May 27, 2010

Adjustment, Bonding and Attachment

The following is a guest post by Kerry, who along with her husband Scott adopted their daughter Grace from Ethiopia. Kerry and Scott are friends of Nightlight Christian Adoptions and were gracious to allow us to re-distribute this post, which first appeared on their family blog. This post is important for two reasons: it addresses attachment issues that can arise for children who are adopted very young; and it gives the perspective of a mother who's experiencing these things right now.

Our daughter Grace is giving hugs. You have to ask for them, and she doesn't always oblige, but when in the right mood she'll wrap her little arms around you and squeeze just slightly. I'm sure this is a big deal to any parent but in the adoption world, it's a huge sign of progressing attachment and we are celebrating.

I don't claim to know a ton about attachment and bonding, but we have read a fair amount on the subject and tried to prepare ourselves for anything. If you are waiting for your adoption to be completed right now, spend some time reading about attachment. Even babies must learn to attach. They have to learn to see their parents as a special and significant relationship, not just a caregiver.

Again, I'm no expert on this at all; I just thought I'd share our story and how we are still seeing growth in this area 10 months after coming home. Our experience has been measured in subtleties that I wouldn't even have know about had we not read adoption books. We've not had a difficult time with Grace. We're extremely thankful for that. Nonetheless, it's an area we still put much work and prayer and try to act deliberately.

I'd call our first days together the "adjustment and bonding" phase. Not sure if this a textbook term, but it seems to fit. We were all adjusting to each other and I'm sure to Grace we were just more people taking care of her. She was 6 months old. We had no idea what kinds of habits or tendencies she had, no idea what her nap or feeding schedule was and no idea how she liked to do things. So our first few weeks were just spent figuring things out. Scotty was the first to giver her a bottle and do a lot of the "dirty" work with her in Ethiopia, so he bonded with her very quickly. In his words, Love is an action. As soon as you start doing things for this child, your love begins to grow. As for me, I certainly adored this tiny little person that had been given to us from the moment I held her, but I must say it took several days before I was feeling like her mom. I think being there, trying to take pictures of Ethiopia and take it all in while visiting her orphanage and meeting other families all sort of kept me distracted enough. I was caring for her and enjoying her, but so much was going on it just took me awhile to focus entirely on the fact that she was my daughter and I was her mom. Does that even make sense?

So by "bonding" I mean that we were growing in love for her and we were becoming special in her eyes as she began to recognize that we were caring for all her needs all the time. Once we got home and over a bit of jet lag, Grace and I really began to bond as I was fully into "mommy" role and family life resumed.

The first few weeks home were interesting and exciting, but not really the time to make too many judgement calls or major decisions. It's hard to know what was jet lag and what was hunger, what's a minor skin irritation and what's ringworm or how much stress your baby is going through adjusting. Grace went through some minor physical stress reactions in those early weeks. She sweated profusely. Yes, I know it was July and August in the South but still, this was different. This sweating made her skin do all kinds of crazy things from dry patches to bumps. I really think now, it was just a stress reaction since I have heard of many adopted children have similar reactions. Her hair (and she had a head full!) all fell out a few weeks after being home. I thought I had ruined her beautiful locs. Again, I now look back and attribute it to stress and losing baby hair. She was quite bald for a few weeks and then her hair all begin to fill back in. Again, it was nothing major, but I really do think this was all part of her whole little world changing and her body getting more calories.

I guess I'd say that our adjustment phase lasted for about 3 months. That was right about the time that real life had really started back up, the doctor visits were finished and she stopped waking up several times in the middle of the night. She was also just beginning to light up as we would walk into a room. I think this was really the beginning of the attachment phase and I see now was the precursor to these awesome hugs that she is just starting to give away. More on attachment coming soon.

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