Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The truth of our attachment, biological vs. adopted.

I know many people look at us and wonder how it is going.

They ask, and I reply that it is going great.

I know they think I am lying.

I know they probably wonder how,or IF I love this adopted child of mine the same as my homegrown children.

The truth is, this is exactly what I wondered during our adoption process. Remember this post I wrote 2.5 yrs ago?? (At the time we were considering adoption from the US.)

The biggest mystery to me was attachment/bonding with adopted children vs. biological children.

Would I ever love this little person the same as my others?

Would she love me as my biological children do?

How long would it take?

I searched blogs, articles and forums... and being the self proclaimed 'Google Master' that I am, I could not find one article or post that referred to this. This saddens me. I think truth telling in adoption is so important. I hope that opening up to you all, can encourage you to do the same. Don't be ashamed about what you feel, or what you don't feel. It's not a fairy tale. This is real life and your feelings are normal. We need to start talking about them.

Of course, every adoption situation is unique. These are my opinions based on my experience, and my thoughts about it all are still developing, and may very well change.  Many factors play a role in our attachment. Her age, (I do believe attachment/bonding likely takes longer the older the child), her immediate attachment to me, and the fact that I have other children would mean less of a stressful transition for us, but perhaps less one on one time etc. I don't know if there is a general formula out there, and as I mentioned, I really have not read of anyone else discussing this. If you have any experience or thoughts, I'd love to hear them.  

I also want to add that this post will likely be edited 10,000 times as I know many adopting families struggle with infertility issues, and I do not want this post to be at all offensive or hurtful to those unable to have biological children. In the same breath, I hope this post can help them identify where their own attachment successes or failures lie.

I often ponder the experiences of the adopting family with no biological children to the experience of the adopting family with biological children. I would love to research this. I'm a bit of a born people watcher I have reality show addiction tendencies... so things like this fascinate me. How does their bonding/attachment differ, or does it?

I obviously cannot speak to the experience of having only an adopted child, so I can only speculate how things differ looking at it from my experience. When we speak of attachment - I wonder if there is a way to measure attachment if you don't have something to compare it to? In the post I referred to from 2.5 yrs ago (above), I mentioned that I had come across statistics that indicated that there is a higher risk of adoption failure if you adopt before having a biological child. Does it make it more difficult for parents without biological children to identify attachment difficulties? I remember not 'knowing' if I was or was not attached to my first born, until I most definitely was. (Also explained in the post.)

6 months ago, I brought up 'attachment' at one of our adoption meetings. To open the doorway of conversation, I spoke of my attachment with Zahra as not being the same as it was with my biological children when they were same age. I went in depth with it, and the response I got was silence. Were they just being private and reserved; did they really think that their attachment was 100%, OR perhaps, maybe they didn't know?

Here is the thing about attachment with your biological children, as a point of reference.

Bio - The bond starts as the baby grows in your belly. Baby reacts to your voice and movement... you start interacting with each other and you get to know one another during this 9 months.

Adopt - During the years it often takes for the process, you do start love this little being you know nothing about, but is no bonding at this stage.

Bio - Hormones

Pregnancy/Labour causes the release of Oxytocin, dubbed the 'Love Hormone', it is an indispensable part of Mother/Child bonding. It is often to be referred to as nature’s chief tools for creating a mother. "In the first few moments after birth women receive the largest rush of oxytocin that they will ever experience in their lifetime. Oxytocin continues to surge between mom and baby each time the baby is at the breast cultivating bonding and attachment that lays the foundation for our capacity to love."

Adoption - Is there a stress hormone that assists with bonding? Ha. Too bad, we would have had it made in the shade! In adoption, oxytocin has to be coaxed out and nurtured with physical touch, games and laughter with your little one. Little by little... in a much slower fashion than the surge we are given during pregnancy/birth.

Bio - Baby smells like you. "High oxytocin causes a mother to become familiar with the unique odor of her newborn infant, and once attracted to it, to prefer her own baby’s odor above all others’. Baby is similarly imprinted on mother, deriving feelings of calmness and pain reduction along with mom. When the infant is born, he is already imprinted on the odor of his amniotic fluid. This odor imprint helps him find mother’s nipple, which has a similar but slightly different odor. In the days following birth, the infant can be comforted by the odor of this fluid"

Adoption - Baby/Child most certainly does not smell like you.

Bio - Your DNA - you take responsibility and ownership over the good and the bad. Curly hair and sense of humor?... he takes after your side of the family. Big nose and stubborn? Yep, he must have gotten that from your hubbies side. Good or bad, you own it, you love it.

Adoption - Sorry, you cannot take responsibility for the good or the bad. The good is great, the bad can get under your skin.

While bonding with your bio baby can differ person to person, nature is on your side, and it typically happens soon after labour. This bond is so very difficult to put into words... but I will try my best to explain it.

The bond is a feeling of - you never have loved another being as much as this, and you couldn't possibly being able to love them one bit more.
You want to squish them into a million tiny pieces.
You want to inhale them.
You would throw yourself in front of a speeding bus to save them.  Instinctively, and without hesitation.
No other being will ever come before this child of yours.

IF you question whether you have attachment like this, I dare say, you do not. This is a bond that is known. You would not question it.

That being said, I can tell you that 6 months ago, when I sat in that adoption meeting... I meant what I said. "I do not feel as attached to Zahra as I did to my other children when they were 2."

A good friend replied, "No, but do you feel as attached to her as you did to your children when they were only 6 months old?" She was smart to approach it this way, but the answer was still 'No'.

Let's back this up to where our attachment story starts.

As many of you may know by now, Zahra was not your typical child in the orphanage. She was very selective of who she liked and who she wanted to care for her. She did not seek attention from visitors. In fact, she would often withdraw and retreat to the back of the room at a safe distance and observe, wanting not to draw any attention to herself. It seemed like it took forever before I could touch her without her recoiling. However, once she decided to allow me 'in'... it was full on. She did not take this lightly. It was at this moment, when she threw all her love and devotion to me, that she 'unattached' from her caregivers. Even her favorites, from whom she had since birth.

I had read every book on attachment. I attended workshops. I watched videos. I had prepared myself for every single situation but the one that landed on my lap. I did not have to use a single tool to assist in her attachment or bonding. She played the fiddle, and I sang along. I followed her cues. She did not want another person to feed her, dress her, comfort her, hold her, carry her... etc. I was it. She slept on my chest for 4 nights straight, and has been in bed beside me since. I carried her heavy little body around 24/7 for the first month. I don't think she walked more than 100 feet during this month. For 3 months solid, I did this at her demand. She only did 2 other things with people other than myself.

 We had a rule that only Daddy washed her hands. She loved to wash her hands, and we needed to establish something that could facilitate their bond and give Mommy a quick (very!) break. So washing hands was a Daddy duty.

Secondly, she would happily play with Muffin and Mister... occasionally allowing Muffin to pick her up.

Zahra has never inappropriately gone to other people. Ever. She is shy and reserved and will only 'appropriately' interact with others after she knows you well and is comfortable around you. Anyone who knows her, can attest to this. She appropriately cries for Mommy when she is hurt, when she is sad, or hungry etc. She 'checks in' with me during play and stays close when we are in public. If you only viewed her attachment, you would swear that she came from my womb.

As per Zahra's cues, it wasn't until after 3 months that she started to allow others to come into her world a bit more. Today she behaves as either of our bio children did towards me and others at the same age. She is not as bonded with Daddy... which is simply a reflection of working long hours since we have been home. To assist in their attachment, Daddy does 'bedtime routine' and will often come and take her to a business meeting or to run errands when and where he can. (Read - He takes her out for pizza and ice cream.)

We are so amazingly blessed in this regard as I know how many of you struggle with these issues. I wish all adoption attachment was this easy.

The struggle in our attachment was not on Zahra's end. It was my struggle. Going back to that 6 month mark... I do believe that my attachment to her was what would be perceived as 'normal' in adoption at 6 months. Did I love her? You bet I did! Would I defend her with everything I had? Sure I would! But did I have that crazy fiercely devoted, want to eat you up, crazy kind of love? No, I did not.

We are in a unique situation being able to 'measure' and 'quantify' attachment when we have biological children. It made me well aware that I had work to do. I thought about it and pondered long into many nights. How could I put my finger on the differences of my feelings between my adopted and biological children?

I started with this...

First of all, she did not smell like me. This was a very strange irritation. The very first thing I did when we got her home was to give her a bath. She wasn't dirty... they had just bathed her at the orphanage. But I wanted to get the smell off her. What was the smell? I don't know...? Most likely, it was just the smell of not being my smell. It was weeks before she finally started to smell like mine.

Secondly, she came to us with habits from a previous life. Spitting on the floor (which only happened twice thank goodness). Throwing garbage on the ground or floor. Colouring in every story book she got her hands on. Squirreling food away in her cheeks. Strange things that my other children never did. Behaviours created from an environment that was not mine.

Thirdly, I could not take ownership over her. (Ownership - terrible descriptive I know. I am going to assume dear reader, you know I don't mean ownership like 'my car'. I mean a feeling of direct responsibility over something entirely, as you have for your biological child .) I could not take responsibility over her physical features, nor her behaviours, or her actions. This sometimes made it difficult to 'love' the bad with the good.

After processing my feelings, I slowly started to develop ways to combat these issues.

I made a super yummy hair/skin lotion from organic ingredients with a few drops of some lovely vanilla fragrance. I made it by hand, then I applied it to her everyday. Massaged it in her scalp and skin and then applied to my own skin. Did you ever hear how they get a nursing cow to accept a calf of another? They sprinkle them both with baby powder! Okay, so... same idea here.

With time, she lost the tendencies or habits that she came to us with, and started to develop new ones. She started to love pizza and ice cream. She soon realized that books were for reading, and colouring books were a whole different thing. Snickering with the other kids, at Daddy when he 'Shoota'd' (you can guess what that means!)... Staying up late and sleeping in. She soon loved swimming, airplane rides on our feet and puppies. Overtime, she developed some of our mannerisms and took on our interests. Time managed this one. I couldn't really assist much with this other than giving her a safe and loving environment that allowed her to feel comfortable enough to try new things and have fun.

I also found it helpful, in those moments of exhaustion... to remember where she came from. The days when I feel tired of carrying her around, or find my patience wearing thin when she just won't swallow the food in her mouth, or if she has had a particularly whiny day. We don't have a shared history, prenatally or a birth process that bonded us to ease me through these days. But what I can do is sit down, take a few minutes, and remember the trauma she must of felt when she was abandoned by her birth Mother. The days she spent alone in the hospital, and the years she spent in the orphanage without a forever family. The sick days when she didn't have a Mommy to curl up with and take a nap. The fear I know she would have felt when strangers came and picked her up out of her crib, and how she missed out on having the security of knowing that the person who tucks her in at night will be there when she wakes in the morning. Empathy, helps lengthen my patience and certainly softens me, allowing me to love (and like!) her during these tough times. For this to be even more effective, (and for other obvious reasons!) I really recommend that you, the adoptive parent, investigate your child's background as much as possible. Visit the hospital where they were born, or the area... talk to the village chiefs, officials etc that were involved. It really helps to have a greater understanding and to help visualize the path that our children have taken.

The ownership one is still one we work on everyday. The first thing I knew I had to do, was to change her name. I know, I started calling her Zahra long before I knew who she was, and I had said that we would likely change her name... but I still struggled with the morality of changing one's name. On top of that, we did really like the only name she knew. To clarify, Zahra was given a name at birth (which was her legal name), but she was never called by this name. She was nicknamed 'Joy' at the orphanage and this is the name she was called by and referred to as in all documents. We called her 'Joy' for the entire time in Kenya, and nicknamed her 'Zahra'. She responded to both, but legally (due to my desire to claim 'ownership'), at 6 months... we chose to call her 'Zahra Joy' on paper. Shortly, after arriving in Canada. She yelled at us one day.. correcting us after we called her 'Joy'. "NO, Zahra!"

Say what you want, believe what you want, but I almost got the feeling that she associated 'Joy' with her life before us and 'Zahra' was in reference to her new life.  To make things even stranger - every single one of us, including Zahra - refers to her as Joy when we speak about her during our time in Kenya, or when she was in the orphanage. I'll be talking Zahra's first time eating ice cream, and I refer to her as Joy. Even though we all exclusively call her Zahra now (and she corrects us if we slip up), Zahra will do the same thing. When we look at photos of when she was younger, she calls herself Joy. If I show her a photo of her in dance class from last week, she says Zahra. Weird.

Okay, I digress... but just as a side note, a 6 year old asked me yesterday, 'Did you give Zahra her name?' I never thought I would be asked this by a child! I looked at Zahra, and looked back at the girl with a smile, and proudly said, 'Yes, I did.' I then glanced back at Zahra who was beaming up at me proudly. A moment I never envisioned happening! How proud I felt (as did she!), that I, her Mother, had named her. Not to mention the relief to be able to answer 'yes' instead of having to explain the complexities of her nickname, or her first legal name, which could have lead into an uncomfortable question game as I sat crafting with 8 children, and Zahra in tow. (I know, on the other hand, it could have been a good time to educate about adoption, or I could have deflected with her middle name etc.. but at the time, I really was caught off guard, and not prepared.)

Others ways I am gaining those feelings of ownership over her is by teaching her. Ordinary things, and extraordinary things. Things that make me proud and feel like I had some responsibility in creating. Simple things like teaching her colors, songs, puzzles... how to use scissors and how to dress herself. She does them successfully, I feel proud and responsible,... scoop her up, and give her a big ol kiss for a job well done. This does induce some serious, scrunchy, munchy... love hormones.

Another important tool for me, is doing her hair and dressing her up. I mean, she loves it, soaks it up and inspires most of it, but this really gives me some ownership over some of her cuteness, since I cannot take responsibility for any of her genetics. So now, I can look at her and beam with pride... 'that's my smart looking little cookie over there!'

Now, here I sit... almost at the one year mark. Do I feel about her the same way I felt about my own children at the same age?


But... and this is a big BUT... I see the light at the end of the tunnel! In fact, I think we are only a couple feet from the exit!

We are so close and I am so happy to report that I now know, this 'bond' that is created with your biological child, is indeed possible to achieve with your adopted child. I feel fortunate to have the wisdom of attachment through my experience with my biological children to that allowed me to identify areas where I was struggling. I do believe that without this, our attachment journey would be further behind.

Every day, we build on new experiences, and we inch a bit closer to that goal. I feel like we have made great strides in this last month, and I know it is because of the time I can spend alone with her at home while the kids are in school. That, and not having the stress of working, or being in an a foreign country. It's just me and her, in our comfort zone. We have time to go for tea together, the park, library, story time, swimming, dance class etc. It's wonderful, and although we cannot necessarily 'afford' for me to be off work... we cannot 'afford' for me to be away from her all day, missing this precious time.

This morning, I heard the pitter patter of her feet coming down the hallway, and I was delighted to see her as I peaked around the corner. She ran into my arms, I scooped her up, squeezed her tight, inhaling her scent deeply, and looked at her with pride... realizing, she is now 99% all mine.


Jen S said...

As an adopted child myself that was a wonderful and eye opening article! thank you so much

Jacquie said...

What a great article! We have one Bio and one Adopted, and you really helped me understand some of my own feelings on attachment. I loved your explanation about why it was important for you to change Zahra's name, I know this is a heated topic in the adoption world, but your reasoning makes so much sense.
Thanks Jo for being vulnerable, and sharing your feelings and experiences!

Hannah & Ryan said...

I needed to read this tonight. Thank you for sharing, thank you for your honesty. I can relate to much of it...we're just a few months in. We also changed our daughter's name and struggled with that and came to the same conclusions as you and have a similar experience as she talks about herself before us. I'm going to read and reread this post a few more times...needed this just now. Thank you!

Eileen said...

Great article Jolene. You are doing an amazing job navigating Motherhood with Zahra, your interaction is so natural for both of you I sometimes forget she didn't come from your womb. You are an inspiration to all parents! Thank you for taking the time to share your experience.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Wanted to add that as you know, we also kept our sons original name as a middle name and used it for a long time, or until he dropped it himself about 3 months in. We kept using it together with the name we gave him for a while, but then stopped as he never used it himself. He is at a stage now where he tells people his full name, but he always leaves out the middle name. I "corrected" him a few times to see his reactions but he did not react at all and did not add the middle name next time he said his name. I initially had reservations about changing his name but it was the right thing to do for us and luckily, he agrees. I love hearing how it was for your family. Björk.

Candice said...

Looks like you're doing a great job mama. Way to go!! Thanks for being so honest. I've only had my little Z, no bio babies to compare our attachment, but in all honesty we were kind of 'love at first sight' and it just keeps growing.
(and I totally agree with you on the smell thing... I bathed Zenya that first night back in the hotel just because she smelled so strange and foreign. Now the smell of her is so familiar to me and such a beautiful thing. )

Gypsy Mama said...

This is such a great post! Thank you so much for sharing and giving us a real insight into this. I've always said I want my family to include both biological and adopted children. I don't know which will come first but I can totally understand why it works out well to have the bio children first.

You really are an inspiration to me!

'Jo' said...

There seems to be a strong correlation with the name changes. Fascinating!

Candice, I would most definitely say that we were also 'Love at first sight'! It was extremely difficult to leave her every day during the bonding period in the orphanage, and all I thought about was her, and would wake up in the night to look at her, etc... This is a very important part of the process. I think if you don't have that, the attachment process would be considerably more difficult!

You and Z are obviously doing great! The love you have for one another shines through on your blog! xo

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your heart with honesty, vulnerability and hope! As the mother of two bio kids and two adopted, the journey with each has been so different. I expected the second adoption attachment process to be similar to the first, but found both to be vastly unique! I think as different as two people are, so also every attachment between two people will be different. I hope that your heartfelt account will ease the guilt that so often plagues adoptive parents and help parents embrace hope as we face uncharted waters.

Denise said...

Great article! You gave me a few things to think about. I also remember desperately wanting her smell to not be orphanage smell, but "our" smell.

I didn't ever consider changing our daughter's first name as I didn't find it to be too strange for our society (some children's names make them stand out even more as they don't "fit", and in my opinion that is a great time to change the name). But in some ways I wish we had... I think it's just an individual choice and there isn't really a right or wrong. But I am having such a difficult time choosing her middle name that I haven't legally even done her name change yet!

I'm so glad that she trained you early on and did all the attachment stuff right - what a gift! Our transition wasn't nearly that smooth.. and it is taking much longer to feel the attachment I had hoped to feel by now... there is still room to grow, but it is coming. I wish I had alone time with G as you do with Z. That would be really helpful.