Tomorrow is our Adoption Day — two years since we got our boys. In these days leading up to January 31 we find ourselves consumed with thinking about our family’s adoption journey and remembering back to those days in January of 2005 when we were preparing to travel to Haiti, then holding our babies for the first time, then spending our first week together in Port Au Prince. For awhile now I’ve been meaning to post about a particular topic that several people from all over the country (and the world actually) have emailed me about since we started this blog… and given that we’re thinking so much about our adoption experience right now, I thought now would be a good time to do it. The topic is this: Things We Did In the Very Beginning with Kyle and Owen. The reason I want to write about this is because I’ve been receiving emails and private blog comments/correspondence from people asking me about the early phases of when we had the boys home. They ask things like, “How did you do it?” or “What advice do you have for us as we’re about to bring home our baby?” or “You’re kids seem so well-adjusted, can you share the things you did to foster their transition and attachment?” It is all very flattering (the thought that people think I’m doing at least a semi-okay job at this mothering thing!), but at the same time, let’s be real: it just is what it is — the seeking of information from somebody who has been there. I remember how desperate I was for any real-life, hands-on insight based on actual-experience, so I can relate to these questions very very well. I really wish I had started this blog a long time ago, because then everything would have been so much better documented, but of course I was too tired then (!!!), so, I’m going to do my best to write about this topic now.
First of all, I just have to be sure to say — for the record — that I am by no means an expert on this topic!! In fact, I feel really awkward writing this post because I don’t want anybody out there thinking that I think that I’m all that or anything. So, let me just be crystal clear about where I stand on this: I am just one adoptive mother with just one (well, two actually!) unique experience(s). I also want to be sure to point out that children adopted from orphanages are a special case. And children adopted from contexts of severe deprivation and trauma are a special case. And children adopted as infants (in our case, at age eight months) are a special case. And children who never spent any time in a family or with a mother or parent of any kind are a special case. And children who are adopted to childless couples (who have all the time in the world to focus on them because they don’t have other children to be concerned with as well) are a special case. And twins- well, it is stating the obvious to say that twin adoption is very rare… so, twins are an exceptionally special case. So, we have a super-duper-duper-special case on our hands here, and it is important to keep that in mind. It is a unique situation so the things that worked so well for us might not work so well for anybody else. Nevertheless, people are asking for me to share. So, I will — with all the above caveats — share.
I’m going to share pretty openly, but of course there are always things that we keep to ourselves and keep private in our family because we are constantly trying to be mindful of respecting our children’s privacy and boundaries. Also, I can’t possibly write out everything here (we did tons and tons and tons of things, very deliberately, to foster our family’s attachments to each other). I’m going to share some things here — a few things — but I can’t share everything.
So, as we reflect back on what was going on two years ago, and ask ourselves what were the significant things we did that seemed to work well in transitioning our babies and fostering our attachment to each other, what comes to our minds? I’m sure we don’t remember all of it (let’s not forget folks, we were in a deliriously joyful and deliriously sleep-deprived fog for the first few months!)… but here are some of the things we do remember doing in those first moments, days, weeks, and months with Kyle and Owen.
We decided to adopt in January 2004. I had long been thinking about adoption so I had already done a lot of reading and research on it. And, importantly, Braydon and I had spent six years caring part-time for Maria — our special sweet pea girl in Boston [[[Hi Maria! –she’s often reading this blog]]] — and so we had some real down-to-earth experience already with dealing with a kid together. But from January 2004-January 2005 (when we got the boys) I literally [literally!] read every single thing I could get my hands on regarding adoption, attachment, Haiti, adoptees, adoptive families, transracial adoption, working mothers, daycare, etc., etc., etc. This ranged from fiction to biography to history to clinical psychology to sociology to cultural studies to family studies to child development and everything else in between… and it was everything from literary books to academic research reports to magazines to internet chat rooms to online resources. I also joined several internet listserves and became very, very active on them (as some of our blog readers probably recall?!). I made friends with everyone I possibly could who had any knowledge or experience whatsoever with Haitian adoption. And some of these people remain very close friends today. You know who you are!
Anyway, all of this (the reading and researching and friend-making) was probably the most helpful thing I/we did. Because — after reading and/or chatting with people (in books or online or on the phone or in person) I’d always recount everything to Braydon. We literally spent just about every single night of the year of 2004 talking about adoption. I’d summarize every thing I learned for Braydon. Sometimes I’d read him quotes from books, sometimes I’d read him notes from my notebook (I actually kept notes a lot), and sometimes I’d just give him out and out scholarly lectures (!!)… but we almost always would then spend a nice chunk of time talking in depth. And I mean, in depth. I think this prepared us better than anything else possibly could have. And we were truly privileged to have had this time to do this. At the end of it all, one book became our pseudo “Adoption Bible”… that book is the classic adoption book — Attaching in Adoption — by Deborah Gray (for link to this book on Amazon.com click here). For the first twelve months, at least, this book sat smack in the center of the coffee table in the family room. And we referred to it almost daily in the beginning. And I still pull it out from time to time today. Many of the specific things we did in those first days and weeks with Kyle and Owen we learned from reading that book.
Here are just a few of the key things we did:
*** First and foremost we tried to always remember that attachment goes both ways. It isn’t just a matter of the baby attaching to the parent, but of the parent attaching to the baby too. Most adoptive families (hopefully) know this. We tried to let that be real and we tried to be real with that. I could write forever about that, but instead I want to focus on the more specific things we did– rather than philosophical approaches we had to doing them.
*** Second most important thing I need to say is this: we would be crazy to not recognize and acknowledge how very fortunate we were to have great adoption leave policies from our workplaces. I had the entire spring semester off to be home with the boys, so they didn’t start daycare until June. And Braydon had the first six weeks (week one was our week in Haiti, then he was home full-time for our first five weeks home). This was extremely fortunate and we are grateful for that… especially since we had twins.
*** Third thing I want to say is that we did quite a lot of specific stuff related to twins. For example, in the beginning Braydon almost always had Owen and I almost always had Kyle. We did this partly because Owen really strongly preferred Braydon and we wanted him (O) to be as comfortable as possible. But we also did it deliberately because we wanted each of the babies to have a solid primary bond with a parent. Over time we deliberately stretched out the bond so that they each had us both — but in the very beginning Braydon almost always held, fed, and soothed Owen and I did the same with Kyle. Since this is so rare (so few people adopt multiples) I’m not going to go into great depth about it here. But it is worth mentioning at least because it was a huge part of our experience.
*** Like many babies, K & O had been “trained” to feed themselves at a very young –much too young– age. They had been holding their own bottles for themselves for a long time before we got them. From our first feeding, we forced them to let us hold their bottles and we insisted on feeding them. This required a lot of force actually, much more than you’d expect to require from an eight month old. They wanted to feed themselves and not have to rely on us. Remember, we were random strangers to them and they had been fending for themselves for quite some time; their natural instinct was to not trust and to resist depending on us. They’d fight us with the bottle feeding. We’d often have to literally hold them down on their backs, and hold their hands and arms down with one hand, while we used our other hand to hold the bottle in their mouths. They had been starving, so they would never even consider refusing a bottle (this worked to our advantage), but they did not like it that we didn’t let them be self-sufficient. Owen, especially fought this — he wanted to feed himself. We’d have to physically restrain him often in order to hold his bottle for him. This was a key way we tried to convey to them what parents were — parents are people who feed you.
*** We didn’t let anyone but us feed them. For at least a few weeks no one else was allowed to give them a bottle or put a spoon in their mouths. This was another key way we tried to convey to them what parents were — again, parents are people who feed you.
*** Whenever possible, especially during feeding, we worked on having eye contact with the babies. They would avoid it a lot. They didn’t want to look a person in the eye. Eye contact is a cue for attachment, and babies will often try to avoid it in an attempt at self-preservation. We’d sometimes have to actually hold their head so their faces were facing ours and we’d get our eyes to within just a couple inches of theirs and try to hold their gaze as long as possible. Kyle, especially, did not like this. He’d avoid eye contact as much as possible. But we worked on it constantly and over time their eyes would hold our gaze for longer and longer.
*** Other cues for attachment with babies that we used constantly: rubbing cheeks, and rubbing the inner palms of hands. The very first time I saw our boys — in the orphanage — I was rubbing their cheeks and their palms of their hands. We proceeded to do this numerous times a day every day for a long, long time. I still do this almost daily.
*** In the beginning we held the boys non-stop. They did not like to be held while they were sleeping (they had always slept alone), but we did hold them pretty much constantly when they were awake. We used front-chest-carriers for our week in Haiti, and during those first days together the boys spent 7-9 hours per day in those carriers. It was over 100 degrees, and we were always drenched in sweat, but it was instant bonding. We used those carriers daily for the first few weeks (we tried to do 1-2 hours minimum of “carrier time” daily for each baby)… even just doing chores around the house or going for walks around the neighborhood. This was part of what we did to enact “babying” our babies. Since so much of their infancy they were forced into semi-self-sufficiency, it was critically important for them to be allowed to “re-do” (at least as much as possible) that early infancy stage. We worked hard to let them be 8 month olds (and then 9-10-11-12-month olds), but we also worked hard to let them be newborns.
*** We slept on the floor in their room for the first several days home and whenever needed for the first few weeks. Our boys loved their cribs from the very first night home (they had never had their own crib/space, and each of them seemed to just love it!!!), so they were happy to be in them, but they woke often and needed to know we were right there. So, we slept on an air mattress next to their cribs.
*** We didn’t let anyone visit for our first week home, and we left the house only for doctor’s appointments and a couple trips for groceries/supplies. For the first few weeks we kept visitors to a minimum. With the exception of my parents (who stayed overnight) we limited visits to an hour or two max. This is done to cement in the idea that this is our house, we (and only we) live in this house, we are a family, and we are the only members of this family.
*** Once we started going on outings (about a month into being home) we kept them brief, and we “celebrated” every time we came home… in the car, in the garage, we’d cheer “We’re home!” and make a big production about what a “home” is. We still do this every single time we pull into the garage — the boys insist on it.
There’s a lot more that we did, but those are some of the things I remember most. Some of you might remember other things – so please feel free to post comments here. There are people reading this blog who are in the process of adopting right now and I’m *sure* they would greatly appreciate any thoughts or memories about our journey that anyone would be willing to share here. There are other little kiddos who are gonna come home to their families — and their families need all the insight they can get! Surprisingly we have readers from all over the world!!!!!!-–who woulda thunk it?!!! So, any of you with memories of observing what was going on in the Johnson-McCormick family for those first days/weeks/months with K & O — please share here by posting a comment below.