Adoption does not forever define a family, but every child, regardless of how easy-going his or her personality, will go through a grieving and attachment process that prospective adoptive parents need to be prepared to handle. Unfortunately, so many of us adoptive parents end our adoption stories with the moment our child is placed in our arms and "we lived happily ever after", making it seem like some sort of fairy tale. Its not. We fail to include the sometimes difficult part where we learn how to be a family. Maybe we are afraid that acknowledging the challenges that come w/the attachment process will make us seem ungrateful for our children or maybe we are worried it will scare other people away from considering adoption. Whatever the reason, I think the post-adoption adjustment is something we parents need to do a better job of discussing, not only so other parents can be prepared, but so they know that no matter how hard those first days and weeks can be, you & your child will get through it.
If you've read Buddy's adoption story in "Our Path to Parenthood", you know that there were times we weren't sure if Buddy would ever come home. When his foster mom handed him to me, I finally let myself believe this was really happening. I felt deliriously happy to be w/my baby again, even if it still didn't feel quite real.
This feeling lasted all of about 15 minutes.
After returning to our hotel room, we discovered our 9.5 month old son was wearing an outfit w/a tag identifying it as appropriate for a 3-6 month old. We put him down on the ground to play and found out that not only was he unable to crawl, but also unable to roll over. He couldn't sit unassisted and refused to take anything other than a bottle. We pulled out his Embassy medical exam and found he weighed 15 lbs, just one pound more than he'd weighed on the last medical update we'd received 2 months ago. That nagging feeling was setting in, the one that says something is wrong, but I kept telling myself I was overreacting, that he was a small and a little behind, but everything would be fine once we got home.
The next few days, Buddy seemed to settle in with us. He didn't mind us holding him, smiled at us and slept reasonably well. He was an absolute dream child on the plane and the first few hours we were home. Then it was time for bed and I swear he had the horrifying realization that he was never going back to the people and places he knew. A two hour cryfest began, in which Chris & I took turns pacing up and down the hall with him, while he struggled in our arms screaming for the "mama" who was decidedly not me. Exhausted, he finally fell asleep, but woke up numerous times during the night to repeat the crying & hall pacing.
The weeks that followed were a tangle of emotions for me. On the one hand, I was so grateful to have Buddy home and so amazed this adorable little baby was my son. That's what I told 95% of the people who asked me. I am usually pretty open with my feelings, but kept much of what was going on to myself. After everything we'd been through to get to this point, how could I be anything but thrilled to be a mom? The truth was, what I mostly felt was overwhelmed and exhausted. Buddy wanted to be held constantly and would become hysterical if I put him down or dared to leave the room. He took forever to fall asleep and woke up several times every night screaming. We took him to his first doctor's appointment, confirming that he was very underweight, had several developmental delays and as an extra surprise, tested positive for latent TB, which would require daily medication & monthly doctor's appointments for 9 months. Our doctor told us to give Buddy about 6 weeks to settle in and then contact Early Intervention to begin therapy to address his numerous delays.
I was drowning in self-doubt and frustration. Why was this happening? Hadn't we been through enough? We didn't sign up for special needs, was I really capable of handling this? Along w/those thoughts came the guilt that I shouldn't be feeling this way, that I should be happy to have a child and confident in what needed to be done. It made me wonder if I was cut-out for this - maybe I hadn't been able to get pregnant because I wasn't meant to be a mom. I remember 3 weeks after Buddy had come home and Chris was planning to go to a football game with some college friends and I stood at the sink sobbing hysterically because I couldn't imagine a whole weekend alone with Buddy after barely keeping it together during the week. Why was I having such a hard time managing a baby, when it came so easily for so many of my friends? Of course it's clear to me now that anyone in my situation, facing unexpected developmental issues and a velcro baby that rarely slept, would feel exhausted and overwhelmed, but at the time, it just felt like I was failing Buddy miserably.
Things got better. Buddy slowly grew more comfortable, allowing me to put him down and at least go to the bathroom by myself. We started Early Intervention and soon Buddy had reached many of the fine and gross motor skill milestones appropriate for his age. Formula supplements helped him gain some much needed weight. Although far from perfect, sleep became manageable. I grew more confident and took less of Buddy's issues as an indication that I was a terrible mother. I had moments where I was able to just "be" and enjoy Buddy, instead of worrying about the things that still needed work.
Even today things are not perfect. Buddy continues to have sleep issues and still sleeps in our bed. We see a behavior therapist once a week to address the anxiety issues that no child should have to struggle with. Meltdowns are common when we get off our predictable schedule or when Buddy spends time apart from us. There are still days where I feel overwhelmed and uncertain, but I've realized every parent has these moments and that its okay.
Three months after bringing Buddy home, we were feeling reasonably settled. Yes, I was getting too little sleep and juggling multiple therapy sessions, but we were having far more good moments than bad. Chris & I had always wanted to have more than one child, so we decided the time was right to begin another adoption. When we received our referral earlier than anticipated, I was thrilled that the boys would be 15 months apart, even closer in age than I had hoped. The four and half months we spent waiting for our travel call had a few stressful moments and I had the same concerns many parents adding to their family have - would I love the boys the same? how would Buddy handle being a big brother? how would we go to the grocery store? - but overall, it was a happy, exciting time for us. I was sad not to travel to Korea with Chris, but knew that staying home w/Buddy would ensure a peaceful homecoming for Buster. I felt much more aware of the loss Buster would be experiencing and the tough moments ahead, but I also felt much more prepared to handle them and I was determined to enjoy Buster's first weeks home more than I had enjoyed Buddy's.
I assumed that Buster adjustment would be similar to Buddy's and had mentally prepared myself for lots of crying and sleepless nights. Much to my surprise, Buster's coping strategy was the exact opposite - he slept. A lot. We'd put him down at 5 pm and he'd sleep until 8 the next morning. Even with all that sleep, he'd take two naps that would each last about an hour and a half. When he was awake, he wasn't prone to fits of crying, refusals to eat or demands to be held like Buddy had, but instead stared at us, studying us like a scientist discovering a new species. After about a week, he seemed to deem us acceptable and then went back to being the energetic, easygoing baby his foster family had described. Three weeks after he arrived home, we moved him from the mattress on our bedroom floor to his crib and within 6 weeks he was falling asleep on his own, needing only a few moments of rocking and his blanket to snuggle. Two months after coming home, he no longer grew concerned when one of us left the room or felt the need to be held when interacting with someone new. Buddy too, took to his new brother quickly and handled the upheaval of our family life uncharacteristically well. In fact, seeing Buster eat prompted Buddy to at least consider a bite or two of solid food. All in all, we could not have asked for an easier transition.
Given how much better it was than what I was expecting, I was shocked to find myself having a hard time. Logistically, it was just so much harder than I imagined. Feeding, changing and supervising two children is quite a challenge, not to mention trying to cook dinner or leave the house. Buster napped in the late morning and late afternoon; Buddy slept in the middle of the day. I felt like I couldn't go anywhere b/c someone was always sleeping. When they were awake, Buddy was used to having my undivided attention and I was having trouble accepting that was just not going to happen anymore. Buster, who came home an experienced crawler, was into everything and once he got comfortable in our house had no problem escaping to another room if I turned my back for a second, something I'd never faced w/clingy Buddy. The ability to catch my breath at nap time was gone, any crossover of naps was used to quickly throw in a load of laundry, schedule appointments or attack the scary number of dishes that always seemed to pile up in the sink. I missed the simpler days of one child.
The other shock to me was how acutely aware I was that Buster was a stranger. With Buddy, when I wasn't consumed with his health and developmental issues and my inability to handle them, I was so relieved to finally be a mom, that I didn't really think about bonding with him. It just sort of happened while I wasn't paying attention. Its not that I didn't like Buster, but he felt like a visitor, someone else's son. Despite how much more easygoing he is than Buddy, I found myself gravitating toward taking care of Buddy, wanting to make sure he wasn't feeling forgotten & handing off Buster to Chris. After a few weeks, I realized I was actually going to have to work at building that unique mother-baby bond that had come so naturally with Buddy. And it wasn't always easy. There were many times when I felt that by dividing my time, I wasn't being a good mom to either of them. There were moments I wondered if our family would ever feel "normal" again instead of completely chaotic...and then one day it did. It took us a few months, but we found our "new normal". Today I can honestly say that I love both my boys the same, that they both feel like mine and that we're a family.
There are lots of great sites out there that talk about the attachment process and bonding techniques, my favorite being http://www.a4everfamily.org/. I'm in no way any type of expert on the subject. I decided not to go into too much detail about the various techniques we used to address our post-adoption issues b/c I feel that they are not a set of "one size fits all" tools and my intention is not to advise anyone on how to best address the post-adoption issues unique to their family. My hope is that sharing my experience offers a mom's perspective on those first days and weeks after your child comes home and also to admit that even if its not readily talked about, its completely normal for it not to feel normal. If you want to know more about our experience, you can find my email under the Get In Touch tab. I'd be happy to go into more detail about an issue we faced or commiserate in the struggles of being a new mom.