. At first I tried to ask for advice on Facebook, and then literally would get a list of often completely opposing opinions about how to deal with something. I would watch other parents that we admired and felt were good parents, except, even they, even the ones we thought as really good parents, would do things wrong and do things that ultimately were not always perfect. In the end I realized we had to decide what we think is best, based on our values and the kind of family we want to have, and based on the personality of our child. So do you. You decide how you will parent and what type of family you will have.

When I told people there were days when I felt I had not dealt with something well, or felt bad for a reaction I wish I had done differently, or later found a better way to deal with something, everyone's response was "welcome to parenthood." It is on-the-job training. It is a harder way to learn something, though the lessons may be more valuable. Nobody is perfect. You will make mistakes. Be okay with that.

And pat yourself on the back... because in many ways you are doing something much harder than the average parent. They got a baby. Yes it was hard as they did not get any sleep, but at first that baby needed cuddles, food, burping and sleep. That was it. And they could slowly work into being parents as the child grew and gained a personality with will and desire. Those adopting older children, however, walk into a very different situation. We adopted an 8.5 year old girl, with her own needs, her own personality, her own desires, her own baggage, and issues we have to help her with. We literally walked into a room, and they handed us this child, and we walked out, expected to be her parents. Voila. Like a magic wand being swayed over our heads: you are parents! 0-5 seconds.

But, unlike other parents, we did not get time to work into it. We had to try and hit the ground running. That is not easy. So be gentle with yourself. You are doing great considering what you have taken on.

Advice #3: Do not stress about how far behind they are.

People who adopt older children often arrive with tons of books to get that child up to age-appropriate learning levels, or start applying all the new cultural rules and foods right away. Just imagine how stressful that is for the child. Imagine all the new things they have to learn: family, culture, community, language, and more. In our case, we had 5 years of institutional development to help our adopted daughter out of, as well as she had to learn an entire new language and culture, learn what it is to be in a house as a family member, and so on. So much to learn!

So pick the few things things that really matter to you (for my husband, who is French, it was table manners), and start with those, and let the rest go for the time being. You can teach the rest later. Our daughter is 8.5, but in many ways, she is 5 or 6 years old mentally. So just remind yourself of that when you start to be frustrated. Ask yourself if you would be frustrated with that same behavior in a younger child. If not, maybe take a step back and rethink it.

Advice #4: Listen to your training, not other people who have no concept of what an adopted child actually needs.

Everyone and their son and dog will tell you how to parent. They cannot help themselves. They do it as they want to validate their own parenting choices. Particularly in the USA, everyone feels it is their God-ordained right to give you advice. Particularly if they read it in a blog somewhere (hence don't push this blog advice on anyone!).  People who read things in blogs think they are experts with a PhD in the topic. Except, in many cases, you won't agree with that advice, as you don't agree with raising children that way, or your training in adoptive parenting tells you to do the opposite. When you politely avoid the conversation, they push all the more. There WILL be a day when you snap on someone who is pushing bad advice on you in a means to justify their own parenting choices.

Note that all adoptive parents have done something that the average parent never did: actual training on the best ways to parent an adopted child. An adopted child cannot be parented in the same way a birth child is. I would never dream to know the best way to raise a baby - I never have. Do not let those who have never adopted dictate to you the best way to raise an adopted child. They never have. Adopted children have had a disrupted background, with abuse and neglect. They are from another culture. They are learning a new language. Those with birth children have no concept of what an adopted child will actually need, and they cannot provide good advice. So, listen to your training. If you are like us, you did between as much as 30-50 hours of it, and were required to read a ton of research and books on the best practices for raising an adopted child. Stick to that. It works.

We really advocate the Love-and-Logic approach to raising an adoptive child. It has worked the best for us. But, again, do what works for you and your family and that supports your child's unique needs.

Advice #5: You need time for you and your husband, and that is okay.

People in the USA now feel guilty if they dare to ask for a minute away from the children. But, I do not believe in that. I see our house as a community. We are all members of that community, and we all have needs. Yes, the child's needs are important, but so too are the parent's needs. The child gets to do fun things, but so should the parents. A community is not about catering to just one member. That is a dictatorship. A community makes time for everyone. Everyone matters. At first we were putting all our time into parenting, and started to then see a quick decline in our relationship. That won't be good for the child either! You have to take time for yourself and for your marriage so that you can be a good parent.

It is okay for a child to play on their own for 30-minutes while you take a break. Some people feel guilty if they ask the child entertain themselves (without a TV). That is crazy. We should not have to feel the need to throw the kids on an iPad or in front of the TV to get a moment to ourselves because we feel guilty saying "Mommy needs 30-minutes to herself." We have a right to ask for that. We don't mean leave them alone all day. We mean short periods of time, say 30-minutes or an hour. And it teaches the child that everyone gets their time. We can ask a child to entertain themselves for 30-minutes without resorting to TV-babysitting. I had one parent tell me it was 'unnatural' to have a child play on their own. NO, it is unnatural if they can never do anything on their own and they expect the world to entertain them. We are not talking about ignoring them all day. We are talking about short periods of self-direction. That is not only natural but very healthy. How can they be successful in life if they cannot do that?  Child psychologists say that a child that cannot play on their own later in life lack the skills to be able to self-initiate or self-motivate and meet life goals. So, teach a child to learn to play on their own for short periods. It is healthy for them, and healthy for you.

Adopted children may have a harder time doing this than birth children. You may have to work them up to it slowly. Find the right balance, and of course give them the attention they are craving (as they did not have parents or have that attention in the orphanage and so are needy, naturally), but work with them to teach them confidence too - meaning build the attachment you need as a family, while slowly also teaching them independence. At first, our adopted daughter could not play 1-minute on her own, and would demand people entertain her at all times, and could not make a single decision about what to do with her time. This is common of children that were raised in an orphanage like she was. If someone could not entertain her, she would sit, bored and doing nothing looking out a window until someone could.

We started with short sessions of what we called 'sola time', and now call 'self-development time'. At first we had to make suggestions of what she would do on her own for 10-minutes. We would give her choices (would you like to play with the Play Doh, or color, or paint for your sola-time?). Then we increased that time by 5-minutes per week. Later, she began to make her own choices and self-direct in what she would do with that time. That was a huge step for her! Now she will do art projects and things on her own for an hour. We try to do one hour of sola-time per day. Then I had the most amazing experience: I came home from a kick-boxing class, and dad was leaving. I told our daughter that I needed to shower, so she needed to find something to do on her own until I was done. When I came downstairs, she was sitting outside in the sun, writing in a book to practice learning English on her own by copying words from a book down onto paper. It was the first time in the 9-months since we adopted her that she self-directed her own self-development, and did it happily on her own. This was huge!

Being able to self-direct, self-motivate, and self-manage are necessary skills to be successful in life. Adopted children are often most lacking in these skills, unable to feel confident in doing even the simplest things on their own. So work on giving them that confidence. Do balance this with the level of their attachment they have, and make sure they are getting what they need emotionally ... but be careful about being around and doing too much for them too. Doing too much is just as bad as not being there enough.

And, get a good baby sitter or family member to take them so you can get a date-night. You need time off so you can recharge and be a better parent when you are with the child.

You NEED to take time for yourself and your marriage if you want a healthy family for the child, ESPECIALLY in cases such as ours where the child has extra needs, extra issues, and is extra needy. You love them, but that is draining. Take time for you to recoup!

Last Advice, #6: Stay true to your values.

Every family is different. Decide who you are, and what type of family you want to have, and stick to those values in raising your children. Those who believe in attachment-parenting (sometimes called Helicopter parenting) are going to approach things very differently than someone that believes in "Free-range" (also called Laissez Faire) parenting, and they will approach things differently than someone that believes in the Love-and-Logic approach or a more 'strict' regime. There are pros and cons to all parenting methods. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.

There are a million different approaches to parenting, done differently in cultures all around the world. Ultimately, we all grow up okay from all those different approaches. No approach is perfect. You won't be perfect. So just do your best and stick to your own value set and choose the one that is right for you. If you are doing the best you can, that is great. Just keep at it.

Final words

Do not fall into the Fakebook trap too (thinking that what you see on Facebook is real). People show only the best sides on Facebook, it is Fake, it is not real. I have some to realize that the more someone brags about their life on FB, the more they say how much they love their partner (rather than tell him/her to his/her face), and the more they say their children are perfect, then the less any of that is probably true. They are advertising what they want to be true, but it rarely is if they have to brag about it on FB.

That is not how families actually are. Everyone struggles. Nobody is the perfect parent.

Adopting an older child is rewarding and hard. Beautiful and sometimes ugly. There are benefits and also challenges. There are good days, and hard days.

So just be okay with being imperfect, as no parent is perfect, and love the experience as it is - and welcome to parenthood.


  1. VERY, INCREDIBLY well said. I'm happy to see you finding your way in a manner which is suitable for your family. I can relate to almost every word you wrote - times two!! Both of mine were older, riddled with issues from their past experiences and most definitely set in their ways and personalities - oh the struggle! Unconditional love, tough love, patience, unwavering guidance and affirmation after re-affirmation of you permanent position in their lives does wonders. I am proud of you and your beautiful little family. XO

    1. Thank you! I am glad it resonated with you. The struggles are real, but in many ways, enlightening too. And, I feel that those who adopted older have it easier in some regards, as we knew out the door what their personality would be, what issues we would have to contend with. Those who adopt babies cannot know that for many years.