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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Older Child Attachment/Bonding

An adoptive mom about to bring home her 2 "older" sons from Ethiopia (Hi Stephanie P!) asked me about Jayden, our 8 year old son, and what his transition, bonding and attachment has been like. She was wondering about any differences with attachment in older children.

I have been surprised by how well our son has transitioned into our family. He lived with his mother until he was 6 years old, where he obviously learned to trust and to love. She was a very young mother and she did her best to provide for her only son, but she needed to work during the day to pay rent and Jayden ran the streets with other children. There were periods during his lifetime when they did not have a home, and there were many days and nights when there was no food. He has been able to tell us some stories of violence he witnessed on the streets. About sleeping on the streets with his mother when they did not have a home. He has told us about making shoes out of cardboard, and sleeping somewhere on a dirt floor where a toilet overflowed and sewage flowed onto them and their belongings (he waved his fingers in front of his crinkled nose and said "stinky" when he told us this story).

We had the rare privilege and honor of meeting his birth-mother while we were in Ethiopia and I was struck by how young she was. I remember noticing how muscular her arms and shoulders were from washing clothes by hand all day (that was her job where she earned $10/month which was just enough to pay rent for a single room with a dirt floor). We spoke for awhile through a translator and I finally asked her the question that had been nagging at my heart ... why was she giving her son up for adoption? I was still trying to understand how a mother arrives at such an unimaginable decision. She explained that she oftentimes did not have enough money for food. He was malnourished and his growth had already been stunted. She worried about his safety during the day while she worked and she wanted him to have a chance at life that she could not provide. She wanted him to live - and in their situation, life was not to be taken for granted.

During this meeting, Jayden sat on Jay's lap with his arms firmly clasped around Jay's neck. While my daughters watched our meeting with Jayden's birth-mother in tears (imagining saying goodbye forever to their mom or dad), Jayden sat on a daddy's lap that he had known only for a few hours. He hugged and kissed his mom good-bye and she gave him a neclace with a pendant of Jesus. She asked me for some photos of our family, which I quickly pulled out of a photo album for her. She pointed to our daughters, stroking their faces and said "pretty". She then said through our translator that it is good for Jayden to have sisters. She was clutching that picture to her chest as she let herself out of the gate.

A day or two later, while we were driving through the city, Jayden suddenly began to recognize his "neighborhood". Following his pointing finger, we weaved our way through tiny alleys and pot-holed roads for about 15 blocks, until we arrived in a village of tin shacks. We tapped on a tin door and we were ushered into a tiny courtyard where 7 families were living. Everyone recognized Jayden and came out to the van to greet him. When I motioned for him to come in - he waved his finger at me and said "no".

Sadly, his mother was not there because she had left for her job. But we were able to see the tiny room, with the dirt floor, where they had lived. No running water, no electricity, and only enough income to keep a tin roof over their heads for safety. I began to understand more fully how a mother would choose to give up her son so that he could live. She loved him enough to give him up.

I have seen figures that say 99.4% of the population in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia lives in slums, a hodge-podge of tin structures that weave endlessly throughout the city. We were in the heart of the slums as we stood where Jayden had lived.

So how has he transitioned and bonded to our family? I sometimes shake my head in amazement. This little boy wanted a daddy more than anything else in the world. He had already distanced himself from his mother because he had spent the last year in an orphanage, and before that he was taking care of himself on the streets. For 6 months before we arrived, Jayden was looking at pictures of his new family - mom, dad and two sisters, and he was dreaming of having a daddy. He immediately latched on to Jay when we were in Ethiopia, and that close relationship has stayed strong and has developed security.
Early on, Jayden would phyically get between Jay and our daughters. He would squeeze in between if Jay was sitting next to one of the girls on the couch, and there were a few occassions where he pushed the girls away from Jay if he showed them any attention or affection. Of course this created some intense situations with the girls and jealousy was flaring. But since then, Jayden has grown secure in his daddy's love and attention, and he no longer feels the need to always be in the center of it.

In the early days, his affection for Jay was nearly overwhelming and sometime discomforting. As bedtime approached, he would climb onto Jay's lap and start kissing every exposed inch of skin, down to Jay's feet. Jay would look at me with a baffled, uncomfortable expression, and then try to ease out of the situation with a big bear hug and a playful scruff on the head. I can only assume that Jayden was displaying his overwhelming love for his daddy in the only way he knew how - with overflowing affection. Those types of moments are in the distant past now as Jayden has developed a more comfortable wasy of expressing himself with hugs and rough-housing. He has also developed a strong bond with each of his sisters. His personality has really begun to shine and he is a joyful and silly little boy - always joking and imitating us.

With me, Jayden has been slower to develop an attachment. At first, he oftentimes seemed nervous or uncomfortable around me. When I would hug him, he wouldn't wrap his arms around me and hug back. I have been careful to let him develop a comfort level with me on his own time and his own terms.

I really did not see many of the bonding or attachment issues that can be prevalent with younger adopted children. We certainly dealt with many of those issues with our 3 year old son, Wesley. Neither of the boys have had any food hoarding issues or food issues in general.

I think with Jayden, he was old enough to understand what was happening to him and he had accepted it. He had learned to love and trust his birth-mother which meant that he had the capacity to love and trust us. He had already made the separation from his birthmother because he was living on the streets most of the time - and had lived in the orphanage for a full year before we arrived to bring him home. All children are different and will react differntly to these difficult situations. I worried about him and his feelings of rejection and loss, but he has taken things in stride and has fully adjusted into our family.

And we can't remember what life was like without our 2 Ethiopian sons!

The photo below shows the hand-woven basket we bought for Jayden in Ethiopia so that he would not lose the pendant neclace and string that his mother gave to him. The other thing he keeps in the basket is the wrinkled and folded photo of Jay and me that he carried in his pocket for months while he waited for us to bring him home.


Jaime said...

wow. thanks for sharing this.

Karla said...

TEARS! Can't wait to see you all! Love - K

Nitro Krycerin said...

We had a similar attachment experience with our son (age 9). He attached to my husband right away, and was jealous of attention to his bio sister. 11 months later, and he is more appropriate in his affection for us.

Both children were standoffish at first with me. They had loved their mother dearly, and they still (rightfully so) grieve her death. They also had time in the orphanage that separated them from their father, who was not able to care for them.

I would say that it really does take about a year for everyone to attach fully. We're coming up on a year, and I can hardly believe the changes in that time. Every month gets better, and I almost can't remember life before our children... seems like they've been here a lot longer.

ethiHOPEia said...

As usual, I enjoyed reading your post! Thanks so much for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pouring out your experience! It is so good to have an idea what the first little while could be like...If they are really attached to Jim to begin with, it could be great and hard since he is the principal of their school!!! I so appreciate your candidness!

Steph P

Cindy Foote said...

Oh wow. That just made me weep. God is good!