Sunday, October 30, 2011

Some Things I've learned. . . and am learning about adoption

I'm learning new things from our little Mei Li every day. She is such a joy! And, one thing that I am coming to realize, is that mothering the adopted child is a bit different (in some areas) than mothering the biological child. I remember hearing some wonderful advice and scientific research presented to Geoff and me early on in our adoption journey by Dr. Jennifer Chambers at The International Adoption Clinic here in Birmingham. What I am witnessing, now, first hand. . . is that what she shared with us is true. And, I'll share it with you.

There's more to write about than I have space to write, but I'll focus in on a couple of bits of information that are especially interesting, or have really proven true for our journey with Mei Li. Maybe it will help others of you who are home with your little ones. . . trying to navigate through uncharted waters without the advice of a pediatrician who is an expert in adopted children.

First of all, attachment and bonding is the first order of business with your adopted child. And, it is not as simple as it sounds. With an adopted child (especially ones who have grown up for months or years in an orphanage. . . or for those who have experienced incredible trauma of one kind or another), the synapses in the brain that begin connecting at birth and thrive with the love and nurture of a mama and daddy. . . that connect and make pathways and lay a foundation for all learning and ability to intake the world around them. . . these synapses are not fully formed/connected in a child who has not received the love and nurture of a mother and father from birth. (Of course, this will vary by degrees depending on each child and his/her individual prior experiences.) I remember Dr. Chambers actually showing images of the brain synapses of a biological child at birth, 3 months, 6 months and 1 year. . . and then her showing the images of a child who was in an orphanage during the same timeframes. The differences in these pictures were astounding!! Babies' brains truly need love and nurture to grow and for those little synapses and wires inside to develop.

We were told that there were things we needed to do "differently" with our adopted daughter to insure her the best possible outcome. . . to stimulate her brain, allow these synapses to connect and for her to flourish with our love and nurture in the first months that she comes home.

First of all, it was recommended that we not expose her to lots of people at first. That is a TOUGH thing for all of our close friends and family who love us and want to love on our little girl. It is truly difficult for people to understand, since it is completely fine for a newborn biological baby to be around other people. There are a number of reasons why we were given this advice. The most important, perhaps, is that our daughter has never known a "mommy" or a "daddy". She only knows life inside an orphanage, with rotating caretakers. She may have had some caretakers that she liked more than others. I believe there was one, in particular, our Mei Li attached herself to. She calls her "orphan mommy". Note the term "mommy" used by Mei Li. But, our Mei Li has never had a true reference for what a "real mommy" is. She needs to be taught. Not just an intellectual knowledge. . . a definition of "mommy" she has learned from books or songs. But, she needs to experience the one-on-one love and nurture of her "real-live-mommy". This means, that for the first few months, I need to be the one tending to all of Mei Li's needs (as much as humanly possible). I need to feed her, bathe her, sing her to sleep every night, kiss her boo-boos, be there when she is afraid or sad and hold her in my arms when she needs reassurance. No one else (besides daddy) needs to fulfill these duties for the first few months. . . or as long as it takes to teach her/show her what and WHO "mommy" is. This rule applies for whomever the primary caretaker is. If daddy is the one staying home every day, then daddy would need to be the one to be in this role even more than mommy for the first few months. This is very demanding on the primary caretaker, but so important.
It is difficult for friends and family to understand that you are not being overly protective or "acting strange" when you are having to limit your child's time with people the first few months. Now, I don't mean that you hole yourself up and never leave your house. :) But, I do mean that we have been told that no one else needs to babysit, feed, nurture, soothe, meet the emotional and physical needs of your newly adopted child (or even hold the child for more than a moment). This is specifically the job of mom and dad for the first 3-4 months. . . or as long as it takes for your child to completely attach to you. Remember, she is having to learn that you are not just another orphanage caretaker/nanny who works a shift and leaves, maybe for a day or longer. That is the only reference many of these children have ever known.
Our social worker, International Adoption Clinic pediatricians and adoption family therapists have explained that it is critical that the mom and dad be "the constant caretakers" in our daughter's life for the first few months. Otherwise, if other friends/family and caretakers are caring for them, meeting their physical and emotional needs, loving on them. . . you can "very easily" have your child attach to one of these precious friends or family members instead of "you". Obviously, this is dangerous and unhealthy for your child and for your family. The most important foundation to lay. . . is an understanding of your child's "family" and exactly who fulfills the role of "mommy" and "daddy". Be careful that your child does not connect with another person in that way. This attachment is the foundation for a healthy family life for your child and for your family.

To quick-check how your child is doing in the attachment department, ask yourself, "Does my child ever reach for anyone else besides mom or dad for comfort or help?" If they prefer to be in someone else's arms rather than yours when they need consoling or affection, then you need to be aware and make necessary adjustments.

Mei Li is such a bright and vibrant little girl who is eager "to learn" and "do" and "experience life". We are very blessed with this precious child! But, as smart and lively as she is, we are having to remember to lay a foundation with her. She is learning, for the first time, what "family" truly means from first-hand experience. And, even though it is apparent to us that someone in that orphanage took time to love and nurture her, she still is having to have new groundwork laid in her little brain as her world is unfolding to her for the first time.
I am just thankful that Geoff and I, as well as Big Sis, Anna Grace, are lucky enough to be the ones she is experiencing this new world with. . . and that we are fortunate enough that God chose us to be her family!

My hope is that this post will help other adoptive families who have recently, are soon to be bringing their child home. And, that it may help explain some of the ways we are having to do things in these early months for our own friends and family. SO, sweet friends and family. . . if it seems we have disappeared and dropped off the face of the earth . . . WE HAVEN'T!!!! :D We promise! We'll be back in the saddle again soon. And, we LOVE you and appreciate the outpouring of love you have shown us since our return. . . more than you will ever know!! :)

And, just to be clear. . . I realize there are many adoptive families who may not have a choice but to have other caretakers care for their children when they come home and "have" to return to work soon thereafter. Please know that I am not criticizing you. These are tough times we live in, and people must do what they must do. Hopefully, this information will help you, too, to recognize if any of these behaviors are beginning to show. . . and you can take quick action to help your little one. :)