Mothering a child who has only known neglect

When I first met the 26-month-old boy I would adopt, my heart sank—the level of neglect he had faced was overwhelming.

Photo: iStockPhoto

When I pulled up at the respite daycare for kids in crisis, I sat in the car for a moment to catch my breath. My heart was pounding. I gave myself a pep talk: This is going to be OK. You can do this. And if it feels awful, you can just say, “This isn’t for me.” If this child throws himself kicking and screaming at you, you can say, “I’ve totally changed my mind,” and just walk away.

But I badly wanted it to go well. I’d been longing to have a kid since I was in my twenties and married. My ex-husband hadn’t been very good at monogamy, so I left him at 30. By the time I hit 35, I started thinking single parenthood and adoption might be the way to go. I was raised in a two-parent family until my mother passed away when I was 11—I knew having one good parent wasn’t the same as having two, but it was still pretty good. I felt I could fulfill the needs of a child who needed to be adopted. And I was so ready to be a mother. I didn’t want to wait years for a newborn; I was ready, I thought, for anything.

My caseworker and the child’s worker led me into a room, where I set eyes on Evan, the 26-month-old boy I might foster and then possibly adopt, for the first time. He had a chubby face—such fat cheeks—and he seemed to have a lazy eye. His hair was messy and very long. The clothes the daycare had found for him were too big, and his running shoes, a little too small. The unkemptness was so endearing. I was thinking: I can get you a hat and some clothes that fit. I can get you a haircut. I can mother you.

“Well?” the workers asked.

“OK,” I said. “I think we’ll be OK.”

Two little kids on a small teeter-totterWhen will I start feeling like my adopted sons’ mother? The next day after work, I picked him up at that same daycare. I had to carry him up to my apartment, because he didn’t know how to do stairs. But he wasn’t used to being picked up or hugged, so when I held him, he didn’t know what to do with his arms. He kind of hung there, like a doll. It was so awful and so clear he’d need a lot of teaching. And my heart sank—I was just starting to comprehend the neglect he’d faced, and it was overwhelming.

At dinnertime, I realized he was missing a lot of teeth and didn’t know how to chew—he was swallowing his spaghetti whole. Later, a dentist would tell me that can happen to older toddlers who are still getting most of their nourishment from a bottle, because there’s always a lot of sugar sitting on their gums, and that delays the growth of teeth.

When I went to give him a bath, I discovered an angry red rash and bloody red spots and scabs on his back and arms. I carefully took off his socks, pants and diaper, only to find the same thing all over his lower body. He started scratching like crazy. I took a closer look, and it dawned on me that these raw, sore patches were from being left unclean and sitting in dirty diapers much of the time. After, I tried to be extra gentle as I patted him dry. I put him into the smallest sleeper I could find—all the age two to three clothes I’d just bought were way too big. It was lovely to see him sitting there afterwards, all cozy in his sleeper, with his freshly washed and combed hair. Now he was in a safe home, the healing could start.

Evan scream-cried when I put him to bed that first night, but that was the only time he cried at bedtime. Neglected children typically sleep very well, because they’ve given up on expecting to be soothed if they’re in distress. It actually made setting up a bedtime ritual hard. He’d just crawl into bed, roll over and go to sleep, so I’d have to say, “No, no, no—first we’re going to read. We’re going to look at these colours and try to name them!”

There were so many extreme highs and lows those first few weeks. It was the strangest feeling, jumping into motherhood with a toddler, and there was so much to learn. I’d switch from feeling ecstatic that I had a kid I might be able to adopt to feeling desperately sad at discovering yet another sign of his neglect. I stayed up long after he had gone to bed, reading books and Googling symptoms and behaviours. He got his missed shots and a full medical exam; he started speech therapy and had his lazy eye checked out. To everyone’s surprise, within 10 days, it had almost self-corrected—all he’d needed were toys and faces up close to focus on. Some gains happened easily; others were harder.

Evan’s birth mom was hoping to regain custody, so the Children’s Aid Society asked her to join us for medical appointments. Out of maybe 20 visits scheduled over two and a half years, she showed up for two. There were many no-shows for access visits, too. Foster and adoptive parents need to be careful and respectful when talking to their kids about their birth parents, so I was. But inside, I was raging. How could she have done these things to him?

I knew affection would help us build a bond, but he never sought it, and at first I wasn’t quite sure when to give it. The first few weeks with a foster or adoptive child can be all about faking it till you make it as a parent. I’d observe my friends to see when they hugged and kissed their kids. My sister told me, “When you put him in the car seat, you should always give him a little kiss on the cheek after putting the seat belt on.” The first time I ever kissed him, he looked at me like I was nuts. Then she suggested doing it every time I thought he looked cute, because that would get me in the habit of focusing on his sweetness. After about a month, I no longer needed to prompt myself—all my affection just came naturally from a place of love.

I was terrified about attachment: What if he never saw me as special? As Mom? What if he grew up feeling like I was just some woman who provided for his needs? Evan seemed to love his daycare workers just as much as me, which could be frustrating. He also started calling all my friends “Mommy.” I’d correct him: “No, her name’s Alison” or “her name’s Diana.” When he started calling them all “Lady,” it was a progression of sorts. He’d stop and talk to everybody when we were out, so I had to teach him stranger danger: “We can say hi to strangers, but we don’t ask them, ‘How was your day?’ and grab their hands.”

After six months in my care, Evan bore no resemblance to the little boy I’d picked up on that first day—he was talking, hugging and playing, albeit like a kid several months younger than his biological age. Yet our future together looked increasingly uncertain. His birth mom started saying, “He’s turning into a great kid because he’s got my genes,” and I’d have to fight the urge to shout: No, I’m pretty sure it’s good parenting—it’s being cared for—that did this!

I tried not to think about the flip side of fostering-to-adopt: that Evan could go back to his birth mother. The Children’s Aid Society said there was a fifty-fifty chance. I hated those odds, and I held my breath every time there was a court hearing. I was told: “You could get a call from your worker to say you don’t have to go pick Evan up today because he’s going back to his birth mother.” I had a white-knuckled clutch on my phone at work the entire day.

Over two and a half years, there were 12 court dates. Sometimes they would be rescheduled because Evan’s birth mother didn’t show up. She got so many chances, but without obvious signs of physical abuse or a maternal history of alcohol or drug abuse, neglect is hard to prove in court. It can look a lot like poverty. I was terrified of losing Evan.

In the end, the case didn’t go to trial. We agreed to mediation instead. It took eight months of meeting a couple of times a month, several hours each time. It was such a frustrating process: everyone talking over and over about their feelings. In late spring, we hammered out an agreement—adoption with visits four times a year and monthly updates by email. Then came the 40-day waiting period, when the birth mother had the right to change her mind.

I barely slept that summer. I just packed in outings and playdates to keep my mind off things. A couple of friends tried to give me early gifts, and I said, “Do not give those to me until we’ve signed the papers.”

Six months later, at the courthouse, with my signature and Evan’s inky handprint on a pink piece of paper with hearts on it, we made it official. We went up and had our picture taken with the judge. I was thinking as we stood beside this man in his robes: I don’t know you, but I love you right now—you have just changed the course of our lives. In all the photos from that day, I have the biggest, goofiest smile.

I finally felt safe to tell Evan, “So you’re here to stay now, honey.” We had a huge party with family and friends, and then after the last guest had left, I helped him get out of his little suit and got him ready for bed. As I tucked him in that night, I realized it was the first time in three years that I was not feeling weighed down with worry. It felt like the rest of our lives had just rolled out in front of us.

Evan’s adoption was finalized in 2016.

Read more:
10 things NOT to say to an adoptive parent
I said I wouldn’t adopt a kid with FASDnow I have four

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