“You don’t care about me! You would be better off without me!” The door slammed with a crash, and I thought my heart was going to stop. Those words cut so deep. This child I loved so much….how could she think that I didn’t care? “THIS IS WHY I WANT MY BIRTH MOM!” she thundered, and I was so unprepared to deal with it.
Although I knew that children of adoption often struggle with their identities as adoptees, and although I knew that they can often fantasize about their birth parents, I was still caught off guard. In the week previous, I would catch her glaring at me and muttering under her breath, “I wish I had my birth mom, not you. SHE wouldn’t make me do math/brush my hair/[insert any other task here].” I was shocked at how cutting it felt despite the fact I had been anticipating at least some of this behavior from one of our kids at some point during our journey. It felt so personal, and to be honest, so unfair. I was not asking anything unreasonable, and in fact, we had worked so incredibly hard to be able to adopt this precious child. It was so painful to think that she thought I didn’t care. And now, I didn’t know what to do about it.
It just kept happening. More and more. I realized that she was deeply pained by the loss of her first family and that she was grieving. I knew that we had to do something to bridge the gap, but words were not helping. One evening, after another bout of being told I wasn’t wanted as a parent, I had a thought. I went to her, wrapped her in a blanket, and put her in front of the computer. She was annoyed and not sure what I was up to. I queued up the song, “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” by Rod Stewart and let it play. I quietly walked to the kitchen where I could still see her. She quietly listened then walked over and gave me a hug.
For parents dealing with reactive attachment disorder (RAD), we often have to think 3 steps ahead but also on the spot. Attachment disorder is not very well understood yet, although more and more research is being done. We do know that primary attachments are crucial for developing children. I have poured over books written about RAD, and my inspiration was to keep things light, even when the going gets tough. To be unoffended, and unshaken, no matter what happens. To be firm, yet empathetic; to be in charge at all times but flexible enough to make changes as needed. Not an easy task.
She screamed at me, “My birth mom would never make me do that!” which was becoming the standard response to any normal, daily request. I swallowed my anger and my pride. While most parents feel the joy at connecting with their children and enjoy a reciprocal and mutually satisfying relationship, especially as their child grows older, this is not a linear journey for many adoptive parents. Early childhood trauma can change the brain, and as it has been explained to me by various professionals, it can make these kids get “stuck” in fight or flight mode at the slightest thing. This means that some adoptive parents, myself included, are not enjoying a reciprocal relationship in parenting; it can mean we are riding a roller coaster while blindfolded, and not only can we not predict what is coming next, sometimes what comes next hurts. The child is never to be blamed as they are acting out of deep hurt and trauma. Sometimes well-meaning people are quick to scold or point out the out-of-order relationship, which just exacerbates the pain the adoptive parent is already feeling. We KNOW that our kids SHOULD respect us as the parent, listen to instruction, and engage in a meaningful relationship. But, sometimes, our kids’ brains have been rewired to run from closeness, to run from intimacy, and to run from adults. Sometimes, kids’ brains have been wired to view adults as unpredictable and unsafe.
“My first mom [birth mom] will always have a place in my heart” is what I wrote on the smile-emoji sticky note. I walked over and stuck it to her arm. Immediate scowl. She brushed it off. I could perceive that as rejection and just quit. But no. That’s not what I was meant for. I took the note, and went down to her room to stick it on the photos she has hanging up of her mom. “What does it say?” she finally asked. When I read it, she cried. She nodded, and she hugged me, tight.
There is a saying among my foster parent friends that “You Are My Sunshine” is the absolutely hardest song to sing to a child after you have worked with abused and neglected children. I would add to the list, “I Will Always Love You.” ‘Bittersweet memories/
That is all I am taking with me/So, goodbye/Please, don’t cry.’
I heard once, a long time ago, the condition of the heart can be determined by the ability to still cry. Those that can cry can heal; those that cannot cry anymore are hardened to a point of possibly not returning to us. I’ve been talking to a counselor lately about titration. This is the idea of engaging in hard emotions just a bit and then coming up for air in something safer. And then going back to the hard. We need to deal with the hard things. But, what about when the hard things affect a little person? How on earth do we help them deal with it?
I arranged the child care and then shuffled out the door with her. Just her and I. We took the pony cart out, down the road. We were silent. She was frustrated but also really bewildered at where we were going and why. I didn’t have any words, not yet. I was tired, and to be honest, angry. I’m not sure at what–probably the unfairness of it all. The trauma that begets trauma, the angst that builds in some families and overflows into situations in which primary attachments are sawed apart with a hacksaw. Probably angry that too many times I’d been left with pieces of an attachment I had no idea how to repair, sitting with glue and a needle and thread, desperately trying something, ANYTHING, to patch it back together again and make it work. I didn’t break it, but I was going to try to fix it. When did it break? A long, long time ago, generations ago. Why did it break? Residential school, abuse, alcoholism. We trotted down the road, the wind feeling great on our faces, the autumn leaving in their glory, my favorite time of the year. A lump in my throat.
We delivered a package to a neighbor, and I knew that we needed to talk, now, before we got too close to home while it was just her and I. There is no handbook for this. There is no guide, other than the advice of those who have walked these roads before. But, no two kids are the same. And adoptive moms are just regular people who bumble around like everyone else. We have no magic to make it right. I didn’t build up to anything; I just started.
I explained the hard parts. Simply. With grace, I think. Gently. It didn’t take long. Her eyes were wide and clear–she nodded, and she hugged me, hard. She snuggled close, and she said “I love you, Mom.” The rest of the ride home was lovely. She had the information she needed about why she had been adopted, for now.
It occurred to me at some point, sort of like a shock, that although we had always talked about adoption, I needed to find a way to give our adopted children all of their information by the time they turn 18. I believe it is their right to know. Are there things that should be held back? Maybe. But most things should probably be brought to light and discussed. Diagnoses, reason for being placed in care, reason for being placed for adoption, and family history are vital. But what about when the answers to those questions are really hard? How do you tell a child what fetal alcohol syndrome is, how it happens, and that they have this life-long condition? What about when family histories are really hard? And how do you dole out this information in age-appropriate packages that don’t act like bombs in the life of your child?
I have found the book Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past by Betsy Keefer and Jayne E. Schooler to be quite helpful. From the chapter ‘Adoption Through a Child’s Eyes’ one excerpt reads that “children may worry more and more about how the first family was lost, and wonder if this kind of loss will recur [read, will my adoptive family be lost to me, too]. If, as magical thinkers, they have assumed guilt for the original adoption because of an imagined flaw in themselves, they will wonder when the adoptive parents will discover this flaw…the adopted child at this developmental stage begins to understand in a limited way that he not only gained a family through adoption, but lost one in the process.”
Once Tyler and I really let this settle in our hearts, we felt compassion flow through us in response to our daughter’s rejection of us. She needed to know, without a doubt, that nothing on Earth would change our love for her. Of course, we thought that after all these years, that that would be cemented by now. Rather than dwell on that, we just decided it was too heavy to carry and let it go.
Keefer and Schooler go on to say, that “…children under the age of seven will not have sufficient cognitive ability, knowledge of human sexuality, or understanding of adult problems such as drug addiction, poverty, or war to understand their entire story. Parents, better than anyone else, know the child’s limited ability to understand the concepts being presented. Parents should answer the child’s questions in an honest but simplistic way.” In other words, give them enough, for now.
Life often feels like 3 steps forward, 2 steps back. I often feel like we just find our groove, and when I notice that we have found our groove, it is almost a sure thing that we will hit a rut. While our daughter was primarily lashing out at me, we felt like we had really dealt with the issue. She had had long talks with us and seemed to be really processing her grief and loss at the disruption of the natural order of attachments to her first family. It wasn’t easy, but we were making progress. My husband is the epitome of calmness and positivity, so one morning when he set a boundary for our daughter, I was shocked to hear her reply, “Where is my birth dad, anyway? Because I want a different dad. NOT YOU.” I covered my mouth and looked away for a moment. I set her hairbrush down and gave myself permission to take a time out to regroup. I had learned that our being emotional in these moments was not helpful. We needed to be calm and in control of our own “stuff,” no matter how much it hurt. I had never heard her speak to Tyler this way, and it hurt me so bad. I hurt for him. Once I felt like I was ready, we went on with our day. By now, we were running late for swimming lessons. I just got everyone out the door, and put music on in our gigantic, 4×4, 12 passenger van, and started driving. When we got to the pool, I asked our daughter to stay back with me for a moment and sent the other kids inside with my oldest. I took a breath and thought about it all. Of course, she would wonder. All this time, I’d been stuck on dealing with her grief over her birth mom. I half-laughed to myself–I really can be slow on the uptake. I’m not going to “should” myself, because as a mom, I have guilt over all my perceived failings all the time. But I felt like I could have predicted this would come next. Let it go. I’m learning, too.
I take a breath and blow it out. “Your dad…before you were born…” And in three brief sentences, I told her the truth. The whole, but abbreviated truth. The hard truth, but just enough for her mind to grasp. Her eyes were wide. “The next time you don’t want Daddy Tyler, I want you to think about what I told you. It is okay to be mad. It is okay to be sad. But you are still responsible for your words–the good, the bad, and the ugly.” She nodded and gave me a hug. It was enough. For now.
I share these experiences with our daughter’s permission. She knows that other little girls and boys have been adopted too and that they also might feel mad and sad that they are not with their birth mommies and daddies.