After seven weeks in India, we were excited to see our closest friends and family at the airport. We had our beautiful little girl in our arms. We were ready to start our new life. When we walked past security, a group of our favorite people was standing there with smiles and happy tears, balloons and flowers, and kisses and hugs. It was wonderful and short-lived. We were exhausted and needed to get our daughter home. When we left the airport, we told our friends and family that we would not see each other for a long while–it was time for adoption cocooning.
After spending years and months waiting to bring a beautiful child home, the first thing a family wants to do is share their blessing with the world! With adoption, that is not always wise. There are many parallels between giving birth and adopting, but there are also significant differences. Many visitors want to come and go and drop off meals to a new mother; but with adoption, a family needs to cocoon. This is difficult for some families to understand, but we know it is crucial. Even when a baby is adopted at birth, there is a bonding that needs to happen. A mother giving birth has been bonding with her child for nine months. Their bodies are connected. A baby who was adopted needs to have time to bond with new parents. Older adopted children need cocooning, even more, to help them bond and attach to their new family.
What should adoptive families cocoon?
Just like a caterpillar leaving the busy world and spending time alone to transform into something new and beautiful, a family through adoption must have a time of cocooning. In our family, we spend many weeks and even months just spending time with our immediate family. We keep our newly adopted child’s world small and predictable. After the initial airport meet and greet, we may not see our friends and family again for weeks. We do this for several reasons, but the main reason is to bond. This practice allows families to spend time learning how to be a family and giving their child time to acclimate to a new family, new life, new language, new food, and more. Here are the reasons it was crucial for our family to cocoon after the adoption of our daughter.
1. We were tired and exhausted from the adoption and travel.
After a 16-hour direct flight from New Dehli to San Farbsciso with a two-year-old who decided she would learn to walk the day before we traveled, let’s just say I was tired. It was six in the morning, and while our daughter had done amazingly on the long flight, she was minutes away from losing it. She slept some on the plane—but not nearly enough. We were out of snacks and out of patience. That is when the pilot told us that we cannot enter the US because customs didn’t open until 6:30! We sat on the runway in an airplane while slowly, but surely, every child on the flight took turns crying and melting down. It was the longest half hour of my life.
Hundreds of people stuck on a stuffy airplane is the start of some sick joke. But we finally were allowed to get off the plane and when my feet touched American soil for the first time in over seven weeks, I actually cried real tears. Then I cried again when I found out our connecting flight home was canceled. I was sitting on the floor of the airport with a crying baby while I tried to feed my daughter cold rice that I had smuggled into the country. I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours and bless my husband for staying calm and collected. When we finally got tickets and were able to get through security, we were able to find food and water and bathrooms and after we all ate and freshened up, life was much better for everyone. Then we proceeded to wait over 11 hours for our flights to be delayed over and over while my newly walking child tried to explore the entire San Francisco airport ( and refusing to wear shoes).
I didn’t even care that the plane was a tiny rickety thing when it was finally approved to take us home. After over 50 hours of air travel, seven flights, two train rides, dozens of taxis and rickshaws later, we were one plane and one car ride away from a warm comfy bed and the familiarity of a home I so craved. Our trip was supposed to be two weeks and it turned to seven. An easy amount of travel turned into bribing our way onto trains and commuting on motorcycles and rickshaws. It was an amazing, beautiful adventure that I wouldn’t trade for the world, but I was exhausted. I was a new mom navigating language and cultural barriers.
I cannot imagine how exhausting labor and delivery are for mothers, but our adoption journey was our version and, let me tell you, in the end, I wanted to sleep for a week. Cocooning was essential because as tired as I was, my daughter had it worse. She was emotionally exhausted from all the upheaval and change and she didn’t fully understand what was happening to her. We were strangers. Our home was foreign to her. Our food was strange. I cried tears of joy when I could finally sleep in my own bed but to her, it was all new and frightening.
We stayed home for many weeks and didn’t let others come around during that time. We were teaching our daughter that we were mom and dad and we would never leave her. We were learning to be a family and giving our daughter a small and predictable world. We were teaching her that when she was hungry we fed her. When she was tired, we held her and even had her sleep in our bed. We were together 24/7 ready to meet her and give her everything she was missing. She was cared for so well in the orphanage, but it was not the same as having a family—having a mother and a father who spent weeks only concerned about caring for our child and nothing else! We were too tired to worry about extended family or navigating church, or even getting out of our PJs every day. We were tired and we needed that time to recoup.
2. Our daughter needed consistency.
Another reason cocooning is crucial is so the child can have consistency. A child who is adopted internationally may have had an inconsistent and unpredictable life. Adoption takes a child out of the familiar and thrusts them into a new life. That new life may be better in the long run, but parents need to realize that two things can be true at the same time: adoption is wonderful and beautiful, but it is also sad and full of heartbreak. Our family is whole now, but there was a time when my child had no family. That is a tragedy. There is pain and sorrow paired with joy and laughter.
Cocooning allowed my family to heal and become who we are today. Our daughter learned to trust us and, while we always loved her, she needed to learn to love and be loved. Despite her hard start, she was so brave and she did learn to love us so quickly.
Normally, we would have many people coming and going from our house during the week. It is normal for my sister or a friend to stop by for coffee or lunch. The neighbor kids are always coming over to sell us something or borrow some book or movie or just to hang out. We had to let all our friends and family know that we would have a closed-door policy for many weeks following our adoption. This was especially hard for the grandmas that just wanted to kiss and hug and spoil the new grandbaby. We were blessed that our tribe gave us space and respect to allow our daughter to have peace and security.
After we cocooned, we slowly added people and activities into our child’s life. The first time at the grocery store, there was a loud crying meltdown. A store is a scary place for a partially blind child who has never seen a store as big as Walmart. But we kept her life consistent and, eventually, she was able to go and do what all children can.
3. Bonding takes time and healthy attachment needs to be developed
People think that taking a child from a difficult place and giving them a loving family a nice home and all the toys their hearts could desire would make all the problems go away. Love by itself is not enough to heal the wounds of an adoptee’s heart. Children who are adopted from overseas and those who are older may struggle to allow themselves to be loved. They may have experienced trauma and neglect. Due to circumstances in orphanages, there are often too many crying babies and too few workers to care for them all. That is not always the case, but there are sad and hard parts of adoption. Cocooning after an adoption is a period of time for the new parents to prove to their children that they will always care for them in the best way possible.
Even though our daughter was almost 3, I would carry her around like a baby and hand-feed her all her meals. She slept right next to me so when she had a night terror, there wasn’t a second between when she cried and when she was being comforted. I worked day and night to anticipate her needs and retrain her brain so she knew that her needs would be met. My husband and I were working tirelessly to prove to her that we could be trusted with her tiny vulnerable heart. The cocooning worked because when we finally started slowly rejoining the world, she knew despite the new experiences that her mom and dad would always be there for her.
Three years later, she knows that if she is scared in the night she can run to mom and dad and we will be there. She sleeps in her big girl bed, but she is also allowed to come and be comforted whenever she needs it night or day. She knows that when she is hungry that she will be fed. We also try to always have food available so she feels secure, but even when life happens and are running late on a meal, she trusts momma when I say that dinner will be ready very soon.
Some families do not take such a long cocooning period. Some cannot because of work or other reasons. We were blessed to have many weeks in her home country to bond, even though it was not planned. We were blessed to have friends and family that understood our need for space. We were lucky my husband was able to work from home when he returned after a generous paid leave. We were blessed that I didn’t have to work so I could focus on making up for the lost time. We also had to work and earn our daughter’s trust and every amount of effort and every hour of cocooning was worth it.
At the time I am writing, we are planning our trip to meet and adopt our second child. We know more and know better this time around. I do not regret how we cocooned with our first daughter as I feel we did our best with what we had, but I hope our story can help you understand why cocooning is crucial. When we bring home our son, cocooning will have to look different. We have a daughter in school and she has a life she cannot take a break from. My husband still works from home and I am still a stay-at-home mom, but our lives are much busier and much fuller. We will learn to balance the needs of a new child while caring for our daughter. Like so many families before us, we will take the long trip and once we are home we will start the precious process of learning to be a family again. We get the blessing of teaching our sweet child learning to be loved by proving day and night that we are mom and dad and we always will be.