"Two Very Different Paths to Attachment"

Our kids both came to us at 20 months old. Same age, same adjustment, right? Not necessarily. Bonding with each child required very different tactics.

Mary Ostyn overcame her son's attachment difficulties

The Tough Cookie

We traveled to Korea to adopt our son. His foster mother cried when she handed him to me, but he barely whimpered. I felt sad for her, but relieved that he took to me so easily. I carried him in a baby carrier and slept with him at night. By the time we left Korea, I figured we were on our way to good attachment.

Once home, I carried him frequently, rocked him at bedtime, and slept with him at night if he woke crying. When he woke, he howled if I hugged him, preferring to rest his head on my forearm. Just adjustment pangs, I thought, confident he’d soon warm up to me.

After a month, he was still stand-offish, and I was frustrated. I blamed myself. Worked harder. Hugged him more. But those in-love, mommy feelings wouldn’t come.

After reading about toddlers and attachment, I paid closer attention to his behavior. He would whine to be picked up, then arch away and slither down my hip, or he’d lean limply outward, making his 23-pound body feel like lead. On my lap, he leaned far away. If I didn’t hang on, he would tumble off. And when I hugged him, he cried and thrashed as though my hugs were torture.

If I smiled at him, his eyes skittered away. If I tickled him, he resisted laughter with every iota of his being. He seemed constitutionally opposed to having fun with Mom. Not only that, he’d pinch tiny bits of skin on my arm, or pull one hair on my head — accidentally, I first thought. Except that those things happened too often to be accidental.

None of this was big stuff. But considered together, it left me irritated and feeling rejected. When I recognized his behaviors as a sign of attachment difficulties, I was both scared and relieved.

There was a reason for my feelings. I wasn’t a rotten mom. Attachment, after all, is a relationship — a two-way street. A mother falls in love with her infant because of the lovable things the baby does — nestling in, quieting when being cuddled, enjoying being fed, smiling and cooing, preferring Mom above everyone.

So why was he so resistant? Fear, plain and simple. He’d spent his first seven months of life in a hospital, with no chance to become attached to anyone. His next 13 months had been with his foster mom, who handed him to a stranger — me — and walked away.

He feared losing another mommy, so he was doing everything he could to make himself unlovable. Resisting hugs, avoiding eye contact — it was all self-protection. It broke my heart to realize how wounded he was. But it also spurred me to act.

Since we’d missed out on his infancy, I decided we would redo some of it. I treated him like a much younger child. He went everywhere with me. I slept with him. I fed him bites at mealtime and bottles at bedtime. I played on the floor with him.

I began rocking and holding him close every day, giving him kisses and reassurances that I would always be there. Hugging made him cry, but each day, as I cradled him and wiped away his tears, I found myself falling in love.

I still second-guessed myself often. It was tough, tiring work, and I worried that stirring up so much emotion wasn’t good for him. But unfailingly, his spirit seemed lighter afterwards. His eyes sparkled. He accepted cuddles. He was playful. He’d have hours or days of better behavior, and I’d get glimpses of the child he could be.

After six months, I could look back and see how far we’d come. We still had work to do, but by then he was so much better — more loving, giving hugs, sharing laughs with me. It was harder and slower than I ever imagined, but completely worth it. Now, at age six, he climbs into my bed to cuddle in the morning and searches me out for hugs during the day. He is a joy and a blessing. But it was a long, hard road.

The Sweetheart

Three years after our son came home, we decided to adopt another child. When we were referred a 10-month-old girl from Ethiopia, I hesitated. Fearing attachment problems again, I had hoped for a younger infant. But, bolstered by my husband’s enthusiasm, I added my signature to the referral papers. A month later, our agency’s director visited Ethiopia and decided that our daughter was probably six months older than the original estimate. Estimated age on homecoming: 20 months. Exactly the age our son had been.

My heart clutched. Yes, we had gotten through it with our son, but, oh, I did not want to go through those highs and lows again. I cried for days over that new birth date, then decided I was being silly. She was the age that she was, and we were convinced she was meant to be ours. Our experience with our son made us better equipped to parent a child with attachment issues. I reread my favorite books on attachment and gathered my courage.

And then came our daughter.

After living with her birth family for her first year of life, our daughter had spent the next 10 months in a busy Catholic orphanage. She was one of 15 or so toddlers in a tiny, crowded room with one or two caregivers. Halfway through her stay there, she was moved to a different room with different caregivers, but the same overcrowded conditions. Not an ideal start at life.

The day the nuns handed her to us, she was very still. She barely moved for two days, just watching us. Then she began reaching her arms out to me. I carried her everywhere, fed her bottles, and slept with her at night. By the fourth day she had turned into a sparkly, delightful cuddle-bunny. For weeks I waited for the honeymoon to end, but it never did. When she had been home seven months, while cuddling at naptime, she said to me, “Thank you, mommy. Thank you, happy, me.” She came to me with an open little heart, fell in love with me immediately, and never let go. I know now what a gift that is.

I still wonder why our two children responded so differently to the trauma in their lives. Maybe our daughter had excellent nurturing in her first year, and that’s what carried her through those long months in the orphanage. Maybe our son found those first seven months in the hospital so traumatic that he was unable to bond with his foster mom. Then again, our daughter is a people person, and our son is more reserved. Maybe it simply comes down to personality. We’ll never know for sure.

We do know, however, that we are tremendously grateful — for our son’s healed heart and for our daughter’s miraculously unbroken one. Though their adjustments were very different, both children were meant for our family.


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