The most powerful illustration I have ever seen about trauma goes like this: The presenter held up three vases. One was completely whole and lovely. One had a few chips out of it but would still have held water after the glue dried. The third had been shattered and even though it had been carefully reassembled there were entire chunks missing. It would never hold water—no matter how much water you poured or how continuously. It was never going to be the same.
The first vase is a child who has never been abused or experienced trauma. They can live their lives and fulfill their purpose with little issue along the way. The second vase is a child who was abused once but was taken to therapy and removed from the abuser. Time and love helped to heal them to the point they could move on and heal to serve their purpose. The third vase is our child that was abused multiple times over a long period. By the time they come to us, there are huge gaps. Their learning is behind. Their behaviors are maladapted. The glue of love and time alone cannot repair that vase. It’s not a matter of wanting to or not wanting to. It is simply there is too much damage and trauma that has been done.
The vase can probably be repaired and hold water again but it will take more than time and glue. It’ll take therapy, many people to help care for them, love, and time. It’ll take gentle handling. But the vase can be a vase that holds water again. Epoxy, ceramic, and a professional ceramics repair person should be able, with time, to help.
So, it’s an obvious analog—but it is a bit reductive. Obviously, a human is more complex than a ceramic flower vase. But the point remains, it is to this day years later, something I can remind myself of when I feel like I’m not enough for my kids. I’m not. I won’t be. I need the trained professionals, and I need to be tender and gentle along the way so I don’t re-damage them along the lines they were shattered before.
You, dear caregiver, are facing a task that no amount of love can overcome on its own. If that love is used as a force to get the help you need, yes. If it is just a hope that you will eventually be enough, no. You’re setting everyone in your home up for failure and heartbreak.
I used to think this was too harsh. I used to think that all a kid needed to succeed was a family that believed in them. And to a degree, yes. Attachment and love are important pieces to a treatment puzzle. They are not the only pieces by a long shot.
You might think I sound jaded. I wish that was the case. The truth is despite my dreams of us skipping through fields of wildflowers together and living happily ever after having been destroyed, I still have hope. I wish I could silence the voice that insists I’m just not loving them enough to heal them. I would feel considerably less guilt and shame that way. No, despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m not jaded. I adore my kids and I want to help them heal. I hope that plus therapists, specialists, and time eventually my kids will be okay. That they can form healthy relationships.
I know if you’re new to the world of adoption there is a chance you think I’m wrong. You think that your love is different. I hope that is so for your sake, but I don’t think it will be. Eventually, you’ll need to concede the fact that love doesn’t conquer all. Best intentions can still go wrong. Even if it looks like a kid is healing on the surface, they may still be a roiling mess of emotion and pain under the surface. One of my sons looked like he was making so much progress in his healing. He seemed to be virtually unaffected by his past. Then we found out he was abusing our other children. It is years later and we are still picking up the pieces of that betrayal.
So yes, there are thousands of children in need of a loving family to be their champions. Go into that knowing your love isn’t enough instead of finding out later how much your love doesn’t fix it. My son loves us. He loves his siblings. He just was incapable of making good choices at the moment because of his own pain.
A few years after the fallout, I am still learning ways that our welcome into our home was inadequate in the face of the trauma our children were caused before they came to us. It was naive for us to think things were going as well as we thought. It was downright stupid to have ever left the children in a room alone without an adult present. We know that now.
We have since engaged in therapy for the whole family and we are all healing in our own time. We are finding the things that help and the things that don’t. We’re learning to forgive one another for the things we didn’t know. We will never be the family I dreamed of. We will never again be the family I thought we were. The pain of that feels insurmountable some days—the loss of a dream.
I can only hope that warning others can help families to not go through the trauma we went through. When a professional says attachment will be difficult, take them at their word and find out how to fix that or if you even can. Through no fault of their own, there are children who will struggle to make healthy connections their whole lives. They still need a family but there is a chance you aren’t that family. Don’t let guilt cause you to make a decision that will harm your family.