I’m standing in the bathroom in a hotel in Taiyuan, China. I peek my head around the corner and try to come out. The child on the bed glares at me and starts to scream. Blood-curdling, primal screams. My husband rushes to comfort the child as I duck back into the bathroom. Thus began our first hours as adoptive parents.
When we first began our adoption journey, I knew attachment would be something we needed to foster. I knew it was possible the child might bond with one parent over the other. I also knew that seeing the child and instantly falling in love with him was stuff that screenplays are made of. Two adoptions from two different countries later, I have learned attachment takes time to grow, and love takes even more time to blossom. It is not instantaneous.
Just as it took time to fall in love with your partner, so will it take time to fall in love with your child and for him or her to fall in love with you. How long that journey takes depends on a number of factors: early trauma, the circumstances of your child’s care before he met you, developmental delays, the shock of moving from one culture to another, and/or your child’s medical needs. But there are ways you as an adoptive parent can help.
The most important thing to do as a new adoptive parent is to forge a connection with your child. Establish that you will meet his basic needs through feedings (if the child is young enough or with set meal times for older children) and making healthy snacks available whenever your child is hungry. If you can, carry your child. Forging that physical connection can help with your emotional connection. Give lots of hugs. Encourage eye contact during meal times and through play (such as peek-a-boo for younger children). For older children, look into using Theraplay, a form of playful engagement designed to build attachment and trust.
If your child screams or says “I hate you,” do not take it personally. It’s hard, yes, but your child is frustrated, scared, and hurting, and those things take time to heal. Create routines, create rituals; design your day to be predictable so the child knows what to expect. Remember, he has been through a tremendous, traumatic event so the safer you can make him feel, the more attachment will grow.
And as for love? That comes later. Sometimes weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years later. When we returned home from China and my husband resumed work, my new son clung to me for dear life. But when I held him, he would always place his small arm between me and his body. That one gesture told me he knew he could trust me to provide for him, but he didn’t love me. Not yet. Then one day, the arm wasn’t there. I don’t remember how long it took or what about that day was different, but in that moment I knew he loved me, finally, and I truly loved him.
Jennifer S. Jones is a writer, performer, storyteller, and arts educator. She holds an MFA (Playwriting) from NYU Tisch. She has written numerous plays including the internationally renowned, award-winning Appearance of Life. Her amazing transracial transcultural family was created through adoption from China and India. She is passionate about the adoption community and talks about the ins and outs, ups and downs, joys and “is this really us?!” whenever she can. She writes about her experiences at www.letterstojack.com.