Colin & Noelle

Colin & Noelle


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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What To Expect When We Bring Our Son Home...


Life is about to change for us. In so many ways. While we are becoming first time parents (and that’s a big enough adjustment in itself) there’s far more to it than that. All the education we have spent hours upon hours completing over the past 2+ years has been preparing us for this next stage. What we’ve learned about adoption and loss changes everything about the parents we plan to be. And lately as we’ve tried to explain to others what this new stage of life will look like for us, some people have seemed rather surprised. So I want to sum up this education for you, lose the “surprise” factor, and be upfront about what the next several months of our lives will look like. I want to give you the run-down on parenting a child who comes from a hard place, on grief and loss and attachment – and this crazy thing we plan to do called “cocooning” that may leave you wondering if we've gone into hiding. ;)

Please, if there is only ever one post you read on this blog, let it be this. If you have ever wondered how you can best encourage us in this process – support us fully in this

Grief & Loss


For us as the parents, and you as the community surrounding our child, the very first thing we all need to remember is that adoption always stems from loss. It is a beautiful journey of redemption. But it’s a journey of a family that is built only at the cost of another family first torn apart. And whether or not a child is 10 years or 10 hours old when they are removed from their biological family – the results can be far reaching. A newborn baby who spent 9 months in the womb of his or her birth mother, still only knew her comfort until that moment. That little baby can still grieve even if they cannot understand or explain it to us; even if that grief is manifested in the strangest of ways. It is flawed to assume that a child adopted at birth is without grief just because we can’t interpret it. And when a child spends time in an orphanage or group home over the years, with abusive or neglectful or irregular care - that grief grows, and is compounded with countless other experiences. The brokenness runs deep.

Often when a child comes home to a family through international adoption, we are filled with joy (as we should be!), while they are going through another transition; another loss. And we may say we get that. We may expect some challenges and adjustments. But it’s far more than language barriers and new cultural norms to get used to – no, those are just the challenges that make the real challenges harder.

The real challenges will not be in us maneuvering those language barriers or dealing with time zone changes. They will be much more foundational than that. Things you and I take for granted. Like learning to ask for things. Getting to have an opinion. Letting him know that he matters, and has a voice; that he can ask for food and eat when he’s hungry. That someone cares if he cries.

Things like… even knowing what a mother is. Even if he could speak English, what use is it to tell him I’m his mother, if he has no clue what that entails? Is a “mother” someone who comes for an 8-hour shift, then might leave, only for a new “mother” to arrive? Or in a few months will she get a new job and I won’t see that mother again? We don’t need B to just trust us to hold him or feed him.  As best as we can tell now, he will let pretty much anyone do that. (And that’s a problem we will address shortly.)

The very building blocks are compromised in an orphaned child. The brain does not physically develop as well when that motherly (& fatherly) nurture and relationship are absent. It affects the way the brain grows, the way they process through their senses, and the way they relate with the world around them. We cannot undo or un-teach him what he’s already learned in his 2 short years, but we can help his brain form new pathways. We can help guide him down a road of healing (that I’m sure will come in many stages over the years).

So let’s talk about that, and how that’s going to look for us in these first few months… Let’s start with Attachment.

Attachment

What is attachment in this context? When a child is brought into the world by parents who are consistent in care, and who love the child, attachments begin to form as needs arise and are met, repeatedly. Over time (usually in the first year of life) the child learns that the parent can be relied upon to meet those needs, offer love and care, and provide a safe world in which the child can explore. The child learns to go to their parent(s) with problems or fears or opinions or emotions. And this relationship is one that will set the standard for all future relationships (and views of themselves) down the road in that child’s life, as well as affect how that child will learn to self-regulate and handle their feelings. I won’t get into the science of it all (I’ll post resources below for your own further reading), but over time, when care is consistent and secure, it is a natural process. Most parents don’t even think about it as it’s occurring. 


For orphaned children, there may be no attachment skills whatsoever (or very dangerous ones if there are). Perhaps there has never been a consistent caregiver. The child doesn’t understand how to attach, and when they start to get close, they aren’t sure how to handle it. It’s not about the child “knowing” you, or “liking” you as the parent – it’s just that they don’t have the skills because they’ve never been taught. They might “trust” you on a surface level, just like they trust the pizza delivery man - but they don’t have a secure attachment. They don’t know you – or trust you – from Adam. You as the parent are just one of many acceptable options for them. That’s not a real relationship. That’s them using whoever they need to, to get their needs met.


As I mentioned above, B will let us feed him. He will let any of the caregivers at his orphanage feed him (and he doesn’t really know them all that well either because he has moved orphanage buildings several times in his short life). These are not mothers and fathers to him. These are men and women doing their best, providing the best care they can, to numerous babies and children at a time. So B isn’t picky. He’ll eat anything you give him. And he’ll take it from any hand. And while that is good for now – it is NOT good long term. Feeding your child is one of (if not *the*) most fundamental ways you can provide for them. Look no further than a nursing mother whose very body has a built-in means to offer nourishment. It forms an intimate attachment when you nurse. And although I do not plan to nurse B, he still has that same need (which has gone unmet) of being nourished by his parents. In an orphanage – it doesn’t matter who feeds you. It’s purely about surviving. When he’s home – we need him to learn over time that he’s not in a “survival” situation anymore, but that he has the same, loving, consistent care in myself and Colin. That we will feed him. That we will nourish him. That we will care for him. And when that care is repeatedly nurtured just as if he were a newborn – hopefully that attachment will begin to form. But he has to consistently get that from us. If he gets it from us AND others – it is not different in his mind than the way the orphanage meets his needs now.


You see, if a newborn child (not adopted; not in a trauma situation) is handed to a grandparent or friend to be held or fed in their early life, there won’t likely be any major consequences. Because there has been no rift in the relationship with the parent, so no new relationship will threaten that bond in such a short visit. But adoptive parents do not have that luxury in the beginning because that bond is not formed or secure. The foundation is weak – and it takes very little to disrupt it. Once the child is secure in his or her attachment to the parent, then venturing out to other relationships becomes acceptable.

Because B does not understand this – because every adult is equal in his eyes, he will need to learn this. He will need to learn what a parent is, and how that differs from a caregiver, a friend, a grandparent, or a stranger. He must learn that we, and we alone (in the beginning especially), are the only two people he should seek out to have his needs met. He needs to understand who we are before he can ever have the skills to form appropriate relationships with anyone else later on. He will need to learn things that you may never have had to think twice about teaching your biological children - things that seem natural and just a part of reality. But his reality has been so different than what any of us can possibly imagine. So for him to begin to understand this new life, and these new ways of processing his world, it requires deliberate action and diligence on our end, and understanding and cooperation on yours.  This is why we are planning to “cocoon” when we get home…

Cocooning


In the adoption world, the term “cocooning” refers to a time where the newly formed family stays “in” for a while, with a primary focus on intensive care and attachment. It is solely the adoptive family meeting every need of the child. It usually means no outside help coming into the home (not grandparents, not friends, etc.) And when the time comes where family or friends are allowed to stop by, agencies still often urge families to make sure that visitors merely visit and are not meeting the new child’s needs (feeding, bathing, holding, changing diapers, etc.) 

Again – that attachment thing. It’s built when needs are met on time, all the time, by a parent. Breaking that cycle early on can have adverse effects and be confusing for the child who is still learning about their new environment and family dynamics.

The length of time varies from family to family, but generally lasts several weeks to several months, with an openness to adjust as needed based on how the child is doing. There are some families who don’t feel the need to do this at all. I am not here to speak negatively about their choices – but I will say that I have done my own research and I know that there are proven benefits that allow for deeper healing when attachment and cocooning are made a priority. And I cannot imagine a scenario in life more appropriate than this to err on the side of caution. It’s not worth the risk of enduring months or years of an unhealthy “attachment” and subsequent, unnecessary issues – all because we weren’t willing to take the time to invest now. Sure our son may be fine if we don’t cocoon – but that’s not what we’re aiming for. We have the time, so we plan to utilize it and cocoon as recommended. :)

So what does this mean? What will this look like for our family? How can you be involved? Well, in the first few months especially, it will need to be from a distance. We plan to stay home as often as possible, with the exception being doctors’ appointments (and there will be many of them!). As we feel B is gaining security with us, we will let up over time. The first week home will look different than the 4th week home, and the 8th week home... And we will re-evaluate as we learn more about him, his insecurities, and his ability to attach well to us.

When we first get back to the U.S., we plan to invite our friends to the airport to welcome him home. This will be the window of opportunity to meet him before we head into an intense season of cocooning. But we want you there! We still ask that you keep these things in mind, and don’t reach to hold him or expect him to react in any particular way. He may be overwhelmed, or he may eat up the attention. Please just consider what might be overwhelming for a 2-year-old in his position after over 24 hours of traveling and landing in a new place. :) 

Then, as we settle into our house as a family of 3, we plan to take the first few months to stay in with him. This will mean no visitors, no church, no play dates, etc. We need to be with B, and he needs to be at home. This is not a time when we want crowds of people in his face, ooh-ing and ah-ing over him. And beyond that, imagine a child who has probably never been inside a store. Imagine our supermarkets. Imagine the noises and sights and smells, and not having anyone safe with you when you’re scared (because, remember – to him, I am not necessarily perceived as safe yet), and not having any coping skills because there’s never been anyone to teach them to you. It’s over-stimulating and overwhelming to a newly adopted child. And when those fear responses are active, attachment and healing cannot take root.

It also means that I will be trying to stay off of Facebook and the phone as much as possible during the hours he’s awake since I will need to be intentional in my time with him. I don’t plan to completely disappear. And I’m sure as he reaches milestones, I will want to hop online and share his cuteness with you all. But I will still need friends and family and connection, and so will Colin. Supporting us in this time (when visiting and offering tangible support is harder) that is a beautiful way to stay involved. Reach out. Please. This first time mama knows very little, but enough that she realizes it’s important to come up for air when you spend your whole week at home with a toddler. ;)

Conclusion


And lastly, please remember that this won’t be forever! There WILL be a day when we take that first trip out, then the second… and soon B will be used to this new world of his, and secure in his relationship with us. I can’t yet say when that will be. But it will come in time. We just need a little space and LOTS of grace to get us to that point. :)

Thank you for making it through this. This stuff is so important to me, and to our family. We realize it’s unconventional. We realize it’s hard, and asking a lot from those of you who have been such great blessings to us. And in no way do we want this post to send the message that we don’t need you – but rather that we DO need you. Just in a different capacity for this upcoming season. But we are eternally grateful for the support you've given that has helped get us to this point. We love each and every one of you!

-Noelle

 Adoption & Attachment Resources:

The Connected Child” book by Dr. Karyn Purvis
Attaching in Adoption” book by Deborah D. Gray


Basically, this entire Empowered To Connect website

Any of these posts by Rebekah over @ her blog “Saying Yes to Adoption
Parts 1, 2, 3, or 4, of this web series on Cocooning.