Attachment so far

There's a word in my mind that's stuck beside the eight letters of adoption: attachment.  Adoptionattachment. In the international adoption/foster care/older child adoption worlds it's a ubiquitous word. It's a word that carries with it thousands of articles and hundreds of lectures and weighty parental concerns and yes, a few horror stories. 

When we talk about attachment in the adoption world we're talking about that important bond between caregiver and child. The bond that sets the stage for all the child's future relationships. And actually, for the child's future understanding of God. Strong early attachments lead to healthy relationships with others and with God. You'll probably remember from your high school or college psychology class that an infant's first major psychosocial task in life is to determine whether or not she can trust the world around her.  Can she trust that when she's hungry she'll be fed? When she's scared she'll be comforted? When she's wet she'll be changed? When she's cold she'll be warmed?

After this "trust vs. mistrust" stage, she moves onto the task of toddlerhood where she learns to do things herself: autonomy. Think of a toddler who's favorite phrases are, "No!" and "I do it myself!"

When a child in an orphanage receives sub-standard care he or she answers that first question (Can I trust the world around me?) with no instead of yes, he or she moves on to autonomy out of necessity or even survival instinct rather than out of a sense of security or self-confidence. This is a detrimental psychosocial move because the child needs to learn trust in order to form future healthy relationships.

In very simplified terms, a child who learns trust and then autonomy will be able to function in future relationships with empathy, genuine love and concern for the other person as well as a healthy respect for self in that relationship. A child who learns mistrust and then self-reliance will be prone to use future relationships pragmatically- for what he or she can get out of it without much thought for the other.  This makes sense if you consider the fact that the child learned to manipulate the world around her just for survival. Again, this is over-simplified but I just want to give you a picture of why attachment is so important.

More and more the research is showing that there is always hope children who received sub-standard care. As a Christian I have to believe that with God, all things are possible, even in the most dire circumstances. So if you are reading this do not let it scare you away from toddler or older child adoption!

When we started our journey to Arie we had no idea what his orphanage was like. We knew God was calling us to pursue his adoption so we worked hard to prepare ourselves to welcome him into our family no matter what attachment issues he had. We read, read, read, talked to our social worker, and watched a couple documentaries dealing with the subject of attachment.

We feel so immensely grateful to God that our precious son spent the first two+ years of his life in a very loving orphanage. It was obvious to us that the staff care so deeply for the children. The children were provided with lots of opportunity for stimulation like music classes, outdoor play, and even weekly speech therapy sessions. Still, even the best orphanages cannot provide the care of a family. Staff shift changes and turnover, high child-to-caregiver ratios, and just the systematic structuring of daily life meant that while Arie was loved and cared for, he still needed to learn and know the unconditional love and care that can only come from Mama and Papa. I will never forget one night of the first nights home Arie was crying in bed- not wanting to sleep- and started to wail loudly like only toddlers can do. We always stayed (still do) in the bedroom with him until he was falling asleep so I was right there by his side, telling him sssshhhhhh. I expected he would continue to wail for a while and slowly settle down with my comfort, but instead he immediately cupped his hand over his mouth and sobbed almost silently as tears poured down his face. A reaction, I'm sure, to previous demands by his nannies for silence as he cried in a room full of other sleeping children. It broke my heart. A two-year-old should be allowed to cry for comfort.

Before we brought him home I posted about our attachment plan. We read that adoptive parents should stick to an intensive form of attachment parenting for at least one month for every year the child received sub-standard care. For us, that meant 2.5 months. We are almost done and I will tell you it was worth every second. Arie's attachment to us is growing stronger by the day!

I also have to say that we needed a lot of heavenly grace during the last two months. For patience and for figuring out exactly how gentle or stern to be with our little man.  And even more to calm those are we doing the right thing fears that came up when John's dad was dying.  John had to leave us for a week before his dad died and then we welcomed his mom and sister into our home for another week. Neither of these are "ideal" attachment scenarios, but God gave us overwhelming peace to assure us that we were making the right decisions and that he would protect Arie's precious little heart from these disruptions.

Arie now cries (loudly- might I add) when he's upset in bed. Where he used to dust himself off or even laugh when he fell he now runs to me with every bump and "boo-boo." It is obvious to us that he had good attachments to his caregivers at the orphanage because he has been able to transfer those attachments to us smoothly.  He looks for us when we're out of sight.  When he was in the ER the other night with croup he blessed me so deeply by crying out, "Mama!" for comfort.

After a toddler adoption the work of attachment is never done.  Through various stages of his life, Arie will deal with different questions and issues regarding his adoption but right now on this day we are feeling so thankful and blessed by our attachment process. Ultimately as his parents we can show him love, kindness, and tenderness but it is only our Heavenly Father who knows those walls in our little mans heart that need to be broken down and repaired. We continue to pray for God's grace and wisdom as we walk down this attachment journey, especially as we enter the next phase of socializing beyond our families.  

As we see Arie's attachment to us grow stronger and stronger we are feeling more and more comfortable exposing him to events and activities outside our home.This week we took him to a bouncy-house emporium (I made that up, but I don't know what to call it. A big converted warehouse filled with bouncy castles and slides.) and a local Children's Museum. This is where the hard work of attachment pays off and the fun part of family begins! The bouncy emporium was not camera-friendly due to all the... well, bouncing, but our Museum soundtrack was giggles and click click click.

Doing it wrong.
There we go.
The bubbles were Arie's favorite part. He now refers to the entire museum as "bubbles."
We left a lot soapier than we came.
Waited a long time for a turn on this human sized bubble maker.
Arie (I) really wanted to try it. ;-)
It's all fun and games until someone knocks over your dominoes.
I know many of my readers are in the adoption process or praying about a future adoption. When it comes to all the attachment literature you're reading and/or worries you're having, I pray God guides you with much wisdom and clarity. Above all, set your eyes on the beautiful promise given to us in Proverbs 3:5:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. 
In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight. 



  1. I love this. Thank you for sharing. :)

  2. I met a couple at Symposium this year who are waiting to bring their child home from Columbia. They were overjoyed to hear that you were able to get your son amid the tense US-Russian relations. It was a blessing to hear them talk openly about their struggles, some similar to yours and some different. I talked about your expectancy ('pregnancy') struggles and the photo shoot with the globe and the mom started to tear up. Being able to follow you and your story with Arie has opened my eyes up to a whole new world. Thank you for all your sharing.
    PS - I love John's look in that last picture, especially compared to Arie's face. Priceless!

    1. Kate that is awesome! Thank you for sharing that story with me! And I agree- those last pics are priceless. :-)

  3. So I' guessing the Children's Museum was worth the money? Annabelle loved going. I wished we lived a bit closer! The children's museums here hardly compare to all the activities there.

    1. It was! We got a coupon for one free admission too, so we only had to pay for 2 tickets!

  4. This was just beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing!

  5. Oh my, I am so looking forward to hearing my sobbing child cry out "Mama!". We're still not pregnant yet, but one day I'll be rushing to my child's bedside at the mention of my name. Cannot wait.

    Arie darling is aDORable in that bubble sequence! I still love the giant bubble machines!

    1. It is such an amazing feeling to know you can provide comfort to your child just be being there. :-) Thank you for the comment!

  6. Thanks for sharing...I think many of us on the path to adopting wonder about these things and it's not until we hear it from someone going through it that we feel comforted. My husband and I are seeking to do domestic adoption of an infant, so I don't know how much of that applies, but such great information! Thanks girl:)

  7. Jill, thank you, as always, for continuing to share your story with us. This post was especially informative...and adorable. I just love the looks of pure joy and discovery on Arie's face in all those photos. He is such a blessing, even to those of us who only know the "2D-digital" version of him. :)

  8. Thank you for this post. I am an "online friend" of yours from back in the GP message board days (rels09, in case you have a ridiculous memory for letters and numbers). We welcomed our daughter last July after battling some fertility challenges, but adoption is always on our minds and hearts for the future. But I recently read the book Baby Hearts, and the emphasis on attachment from birth in the book gave me pause about whether we could ever fill that gap with an adopted child. I love hearing about how it's going for you, so please keep posting about this. Arie's happiness is visible through the computer screen (as is yours). Congrats on becoming a mom, from a former Michigander.

  9. I want to encourage Katie Hill that all of this applies.

    I am mama to an 11 yr old girl that we adopted domestically when she was just 6 weeks old. With ever developmental phase she has rehashed, and regrieved her adoption. And honestly, we have had to reassure her attachment to us. I think when that process is interrupted, simply by the people that are "supposed" to care for you disappear (and new ones take their place) it is a broken place that needs healing.

    I wouldn't let that scare you away though. All children will grow up to have some issues. We all have them! No matter how wonderful of a home we grow up in. Even if we are raised by loving birthparents! (At least I do {grin}) When a child is born to you, you have no clue what their issues are going to be. When you adopt, at least you know one. You know they will carry a grief with them, their whole life, of missing their birth family. You can pretend it doesn't exist, because you are jealous for their whole heart (I feel that), or you can grieve with them and walk with them to healing places.

    I think that is what attachment is for us right now, parenting a pre-teen. It is sweet and bitter-sweet. But I have no question that she is exactly where she belongs. My heart sings because she feels that way too. ♥

    1. I also highly recommend this counselor, Holly Van Gulden, and her book "The Dance of Attachment". We heard her speak, and I was able to talk with her afterwards, early on in our adoption journey. She was immensely helpful. She has another book "Real Parents - Real Children" that I recommend too.


  10. Love this :) So happy for you guys!!

  11. I have been following your story for a while now and just wanted to take a moment to say that your son is adorable and the love is visible.
    I'm very thankful for all of your information on the need for the attachment period (it makes perfect sense but might not have been something I would have thought of). I was discussing leave time with a friend who is due in a few months and was able to intelligibly explain why that time was just as important for adoptive parents.

  12. As a mother of a biological 2 year old, currently suffering from what could be secondary infertility, I've wondered how I could summon the strength to handle a (future, potentially adopted) child that isn't mine?? We've talked about adoption as a possibility, but I'm so scared that I can't find that wealth of love and sympathy and EVERYTHING for our adopted baby. I WANT to be able to adopt. I want to be able to give the love and acceptance and comfort and....everything. But I do know that I look at my biological 2 year old occasionally and say...how would another person deal with him, without the love a mother?? I know you love Arie as your own - he IS your own, I just don't know how to do that after having one biologically, too. Do you have any suggestions??

    1. Can I confess that I've had those same worries about having a biological child? I mean, I don't know if we ever will/can get pregnant but after going to the ends of the earth and back again for Arie I've wondered if I could ever love a biological child who would come into our family so *easily* by comparison. I've asked these questions to a few moms who have both biological children and adopted children and they all same the same thing: you love them all equally. You deal with the hard stuff using the same love for your adopted child that you do your biological child. They've all told me there is no difference in the way they feel about their adopted child vs. the bio child.

      With an adopted child- just like with a bio child- you have to bond to grow those feelings of love but if you determine to take those steps to facilitate bonding there is no doubt in my mind that the "mother love" you refer to will be present for all your children, no matter how they came into your family. One he/she is your child, she is YOUR child and biology becomes nothing more than background noise.

      Practically I suggest talking to a few moms who have both bio and adopted children and asking them about their experiences. I'm sure they will be happy to share their joys and trials! xo

  13. Anonymous2/07/2013

    Your retelling of Arie crying silently made my husband and me tear up. How heart-wrenching! Thank you for sharing - attachment is definitely on the mind of anyone considering adoption!

  14. I just found your story after your adoption maternity photos were posted on Birth Without Fear. Your son is so beautiful--the pictures of him at the museum are so striking, he's like a little Russian model!

    My husband was adopted locally within the US as a newborn, and while many circumstances of his adoption and upbringing are different and have led him to be a little fearful of adopting, it's something I have always wanted to do. The way you eloquently share your emotions, journey, and parenting methods with Arie, totally reinforce my thoughts regarding adoption. Whether we're able to conceive on our own or not (some things are out of our control, like him needing three brain surgeries in under two months, so who knows if I'll be able to conceive), providing a loving home to a child that might be raised in a sub-par situation is something I have always wanted to do.

    Thank you for sharing your your experiences, I will definitely be following how your family and Arie are coming together and look forward to seeing him grow!


  15. I am a relatively new reader but have been so encouraged and uplifted by your experiences as we have just begun the process of considering adoption and what it could mean for our family, after 2 beautiful biological daughters and a clearly closed door to further biological reproduction, yet an ever-present ache for more children. I was at the children's museum on the day you took these pictures (my daughter was fascinated by the dental exhibit) and stood there for awhile trying to figure out where I "knew" you from! Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts and experiences! http://www.oursmalllife.com


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