Monday, April 15, 2013

Attachment: It's a Parent Thing, Too

For me, love and attachment grow as I get to know each of my kids and invest in their lives.

A lot has been written on promoting attachment in adopted kids, and as a result, terms like reactive attachment disorder strike fear in the hearts of prospective adoptive parents. What if we adopt a kid who isn't able to attach?

But attachment is a two-way street. What about the mom who struggles to attach to her new child? Who is writing books for her? How can she promote attachment in her own heart?

I'm not a big believer in love at first sight parenting -- at least not across the board. Maybe that happens with some people, but it's never happened for me, not even with my biological kids.

Each time I gave birth, I loved my babies right away, but it was more of an act of the will kind of love. I didn't really know them yet. And my emotions -- well, they were all over the place. When I saw each of my biological kids for the first time in the birthing room I felt exhausted, spent, tired, proud, happy, scared, uncertain, protective, nervous . . . the list goes on and on. Yes, I loved them. . . but not the same way I'd love them in the days to come.

A few weeks later, looking back at that first meeting, I would've sworn that I had hardly loved them at all. Those feelings during my first moments as a mom couldn't even compare to the fierce, protective love I now felt for my baby. In every interaction, my tone of voice, my touch, my eye contact now revealed a deep emotional attachment to my child.

What caused me to attach during those first weeks? Postpartum hormones? Maybe. Breastfeeding? Definitely helpful, but I think there's something more.

It's just a guess, but I believe the biggest thing that bound my heart to my children  was the simple act of taking care of them. As I willingly invested my time and energy into caring for my new babies -- every single exhausting sleep-deprived day -- my heart for them grew.

I say willingly because the willing part is important. Resenting the neediness of a newborn child is an attachment killer. Same for placing an overemphasis on schedules and sleeping through the night. Lastly, feeling unsuccessful as a mom can also build a wall. Whether it's a hard-to-soothe baby or difficulty with breastfeeding, it's challenging to attach to someone who makes you feel like a failure at every turn.

And then, what happens when adoption is part of the mix? And what if the adopted child isn't a baby anymore?

While a mother's attachment process in an older child adoption may look different than the attachment process with her biological infant, I'm guessing it really works in much the same way.

One rainy morning in September 2010, someone shoved Wenxin into the reception room of the Beijing Children's Welfare Institute with instructions to greet us with the words, "Mama. . . Baba."

At that point, I loved the idea of him. I'd fallen in love with his photo a year before. And I was committed to love him as an act of my will. But in all honesty, he was a little seven-year-old stranger who didn't speak my language. I didn't know him yet. And my emotions -- you guessed it. They were all over the place. I was in a new culture, jet-lagged and rain-soaked and elated and more than a tad scared -- all at the same time. I had a long way to go in attaching to my new son.

Then there was Wenxin. He was wild and unpredictable. And while he seemed to like Mike, he didn't particularly care for me.

So I did what I'd learned to do with all my other babies over the years. I took care of him. Every day I piled his plate high with yummy food from the hotel buffet. I prepared bathtubs that towered with mountains of bubbles. I rubbed sweet smelling lavender lotion into his skin each night before bed.

And in the weeks to come, when I felt like a failure -- when he fell to the floor and raged, or was blatantly disobedient, or looked me in the eye and said, "You're not my real mother" -- I turned to other adoptive moms who viewed his behavior with compassion and encouraged me to keep moving toward him instead of retreating into self protection.

Somewhere along the way, love grew. Not just the act of my will kind of love. An intense, deep, fiercely protective, mama bear kind of love. As I invested my heart into parenting him and advocating for him, attachment happened. Not just in his heart, but in my heart as well.

Attachment. It's a parent thing, too.

Melissa Faye Greene has written a touching story of her attachment process with one of her adopted sons called, "Do I Love Him Yet?"

Have you ever thought about your own attachment process as a mom -- adoptive or bio? What things were attachment builders for you?

Shared at Growing Slower's Tuesday Baby Link-up, Imperfect Prose, and WFMW.

Ni Hao Yall


  1. Thanks so much for writing this! I find myself asking myself several times a day unconsciously, "Do I love them yet?" (referring to my two newly adopted sons, ages 4 and 6). So far, mostly, it's the Act of My Will kind of love, most of the time, but I am starting to get a glimmer here and there of my feelings catching up. It's good to know that sometimes faking it til we're making it not only is good for our new children, but it takes the pressure off of us to feel the feelings rather than focusing on taking care of our children's needs no matter how we feel. Your link to the article, "Do I Love Him Yet" was great. She identifies post adoption depression for those who may never have heard about it. Loved this all!

    1. It's more like having a new baby than most folks would expect. I think adopting two children at once is every bit as exhausting as having twins. Congrats on your new children. Hang in there!

    2. I struggle every day with one of my children; it's hard sometimes to even have it be "act of my will". One is still in process. The third - who I got the youngest and have had the longest - totally attached. The differences between the three add to the complexity of the process - guilt on my part and the recognition on their part that it's different (as hard as I try to hide it...) Thanks for writing this - it's a BIG part of parenting kids from hard places....

  2. Dana, what a beautiful piece! And so insightful. Love and hugs to you and your family :-)

  3. Dana, what a wonderful topic-- so good you are writing about this. Well done! I so agree- love comes with the doing, the mommying, the serving.... I also would add that I believe as we ask God to give us the feelings of tenderness and love, He does that. But I see Him so often do it through the process of living in a family. I don't thing we should feel guilty about the fact that for so many it doesn't come "at first sight"-- that is the whisper of the enemy. There is no guilt or shame, only opportunity to see God move in our hearts, in their hearts, in our families. Thanks so much for this post!

  4. I get this.. I love my daughter very much.. but I still have a very hard time always liking her and that sometimes blocks those love feelings..

    My personality is very loyal and trustworthy.. and when you have to walk a path with someone that can be neither of those things (over and over), it is painful and difficult.. it's one of the hardest things I have ever done.

  5. Dana, this is a great one :-). At the 2nd day of the Empowered to Connect conference, there was an incredibly powerful time spent on this. Not only is attachment an act of the will - I had a dear friend tell me just yesterday, "I FOUGHT for her" as she talked about attaching with a difficult to attach child - we have an attachment style that we didn't choose - it was passed from our parents. I wrote a blog on this if anyone is interested:
    It is not fair to put the blame on the kids when things are going south. We are all part of the system and as the grown ups, we have to do all we can to encourage healthy attachment. Day by day by day....

  6. I LOVE this post! I had a hard time connecting at first with 3 of our 4 kids......and only the last can I even start to attribute to him not bonding immediatly with me.

    And no one talks about it. It becomes a matter of shame. During the 2 births I was caught up in the awe of things.......including how big my sons head was (haha).......though the second one I knew better on expectations so she is the only one I immediately felt a bond to. My first child is from Russia at 14 mo.......and I think I felt it by the time we brought her home (3 months after meeting her the first time) and our 4th is from China last summer at 18 months. He bonded quickly with daddy and rejected me totally. By the end of the 2 weeks there I was totally hurt and rejecting him. It has taken time and we are both turning corners every day. He still loves daddy more, but he loves me too now.......and he grows on me more and more every day. :)

  7. I definitely needed to hear this. I have 4 biological children (ages 2, 4, 6, 8) and just are in the process of adopting a 9 1/2 yr. old boy from the Ukraine. It has been HARD...that's an understatement. Being honest and open with good friends has been a huge help, talking with others who have been through it, lots of prayer, writing TONS of scripture on notecards and reading aloud every morning...God is bringing me around. But I definitely need to stop asking if I love him and just do the act of loving thanks for this post. I am a subscriber to your blog for life now:) God bless you!

  8. I just wanted to let you know I featured your post at the Tuesday Baby link up. I really related to this one as it took me awhile to get super attached to my son after his birth.

  9. This is a beautiful post, and rung true in my own experience with my son.

    Thanks for linking up with the Tuesday Baby Link-Up! :)


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