Everyone said I’d fall in love the minute they laid her in my arms. She was beautiful – a broad alabaster face with slightly-slanted deep brown eyes. She was a flirt: at 6 months she knew how to flash a dimpled smile, like a come-hither starlet. I was awed by her perfect features as the fleshy woman pressed her into my arms, swaddled in a blanket. A few minutes later she said, “Feed baby,” and handed me a bottle filled with a brown tea concoction. I took the bottle hesitantly and tipped it toward the baby’s pursed lips. How would I know when she was sated or whether she needed to burp? I felt as though someone had lent me an expensive camera I was afraid to fiddle with.
I always thought I’d be a great mother. The love I expressed for my animals reinforced the notion I had great capacity to nurture. At the airport waiting to leave Siberia I had our baby on my lap. Suddenly I heard a pop, then a mountainous ooze of putrid yellow diarrhea exploded from her diaper. I was horrified, unable to stand the smell of the stench. I thrust the baby into my husband’s hands. Calmly he changed her diaper and pulled out a clean snowsuit.
Terrified my first instinct was to push this baby away from me rather than come to her aid, I wondered how in the world I would be able to care for her. I was 40 when we went to Russia, in a second marriage, one I trusted would last. Becoming a parent was the next thing to do, like ticking a chore off an errand list. My husband and I had tried basic, non-invasive fertility treatment because we couldn’t conceive; when that failed we moved on to adoption without any real aching over the lost hope of having a genetic child. I was secretly relieved because I didn’t want to expose my body to more aggressive, hormone-altering fertility treatment like in vitro fertilization. Maybe I felt ambivalent about motherhood and didn’t know it.
Like a hiker guided by woodland blazes I moved forward, following what I thought was an obvious path. Never did I sit myself down and think, I mean really think, about how I felt about motherhood. Six months after the social worker from the adoption agency called and said, “We have a baby for you,” our daughter was in a makeshift nursery carved from a windowless alcove in our small apartment in New York City. There were no mobiles dangling above her crib or animal-themed borders running along the wall. We’d had just enough time to assemble a borrowed crib, an IKEA bureau of drawers and a changing table. The space was so teeny we couldn’t even fit a rocking chair.
No one had thrown me a baby shower. I had not read a single book on preparing for parenthood. In the months leading up to the adoption, my husband lost his job. At times I wondered whether we should go through with it, but he convinced me we should. “We’re both 40,” he had said. “There’s a baby who needs parents.” I remember the steel-grey November day I got the call from the agency. I heard “Siberia” and “passports” and “arrange flight,” but all I could think about were my writing deadlines.
Pregnant women get to arrange the spice rack. Nature slows them down. They come to their baby slowly, symbiotically. When we first brought the baby home she weighed 15 pounds. I had long-term neck and back injuries from sports so I could barely carry her. Putting her in a snuggly was out of the question.
During the first year I fed her and changed her diapers and sang to her before putting her in the crib, but I could just have easily been loading a dishwasher, paying bills. I was numb. Ironically I wasn’t suffering from sleep deprivation because life at the orphanage had taught the baby to sleep 11 hours a night in a bed by herself. But I had not had a chance to welcome the mother in me. I had not mentally prepared for time to slow down – to be so needed. I hired a part-time nanny but I was terrified to let her leave the apartment with the baby. So through the sounds of my baby squealing with delight at Elmo or crying because she was groggy and resisting a nap, I slogged away at my computer in the next room, teeth clenched, stomach churning.
I didn’t believe I had the right to use the term “postpartum” depression. I had not given birth; my hormones were not awry. But I was as blue as I’d ever been and I’m pretty sure I felt what despairing birth mothers feel – isolation, angst, regret. Was I unsuited for motherhood? I’d look down at my gorgeous child sitting on the floor with her little feet out in front of her, surrounded by blocks and other toys, and feel a surge of guilt.
At Mommy and Me groups other babies sat dutifully in mommy’s lap. Every time we got to one of these classes my baby’s first instinct was to bolt around the room, even when she was still crawling. I’d smile wanly at the neighboring mommy and say, “Oh, my little astronaut.” Inside, I was screaming with rejection from this child.
I had gone to the end of the world to get this baby, yet we were not bonded.
I began to think I was damaged goods. Or she was. Perhaps I was not bonding to her because she was not bonding to me. There is a syndrome suffered by many adopted children where they do not attach to their new mothers and fathers. Psychologists say the infant is so traumatized at birth she instantly develops an unconscious self-defense mechanism that leaves her unable to trust adults. She is convinced that the only one in the world whom she can rely upon is herself.
This clinical explanation made sense. Whenever I tried to hold her, she flexed in the opposite direction. Her instinct was always to flee, rather than cling. She would not look me directly in the eye. When she was 16 months, I hired a young, spirited Polish nanny who took every pain to care for the baby as if she were her own. She could not understand why the baby wouldn’t bond with her.
During her toddler years, my daughter adapted to nursery school and later to kindergarten. But her patterns with adult care-takers, particularly women, mimicked what went on at home. She was hyper-active, demanding, even charming, but somehow she couldn’t be satiated. She spent every ounce of mental energy figuring out how to control her universe.
It was exhausting. I was exhausted. I didn’t know what to do. My daughter was an open, pus-oozing emotional sore I couldn’t heal. We were both sinking. I had shut down. On the last day of nursery school during a year-end recital I was shaken from my stupor: when I watched my little girl disrupt the concert, and the nursery school teacher take her aside and restrain her, I cried hard for the first time. I was wild with anger and grief. Failing as a mother was unacceptable. That evening I went online and researched Reactive Attachment Disorder, the syndrome that prevents adoptees from attaching. I saw parallels with my child’s behavior and suggestions about how to bond and raise these children. Many of the parenting skills needed in these cases are counter-intuitive. That’s because a child afflicted by this often doesn’t mind punishment or isolation. Unconsciously, that’s often the result they’re courting.
For the next year, my husband and I focused on trying to interrupt our daughter’s hard-wired circuit. We’d say the kind of things you’d never imagine saying to a child such as, “I know you are afraid for mommy to love you. But I do love you.” Rather than allow her to isolate herself in her bedroom, which she did often, we kept her closer to us. I became more aggressive about organizing playdates, and reunited with my estranged sister, in part, to let my daughter meet her cousins. By now I’d realized that punishing her by taking something away had absolutely no impact: she was not truly bonded to anyone or anything. She never had a favorite teddy bear or blanket. The best form of punishment was not to punish her at all.
Children afflicted with Reactive Attachment Disorder thrive on chaos and upheaval. It gives them a feeling of control, yet they stay at an emotional distance, which is what they want. Feeling warm and fuzzy actually causes discomfort. Realizing this, my husband and I undermined our daughter’s efforts to cause disruption by responding with calm indifference to fits and taunts. Sometimes we’d even laugh a loud hearty guffaw in the middle of a tantrum and she’d stop and break into a giggle. We took away her power to play us against one another. Our strong united front threw her off. Research on the syndrome says it’s important to keep these children off-balance. It disrupts their circuitry, which is a good thing.
My husband and I banded together and made it our life’s work to read everything we could on the syndrome and dialogue constantly to gauge how things were working. There are tragic stories of women resorting to violence against adopted children because they feel isolated and unable to bond. In the absence of knowledge, they blame themselves.
Last year when my daughter started first grade, we began to find each other. She still had a hard-wired defense system but now she was exercising an intellect that allowed her to ponder behavior and its effects rather than just act reflexively. She could reach for my hand without feeling deep inner ghosts.
Over time, we knit into a unit. We replaced distance and indifference with fierce love and hate. I don’t worry when she tells me she hates me because it shows we’re tied up, finally, in the tumult of a mother-daughter relationship.
One recent day I was walking alone around the lake near my house. Through the brush I spotted a deer milking her fawn. I wasn’t more than six feet from them. They saw me too, but the doe kept feeding her young, who couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. I froze in my tracks. Tears streamed down my hot cheeks. I felt a mixture of joy and pain. Here in these woods I beheld the most gorgeous tableaux of primal love. A pure absolute moment. Nothing other than how nature meant for it to be. Something I missed out on. Julia and I were not united by amniotic fluid or mother’s milk. We came to each other along an unnatural path, and we stumbled. Slowly we learned to love each other. Because in the end that was the only way it could have happened in our circumstances.