Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Coming Together

Attachment is one of those weird concepts in adoption. It's treated as a BIG DEAL, and for good reason. Failing to attach, to some degree, with a reference adult can cause all sorts of problems for kids, ranging from failure to thrive all the way to destructive and antisocial behaviors. As an adoptive parent, you quickly figure out that failing to attach will cause your child to become an axe-wielding maniac or, worse, a guest on Jerry Springer.

Yet, for all the importance assigned to it, measuring it is fuzzy at best. There are certain markers to look for, certain behaviors to encourage, but there's no cut-and-dried measurement to figure out if you're on track. It falls into the "every child is different" category, and that means you can't expect any clear answers from anyone who hasn't directly observed your child... after observing about 50,000 other kids in their professional capacity. It ends up being something of a gut call.

My gut is telling me that we are making great strides with our little Geri-beri.

Eye contact is a huge indicator of attachment in children. Making contact is a sign of connection, and making eye contact happen can actually increase a sense of connection, so it's a win-win any way you slice it. Eye contact is good, end of story. For that reason, I started on a campaign of creating and encouraging eye contact. Geri's visual impairment made it hard to tell at first whether that contact was actually happening, but I quickly learned that if she seems uncomfortable and turns her head then I probably made eye contact. Since figuring that out, I have gotten into the habit of practicing eye contact at each diaper change and working it in wherever else I could. God must be on my side, because Geri decided that she loves peekaboo. As a result, we get to practice this skill all day. I've definitely been seeing more sustained looks during our practice, and more eye contact during the games of peekaboo. But last night, she totally blew me away. I was kneeling on the floor, facing her while she was standing so that we were at the same level. We were doing something else, but she stopped and made eye contact with me on her own. She actually got closer to me so she could look me in the eye, held it for about 5 seconds, then reached up and started touching my face with her hand. It was probably about 10 seconds, total, of happy, spontaneous, warm eye contact. The jackpot of eye contact. I was in heaven and I am still surprised that I didn't cry.

Another attachment marker is physical contact, particularly affection. You don't just climb into the lap of a stranger and cuddle, unless there's a screw loose in the brain pan. For many kids who have lived in institutional care, the concept of a hug is foreign. Lately our little Geri has started climbing up into my lap to just be held by me. She sits in my lap for about 5 minutes, then she wants to get down and play for a while, then she wants back into my lap again. This is a GREAT cycle of feeling more brave after being held and then needing to be held in order to feel centered again. It's a version of "checking in", and that's a big deal. A well attached child will naturally check in with their parent in order to gain confidence and comfort while exploring their world. A child with no sense of attachment feels alone in the world and, as a result, would never even think to look for their parent. Checking in is a great thing, indeed. You know what else is great? Real hugs. With an arm around your neck and a squeeze. I got one today. The fact that I had to show her how doesn't detract at all, because she picked up on the concept and started dishing them out. And she is getting used to me kissing her. She giggles when I kiss her lips now.

Interactive soothing and interactive play are also a big deal. Both show that the child is taking an interest in the parent, trusts the parent for appropriate and loving responses, and is able to respond to the parent. They also indicate a brain that is capable of calming and learning! Geri is responding to my soothing more quickly now. Sometimes, all I have to do is pick her up and coo over her and she stops crying. This is a welcome improvement from the days that I could hold and rock her for 45 minutes and see no effect. Or the days when she used to arch her back when I tried to comfort her, trying to be put down, but if I did put her down she'd cry to be picked up. And the interactive play is just plain neat. We spent 20 minutes putting things into a bucket and taking them back out. She would hand me items, I'd hand some to her, and the whole time she repeated the word 'bucket' whenever I said it. Pure magic.

Then there's the mixed blessing of preferential clinging. A kid from an orphanage will go to any adult at all because all adults are the same. "You're big. Take care of me." Any parent knows that it's not a healthy, or safe, situation if your kid will just wander off with any stranger over 5'2" who is willing to hold her. When your child starts to whine and cry for you, that's a good thing. When they start crying every time you leave the room, it's a good thing. When they refuse to let anyone else feed them, it's a good thing. All of these are good things for attachment. Of course, when your back is sore and your arms are numb from holding a 35 pound child for hours and you can't go to the bathroom without someone crying about it and you are unable to eat a meal without someone on your lap, it doesn't FEEL like a good thing, but it really is. Geri's newest tricks? She won't eat if I'm not home. She has to sit in my lap to eat, but she will sometimes jump ship to Nick's lap for a spot of cuddling and a bit of food before wanting mommy again. If I leave the room, she freaks out. She's still a little short on the stranger danger response, but she's no longer trying to jump into the arms of anyone who gets within range. In fact, she seems to now view me as important and Nick as cool and anyone else as furniture.

Oddly enough, I find myself being very grateful for her disability. Her visual impairment builds vulnerability into her. She has to rely on us, there's no other way to survive, and that makes her more emotionally available in a sense. The diaper changes and the feedings all reinforce our role as caregivers. If she had her sight, she would probably not need us to do these things and would not be willing to allow us to. It's an interesting dynamic, really. Many people would shy away from adopting a child with a medical condition because they think it would be too hard. Yet a healthy child has more resources at their disposal for rejecting you emotionally, and that's about the hardest thing there is. Geri's pediatrician actually mentioned this to me before - that he sees the best overall outcome in the special needs adoptions because the child's disabilities serve to facilitate bonding. The disabilities also force parents to have realistic expectations for their child, and that relieves a lot of familial pressure.

Of course, this is just one view of attachment and it's a narrow one, at best. There's no ideal timeline for bonding, and there's no measurement of completion or fullness that can really be applied to all cases. Which really ought to be liberating! Since there isn't a timeline, there's no hurry. Since there's no test, you can't fail! It's a relationship, and like all relationships, it must grow into it's fullness with time. That said, I still relish any evidence of progress because it makes me feel like we might just be doing ok. And when I think about it, I have to admit that we are. We are actually doing okay. Improving all the time, slogging through the setbacks when they come, and generally seeing things get better with time and patience and love. Sometimes it feels like it's falling apart, like it's not getting better, like it's going to blow up in my face, but then something happens to remind me that we're doing great.

And that's the wisest thing I know - don't judge your life by this moment. It's so little compared to the past, and you have no idea what the future holds. Cling to the promises and keep going, because this moment has already gone.

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