There is a recent blog post that is quickly making the rounds of adoptive parents:
Jen Hatmaker: The Truth About Adoption One Year Later
Jen Hatmaker is a wonderful writer, and the words of this piece in particular resonate with many of my friends in the adoption community. Several of these friends are singing the praises of this post because it says out loud what some of us are afraid to admit is happening in our own homes. It is comforting to see that other families are also struggling, that our childrens' reactions and behaviors are not unique--especially when there are so many other adoption blogs that document a seemingly flawless transition to family life. That with time our family lives will return to something close to 'normal'.
It is a relief to read the post and identify which stage your child is currently in; are we still in "Spaz out?" Could we be in "Triage?" You nod your head in sweet agreement when you find the description that matches your reality.
And I get that, and I appreciate that.
But, as Ms. Hatmaker herself writes in the start of her post, the "One Year Later" timeframe is specific to HER family, and HER experience. For many children the truth about adoption one year out is that the challenges are *just* beginning. Some children, like my child, have irreversible brain trauma that may manifest in behaviors that *never* go away. Other children are so overwhelmed by stress that they can't self-regulate. For some families the first-year post-adoption is a whirlwind of doctors appointments; urgent medical needs masking the equally-urgent emotional needs beneath the surface.
So while seeing a list of stages with specific time-lines attached can provide relief for some families, for others it can only lead to frustration and feelings of failure. What if at five months post-placement your family is nowhere *near* triage? What if your child's grief-fueled rages get stronger with each week that passes? How does the family with a child recently diagnosed with PTSD feel when they look at that post?
Of course this is all part of the bigger issue, right? Just as the "happily ever after" adoption blogs don't tell the one true story, nor do the posts like Ms. Hatmaker's--the ones that are supposed to speak to the rest of us. The truth is that there is no *one* true story. The truth is that the story shifts and changes for each child, for each family.
The truth is that while your your family may identify with Ms. Hatmaker's post today, tomorrow could bring you to your knees in unexpected ways.
In our home we are barely able to speak to the truth about adoption *three months* out.
YH and I walk the big kids to school each morning. We wander back home together and do chores, or wait for our Early Childhood Intervention Specialist to come over, or go to tumbling class. Starting next week we will spend Tuesday and Thursday mornings in YH's preschool class.
In the afternoons we pick up the big kids and go to a park, or out for ice cream. We play until Sean comes home from teaching high-school math and we eat dinner together. YH takes a bath and then goes to bed while the big kids finish their homework or clean their rooms. The big kids are asleep by 8:30pm and Sean and I have some time to ourselves. We could use this time to cleaup, or play cards, or make-out but mostly we sit on the couch and watch "Breaking Bad". It could be worse, we think. At least we're not meth dealers. It could be much worse.
And from the outside it all looks lovely--like a "happily ever after" post.
But inside the house, inside my heart, it is hard.
I love this child so much more than I ever thought I could at three months post-placement. Before we took custody I had prepared myself for the fact that we might need to "fake it until we make it". That we may need to demonstrate love to YH, without actually feeling love (this is not uncommon for families joined by adoption).
But from the beginning the love was there. I LOVE him. I do.
And he loves me back--at least a little. We are at the point now where I am his preferred care-giver. He does not reject Sean, but if he has the choice between the two of us he will choose me. He gives both of us hugs and kisses--sometimes without us asking. He follows directions for both of us--with the occasional two year old tantrum/protest.
When it is just the two of us he needs to be aware of my presence every minute. "Mom? Mom? Mommy?" I cannot be outside of his line of vision. If we are in the same room he needs to be touching me. Meals are consumed at the dining room table, sitting on my lap. If he is playing with his toys he will stop every few minutes and come over to me, needing a hug or a pat on the back. We hold hands when we are walking next to one another. YH will sometimes get out a sling or baby carrier and bring it to me, asking me to wear him while we walk around the neighborhood.
Sean and I try to make sure that we alternate which one of us puts YH down for bedtime and naptime. During the week this means that Sean usually covers the bedtime routine. He tells me that when he leads YH back to "his" room (in reality a part of the master suite) YH happily drinks his milk while Sean reads him his books, then he lies down and pulls his blanket up tight under his armpits. He smiles as Sean leaves the room, sometimes blowing him a good night kiss.
When I put YH down for bed/naptime the routine is different. We read stories, yes, but YH insists that I climb into his toddler bed with him. I sing lullabies to him and he pats my face. We rub noses and whisper things to one another. Sometimes we just whisper words: "car" "truck" "bird" "airplane". Sometimes we whisper the names of all the people who love YH: "Miss A" "Sweet Bubs" "Daddy" "Appa" "Nuna" "Umma" "Halmoni"...and so on.
YH pulls my arm across his body. He wants the weight of it on his stomach as he tries to fall asleep. When I kiss his cheek and say "Sweet Dreams" in advance of leaving, he cries. He pats the mattress over and over. "Stay. Please. Stay."
I give in and stay for five more minutes. I am in desperate need of some time to myself; time when NO ONE is touching me. But I stay--how can I leave?
By the end of the day I am fried. The sensory overload of having somebody touch you all day long is intense. I am an extrovert and yet despite this I am still depleted by meeting this child's needs all day long, every day.
I do not feel like myself--ever. My skin feels like it doesn't fit quite right. I bristle and chafe every time someone other than YH touches me. His little hand grounds me at the same time that it saps me dry. I feel like my only purpose is to lift him up.
I go to a boxing class, or a hip-hop dance class, at my gym three or four times/week. It sounds like a lot of time when I type it out like that, but those hour-long blocks of time are often the only chance I get to start to reclaim my body as my own. My mind as my own, my heart as my own.
Parenting YH is a lot like parenting an infant. I remember feeling similarly depleted when my big kids were three months old--and in terms of tenure in our family, YH *is* only an infant. He has the physical prowess of a toddler, but the dependent heart and soul of a baby. We need to prove to him that we are worthy of his love and trust, just as you do with an infant. When an infant cries you pick him up--and I do the same with my 30-month old "newborn".
The challenge is that lifting a 10lb newborn takes a fraction of the energy that it takes to "lift up" a 31lb newborn. I should have been in training for this months and months ago.
There is more. There are self-soothing behaviors that YH exhibits that worry me. I know they are behaviors that he exhibited when living with his foster family too, but that doesn't make my heart stop clenching when I see them resurface. I know they are driven by anxiety. I know they are an external expression of the turmoil in his wee heart. I know they help him cope.
But man, I wish I could take them away.
(I can't. I know this too.)
All I can do is softly clasp his hands, stroke his cheek and say "Please be gentle with my YH." All I can do is try to provide alternate stimuli for him: deep pressure back rubs, stroking his arms, rubbing his scalp--all in hopes that his reliance on these behaviors will lessen each day.
I watch and wait. I wonder what tomorrow will bring. I take stock of my arsenal each night and prepare to fight for him anew each morning.