I’m meeting her in 18 days. A 23-month old toddler, who has no idea that a mother is flying across the ocean. A little one who does not know the moments and months of anticipation and love from afar. A little girl who does not understand that I have looked at her picture every day and dreamed of holding her in my arms. She has a new room, new siblings, and will soon have a new last name. She has lived an entire lifetime without a mother and in 18 days she will meet hers. She does not know her entire world is about to tilt on its axis; but I do. And I know I will have to see her needs before mine. I know that every desire to swoop in and mother her, will need to be tempered. I know that my eagerness cannot overshadow her tragedy. I am not the original, the best, or the optimal plan. I have learned this from years of foster care and adoption. I have learned this from my many first introduction falters and stumbles. I have learned that the first moments in meeting your child are so important.
Spring 2009 – He stands small on my doorstep with a black trash bag, his hand engulfed in the busy caseworker’s hand. ‘Here you go Stacey, and he has some clothes packed inside the bag. Your caseworker will give you a call later this week to see how things are going.” And with the closing of the door, a wash of anxiety poured over me. I was alone and I was in charge. He looked up at me expectantly. I knelt down to introduce myself and realized suddenly I didn’t know what to call myself. Foster mom, Stacey, Mrs. Stacey? Oh my gosh, who am I to him. And I mumbled, hello and other words that I can’t recall and I proceeded to freak out and overwhelm my newly arrived foster son. Finally, I decided to do what came naturally as a mother and I scooped him up into my arms and he gently laid his head on my shoulder and I breathed a sigh of relief that soon turned into a yelp, as he sank his tiny teeth into the side of my neck. I had no idea what I was doing, no one had taught me what to do in these first moments.
You are not my mother!
An adoptive mother likened the first moments of meeting your child to a blind date that you marry at the end of the night. With adoption, you are the ‘mother’ on paper, but not in the constructs that we know. When I think about motherhood, I see it as this beautiful dance of attachment and trust. A baby cries, the mother meets the baby’s needs. A baby smiles, a mother returns the smile. She provides swaddling and dimmed lighting. A mother is providing and modeling self-regulation of stress.
Attachment and trust actually begins in utero, as the baby is designed to develop in “reward” chemicals (oxytocin) released by a mother who is supported by family or friends. At birth a mother naturally desires to hold and kiss and count toes and provide needs. There is a give and take, as the baby and mother give and receive mutual love and affection “And in the arms of the mother, there is that magic moment literally weaving together the neurobiology of all these different systems. The biology of attachment is that a baby learns by thousands of good experiences that life stress is tolerable because it leads to reward, and this pleasurable outcome is attached to a person, Mom… Ultimately just seeing or hearing Mom makes you feel safe and pleasurable. Let a wounded soldier talk to his mom, he’ll need 45% less pain meds.” Dr Bruce Perry.
Adoption or foster care is not a part of the natural process that started before birth. And this is why it is said that adoption is built on loss. When I understood this, I understood better how I needed to meet my foster child or adoptive child the first time. And honestly, it was awkward and unnatural to me. Because my constructs for mom were built on physical nurturing and the biology of attachment.
She is my daughter, but I am not her mother.
When I hold my daughter for the first time, I will not be her mother. She may call me ‘mom’, but it will just be another word to her. I will be very careful in how I approach her. I will not shower her with kisses and hug her tight and inspect every finger or toe. Instead I will woo her and use play to begin the dance of motherhood. I will provide for needs and smile when she laughs. I will temper my desires to kiss her face and breathe deep her scent, because I do not want to scare her. This motherhood dance is a marathon of needs met, not a sprint. I will give her love and affection, but I will not expect it in return. She is new to this dance and while she is my daughter, I am not yet her mother.
I know this sounds crushing to any new adoptive moms out there, but it is truth. It is very important to temper expectations and step back from our own needs. It took me a long time to learn that I had to parent out of their need, not mine. Here are a few tips that worked for me.
1. When you introduce yourself, get eye level, smile and shake a hand. It is not natural for children to hug strangers and sit in their lap. If your child wants to hop in your lap and kiss your face, this is not natural and should be a red flag.
2. Play. Yes, play is the foundation of learning for children. It is pleasurable, and has no immediate survival role or obvious “purpose”; and children perceive it as nonthreatening and low stress. Play should be developmentally appropriate and while play might seem meaningless, it actually helps regulate, communicate, practice, and master. Some ideas are blowing bubbles, walking, playing with play-doh, peek-a-boo, swinging, kicking a soccer ball. Play should be geared to the child’s developmental level; not chronological age. Avoid games that are competitive or complicated.
3. Never speak poorly about the biological parents. NEVER! There is never an instance that you need to badmouth a bio. Most children love their parents, even if horribly abused. You are aligning yourself against the biological parents and the child, if you badmouth the parent. Their history is a part of their identity and if you speak badly about it, you are actually speaking bad about the child.
4. Temper your excitement. This might be the most incredible moment of your life. However, they don’t understand why everyone seems so happy; their world has just completely turned upside down. Remember even a bad situation is a known situation. There is security in the known and the familiar.
I will meet my daughter in 18 days, but she will not meet her mother. No, that introduction will be over months of time and lots of work. It will be hard won and a fight. Because being her mother will be built on nighttime tuck in rituals, tickle monsters, washing grubby fingers, wiping alligator tears, serving dinners, kissing boo boos, reading books, saying ‘no’, saying ‘yes’, wiping boogers, wiping butts, finding rocks in the dryer, and the million other moments that define a mom. It will be unpacking loss and trauma amidst a hopeful family. I meet my daughter in 18 days, and I’m scared and I’m excited.