Monday, October 11, 2010

Not Always Love at First Sight

Friday was the 9th anniversary of meeting Zoe for the first time.  We watched the video of that first meeting, which Zoe LOVES to do -- she'd be willing to watch it every day, I think!  I have to admit that the video makes me cringe a little bit at my ignorance.  It's not just that I didn't know how to change a diaper and smeared diaper rash cream all over Zoe and me;  it's my perception of the event then and my realization on looking back on that moment now.

When handed to me, Zoe didn't cry. She clutched me like she'd never let me go.  She fell asleep in my arms.  Awwww!  At the time, I thought it a sweet display of trust.  Now, I look at the video and I see a child terrified, clinging to me because I was the only thing there, shutting down and checking out by going to sleep.

This blog post reminds us of the disconnect between what we, as parents, might expect in that first meeting and the reality of that first meeting:
When we think about having children, most of us tend to idealize the images. We picture smiling, rosy-cheeked cherubs reaching for us, giggling with happiness. We see them playing in our sunny backyards by day, tucked peacefully into their soft little beds by night. Birthday parties, school clothes, vacations at the beach – ah, it is the stuff of Norman Rockwell!

Becoming a parent through adoption has been even further romanticized. Many books and articles have been written about that first magical meeting, often proclaiming, “It was love at first sight!” The darling baby immediately cuddles up to the doting parents, and they all appear to live happily ever after. The adopted child is an angel, the parent a hero.

There are undoubtedly cases of this actually happening. If you actually had this glorious experience, then on behalf of all the rest of adoptive parents, let me say that we hate you.
So, do we have reason to hate you?!  How was that first meeting?  How did you perceive it then?  Has that perception changed?


Anonymous said...

It is disturbing to me to look back at pictures of my daughter shortly after her adoption. She wasn't a happy camper at almost 3 yrs old and screamed and cried to let me know it when her Ayi left her with this alien. Nearly every picture we have of her during our two weeks in China she looks shocked and disconsolate, even though at the time I felt that she was adjusting well. I can just see better now after the passage of years how very upsetting it was to her to be kidnapped by the strange woman who couldn't understand her or make herself understood.

Anonymous said...

And I also wonder how far our relationships with our adopted children is from Stockholm syndrome?

An said...

I wrote about this recently as well. I've only watched the video that one time and don't know if I could watch it again. We also initially thought we had lucked out with a quiet baby that liked to sleep on us. Now that we know his expressions, when we look back at pictures and videos from the first year, it is so clear to us that he was freaked out and traumatized for at least the first 3-4 months.

susan said...

We have a photo on our piano of us meeting our daughter (then 8 months old) for the first time, and you can see her looking off to the side, looking for a caretaker. We have always talked about this when we look at the photo together, and she talks about how she was scared because she wasn't used to us yet. The older she gets, the more sad I feel looking back at that day--even though, the older she gets, the better it gets, being a family. Holding those two emotions at once is the best I can do to try to ensure that she has the emotional space to tell her own stories.

Elizabeth@Romans8:15 said...

Our son was 2.5 and had been with a wonderful foster family. He stayed in his "sister's" lap and pretended to sleep. But the tears pouring out from under his lashes gave him away. It was devastating to watch him go through it. I was almost physically ill. Definitely not love at first sight for either of us.

Leslie Hughes said...

Your blog is absolutely irreplaceable as a source for adoptive families. You bring up discussions that seem very difficult to have and you delve into emotions and realities in adoption that most other places gloss over or totally misrepresent. Reading this, however, and the comment about Stockholm syndrome have me in shock. It is something i had never thought about and i don't know what to do with the knowledge now. How does a potential adoptive parent prepare for this, what is built up to be the most beautiful moment in adoption, as being a traumatic even for your child? How does one prepare themselves? How does one prepare to help the child?
My question is How can adoptive parents help to make the transition less traumatizing?

Wendy said...

I think one of the most important things to do is acknowledge it. Acknowledge and know with every fiber of your being that your special day is not your childs.
Depending on the child and the country there are things you can do to make the transition more bearable. Get in contact with the orphanage/foster family prior to adoption--it can be done even when your agency may tell you it cannot. Don't be afraid to demand their caregivers be there and continue to ask even if turned down. Meet with foster families/caregivers again before you leave the country--what a blessing for you as parents, but mostly for your child to know that their caregivers know where they are and that they are not being kidnapped--as that is exactly what it will feel like for the child, even one prepared that you are coming. You will have your child for years and years, allow caregivers those last moments/days and know that your child will benefit from it.

Talk, talk, talk somemore. Allow the child their voice, if they don't have one yet...their grief, their tears. You are on their time, not yours. Don't tour just because it is a part of the plan, watch your child and respond accordingly. Remember this is not a bio child, their needs are vastly different and their need to have time to adjust is crucial--don't follow the "timelines" of your friends, family, or other AP's.

No one can prepare you until you are in it. Read, talk, and find out all you can. I would recommend Toddler Adoption: A Weaver's Craft if you are adopting a child under four.

Anonymous said...

A traumatic event, for sure. Children shut down, withdraw, or act out in any of a number of emotions as they try to cope with what is taking place.

It is a difficult time for the child. Some children adapt fairly easily and rapidly, others do not. Hence, there is no set "formula" for describing and supporting the child through transition.

But seriously, to even suggest "Stockholm Syndrome" in this context is absurd. Completely absurd.

DannieA said...

as I look at pictures of my daughter the first few weeks...there are two things that are distinct.....her somber frown and my deer in the headlights look.

Von said...

Good to see reality setting in and some ways of dealing with it coming through.
Anonymous - Stockholm Syndrome is acknowledged amongst adult adoptees as a reality for some of us, the 'good, happy' adoptees.The symptoms are identical but of course it takes time to develop.
Adoptees live through tragedy and trauma, loss and pain.It can only help young adoptees that this is now being recognised.
Those early photos are painful to look at when you read the expressions and know what they mean.Many adopters are now choosing to respect their adoptees and keep them private.

Joanne said...

I thought our first meeting went really well...Mia did look scared and confused though. The first few mornings she would wake up and look at us like "who are you and what is going on?", but she was very smiley and happy. My big guilt is over stimulating her when we got home...I should have taken things slower ~ I was just SO excited to have her home and to experience everything with her...

Anonymous said...

No Von, some adult adoptees may have taken Stockholm Syndrome out of context and applied it as a method for them to express their feelings about their adoption.

This is a misuse of a very specific psychiatric classification of a very specific and extreme form of PTSD inducing event.

There are a set of very specific event markers associated with Stockholm Syndrome. Adoption of an infant or child, no matter how traumatic the event may be does not meet the criteria for Stockholm Syndrome.

I'm OK with you choosing to say that your adoption experience was a PTSD inducing event for you (in the case of adoption most often manifest as one or more forms of attachement disorder). In reality for some children, it is in fact a serious PTSD event. However, to misclassify it as Stockholm Syndrome is inappropriate and inaccurate, and inserts distortions into an important discussion topic.

travelmom and more said...

We just got home from China with our second child and that first day was full of trauma. Our daughter screamed and fought us, so we were prepared for that with our Son and once again we had a child handed to us in full fight mode. He cried and sobbed and punched and clawed his way away from us. His foster mothers (he was in a healing home or foster home caring for several children) were at the hand over and he cried and reached for them. When they touched him he calmed down, and when they left the room he screamed more. We were able to visit his orphanage and foster home a few days later and he was okay seeing his care givers but being held by us. He reached out to them but seemed to be content when they touched his hand and told him he was with his mama. We have only been home a little over a week and our Son is a happy little boy but by no means are we attached. He calls mama but he is not calling for me yet, he uses me for comfort but we are all still in serious transition. My daughter was not phased by my Son's screaming she must have understoon on a primal level that he was grieving. She tried to cheer him up but was not upset by the transition, she was upset when we visited his caregivers and she wanted to meet hers. When we went to her SWI and met her care givers it seemed to give her a lot of comfort to know where she came from. I am wondering how this visit will manifest itself in the next months and years as she processes her adoption more fully.

Anonymous said...

My second child (I'm adoptive mom to both) was traumatized for the first six months with her new family... and I was traumatized by her trauma. My daughter cried for her foster mother all day, every day, for months. As painful as it was for me at the time, I now believe that this experience was critical to my understanding just how difficult the transition is for an adoptee to become part of a family. I believe that adoptive families are very different from biologically formed families (not better or worse) and that it is my responsibility to do the hard work of understanding my children's experience and helping my children make sense of their adoption experience (made especially hard, perhaps, since I am not an adoptee).

Claudia said...

Oh my, definitely not love at first sight for us.

I wrote about this at the time:

It was the weirdest, weirdest feeling for me. Even now, a year later, I still feel extremely jealous of people who have a confetti-from-the-ceiling moment, even though I know that is totally irrational!

Sandy said...

Has anyone ever purchased a computer set up for skype for the foster families and kept the connection regularly like you would for your parents, i.e. grandparent? Would that not be a valuable connection to keep? Would that help maintain the language and ties to their homeland and culture?

Reena said...

Both of our daughters were under the age of 2-years when we adopted them. DD#1 was getting over a cold and had been given cold medicine prior to meeting us. She was quiet and even smiled a little at me when I first held her. She screamed her head off at DH-- there were no men in her orphanage and adoption day was the first day she had ever been oustide of the orphanage.

The next day we went back to the adoption office to sign the adoption papers and talk with the orphanage director (not DD's primary care giver). DD kept leaning over away from me toward the orphanage director. We were/are sure that DD wanted the director to take her back to her favorite Ayi. We have this picutre in DD's adoption story book.

DD#2 was not quite 2-years when we adopted her. She had been living in a loving foster family since she was 5-months old. We did anticipate that she would be sad (for both adoptions-- we did prepare and expect it).

Nothing can truly prepare someone, IMO, to witness the trauma of a nearly 2-year old being ripped away from her family. That is what our adoption day was like with DD#2.

I'd say Stockholm Syndrom fits the bill and yes, we felt like we were abducting her.

At a later meeting with the foster family they told us that they would not be allowed to adopt DD#2. They had adopted a little boy they fostered and the law would not allow them to adopt again.

We are in frequent contact with the foster family. They have an adult daughter and we email with her about 2 times a month. I email pictures and they have free access to our shutterfly account to look at all our pictures.

We also have pictures of the foster family on display in our home and DD#2 does point to the picture of her foster mama and says Mama. I tell her yes. She points to me and says mommy. I tell her yes.

I am now working on DD#2' adoption storybook-- so many of the pictures she looks heartbroken, forlorn-- even when she is smiling.

Molly said...

It's funny, I was reading about Stockholm Syndrome on Wikipedia and it reminded me of meeting our daughter -- not that adoptive attachment *is* Stockholm Syndrome, but rather both seem (to me) to be manifestations of a strong, nearly fundamental human tendency to attach to a caregiver.

Our daughter was 11 mos. old the day we met and had spent the previous 9 months in an adoring foster home. She grabbed on to my husband and wouldn't willingly let him go for nearly a week - I'm convinced it's because her foster mother put her in his arms and said, "Baba shi jing-cha" ("Daddy is a policeman," it's a phrase from a book we sent the foster parents to introduce ourselves to her before we met her.)

That book (and the CD we sent with our voices, and the photo album of extended family with Chinese captions) paid off HUGELY -- not only b/c they helped our daughter, but b/c they made a very positive impression on her foster family, who in turn did everything they could to prepare her to join our family.

But wow, it was a HARSH transition. They were older, with grown daughters living at home, and the whole family just doted on our daughter. So then she comes to live with my husband and me, who had no other kids and NOT THE FIRST CLUE what we were doing. She lost a confident, experienced mom and got an anxious novice in exchange.

She didn't smile at all for *days*. We wound up switching her to cow's milk a few weeks before her first birthday because she simply refused to take formula from us. (Thankfully, her foster mother had introduced solid foods several months before, and she was willing to eat just about anything else we gave her.)

The good thing is, she knew what it was to be in a family with parents, and even as she grieved her foster parents she expected us to step up and step into that role. At 2.5, I think she's adapted amazingly -- I know she's happy with us and her life. But she still sometimes mourns her life in Taipei. As hard as it is to hear her say (at night, when the lights are out), "Mama, I want to go back to Taipei," I am glad that she's willing to share these feelings with me, and I hope I can validate them and help her be at peace with the facts of her life.

Anonymous said...

With the adoption of our first child we spent over a month and a half in her birthcountry, with twice daily visits lasting from 2 to 4 hours.

At the onset of the trip we just could not imagine being away from home for that length of time, let alone being so isolated in a Foreign country.

By the time we left, our gratitude knew no bounds. For our little one, that gentle daily contact, one that allowed us to slowly take over some of her daily needs like bathing, feedings, diapering, etc. helped to bridge that painful and abrupt chasm that often exists on Family Day. We were able to create a fledgling foundation of trust and attachment before removing her from her only known environment.

And yet by no means do I diminish the stress of taking her away from her familiar caregivers, the sights, sounds, smells, etc. - clearly it was an anxious time.

On the other hand, our daughter was one of 10 children being cared for by 1 nanny - for months we worked for her to just trust that her basic needs would be met, over and again and in a loving, consistent way. She had learned not to cry in the night or expect a wet diaper to be changed. We had to reteach that expectation and trust.

The day we took her from the orphanage was a shock, but she was all smiles, as strange as that sounds. Genuine smiles. We were afterall the goofy people she had come to understand would play with her, cuddle endlessly, feed her, stimulate her and more. She had begun to attach and rely on us.

With the adoptions of #2 & 3 we did not have the option to stay in country for so long and looking back at their photos, its easy to see their misgivings, confusion and bewilderment; both having come from loving Foster placements, both then anticpated loving care....we were just NOT the ones they expected it from. How frightening that must have been for them!!

I know they mourned their Foster Mothers.........and yes, we are able to keep in limited contact with both sets of overseas Foster Families.

3 very different experiences and thankfully 3 very resilient children. Of course "forced resiliency" in children is a whole other can of blog worms! LOL

Thanks for not being afraid to look at the hard stuff.

Anonymous said...

Our daughter, who we adopted from China at 15 months, was the quietest baby in our "travel group" of 8 families. Other parents traveling with us thought we had hit the jackpot. Well, we did, but not because she was so quiet initially! :)

I knew she was traumatized and being quiet/zoning out/shutting down was one way she dealt with it. After the first day, she didn't want to let me out of her sight and so became a Velcro baby. This anxious attachment lasted for many, many months.

Also during the first year or so, DD would get this deer in the headlights zoned out look for a few moments at a time. This happened at least once daily IIRC. I wondered if she was having some kind of absence seizure and debated getting it checked out by a pediatric neurologist. But my inner mom voice told me it was probably a post-traumatic response to being adopted after having spent a little over a year in the same SWI with the same caretakers and babies, who were now GONE.

The abrupt "handover" that is standard in China adoptions still makes me angry. It's so awful on so many levels.

--Anon for this one

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