"Insta-Attachment and Other Adoption Myths
Why the dreams we hold on to while waiting for our child can sometimes prevent us from seeing our child's reality clearly.
I let out a long, deep sigh as I re-read the words in my inbox again and again. It’s not that it was the first time I had heard those very same words. It’s not that I judged the family who spoke them, knowing I would have written the same a few short years ago. But the pang I felt in the back of my heart and the lump in my throat was for the little girl they were describing. Despite the words of bliss, despite their descriptions of a perfect adjustment, my heart sank as I could envision her face before me. I knew what her eyes would look like if only I could see them. I knew what expression she would have on her face. I knew because I have seen it before. And now I know what it means.
I had received the glowing report in my inbox from a friend of a relative who had just come home with their beautiful new daughter only 7 weeks prior. “She is bonding with everyone! Family, friends, neighbors, people at church! She is just adjusting so quickly and bonding to everyone she meets!” This particular report was really quite similar to many I hear early on. She was doing “so well”, “adjusting great”, and was “better than they could have ever expected”. It is the report our families, friends, co-workers, and even agencies hope and expect to hear from us. Everyone is waiting for the “he/she is all we ever dreamed of” and “it is as if he/she has always been with us”. These are the words everyone waiting to bring a child home reads on the blogs of families who have gone before and prays they will be able to write.
Insta-Attachment. Psychologists and anthropologists have noted for decades that our society is especially vulnerable to the temptations of insta-everything. We are used to it, after all. Everything is fast, easy, convenient. We hate waiting in lines, despise slow drivers, and adore our internet as long as it comes in high speed. We think we are immune to that constant drive for speed and convenience in the adoption world because we wait so long through endless paperwork to bring our children home. We herald the “lesson we have learned in patience” as we agonize through the trials of the paper pregnancy. But that is where so many draw the line. Once our child is home, that is the end of the waiting, right? They are going to be placed in our arms and our waiting is over! Hurray!! The end of our trials and tribulations and now our joy can begin!
The problem is that for your child, they are not in the joyous epilogue of a long novel finally reaching the glorious conclusion as you think you are. They are still in the introduction of a brand new book, one that includes chapters they have never heard of called “Living with a Family”, “Welcome to a Mom and Dad that Look Nothing Like You!”, “A Few Strangers in Your Life Would Now Like to Kiss and Hold You Endlessly” and “So This is America??”. In the midst of all of this is the greatest myth of all. Insta-attachment.
Children do not bond in a week. People do not learn to trust in a day, a week, or even a month. A child who is living in a strange land with strange looking people who speak an even stranger language cannot possibly learn in a short period of time what it means to be loved by a family, what a mom and a dad even are there for, what it means to be a sister or brother, and that all of these strange people can be trusted to never leave them again, never harm them, and navigate them through the twists and turns of life. We want so much to believe in Insta-Attachment because, truthfully, it makes us feel better. The wait has already been so long for us, we sacrificed so much to get here, and the last thing we want to face is the possibility that our work is not done once we reach what we thought was the end of the road, the fulfillment of the goal. Sometimes we are willing to accept a few hours of grief, a few days of the child’s emotional walls, a few weeks of sleepless nights. But we certainly don’t want to face the chance that perhaps those few tears, a night terror or two, and the struggles with sibling relationships might last longer than a week or two. Or, even harder to face, is the possibility that even though our child seems to be doing well, their actions may be masking the true grief and trauma that so many adopted children hide deep in their hearts.
And this is where the temptation to ignore the unspoken signs of trauma and grief in our children steps in. We want so much to believe they are adjusting quickly that we interpret signs that actually are warning signs something is not right as signs that our child is doing really well. When our daughter reaches her hands out and lets anyone hold her, we beam with pride that she is so social. When our son falls apart on the floor because we asked him to do a simple task, we say he must be really opinionated. When our kids run around at an event, wandering in and out of strangers without concern for the location of a parent, we say they must really like parties. When our child plays alone on the floor for long periods of time without a need to be entertained, we are grateful we got one of the “easy kids”.
Attachment is not instant. Bonding takes time…a long time. And even if your child is pleasant and calm with you from day one, plays with you and hugs you, lets you hold her and seems to get along with everyone, it is simply a matter of common sense that what the child is experiencing in those early months is not and cannot possibly be attachment to you. Even if the child has the opposite reaction and cries every time you leave the room, it is still not defined as true attachment. When we were in China picking up our second daughter, she cried the first time I tried to hold her but by the next day she screamed if I was not in her sight. This was not because she somehow miraculously attached to me overnight (though that would have been nice to believe!). She simply had figured out a major change was about to happen in her life and that I somehow was the next person in line to provide her some tiny amount of security so she was going to latch on and not let go! This does not mean she suddenly loved me, trusted me, or even liked me for that matter. It was a matter of survival. Her instincts kicked in and she knew that her safety and future depended on clinging to me.
We are now weeks away from bringing home our 5th child, our 3rd adopted child. We have had the privilege of visiting him twice. Though by week’s end on both visits he was clinging to me and watching my every move, I am not fooled. My heart would love to believe this baby has decided I am his mother, thrown himself in my arms and shunned all others to choose me. But I have seen his eyes. I know what his eyes say that his actions sometimes belie. He does not trust me yet. He does not love me yet. How could he possibly? Though my heart wants to believe I can spend the months and years to bring a child home that will run into my arms and realize I am their family forever now, I am now a little more cognizant of the impossibility of that expectation on a child.
So how do you create attachment in a child if it is not instant? You build it, one brick at a time. Sometimes you even have to break down the faulty foundation that was created before you ever received your child, and then build a new foundation one brick at a time. If your child seems content, seems “okay”, seems social, seems to “fit right in”, look past the surface behaviors and do not let the survival instincts of children fool you into thinking their past has not affected them and that they are rubber balls who can be bounced around yet simply bounce right back. Do not just move on with your life as if your work is done. Stay with your child. Give some things up. Spend time playing, holding and talking to your child. Do not let your child push you away, manipulate you with shallow behaviors or place any other friend, relative or caregiver above you. You have the right as the parent to ask questions, challenge your child emotionally, and insist on being the first love of their life.
You are not a failure as a parent to admit your child home for even a year still does not show preference for you. Your child is not “less than” other adopted children because he does not appear as adjusted as other adopted children whose parents glowed, “This was a perfect adoption!” Do not believe in Insta-Attachment. It is a fairytale that ultimately prevents you from really seeking out the deepest part of your child’s heart and searching for true healing instead of proper behaviors. It is worth the search. It may take much longer than you had hoped for, your emails to family and friends may be lacking in the instant gratification. But the long, slow simmer of true attachment in the end is stronger, more deeply satisfying, and more healing. Do not look for the easy path. Look for the road less traveled. Be willing to take another journey of patience even after the paperwork is done and your child is home. Do not close the book. Begin a new one. It is worth the effort. It is worth the wait. Your child is waiting for someone who is willing to take the time and energy to write it for them. Insta-Attachment is one fairytale your child can do without.
Dawn Greer Choate and her husband are the parents of 5 children, including 2 daughters born in China and one son born in Guatemala. In 2005, the Choates launched Healing Hannah, a resource to educate parents on issues related to attachment and emotional healing in the adopted child. Dawn is an ordained minister, author, speaker, and a co-owner with her husband of a computer/software business. For more information, please visit www.healinghannah.com and www.fishersofwomen.com"