Tuesday 7 September 2010


I have been hoping to be able to write about how we have attached, as a family. Before we adopted, this is what I was most desperately concerned about, and I have been wanting to reflect on it. I wanted to leave it a while, so I thought I would wait until we had known each other six months. And then six months came and went, and a year seemed more appropriate. And today, it's a year since we got on a plane to go and meet them and I'm realising that I'll never be able to write the post that I had in mind.

What I wanted to say is this: It's been a year. And it took some time, but I think the babies are securely attached to us now. And that much is true, and I am more thankful for it than I can say. They exhibit classic attachment behaviour - they crawl away and then look back to check in; they are forever handing me things; when they are poorly they want endless cuddles. From me. Aaaaaaaah. I know they expect me to provide for them - they think I can read their minds, and they get cranky when I don't do it fast enough. They clearly think I can do magic and be in two places at once. The rules of space and time do not apply to me, in their world, for I am The Mummy. I am omnipotent, apparently, so again with the cranky when I can't cuddle them AND put them down AND play on the floor AND give them dinner AND a cup of water, all at once. Both of them. When they were tiny, they didn't expect anything of me. Now they expect everything. It's utterly exhausting. It's endlessly frustrating. It's infinitely gratifying.

Yes, gratifying. I find myself thinking: I did that! I made you trust me, with my manipulative mothering ways! and then I want to do a little victory dance around the living room. And okay, sometimes I close the curtains and succumb. I'm not ashamed at all of feeling thrilled about this. No matter what your views on adoption, the best possible gift an adoptive parent can give their baby is to help them towards secure attachment, if possible*. It's not about making us feel like a real family, and it's not just about warm fuzzy feelings. It's about brain chemistry, and parental responsibilities don't get much bigger than keeping your child's neurochemistry somewhere within the normal range. A securely attached child sees the world as an essentially safe place, and starting life without that makes everything - everything- harder.

So far, so good. But I think what I really was hoping to mean, when I said they were securely attached was: They are okay. We are okay. It's all going to be okay. And as time goes on, I feel increasingly uneasy about being that certain. Partly, it's because I second-guess
my own interpretation of their attachment behaviour. Okay, so she did this, and that was great, but I went away and came back and he screamed and screamed. And then she crawled straight up to that stranger and started playing with her earrings and never gave me a glance, even though I was right there. Maybe I should get my ears pierced. Then she would never play with anybody's ears but mine. Or maybe she would go to that other woman anyway. Maybe they only act attached to me because I'm the only one around, most of the time. They haven't said 'mama' yet. They don't know who I am. They aren't attached at all. Their little brains are a mess of toxic stress chemicals. I'm deluding myself. I've ruined their lives. And on and on into the spiral of crazy.

It's not often that I use this line, but I'm going to use it now. I find myself wanting to say to people: if you haven't adopted a child, do not tell me to lighten up because you do not know about this particular spiral of crazy. People with children they have birthed tell me that hey, all kids do things like that. And of course they do. But I guess it's like watching your child suddenly start to wheeze if both your parents died of asthma. Yeah, other kids wheeze, but you've got a good reason to be more concerned about it than other parents do. You do not need them to tell you not to worry, because your child has risks that they have not ever had to think about. So I'm afraid this is one area where I get twitchy, and want to press the shut-up button when people with straightforward families tell me I'm making mountains out of molehills. I want to gently remind them that they do not know what this feels like because my child is at high risk of attachment difficulties and their child is not. Which is fantastic for them. They should enjoy it. And keep advice on this topic on the inside of their mouths.

I get so tired of wondering. I just want to know. I want to know the answer. Are they 95% as attached to me as they would have been to their birthmother? 90%? Is that an acceptable level? How about 80%? No? 81%? Would their lives be ruined at 82%? Do they get bonus points for also being attached to each other?

I'm probably never going to know, am I? Because life is not a controlled experiment. I've begun to realise that people who announce that their child is definitely well attached probably don't know either. And I'm never going to know, and it wouldn't do me - us - any good if it did. How would I change my parenting style? It's not like I'm not already aware of the issues. Sure, some people ignore potential attachment difficulties, and need to monitor their child's behaviour more closely, but that is not the side on which I tend to err, at least when it comes to adoption issues. Sometimes I think the adoption stuff takes up so much of my brain that all the other parenting stuff is squeezed out. The need for regular baths? I can ignore that, no problem.

Even if I could know, what do I think is going to happen if their attachment really is 100% perfect? Does that mean we're just an ordinary family now? Do I get some kind of medal? Of course not. I know that's not how it works. But I guess I thought it would be like what happens with ducklings. If ducklings don't see their mother duck when they hatch, they can imprint on something else instead, and see that thing or person as their mother. And no, I didn't think it would be instantaneous like that, and I know it's a deeply flawed analogy because these babies came from another mother, not an egg, but I did think that it would be that clear cut. Hey, look at that farmer being followed around by those little ducklings! You don't get ducklings who are partially attached to a farmer, who follow him around for two thirds of the day but spend the remainder of the time following something else. No - it's permanent. I wanted to be that farmer. I wanted it to be totally unmistakeable. To me. To everyone.

But I'm beginning to wonder whether thinking about it that way is really the wrong way around. Wasn't it Aslan, in The Horse And His Boy, who said that you can't know anybody else's story, you can only know your own? And okay, Aslan may not be real, but he gives much better advice than most people who are so I'm going to take it. Meaning: I need to nurture their attachment. But I shouldn't be defined by it. Ultimately, I need to remember that it's not my story.

Earlier, I gave a list of reasons why I think they are attached to me. So in the interests of balance, here's why I think I am attached to them. There's only one reason, really - they just seem normal to me. They seem right. Other people's children look wrong, to me, now. Their faces are wrong. Their hair is wrong. They crawl funny. I can't explain it any other way. My babies have created a them-shaped space in my psyche, and that's that.

So maybe the conclusion of my thinking on attachment is this. I don't know if I am their farmer. I hope so. I think so. But no matter what happens, forever and always, I know this: they are my ducklings. And I think that's enough.

*Yes, I know APs need to do a lot more than that, especially as children grow up. But that's why I specifically used the word 'baby'.


  1. I've enjoyed many of your posts but this one really hits me. You are so on point with others' advice, their children and our (APs) world of attachment.
    I may link to this (with your permission) in an upcoming post on my blog.
    Thank you again for the honesty.

  2. What a great post. "if you haven't adopted a child, do not tell me to lighten up because you do not know about this particular spiral of crazy," sign me up for a t-shirt with this printed on it please.

  3. thank you for sharing these thoughts.

  4. I'd like to take advantage of our reciprocal blog policy and post this entry on my blog with the title "what she said." Is that ok?

  5. Wow, really, that was so well said....goosebumps and all ;)

  6. Very interesting and heartfelt post.No-on else can know the grappling you have to do as an adopter, especially with transnational adoptees.
    Some of the questions you raise are so complex and individual to your situation and really apart from some basic givens, you have to make it up as you go along don't you? Babies are babies, adoption is adoption and you just do the best you can.You have the advantage of not neglecting the potential issues.You can't predict the future and the numbers don't matter.Love and care matter.
    Just a point..I raise geese and have handraised geese, becoming their mother substitute in their first day.These cross-species events are fascinating.While these geese bonded with me, allowed me to care for them, they never forgot they were geese.Make of that what you will.

  7. "You can't know anybody else's story. You can only know your own." The problem is we often don't really know our own story. Some people think they do, but they are usually wrong. (They tend to be people who say things like "I am not judgmental" and "I hate drama").
    Wouldn't it be great if you knew your story was "fantastic mother has two perfectly attached children"? But it may be unrealistic to think you will ever KNOW that. I do know at least part of your story, "Mother trying very hard has children who show all signs of great attachment". That may be the most we can hope for.
    PS I bet imprinted baby ducks still peck at strangers' earrings.

  8. Oh, this is beautiful, Claudia. I wonder how much this will obsess me when baby girl goes home. I imagine it will ravage my already feeble brain.

  9. Thanks for writing this Claudia.

    It makes me think of some advice I got from a parent of 9, 5 of whom were adopted as older children. He told me to stop worrying about attachment. WHAT?! I thought that was so weird and was ready to totally write him off until he followed it up with this: Instead of worrying about whether your child is attached, focus on providing unconditional love and a secure, consistent environment. That is YOUR part, actually attaching is your CHILD's part and you can't control how or when it happens. All you can do is set up the environment to foster and encourage it. Just one dude's opinion, but it sounded smart to me so I thought I'd share. :)

  10. You have such a way of putting things I feel into words. Yes, there are things non APs will just never understand. I told a close friend how much I grieved about the loss my boys have experienced and the 8 months they spent in an orphanage. She said she felt the same way about having had premature babies. Huh? I know she grieves that, but it is not the same thing!

    Anyhoo, thanks for reminding me that I've been meaning to look at my adoption books again, to refresh and try to make sure my little family is on the right road.

    Hugs to you and your ducklings. Beautiful image.

  11. Ok, this sentence said it all for me:

    "A securely attached child sees the world as an essentially safe place and starting life without that makes everything --everything-- harder."

    Amen to that sister.

    My daughter spent 15 months in an institutional setting. Then one day, without warning, she was handed over to scary looking white people who didn't speak her language. Her world was rocked more than once in such a short period of time. No wonder she has a problem with trust.

    Five years out we are still working on the trust and attachment thing.

    We're a work in progress. ;-)

  12. Thanks for asking - links are no prob at all! (By the way, K, I'm wondering if our reciproacal blog policy means that i can claim my children can walk? Can I use your blog as evidence? :) )

    Evelyn, I relate!! I had a lot of trouble coming to terms with not having a 'due date' for our adoption. When I told a friend, she said 'yeah, I know JUST what that's like, one of my babies came two weeks early'. **crickets**

    And Haley, I think that's a man you need to keep on speed dial :)

  13. Bravo. Spot on. Thank you for this post. And thank you for writing "this particular spiral of crazy". It's my new favorite saying.

  14. oh man girl!! you hit it so loud and clearly and beautiful and totally gave me goose bumps!!! (can I say and again? lol) this is one to re-post every now and then, just so everyone can be reminded!

  15. Your posts are always so thought provoking...this one no exception. I feel like I need to bookmark so many of them for future reference...or else get you on speed dial so one day (hopefully) when I have what I predict will be a multitude of freakouts and breakdowns, I can call you! I know I've said it before but I truly, truly mean it--your babies have hit the mother lotto with you!

  16. I heart this post and I heart you.

    Well said. Very well said.

  17. [clapping and beaming and clapping and hooting a bit and smiling]

  18. I think I'm going to start telling my boys "you are MY ducklings" if it's ok with you that I borrow that. We're 3 1/2 years into being a family, and at 6 years of age, yes, they know I'm Mama and they love me. But from the attachment perspective, I think that THEY worry like you were saying YOU do that maybe THEY are more attached than I am! (They're not). That maybe, like others before me, I could leave them.

    So keep telling your kids how attached YOU are... it's the most reassuring thing they can hear, I think. And it makes them safe to bond to you.

    Loved this post!

  19. Hi there -
    I just happened upon your blog and read this post, and was wowed by it. You are a gifted and insightful writer, Claudia, and I can't wait to read more.
    Awesome post!




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