Realistic Expectations: Attachment
Probably the most common post-adoption question I get from new parents is, “Do you know anyone who specializes in attachment?” Attachment is one of our biggest worries as adoptive parents, isn’t it? We all want our children to be able to form deep and lasting bonds with us. I will admit that I didn’t know a lot about attachment when I adopted my first child from China until I came home and realized I was now the mother to a “Velcro baby.” My daughter Anna would scream bloody murder if I was ever out of her sight for even a second, and so I learned how to cook, clean, and even shower with a baby cemented permanently on my hip.
Now, of course, our LWB team talks continually about attachment, as we often move babies from orphanages to hospitals, into foster care, and then back to the orphanage if a province requires the child to return pre-adoption. We agonize over every move and new caregiver, as we have all become so much more knowledgeable on the all-important bonding cycle.
As adoptive parents we all want to think that our children grew up in a rose-colored orphanage with a devoted caregiver attending to their every need. But as I wrote in my blog post “Realizations”, I now know orphanage care inside and out. The reality that we all have to face as adoptive parents is that our babies spent a lot of time on their own. No orphanage in the world can provide the same level of care that a mom and dad would for a baby. Our babies spent a lot of time in cribs and a lot of time in wet diapers. They often waited hours for the next bottle to arrive, and there was a good chance it was propped. If chickenpox or another virus spread through a baby room, our children didn’t have a mom rocking them or bringing them popsicles. Many children in orphanages soon learn that, even when they cry, their immediate needs aren’t met, and so the attachment cycle suffers as children feel frustrated or helpless.
Before I began working in China I also honestly had never thought about just how many caregivers my children might have encountered, because my biological kids always had ME. I think it is essential, however, for new adoptive parents to remember just how many people could have been in their new child’s life so they can understand better why there are frequently so many issues with attachment.
Let’s walk through what could be a typical beginning to an orphaned child’s life in China. Of course, first and foremost, there were birthparents. Even if the baby was abandoned on day one, he or she still had an awareness of mom from inside the womb, and that mom then disappeared. It is common for babies to be left at older ages, however, as well. Perhaps a child’s special need wasn’t clear for a few months, or perhaps a child was abandoned at age two or three when a sibling was born. No matter what the age, I don’t think anyone should ever gloss over or sugarcoat abandonment. I know some parents don’t even like to think of that word, but almost every child in an orphanage has experienced it. It is a trauma – pure and simple – for any baby or child to find themselves completely on their own. And so even if a child goes into a perfect environment after being abandoned, she still had at least one major break in her life.
Often when a child is found the first place they might be taken is to the police station, while a preliminary search for parents is made. And so now there are new faces, which are often quite temporary. Then the child is taken to an orphanage. Depending on the facility she might be put into an intake or observation area, while it is determined if she is sick or what special needs she might have. Again, new caregivers. Once assigned permanently to the orphanage, she might be moved as she ages from a baby room to a toddler room, etc. with new caregivers each time. Some orphanages have low staffing turnover, while others are quite high, and so there is a chance that even if a child stayed in one room until adoption, she still might not have had one primary caregiver with whom she bonded.
Everyone knows I am a huge fan of foster care, but of course that is an additional change for a child as well. And while ideally we want every child to stay with the same family until adoption, sometimes that isn’t possible. Some children could have multiple foster care placements, and with new policies it is now common for children in foster care to be moved back to the orphanage a few weeks before adoption.
Children in orphanages often have one or more medical needs that require hospitalization. Many people do not realize that some orphanages cannot spare a nanny to go to the hospital with the child, and so temporary caregivers are often hired. This means that a child could be going through one of the most major events of his life, such as a complex surgery, with a caregiver he has never seen before. Some Chinese hospitals which provide charity services will even drive to the orphanage and pick the children up. For a child having heart surgery, for example, this might mean a hospital stay of one month or more with complete strangers.
We hope parents will realize JUST HOW MANY caregivers their child might have had so they can better understand some of the post-adoption attachment issues which are very common. These issues include:
1) Anxious attachment, where a newly adopted child never wants the new parents out of his sight for fear they will disappear.
2) The overly friendly child, who will go to anyone and everyone in an eager search for attention. This can be very alarming to parents when their new child is climbing onto the laps of complete strangers at the mall or is willing to walk away with anyone they meet.
3) Intense jealousy with siblings, as a child might decide that she alone should get mom’s time post-adoption. If there are other children in the home, this is certainly an issue parents need to keep in mind ahead of time.
4) Reactive Attachment Disorder, which of course are the three words that no adoptive family wants to hear. I remember vividly when I was adopting back in the late 1990s hearing people say, “No child from China has RAD.” Of course we all know that simply isn’t true.
I would suggest that everyone getting ready to adopt take the time to educate themselves fully about attachment and learn some activities which can help promote bonding and trust with their new child. A great first stop is the Attach-China website, although a quick Google search on “adoption attachment” will show a wealth of websites and information as well.
We invite our readers to share their stories of attachment and resources available to help new parents be as prepared as possible for this very important part of adoption.
~Amy Eldridge, Executive Director