Over the years, I have observed–and heard stories about–children who can’t or won’t attach to their caregivers or parents. I have often wondered, “How does a parent reach a child like that? What if my child was struggling to attach, to feel empathy and solidarity? To respond positively to kind touch? To love? What could I do? How would I parent him? Is there anything that can be done to overcome a problem so deeply rooted in a child’s sense of self?”
These questions were on my mind when I picked up Tina Traster’s book, “Rescuing Julia Twice: A Mother’s Tale of Russian Adoption and Overcoming Reactive Attachment Disorder,” and I did so with the hope that I would learn more about parenting a child with RAD.
And I will tell you this right now: If you’re looking for a book about parenting a child with attachment issues, look elsewhere.
That said, if you’re interested in reading a well-crafted memoir about one woman’s journey -through adoption, into motherhood, and into a place where she learns to accept and parent the child she has, you will want to read this book. If you’re a mom who feels that you weren’t really cut out for motherhood, that parenting is a disappointment, that your child isn’t what you’d expected her to be–or what the other children around you seem to be–you will find comfort and joy in Traster’s story.
Because despite what Traster says the story is (and surely wants the story to be), this is not the tale of how she “rescued” her child, first from an orphanage and then from RAD; it is actually the story of how Tina became a mother and then surrendered to motherhood. It is a story about how she learned to let go of what she had expected to have and embrace what life gave her.
From the very first page of the book, Tina Traster doesn’t pretend to be an overly maternal person. She acknowledges never having had much of an interest in children and no desire to read books about parenting, even when she was close to adopting. Her first few moments with her new baby are marked by fear and hesitation; the nurse in the orphanage practically had to force the baby into her arms. A day or so later, she was shocked and horrified to discover what happens when diarrhea and diapers collide. She feels uncomfortable, completely out of her element, when trying to mother her child. And to make matters worse, Julia seems to feel quite out of her element playing this unfamiliar role of a child in a family.
Tina’s first several years of motherhood can be boiled down to the moment she and her husband set up the crib they’d borrowed from a friend. Assembly complete, they stand back to admire their work–and Tina begins fighting back tears. “What’s the matter?” asks her husband. “It’s used,” she says. “I want something that is new. Something that is my own. I appreciate Lynn lending us this but, I don’t know. . . It’s just that nothing is the way I thought it would be.”
Later she describes it this way: “I’ve been at this mothering thing for three months. It’s only to myself that I admit I dislike it most of the time. Contrary to what I expected, I’m not experiencing any bliss. I’m not lost in love or swept up in rapture. I’m bored, restless. I don’t look forward to the days; I get through them. . . Enough time has gone by that I feel bereft. What if Julia and I never bond? What if I never feel deep love for her?”
But this is what she wanted, right? After passing through the crucible of infertility and leaping through the flaming hoops of adoption, Tina approaches motherhood with grim determination and very little humor. She writes about trying to psych herself into taking Julia out for her first ride in a stroller. “C’mon,” she whispers to herself. “Millions of mothers do this every day. This can’t be brain surgery.” But when they return from their walk in wintery New York City, she is mortified to realize that her daughter’s cheeks have been chafed by the wind. She berates herself severely, horrified that she could be anything less than a perfect mother. And that motherhood could be anything less than perfect.
In Tina’s writing, these first years of motherhood are marked by the words “I,” “my,” and “me.” When Julia falls off a bed and injures her head, Tina seems much more concerned with herself–her worth as a mother, what her husband will think of her, what her friends will think of her–than with Julia’s well-being. One day she calls her husband and tells him about how frightened Julia was of being pushed in the baby swing at the park. “One day she’ll love swings,” her husband reassures her. Tina’s response: “And me? Will she love me one day?”
Every experience that doesn’t go according to plan is devastating to the new mother. She signs up for mommy-and-me class after mommy-and-me class, hoping to connect with Julia the way the other mothers seemed to be doing. But Julia isn’t interested. She speeds away on all fours, anxious to explore the new rooms she’s found herself in, leaving her mother to chase after her again and again. Years later, Julia struggles and wiggles through a live showing of The Nutcracker while other girls her age sit in rapt silence.
In sum, Tina’s foray into motherhood is a bitter disappointment to her. Why isn’t my child like all of the other children? she asks, not seeming to pause for a moment to think that all of the other mothers are probably wondering the very same thing.
Finally, there is a turning point. Julia is four years old. She has a breakdown during a school performance and Tina has a realization. Julia is not okay. At that moment “I know in my heart she’s not all right and I must do something about it. This is my child. She’s calling out for help. I must come to her aid. Once and for all.”
It is at this point that Tina realizes that all the wishing and hoping and (dare I say it?) resentment in the world is not going to make Julia into a different child. That she is who she is. That it’s not Julia’s responsibility to become the child Tina wants, but rather that Tina is going to have to become the mother Julia needs. It is at this moment that she begins to learn about parenting the child she’s been given.
The road is long and difficult, but when Tina wrote “Rescuing Julia,” Julia was 9 years old and thriving. It is miraculous to read the dedication of the book, which I believe beautifully sums up its ultimate theme: “This book is dedicated to Julia Sophie Tannenbaum, my daughter, my inspiration, my beacon. Our journey together has taught me to live life more patiently, to embrace challenges of the heart with fortitude, to welcome imperfect love with grace and acceptance.”
So yes, this book does talk a little about adoption and parenting and Reactive Attachment Disorder. But it’s not a manual or a handbook. It’s a memoir. More, it’s a story about letting go and allowing life to take you on paths you didn’t plan on walking, to destinations you never thought you’d see, and allowing the beauty of those new vistas to fill you completely.