When Mom Struggles with Bonding in Adoption

In adoption circles, “attachment” is a big buzz-word. A diagnosis of RAD (reactive attachment disorder) tends to be the exception rather than the rule, but many adopted children have some difficulty bonding with their new parents. This is easy to understand if you think about it: children growing up in foster homes or orphanages, or in abusive families of origin (birth families) don’t learn to trust caregivers the way children should in a healthy family. In these cases, there’s nothing “wrong” with the child; it’s just harder for them to feel safe enough to allow themselves to love.

Bonding in Adoption

What about when Mom is the one to struggle?

What I rarely hear mentioned is when the adoptive mom struggles in bonding with her children. It’s not uncommon to hear about “baby blues” or postpartum depression in mothers who have given birth, but rarely do we talk about anything like that in adoption. Maybe I just haven’t read the right blogs/books or talked to the right people, but this subject seems to be taboo.

So let’s talk about it here.

I love my kids. All of them. The ones that live in this house and the ones that don’t; the one I gave birth to and the ones I didn’t. I can honestly say I fiercely love them all, but I’ve struggled to enjoy them.

I want to talk about this because I know I’m not the only one.

I’ve felt inferior and unequipped, been convinced I’m a terrible person, and have mentally beaten myself up for the so-called failure on my part to ooze affection and all the ooey-gooey wonderfulness mothers should feel and do for their children.

Of course, it’s impossible to enjoy anyone or anything while mentally berating oneself. In fact, it traps me in a cycle of more stress, more non-enjoyment of my kids.

I expected struggles bonding with a teen.

With Lindsey, I knew going in that adopting a child at nearly 15 years old would pose challenges in how deeply we might ever connect because she had fifteen years of life before I became her mother. That’s a lot of time and experiences without me.

Daughters 2012

I knew, since I’d never been the one to kiss her boo-boos or tuck her in at night or do any of the thousands of little relationship-building things parents do with their kids, that our relationship would be different. With her, this played out in the past four years as occasional conflict with me (as our personalities are nearly polar opposite) and some aloofness on both our parts. I expect this to continue to wax and wane over the years but I have hopes we’ll eventually settle into a comfortably good adult-parent relationship. Thankfully she and Ken have similar enough personalities that they “get” each other better and have always had a pretty good relationship even in difficult times.

What about adopting younger children?

My expectations with adopting younger kids were different. I spend my days doing all those little bond-making trust-building things for them: making meals and putting lotion on chapped skin and answering 300,000 questions a day and saying nighttime prayers, etc.

kids in grass

Thankfully, they seem to be doing fantastic with attachment. It was harder for Scout than for Jem, as she had more memories to overcome and more understanding of things he didn’t. He fell immediately in love with Ken as his Daddy and is comfortable with me as Mama, too. Scout seems to be catching up quickly in this. I believe they’ll both grow up healthily attached to us.

But bonding has been hard for me. {I’ve learned much about myself in the past year and will likely spend some time this year writing about how my introversion and specific personality traits/type affect my relationships.}

Key reasons I’ve struggled in bonding:

  1. Grief. Scout and Jem moved in the day after my Dad died. My emotions have been so mixed up I didn’t know which way was up.
  2. Chaos. I crave order in my home, but throwing two young children in the mix rocked my world — and my routine.
  3. Pee. Seriously, y’all. I never thought pee would be my undoing but it nearly was. For 5 months I dealt with peed-in pants. One child did it every day, and never felt the need to notify anyone; this was a subconscious way of dealing with sudden and profound change. Some days BOTH kids wet their pants. The entire house smelled like pee all the time and I did more laundry than at any other time of my life.
  4. Anger. Theirs and mine. Being screamed at, spit on, hit and kicked did not give me warm fuzzies. They weren’t truly mad at me; they were mad at everything leading up to their lives being turned completely upside down. Knowing where something comes from helps, but doesn’t make it easy.
  5. Noise. I knew I liked peace and quiet, but was always been able to deal with noisy surroundings when necessary. But I’d never actually lived with near-constant noise, and apparently I have a noise threshold that, once exceeded, turns me into the Hulk.
    {Related: I’ve learned I’m “sensitive.”}
  6. Neediness. One child in particular craves attention. Incessant talking is a primary way this shows itself; this means I cannot have an entire uninterrupted train of thought. Ever. While I understand the myriad of reasons behind it, it doesn’t make dealing with it any easier. When I shared this post by Jen Hatmaker (love her!), my Mom told me she swore I’d written it under a pseudonym. 😉

It’s getting better.

We’re nearly a year in. I’ve worked through much of the grief over my Dad. Pants are staying dry.  There’s still an occasional temper tantrum but these days the venom is gone and when they do have one it’s a “typical” kid tantrum. The chaos is mostly under control. I’ve built in some daily quiet time to help my sanity, and I’m learning other ways to deal with my sensitivities. I’m practicing living the now, which includes intentionally looking for things to appreciate in each moment and in each child.

I don’t do rainbows-and-unicorns but I believe in adoption, and I believe in God’s healing power and abundant grace. I don’t get as many comments as I did in the old days but I often get emails from readers with questions about adoption; THANK YOU for sending those because that’s a large part of why I write this blog.

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