Photo: Wendy Litner
For so long, motherhood frightened me. I had a difficult relationship with my own late mother—I never felt cemented to her in the unconditional way that I think a mother and daughter are supposed to be and I feared repeating this pattern. Did our disconnect happen in the formative years of my childhood? I wasn’t sure, but, at some point, my concern about the kind of mother I’d be was able to coexist with my desire to just be a mother.
And so, my husband and I tried to have a baby, a process that involved years of fertility treatments and finally adoption. While desperately hoping for the chance to love a child, I couldn’t stop worrying that there was something fundamentally broken about me that made me unbondable. Was that the fundamental reason why an embryo wouldn’t stick to my uterine lining in the first place? Perhaps nature was taking care of itself.
How does a child actually form an attachment to a parent, I wondered. Is there an instantaneous and primal recognition of the unique relationship they share? Thankfully, my husband and I attended PRIDE (Parent Resources for Information, Development and Education), a mandatory 27 hours of training for future adoptive parents where Sofie Stergianis, a private-adoption practitioner and educator, helped demystify the attachment process and the factors that contribute to a healthy attachment.
“Bonding is described as falling in love,” says Stergianis, “and attachment is learning to stay in love, which grows and grows over time.” Children will attach to their caregivers in both positive and negative environments, with the environment influencing the type of attachment: secure or insecure.
A secure attachment develops in a cycle. An infant expresses an emotional or physical need and her caregiver meets that need, warmly and consistently. Over time, the infant develops an attachment to the caregiver, learning to trust that the world is a safe place. When a child’s needs aren’t met on an ongoing basis, a child may believe that there is no one she can rely on in the world, except for herself, which can make her fearful and angry.
In fact, attachment with our caregivers forms a kind of blueprint for our ability to forge other healthy and meaningful relationships throughout our lives. It affects the way we love and communicate. Without a secure positive attachment, Stergianis explains, a child may fail to meet her developmental milestones, learn to trust and develop a sense of security or even be able to think logically. According to neuroscientists, attachment affects the very limbic wiring of our brain, the social and emotional part of the brain that impacts learning and memory.
I was already afraid that a biological child of mine might fail to attach to me; adding the layer of adoption between us felt even scarier. I had no doubt that I’d fall in love with any child we would be lucky enough to parent—I love my nieces, nephews and friends’ children—but how would our adopted child grow to love me? How would my own insecurities fare during that initial period where a child moves into our home yet might not recognize me as a mother at all?
Attachment is a central issue in all adoptions. As Wendy Kittlitz, vice-president of counselling and care at Focus on the Family Canada, says, every adopted child experiences a disrupted attachment, regardless of the child’s age or the circumstances of her adoption. “Whether you stood in the delivery room and caught your child as she was birthed by her birth mother or adopted a teenager who had been through a dozen foster homes before coming to you, that child is no longer with the person who gave him or her life,” she says. “That is the first disrupted attachment. A child, even a preverbal child, recognizes this first loss.”
Throughout my PRIDE training with Stergianis, I understood the fundamental nature of loss and attachment in an academic way, but the practical implications of how to actually apply those teachings hit me square in the face when my husband and I got the joyous news that we would be adopting two-year-old twin boys.
As we began visiting our precious boys in their foster home and preparing for their final move to our home, it became clear that the boys hadn’t read the books on attachment that I’d read. They hadn’t taken the PRIDE course or consulted with other adoptive families. They didn’t know that feeding them when they get hungry and changing them when their diapers are wet should solidify my status as their one-and-only mother, from whom they should love and seek comfort, and create an instant attachment. It felt as though the boys could take me or leave me: If they scraped their knees, they didn’t seek my comfort. And while I seemed like a nice presence, they didn’t seem to need me in the fundamental way that two-year-olds typically need their mothers.
As a new adoptive mother, I had to accept the fact that attachment isn’t created from any single interaction but rather the cumulative experience of meeting my boys’ needs and teaching them how to be loved and cared for. Speaking with other adoptive mothers provided support and guidance. “Attachment doesn’t happen from seeing a therapist once a week for three years,” says Kathryn Connors, an adoptive mother of three and a provincial liaison for Adopt4Life. “It’s an ongoing process.” Intellectually, I recognized that the process of bonding and attachment take time. I would have to show my boys that I was able to meet their needs, from the small ones (feeding them when they’re hungry) to the big ones (helping them navigate any feelings they might have in leaving their foster home and moving in with me and my husband).
Still, I found myself asking “Are they attached to me now?” after every meal, every bath and every post-tantrum hug. “Mommy,” I would say, putting their small, perfect little hands on my chest and hoping they could intuitively sense that my heart beat for them. “I’m your mommy.” But what does that word really mean to two little boys who experienced what psychotherapist Nancy Verrier calls “the primal wound,” the inherent emotional trauma of disconnecting from their biological family?
It helped that the boys were extremely affectionate. They would wrap their arms and legs around me and my husband like little monkeys, curling their fingers around our clothes and holding on tight. They never wanted to be put down, and their need for physical proximity felt reassuring. Surely, they wouldn’t want me to be close if they didn’t feel connected to me? But we weren’t the only ones from whom they sought affection. A friend of mine got a running leap of a hug. They would also wrap themselves around the legs of various men at the park. Once, at an indoor play gym, one of the boys crawled into a man’s lap and began stroking his beard. “So adorable,” said the man. “It’s so sweet that will hug everyone,” said their grandmothers, cousins and friends.
I wanted to see it that way, too. I wanted to believe that my boys had big hearts so full of love that they needed to share it, even with the strangers around them. But this behaviour wasn’t just cute; it was indicative of the boys having an indiscriminate attachment—a lack of selectivity in the people they attached to. Quite simply, they lacked the “stranger danger” that most children with undisrupted attachments develop at around 18 months.
My boys are the sun and moon to me, but my husband and I are one of many people who have cared for them since they were born. How could they know we were here for good or that we would play a special role in their lives?
“The problem with attachment issues,” says Connors, “is that they are often invisible. It can be hard for friends and family to see and remember how important they are.” This has been my experience as well. In the midst of just trying to make it through the day, clothing, feeding, bathing and playing with the boys, it can be difficult to remember that attachment is central to all of it.
Given the importance of attachment in adoption, our adoption worker suggested a discussion with an attachment specialist to ensure that we were doing everything possible to facilitate attachment. We were fortunate to meet with an attachment specialist through the boys’ Children’s Aid agency, who provided us with incredible insight and advice on the attachment process.
It was a relief to discuss some of our individual concerns and understand how natural they were in the context of adoption. Fighting back tears, I was able to lay bare all my fears about the boys’ attachment and my role as their mother. I shared with her my worry that I was doing it all wrong: that my decisions were wrong, that the way I comforted was wrong and that my words and actions were wrong. I felt that all this wrongness would result in the boys failing to attach to me.
She was able to reframe this for me in a pivotal way: When a baby cries, even a biological caregiver can only meet the child’s actual needs for a small percentage of the time. That means that even biological caregivers don’t know with any certainty if their babies are hungry, tired or gassy. More often than not, they don’t fix the actual problem that precipitates the cries; it’s the fact that the parents try and tend to the child that allows attachment to grow.
We, too, don’t need to “fix” any of the boys’ problems; we just have to try. I, too, didn’t need to have a perfect attachment with my mother; it just mattered that she tried and that I tried and we were all just trying to do our best. Day after day, we have to keep being there and to love the boys the best way we know how. That I can do. Knowing this, attachment doesn’t scare me anymore. I have fallen so deeply in love with my boys, and I can’t wait for them to fall in love with me, too.
My heart bursts every time the boys see me and say “Mommy.” And, yes, it squeaks with pain when they see another woman and say it, too, equally excited. Eventually, though, that word will be reserved for me. I can wait. I’m not just their mother for the moment; I’m their mother forever. It’s that word I find myself saying now as I take their hands and put them on my chest. “Forever,” I say, holding my hand over theirs, looking deep into their sweet eyes.