Monday, December 12, 2011

Six Months...and Attachment...and Progress...and Regression...and Progress

Six months ago today, we arrived home a family of five.  We had taken custody of the younger kids just two days before, and we were swimming in the unfamiliar seas of not knowing two of our three children.  Though at the time I thought things were going relatively ok, given the givens, when I now look back to the pictures I took of the younger kids during those first few days, all I can see is the fear in their eyes.  It just goes to show how much you can learn about people in just six months, because I simply didn't see that fear when taking those pictures...and yet now it's so terribly obvious.

I've often heard that being home six months with your child can be a bit of a turning point...that perhaps the hardest of the adjustments are behind us.  I might sort of believe that.  Kind of.  There are definitely signs that progress has been made, but other signs, too, that there's still a lot of adjusting yet to happen.

I'll start with Seth because he most clearly seems to fit the stereotype of the six month adjustment point.  It's been in the past two or three weeks that we've seen some really lovely changes in Seth.  He's been slowly relaxing over the past two months, and seems somehow more 'settled' in the past two or three weeks.  It's hard to pinpoint exactly what the changes have been, because they've been subtle, but the signs are there:  definitely not as much rage or grief; less defiance than even a few weeks ago; a slight relaxation in his need to maintain control (over everyone and everything); he laughs more every week (that great belly laugh-that's-more-like-a-loud-giggle that I hope he never loses); he spontaneously sings once in a while; he's more willing and able to express with words some of the things going on inside of him; some of the Seth-sepcific issues that we've had to deal with have become less pronounced, and more commonplace for us to deal with; he has become way too relaxed when it comes to his newfound habit of leaving his clothes where they drop (where did my neat-as-a-pin boy go??); stuff like that.  I think he's doing all right.  We still have lots of challenges, but I suspect that his strong-willed and super-intense personality will mean that challenges will always exist.  But overall, yeah, I think the six-month point has been a turning point for him.

And then there's Lizzie.  She, too, has perhaps reached a bend in the road these last few weeks, but in a different way.  During these very same two or three weeks that Seth has made progress, it's like she has gone a bit in the opposite direction.  Her behaviour has become just a little more defiant - not so much in a four-year-old defiant kind of way, but in a somehow different way.  Her defiance, and other behaviours, seem to have at their roots something close to a desperation for attention and security - a need for my attention in particular.  Just last Monday, I was talking to a therapist about these little changes I'd been seeing in Lizzie and, as I talked, it was like a little lightbulb going on:  she's struggling with attachment, I realized suddenly....she's not doing as well as I'd thought she was.  Like with Seth, the changes in her have been subtle...well, until last Tuesday.  Last Tuesday, while I observed, Lizzie climbed onto the lap of a woman she'd just met ten minutes before (an acquaintance of mine); then, another ten minutes later, when the woman left to use the bathroom, Lizzie followed her - the woman didn't notice that Lizzie even reached up to grab her hand because their hands didn't ever actually connect...but I sure noticed (and acted).  It's fascinating, sometimes, to sit back and force yourself to watch something play itself out for a few minutes, because wow do you learn a lot - albeit painfully.  Lizzie's behaviour on Tuesday reminded me of her first six weeks home, when she used to lift her arms to strangers in that unspoken request to be picked up.  I thought we'd gotten way past that.  But we haven't.  I don't think it's nearly as pronounced as it was six months ago, but we clearly have work to do; it apparently takes only ten minutes with a friendly, toy-holding stranger before she forgets who her mommy is.

I've spoken to a few people about this incident, and have been reassured by a couple that this is normal four-year-old behaviour.  But it's not.  This wouldn't be normal for any child of adoption, home for only six months.  This is a girl who likely had fifteen or twenty different orphanage caregivers over the ten months before she came home to Canada;  who am I but number twenty-one at this point?  I don't actually think it's this extreme any more, but really - doesn't it make sense that it might take more than six months to get used to the idea that #21 is here for good???  My gut screams out to me that last Tuesday was just one (more obvious) example of all of the little things I've been watching over the past few weeks.

And here's the thing:  I'm not totally surprised by this changing need in Lizzie.  The past six months have been heavily dominated by the huge and intense needs of my boys.  Though Lizzie has not, for a moment, been allowed to languish, and although she has been hugged and cuddled and loved just as much as her siblings, I am the first to say that the massive and often overwhelming needs of my boys have taken the front seat in my attentions.  Lizzie has seemed to coast along, from almost the first moment we had her, and it's been the boys who have seemed to have the most massive of adjustments.  And Lizzie connected with Geoff almost instantaneously - to this moment, they have a very sweet and loving and adoring kind of relationship.  But let's face it - Geoff works a lot, and she's at home with me most of the time.  And when a huge chunk of my mental and emotional capacity is consumed by the urgency and immediacy of her brothers' needs (one who might be shrieking for hours and throwing/breaking things; and the other who might simultaneously be crying while lying on the floor in the fetal position and begging me to pick him up), she's invariably going to get the smaller share of my mental and emotional considerations.

That has to change.  In fact, it already has changed.  As of last Wednesday, we've reverted to our earlier policy of no one being allowed to pick her up or have her on their laps - other than Geoff and me, my parents, and my sister/brother-in-law.  I've hated having to do this, but it's just too important at this stage.  I've also talked with Lizzie and Seth about not letting anyone pick them up except for the people I've just named...high fives and handshakes are great, even hugs while everyone's feet are on the floor, but no pick-ups or laps.  Oddly, Lizzie was immediately enthused about this change - her immediate response was "only mommy and daddy pick me up. Ok."  Maybe it's like a bit of a security blanket for her right now, I don't know.

We're also now trying to figure out some ways in which I can have some one-on-one time with Lizzie, something that's rarely happened in the past six months.  In fact, a couple of weeks ago, when we were south of the border for a weekend, Lizzie and I went shopping for a few hours, and it struck me then how little we've done that....and she loved's not even going too far to suggest that she basked in it.

I'm also implementing more subtle things into our day-to-day lives to reinforce attachment with Lizzie.  It  probably sounds like an obvious thing to say that I'm focusing my attention more on Lizzie when she talks, but when you have two boys who are demanding and needy, it is hard to give Lizzie the focus she clearly needs.  So that has changed, too.

Finally, I'm also starting to say things to Lizzie to reinforce my role in her life.

"Lizzie, would a stranger or even a friend tuck you into bed at night?  Nooooo, only mommy and daddy."

"Lizzie, who is going to take care of you and give you a bath, and give you food?  Just mommy and daddy.  It's our job to take care of you."

"Lizzie, who is going to bring a snack for you in her backpack when we go out?  Mommy!"

Every time I can find a way to use such a line on her, I'm using it.  And she's already started to answer the questions for me:  "Only mommy and daddy."

I think Lizzie will be responsive to the changes we're making.  Even in a week, I'm noticing that it's helping.  She's been demanding, much more forcefully than even two weeks ago, things such as hugs and's almost like she's relaxing into her right to demand what she needs.

I think it boils down to the fact that I can't take her attachment to me for granted.  I need to be conscious of it, and working at it consistently and persistently.  And I will.

Matthew.  Matthew.  It's been six months for him, too.  Six months of having siblings in his life, after wanting them, waiting for them, for years.  Six months of the biggest and most traumatic change he's ever experienced.  It's hard for me to write about Matthew these days.  Even now, I left talking about him to the last of the three kids because it's hard for me.  Hard because it's been so painful for me to watch him go through what he's gone through.  Hard because he hasn't always been doing well, and that's painful for me to write about...even to think about.  In the first four months, when things were at their most brutal, I would often cry myself to sleep at night, wondering what we had done to our firstborn.  At our six-month mark, I still wonder on occasion if we've wrecked his's that hard at times.

Despite that, there are some ways in which I think it's the best thing that's ever happened to Matthew.  He has siblings to play with, to learn from and with, to engage life with.  He loves them.  As he said recently and fervently to Seth:  "Seth, I love you with my whole heart and my whole body."  To which Seth answered:  "Yup."  There's no doubt in my mind that, despite the upheaval of the past six months, Matthew loves his siblings and is proud of them.

But oh, how he has struggled, that boy.  I have tears in my eyes just writing these words.  It's kind of like  he went into reverse shortly after the kids arrived home.  No longer was Matthew seven years old, but more like six...and then five...and then four.  He lost his capacity for mixed feelings, which means he lost his ability to think two thoughts at one time (which he'd been able to do for about a year prior to the younger kids coming home).  This meant he lost the ability to think, for example, I'm really, really mad at Seth/Lizzie, but I also don't want to hurt them so I won't hit them.  Behaviourally, this meant that he reverted to a four-year-old mentality of thinking:  I'm mad, so I'll hit/kick/push/bite him.  It's not his fault that he regressed, but boy did he ever.  He's still not out of it...though I'd say he's acting a bit more like a six-year-old every day...and we hope to bring him back to age seven before too much more time passes (hopefully before he turns eight in spring!).

Anyway, all of that to say that Matthew has gone through the mill these past six months.  And it's not done yet.  I think he's weary of it all, too.  Just a few days ago, he asked me how long the younger kids had been home, and I told him it was almost six months.  "Shoot," he said.  "I was hoping it was closer to a year, because I remember you saying that it might take a year to figure things out and adjust."  Clearly a statement of wishing that he, too, was a bit further along in the process of adjustment.  He knows he's not himself yet, and that simple fact bothers him.

There have been some signs, though, that Matthew is finding his new equilibrium.

Just last night in the van, for example, driving home from a family Christmas get-together, Matthew was increasingly frustrated by Seth's continual bombardment of curious questions (which is hard to take after being the target of about fifty or sixty questions fired at you in rapid succession); finally Matthew yelled from the back of the van:  "Mom, I'm getting so mad!  I'm boiling over, and it's all building up arms want to hit 'im.  Badly."  You have no idea the huge progress that this statement demonstrated.  Because he didn't hit Seth in his anger.  He showed the capacity for two simultaneous thoughts: he was furious and wanted to hit; and he didn't.  At bedtime, I pointed this observation out to Matthew, and told him that he had experienced a mixed feeling about Seth, and he smiled broadly.  I told him that I was really, really glad that this capacity for mixed feelings was coming back and his response was:  "me too!"  Because when he's physically aggressive with the kids, Matthew is the first to be hard on himself about it - he feels horrible about it, just can't help it in the moment of pent-up anger.

Another example of his gradual progress is that he actually went to a friend's house on a playdate a few weeks ago, which he flatly refused to do for the first five+ months that the younger kids were home... terrified that leaving the house would mean he would lose his place in the family (I've blogged about that before, I think).  So that playdate was huge deal (thanks Angela!).

Another example is that, just in the past two weeks, he has stopped needing Geoff or me (usually me) to lie down with him at bedtime until he falls asleep.  Until now, we have spent the past six months lying down every single night with all three kids (in succession) until they fall asleep...Matthew has been just as needy as his siblings for us to do this with him, and has been simply unable to fall asleep unless Geoff or I were with him.  And truly, I've never minded doing it, despite sometimes being even more exhausted by it; after all, he's gone through such upheaval in the past six months, and I know that the day will come when he no longer even wants us to lie down with him at bedtime.  That lying down routine has been good in another way:  it has often given the two of us time to talk about any issues going on with him - he's such a processor, that boy, and stuff often comes out at nighttime.  And so what if the house stays a little messier because I've needed to lie down with him for forty-five minutes?  Nonetheless, it's been a sign of progress, in my view, that Matthew is feeling a little more able to go to sleep on his own.

Anyway, though there's a long way ahead of us yet with Matthew, there have been some recent signs that he is becoming a bit more secure again, and I'm terribly thankful.

I don't want to speak too much about Geoff's adjustment over the past six months, because I'm certain he could write about it himself if he wanted to!  But given that he rarely reads my blog, and given that it is my blog, I feel ok stating a few things.  My bottom line is this:  I think Geoff has fared the best of all of us, over the past six months.  This is a fairly astounding observation, really, if you know Geoff at all, because Geoff is a guy that never used to think he'd have three children.  And here he is, fathering a brood of needy kids...and, for the most part, doing all right.  Granted, he is the one working outside of the home right now and doesn't experience the intensity of everything that I do.  But still, he's the parent of three exceedingly active and intense children and their needs.  I actually find myself liking him more these days because he's really trying hard to be a good Dad...and what woman doesn't want to see the father of her children be a good dad?  To be totally honest, I think he's a better parent of three than he was of's almost like his experience of kids has normalized a little in the past several months, which is harder to do when you have one child and no others of your own to compare that one to.  Anyway, to my surprise, I think Geoff's adjustment has gone well!

I've already spent some time, in previous blog posts, talking about how I'm doing, so I won't belabour that much further. There's no doubt in my mind that I'm going through some kind of minor depression thing these days, and that this is manifesting itself more now that things are stabilizing on the homefront. I have a hard time talking about it, in part because my emotions are so 'all over the map.'  I can be cheerful one hour, and sneaking into the bathroom crying the next hour with the thought that life as I knew/wanted it is over.  I experience a lot of extremes these days.  But the bottom line is that I'm struggling.  Some days, a lot.  There are times when I just want to call a friend and cry on the phone for a while, but then I get all embarrassed because I should just be able to snap out of this...and then I don't bother to call.  And then other times, a friend will ask how I'm doing and I'm so glad to see them or hear their voice that I am ok in that moment and so I don't end up talking about how I was really doing twenty minutes before.  It's all rather perplexing.  I feel hopeful, though, that this is all 'just' my own kind of adjustment to our new life.

Over all, I think that we're all headed in the right direction, but I can't tell you how glad I am that these first six months are behind us.  If it weren't for the need of our kids that I remember and record some of these things, I think I'd rather actually forget a good chunk of the past six months.  It feels like we're going to take every bit of a full year for our adjustment to feel 'done,' but we're on the path without a doubt...all of us.

A year ago we had just received our referral and we were waiting for our court date.  We had no clue what Christmas 2011 would look like for our family...we were excited and a bit scared about what the future held for us.  Now we've had a glimpse into that future and, despite its challenges, I would do it all over again.  My children are wonderful, and my love for all of them deepens almost by the day.

Yesterday morning in church, the boys were together in their Sunday School classroom, and Geoff was volunteering in the same room as the boys.  I was, as usual, upstairs in the service with Lizzie - and, as usual, she cuddled up with me throughout the entire hour.  As we sang the final Christmas carol to conclude the service, I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion.  I was standing there holding my daughter.  How blessed am I.  Six months home and we are a family adjusting; a family on the right path; a family complete.  Joy to the World!


  1. Ruth, I am off to email you...Thanks for sharing from your gut. It's hard to do, but it's GOOD. darci

  2. I am sure you are headed in the right direction, Ruth! You have all come so far and learned so much, even when it's been hard. I hope the next six months bring more attachment, my peace and more joy to you and your family.

  3. I'm just responding to one sentence in your blog where you say 10 minutes with a toy-wielding stranger and she forgets her mommy. My understanding is that she's not forgetting you, it's that she "attaches" indiscriminately to others--her way of surviving until recently! Perhaps the signs of distress you're seeing in her of late are her moving into anxious attachment, and then the next move will be to secure attachment. Also, those moments with other adults are moments now. Her permanent life is with you, but the emotional leftovers of her old life trickle out from time to time in order to get resolved. Just a couple of thoughts...

  4. What an incredible post, Ruth. You have captured and reflected on so much... We're just past 6 months too and have been having lots of similar conversations about how far we've all come and how far we still have to go! I'm with you in feeling good to have the first 6 months behind us. I think we can all be impressed and proud that we've all made it, mostly intact, to Christmas 2011! Thinking of you and sending Christmas wishes to the 5 of you! A

  5. Oh Ruth... I can hardly believe it's only been 6 months. You have all come so far.

  6. Thanks feels, in some ways, like we've lived a lifetime in the past six months. I'm so glad we're moving on to the next six months!



  7. Ruth I teared up several times reading this post. You are clearly an observant and attentive mother sensitive to the individual needs of her children. Your writing style makes it come alive - bravo -- kudoes.
    I feel strongly that the children will fair well with such a "tuned in" mom but I do worry about you, love. The task is gi-normous which you have espoused and the fact that you have 2 new children grown not born and developing over the years means you have had no time to assimilate all this yourself. Your weeping at night, weeping at all strikes me very much of total exhaustion. You think so much and analyze over so many details trying to extrapolate consequences that your brain is probably running on pure adrenaline.

    My most passionate wish is this -- next time you feel the need to cry or talk please call me. I am available to you at anytime. Don't think well it is 3 am I better be polite. NO! I love you and would joyously jump up to take a call from you at any hour of the day. Take care of that large generous heart. You need some catharsis which the blog helps with a bit but I would be glad to have you call and just say " You know what? I don't even know what I want to talk to you about. While I wait for your call I will be praying -- for you my beautiful friend - that the Lord keep you enabled with the strength you endeavour to use daily.

    Wish I could hug you.

  8. checking back in with you, thx for sharing this journey. much of it is VERY familiar at this end. i often wonder how the kids will view it, we will learn alot from our adult kids. but then it will be too late and will have to adopt again!! heh heh heh keep in touch friend