The first step is to penetrate the clouds of deceit and distortion and learn the truth about the world,
then to organize and act to change it. That's never been impossible and never been easy. ~Noam Chomsky

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Attachment Post (at 9 months)

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Ariam was cradling plastic baby in her arms, attempting to feed it from a miniature plastic baby bottle last week. She kept trying to jam the little pink n.ipple into plastic baby's mouth but it wouldn't fit. Instead of getting frustrated, she gave baby a very empathetic look, bent over to set the bottle on the floor, tipped baby onto her back, looked her in her blinky blue eyes and quietly whispered...
"shhhh sh sh sh shhhh."

For 9 months that has been our comfort language. "Shhhh sh sh sh shhh" I whisper in her ear when she's upset. "Shhhh sh sh sh shhhh" is the sound I make when she cries at night, it is our mommy/baby language.

Maybe nothing has been more satisfying than watching Ariam use my love language to share comfort and love with her baby.


Like every other adoptive mother that has been steeped in attachment literature and scary adoption trainings I searched those early photos of Ariam. Looking for signs of her past, her early life, and her capacity for resilience and future attachment. I looked and looked and looked.

Her shining open eyes gave me reason for hope.

Then we showed up in person. And I'm not saying it went...badly. No, I can't say that exactly. But we received a child who was tired, plain old tired, of packing up her little bags and moving on. The eyes didn't shine for us. We faltered, there were a few days when I didn't even touch Ariam (I was sick), and while we had initial feelings of adoration for her, we were not sure she would ever like us in return.

Looking back I think we made it all much harder than it had to be. We were serious and sick. We were incredibly sleep deprived. And we had no clue how to be parents. So she was probably just reflecting our own mood.

I will not forget the first time I saw Ariam's face light up, not for food or her bottle, but for a person. I knew then, I just knew that she (in her baby way) loved deeply, trusted, and would attach to us.

On day 14 together, we took a very bumpy dusty ride to Debre Zeit (a smaller city about an hour and a half outside of Addis Ababa.)

Late in the afternoon as we were preparing to leave Debre Zeit the social worker we were with just happened to mention that Ariam had actually lived in a baby home near where we were parked. (News to us!)

She offered to take us by the home and introduce us to Ariam's favorite nanny.

We pulled through the gates into a compound that looked just like a regular, small, concrete Ethiopian home. Washing strung across the yard on ropes. A comfortable front porch. A few women, a few babies.

I carried Ari in and up the porch stairs and heard a gasp of joy. Women began running and calling out in Amharic.

Lovely Alemtsehaye:

This woman cared for Ariam from the first day she left her mother. This woman did not put her in the crib they showed me (on the "Derartu" tour!) but rather slept with her in her own bed. This woman tended to the bug bites on her legs and hung her photo on the wall (it was still there.) And quietly/aside, the social worker told us that Alemtsehaye cried and begged for Ariam not to be moved to Addis Ababa.

I am so thankful for Alemtsehaye and the love she poured over Ariam.
The bond they had, even after not having seen each other for the past 3 months, was palpable. We stayed for a long time,  had coffee, and enjoyed the handful of babies and equal number of nannies. We took a photo of Ariam's first baby photo.  The experience with Alemtsehaye and the baby home was a priceless glimpse of Ariam's early life attachment story.

I know that Ariam lived through trauma in her short life before us. But I know that she also experienced very real care and devotion .

Our attachment story, like all, began WAY before we entered the picture. It began with Ariam. With the people who shaped her and whatever was inside her that stayed aware and willing to reach out.

In my less than expert opinion, I'd like to posit that attachment begins with trust, not with love.

Attachment is not a willingness to love whomever comes along. It is a willingness, based on previous experience and probably just inherent to some personalities, to trust that your needs will be met. It is the desire to put your hand and heart out there and trust that it won't be hurt, even if it has been before.
We were naive, but it served us well in the long run. We had no previous children or experiences against which to measure either Ariam's attachment to us or ours to her.

We didn't instantly love or attach to her. But we trusted that it would happen. We didn't always even like being parents at first. But we jumped when she said jump and as her trust in us grew, our enjoyment of parenthood grew.

For Ariam attachment turned into love for us. I think it happened more quickly for the three of us than it does for most - and for that I am eternally grateful. I can't believe that I wrote this post after being home just one month. (Of course, at the time, it felt like an eternity.)

Somewhere along the line Ariam began to reach for us. Hold our hands against the side of her head and look up, making eye contact and smiling. She began to come to us for kisses with every little bump instead of getting up stoically and moving on without a sound. She began to point and name us and light up when either of us entered a room. She molded her little body onto my hip, found her groove with looping one arm around my bicep, and we...well we both attached and we loved.

Problems? At 9 months I am guessing there's a lot we don't know and have yet to experience. I feel sure that we'll continue to wonder about things - "attachment/adoption issue or normal kid issue?" (Um - I feel compelled to insert here that I wonder this all the time about her huge preference for daddy.)

One thing I've found that adoptive bloggers don't seem to ever talk about though are our own issues.

The attachment discussion on blogs this month, and the interesting representation of daddy preference stories, has made me think a lot about this. What kind of baggage do we bring to the process of attachment and parenting? What expectations/hopes/dreams set us up for fear, concern or disappointment? Do we project and displace some of our own insecurities about attachment onto our children?

I don't say this to rock the boat at all. I'm not suggesting that it's all in our heads. What I'm suggesting is that we bring a lot more "stuff" to the adoption triad than we probably realize. Stuff that helps, stuff that hurts, and stuff that prevents us from knowing how to move our children securely through the massive life change that is international adoption.

I think that a lot of the things we, in our own family, get stuck on have as least as much to do with our own childhood, our own daydreams of parenthood, and our own attachment styles as they do with the actual issue at hand. A conversation for another day...unless you want to respond in the comments! (hint hint...)

Time is a circus, attachment is a river, attachment triage, goodness there are so many great metaphors and talented writers exploring attachment this month.
I find myself ending this blog without any profound conclusion.

I recommend you head over to Claudia's blog to read all of the gathered attachments posts and form your own conclusions.



  1. You have no idea how well your blog is preparing me for (someday?) bringing our daughter home. I know this is a blog for and about your family, but it continues to be a pleasure to read your well-thought words. Thank you for continuing to be so open and vulnerable.

  2. That first picture of the two of them together again is remarkable. How wonderful that she took care of her that way. Love this post. It is interesting to think of our own attachment issues and how they play out with our kids. I'll have to think about that one. Maybe you should do a linky? Although I bet that not so many people will talk about it. I don't even know what my issues are there.
    Your daughter is a shiny little soul, lit from within.

  3. I have to agree with you that we bring a lot more to it than we think. I find myself watching my children's behavior and immediately wondering if that's adoption related or just kid behavior. Most of the time, if I'm honest, it's just kid behavior. But we've been taught to be so hyper vigilant as adoptive parents that it's hard to not look at every tug away as rejection.

  4. Those are powerful pictures. How strong that Nanny must be to let herself attach and let go so that the babies can be as emotionally healthy as possible.
    I couldn't agree more - our own issues play a big role in this. I have struggled to figure out WHICH of my issues (cause there are more than a few to examine)might be attachment related.
    Luckily for us, one of the ways my issues play out is the desire to cuddle, touch and snuggle all the time.

  5. I just lost a long comment. Darnitall. Maybe I'll address some of what I said in my own attachment post. Shoot.

    Your insight into attachment as trust is huge and is helping my brain organize all these varied thoughts and feelings whipping around.

  6. I am actually working on an attachment post for Claudia's challenge that is about just this - how my own attachment issues, from my own childhood, are hindering my attachment to my daughter. She wants to attach, knows how to attach. The problem is me.

    Love what you said about attachment being more about trust than love.

  7. This post is beautiful. Tears were brought to my eyes and such feelings of love surfaced when I read your words ands saw the photos of your daughter with her former nanny. I wholeheartedly agree that we bring so much to the attachment triad. It is impossible not to....and a wonderful opportunity to sift through what arises. So, I think those questions are warranted and necessary. Love what you shared...I will be following along!

  8. I love this. And I agree. I realized after posting mine that I left off a whole really big piece of our attachment and that was MY baggage holding us back. She's beautiful and that picture with her Nanny is PRICELESS!

  9. Oh, that dreaded pink dress...ugh!!!

  10. Oh, so much to say here! first up:

    Attachment is not a willingness to love whomever comes along. It is a willingness, based on previous experience and probably just inherent to some personalities, to trust that your needs will be met.

    YES!! I think this is absolutely spot on. It's about appropriate trust - and that's why it's SO important, imho - it's not about us (as parents) getting our needs met, it's about (hopefully) helping our kids to get to a point where they KNOW that we are going to be there tomorrow, the next day and the day after that. (I wrote something about 'love' in my last post,a dn was kicking myself for it - nearly went back and edited but yeah, what that post did NOT need was an extra paragraph and you've said it much much better than I was going to!)

    And then: wow, that photo with Ariam's nanny is incredible. SO much love in that pic. (And I guess that's the crazy thing - I typed love there without thinhking about it, but so often when needs are met, and trust is granted, love blossoms... parents and children (and nannies) are designed with a lovely positive feedback loop!)

    And then: I'm sure you're right about the baggage. Personally, I had an incredibly happy childhood- and it's only recently I've realised that this is it's own kind of baggage to bring to parenthood. I'm not complaining - obviously! but I want my kids to be as happy as I was, and if they aren't I feel like I'm failing. I probably need to let gooooo of that.

    And then: just kidding. that's it - I promise Except - THANK YOU for writing this!

  11. Too funny Claudia - you are so right about a happy childhood being its own form of baggage. That's why I get so worried about Ariam, I think she needs exactly what I had and if I see things falling out of line with my expectations of her childhood I just get all bent out of shape. J - who had a very unhappy childhood - sees things with much more clarity and is so much more relaxed.


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