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Celebrating Adoption: Attachment Both Ways (and the "Things We Did" post)

Posted by | November 30, 2011 | Uncategorized | 13 Comments

aFebruary 10, 2005 – just a couple of weeks into familyhood

Four years ago I wrote a big post on the topic of: “Things We Did In the Very Beginning with Kyle and Owen” (click here for the link). For a long while that post was the most visited post on our blog. And then, somewhere along the way, other posts took over in the top tier of ‘Most Viewed’ in our site stats and the “Things We Did” post got lost deep in the blog archives, rarely to be viewed again. All along the way, though, whenever prospective adoptive families or waiting families have emailed me for insight or advice, I’ve sent them to that post.

I wrote that post in January of 2007, when Kyle and Owen were just two years old, and Meera wasn’t even born yet. When I re-read the “Things We Did” post (which I do from time to time), what always strikes me most is how, if I were to re-write it today, four years deeper into parenting, I’d probably write the same thing– but just add more to it. My core thoughts and feelings about attachment in adoption have been relatively unwavering, despite the ups and downs and ebbs and flows of the past seven years of my experience of motherhood. However, I’ve learned a lot along the way.

If you were to ask me what the most important piece of my own adoption experience has been, I’d say this: what I’ve learned, above all else, is that attachment is a two-way-street. In the “Things We Did” post I wrote: “…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.” Now, seven years in, I feel that in my heart, and think that in my mind, more than ever. As I reflect on our own experience of adoption, live out the present-day real-life living of being an adoptive family, and witness other adoptive families, I know it more than ever: attachment goes both ways. And just as it is challenging (to say the least) for a child to attach to a parent, it is challenging for a parent to attach to a child.

So, what are the things that we can do, as parents, to purposefully and deliberately and intentionally build attachment to our children? This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about in more recent years. In the early phases of my life as an adoptive mother (particularly while planning our adoption, going through the actual adoption process, waiting for Kyle and Owen, and then the first few weeks of bringing them home), I was so focused on K & O that I thought almost exclusively about attachment as a one-way thing. But as our bond began to grow, I consciously thought more and more about how I was attaching to them. By the end of the first couple of months I was very conscientiously understanding the attachment process as a two-way street; as a bond that goes both ways. And while some of the bond can (and often does) happen organically, some can (and often does) require hard work on both sides.

If I go through the “Things We Did” post, I can now see how each of the things we did to foster Kyle and Owen’s attachment to us also fostered our attachment to them. For example (from that post):

  • ‘We didn’t let anyone but us feed them.’ I could easily argue that in us, exclusively, feeding them, we attached to them just as much as they to us.
  • ‘We worked on having eye contact.’ By forcing ourselves to hold eye contact with our babies, we laid down the building blocks of our own attachment to our children.
  • ‘Other cues for attachment with babies that we used constantly: rubbing cheeks, and rubbing the inner palms of hands.’ I can remember doing these things, especially in the beginning, because I knew these were healthy attachment cues. But I can vividly remember my own experience of these things as profound: the feeling of their soft skin, the fine lines in the skin of their palms, studying the exact color of their cheeks, noticing the tininess of their vulnerable powerful little hands compared to mine. In doing these things “for” my babies, I also attached myself to them as their mother.
  • ‘In the beginning we held the boys non-stop.’ Again, we did this under the premise that it was for them. Looking back now, I see how much this benefitted our own attachment to them.
  • And it goes on and on…  I can literally go through the “Things We Did” post item by item and see – now – how each thing we did to foster our boys’ attachment to us, also fostered our own attachment to them—  ‘We slept on the floor in their room’; ‘We didn’t let anyone visit’; ‘We made a big production about what a “home” is’; etc.

What I know now, more than ever, is that our own attachment to Kyle and Owen is just as important as their attachment to us. Of course I knew this, theoretically. But it is another thing to experience it, conscientiously. Attachment is a bond. A bond that goes both ways. And it isn’t always easy to bond with a child. Attachment can be challenging in the best (and most traditional) of family circumstances. But add adoption to the mix and chances are it is going to be even more challenging. Layer on things like wet infectious smelling snotty runny noses, or horrific parasite-induced diarrhea diaper explosions, or defiant testing-the-limits kicking punching pinching spitting… and factor in that you literally just met this little person, and they don’t resemble you in any physical way whatsoever, and they smell completely unfamiliar, and you have no idea their rhythms, routines, or rituals… and seriously… it is challenging. Attaching to a child can take a lot of work. Hard work. Hard work that nearly nobody acknowledges or even recognizes. But hard work that – I believe – really needs to be done in order to pave the way for a healthy family.

And so, four years after I wrote the “Things We Did” post, I can see more clearly how much work Braydon and I really did. I don’t write this to pat us on the backs (not at all, trust me). Rather, I write it because I think that while this “attachment-as-a-two-way-street”-thing might seem obvious, in my own experience I have found that it isn’t actually brought up to the surface very often – even in the adoptive family community. And so I write this to surface it. I also write it so that from this point on, whenever prospective adoptive families or waiting families email me for insight or advice, I can send them to the “Things We Did” post, but also link them to here. Because I think my biggest insight from my own experience with adoption is that purposeful intentional attachment – both ways – is key, and that this is critically important for adoptive families, and for those who are trying to support them, to recognize and acknowledge.

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  • NJTed says:

    Awwwww, I forgot how cute their baby pics are.
    In terms of attachment, I really think that some adopted kids and their adoptive parents go through that phase faster than others. What’s unfortunate is that in many international adoption cases, the adoptive parent has little to no influence on the child they’re matched with. I’ve heard that a lot of agencies discourage adoptive parents from trying to pick their own child because of insurance and legal issues or whatever. I really think that the adoptive parent, if they’re able to, should be encouraged to spend some time with some kids in an orphanage overseas and see which ones develop attachments with the parents, and vice versa.
    Two years ago, I spent a week and a half in Swaziland, Africa for a short mission trip. By the third or fourth day, I knew which kid I wanted to take home with me, and I KNEW he wanted to go home with me too (of course this was wishful thinking), and there were some kids who I knew would’ve had more difficulty attaching to me and vice versa. So, I think that if the adoption agencies allow and encourage the adoptive parents to have more direct contact with the children up for adoption, and had more influence in the selection process, then I think the bonding phase would be a lot smoother for both the parents and the children. That’s just my opinion.
    I have no doubts that you were matched with the right children, but did you get to meet them before or after they were picked for you?

    • Heather says:

      “NJTed”– thanks for this comment. What you articulate is a really interesting idea.
      To answer your question: we never met Kyle and Owen before we were matched with them. We signed on to adopting them before we ever even saw a picture or read a file. But, like you said, I have no doubt that we were matched with the right children!
      Thanks for reading!

  • Gloria says:

    Thank you Heather for this very, very important and touching post. Even though I read so much (and thought I knew so much) about attachment in adoption, I was completely unprepared for the reality of not attaching to my adoptive daughter as quickly as I thought I would (this is four years ago now and things are wonderful, but I didn’t know that’s how it would turn out at the time).

    I had spent so much time worrying about whether my daughter would bond/attach to me; it never really occured to me to worry about the reverse (sounds silly now, but that was just the reality of my head space at the time). I suffered extreme guilt, and quite honestly looking back, some level of depression. Thankfully we worked through it (using the old “fake it until you make it” strategy a fair bit). I think it’s so important for prospective adoptive parents to hear (and really absorb) this potential reality, so that they can prepare themselves emotionally and psychologically. Thank you for surfacing it in such a positive way.

    • Braydon says:

      Hi Gloria –

      What you say really resonates with me. Part of the hard work that we did, and that I struggled with, was getting through the transition to being parents at all – let alone in this situation. It was not easy for me and I often had a hard time with it. But, by keeping on keeping on, it all came together.

      Thanks for your comment.


  • Adina says:

    What a beautiful post — and what gorgeous photos of the four of you!

  • Rose Anne says:

    When I brought my little guy home( 9 years ago now) I was not prepared to have an angry little boy when it was night time. He was so mellow during the day but night was not a fun thing for a long while. Night terror s and sleeping in very small periods of time made for little sleep for me for the first 6 months or more . the only time he was calm when he slept was when I held him so I did!
    The grow so fast that sometimes I wish I could that little person again!
    Thanks for the great post!
    Rose Anne

    • Heather says:

      Rose Anne, Thanks for sharing that. We too suffered with night terrors (Owen) and still struggle with bedtime (Owen, mostly, but often Kyle too). This is just to say: I hear you. Thanks for reading, ~Heather

  • Melissa says:

    Thanks, as always, for sharing this part of your story. I just wanted to comment and say how stinkin’ cute Kyle’s expression looking at you in that first photo of the four of you is! Clearly the bond building was working.

  • MorMor says:

    This post got Dad and I to talking about how we as grandparents love ALL our grandchildren. We feel exactly the same about our adopted and biological grandchildren. We came to the conclusion that it is because we love our daughters and our daughters fell in love and bonded to their children so we did too. So thanks for the strong bond to K, O + M because we adore them!

  • Rebecca says:

    Things We Did is probably my all time favorite post from this blog. A family beginning is a beautiful thing, and it’s awesome that you are willing to share so many details with us. Thank you!

  • I have been sharing this post and the link to the other post like CRAZY lately. Thanks so much for putting your thoughts down so succinctly and eloquently. Gave me much to think about regarding our mei-mei’s arrival in the coming year or so….. Validated a lot of what we did with Li’l Empress, too. LOVED both of the posts! Blessings!

  • Gianna says:

    I never thought about it. But you are absolutely right.
    My husband and I probably won’t adopt (he says we have plenty of kids with 4), but I believe adoption to be one of the most beautiful things in the world. Adoption touches my heart. My sister in law and her husband are waiting to adopt and I am so excited to be an aunt. I have always wanted to be one, but I was first a mama–this was not what I had planned.

    I know as an aunt, things are a little different and we need to be patient. But how can family members who live hours away connect with the newest additions to the family? What is your experience?

  • Julie says:

    I think this is something that is shared between adoptive parents. I have one biological child (who I felt an instant bond with at birth) and one adopted child (who I have had since birth-was there for the birth) and it took me awhile to bond with my adopted daughter (my daughter). Our situation was unique in that I worked in Labor and Delivery at the time and our adoption was not planned-I went into work that morning with no plans on adopting (except that we were in the foster parent classes) and that afternoon I had a baby girl, and I was sooooo scared that this birth mother was going to change her mind, that I think I held off opening my heart completely. It was so odd because my son and my husband instantly bonded and felt she was theirs, but I was so afraid to completely bond with her…it took a few weeks. I always loved her from day 1, but it took awhile to really bond with her. I can say with certainty now that we have bonded and my love for her is equal to my love for our son. Great post, thanks for opening up your experiences and your life to us.

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