Today’s adoption question is from Beth: How do you deal with the fear and/or reality of the kids not loving/attaching to you, and you to them?
Before The Cherubs moved in with us, when we were in the transition phase with visits on Wednesday nights & weekends, our kids declared that they were not going to call us Mom & Dad until the adoption was finalized.
That was fine at first.
But after six months or so, I was tired of being called Trish & Steve. It didn’t bother me much at home. But when we were out in the world, and people were trying to make sense of who we were to each other because we don’t look alike? It would have been so much easier for the kids to call out across the grocery aisle, “Hey Mom, X is on sale!” than “Hey Trish….” Plus, when you’re doing all the work of a Mom & Dad, it’s nice to be acknowledged as such. Having them call us Trish & Steve felt way too much like we were just sub-contractors employed to fulfill their parenting needs.
And yet, #2 Cherub asked me almost daily in the weeks prior to our adoption finalization, “Are you SO excited that we’ll call you Mom & Dad after that???” I said that indeed, I surely was.
The day came. It was wonderful.
When we arrived home, #1 immediately ran across the street to his friend’s house to tell them he’d been adopted. Then asked if we could hang the certificates on the wall in the kitchen, “so everyone can see them.” (Cue tears as I hand Steve a hammer and two nails.)
But the kids still called us Trish & Steve for two more months.
It wasn’t until we went to a conference in Syracuse, where our family unit was a distinct entity in a sea of people they didn’t yet know. That’s when called us Mom & Dad for real. It was 15 months from when we first met. Not a long time as I look back at it now. But during those days? It felt like forever. And it was really hard.
One of the big things the Cherubs said when I told them about this blog series was, “Make sure you tell people who might adopt not to be offended if the kids don’t want to call them Mom & Dad right away. It’s not personal. It just takes time.”
That’s the overarching theme of adoption: it just takes time. Human attachment doesn’t happen instantly. Some circumstances (romantic love, childbirth) give you a surge of hormones to kick things off. But adoption is really much more like meeting a new roommate: You hope you’ll get along well and even enjoy hanging out. But there’s no way to tell how long that might take.
Even though I knew this, it doesn’t mean I KNEW it. The picture you create in your mind of our future family is about being a family, right? Whatever that means at any given moment, it’s always about more than being roommates.
Here’s what I learned about attachment: it’s not about what I thought it was about. I thought it would be about affection, attention, positive interactions and new memories we created together. I thought that if we did enough of that, love would just bloom and grown in a neat, orderly (rapid) way.
Attachment is about reliability.
Attachment is when you become the people your kids look to for answers, approval, and assistance. Attachment is when they trust – not with their minds, but with their instincts – that you will see and meet their needs.
There is very little reciprocity in the early days of adoption, and what there is is probably your kids faking it, trying to guess at who and how you want them to be. It’s all YOU, pouring out everything, meeting all the needs as they come up, and trying not to get discouraged as your kids don’t seem to care.
They totally care. But they are terrified this will go away, or that the other shoe will drop and you’ll turn out to be mean, or a loser, or both. And so they don’t have enough energy to reward your awesome parenting with gold stars of Cherubic appreciation. They’re just trying to get through the day without losing their sh*t.
When you adopt, get over the idea that anything in the first six months will be rewarding. This isn’t about rewards. This is about building, and building is WORK.
Adoption is a bit like getting your family from IKEA: you start with component parts and vague instructions, along with a vision of what you hope to have at the end. You don’t expect your IKEA building experience to be fun or rewarding. You just hope it won’t wreck your relationship or drain your sanity beyond what you can replenish. These are reasonable, appropriate goals.
Practically speaking, “building” meant in every area of our new family dynamic, we went first. We loved the Cherubs first, in word and action, without any response from them. We affirmed them over and over again, for all manner of successes (“You made the soccer team? GREAT!” “You cuddled with the dog? WOW!” “Your hangnail healed? WAY TO GO!”) We made school lunches, cooked dinners they didn’t want to eat, kept to a daily routine, and arrived every single place we went at least fifteen minutes early (they HATE being late). As I shared at the start of this series, love isn’t affection at this point – it’s consistency. That’s what our kids needed most when they first arrived.
So how did we deal with the fear that they might never attach to us? Or the moments when we weren’t sure we could keep up this level of unreciprocated enthusiasm?
We took advantage of small escapes. You have to build in the pressure release valves early in the process, because all that steam needs a way out. I had a weekly night out with a friend that I did not stop when the kids moved in. They HATED this – they were sure I was out doing something shady, and had no trouble expressing their disapproval. Whatever, out I went. (Steve did have a talk with them about how & why he trusted me, which helped a lot.) Now, if I miss a night, it throws them off that I’m not gone.
Steve kept playing hockey twice a week before work, even though we were beyond sleep deprived, and it made our morning routine a little more complicated.
And we gave the kids early bedtimes so we could have some time alone together in the evenings, during which drank more wine & beer than is probably recommended. Don’t get me wrong – we were always sober. But I think we needed a finish line to the day – a reward! And it had to be something where the Cherubs couldn’t say, “Can we have some of that?” Because they had everything else. (Here’s the stark truth: when you’re in the thick of pre-attachment parenting, there’s a good chance that the guys at your local beer & wine store will know your adoption story. BLESS IT.)
Here’s the thing though (and if you’re about to adopt, you should copy, paste & print this paragraph):
This doesn’t last forever. This weird roommate-esque, non-reciprocal relationship? This is not your permanent relationship. Your family will not always be a crooked wonky shelf from IKEA. You have all the parts you need. But the attachment part of adoption? Turns out it’s grown, not built.
Our kids are still not fully attached to us. But we are light years away from where we were even 6 months ago. We function like a family now. We have inside jokes and longstanding debates. We hug and say “I love you,” and they look us in the eye when we talk to them. They look to us for help, answers, and approval. They watch when they think we can’t see them to see if we notice them, if we know where they are, if we’re paying attention.
And none of this progress comes in an orderly way. Growth shoots up out of nowhere. Like this:
On Saturday night, I was up in our bedroom working on a sermon for Sunday morning. For the first year we knew them, the kids would never come upstairs, and were convinced I was doing something nefarious if I was up here anytime other than to go to sleep. But that’s been changing lately, and now they’ll come up to ask me a question or pet the dog. But Saturday, they both came up, and we all just sort of hung out, laughing about silly things. #2 demonstrated her pushup technique. #1 hid across the room, texting me to see when his sister would notice he was there (too bad I’d left my phone downstairs). Then Steve came up and we all petted THIS DOG, who was lying in the center of the bed, soaking up the love and clearly thinking, “FINALLY you people get this pack thing!”
It was good. And let me tell you, it felt totally beyond us until the moment it happened.
DO NOT GIVE UP, new adoptive parents! Today is not forever in this relationship. Keep building, hang in there, find some (preferably healthier and less causing of weight gain) ways to let out some pressure. You can do this! And it’s worth it.