‘What ever makes you think your son is securely attached?’

‘What ever makes you think your son is securely attached? ‘ The kind therapist said.I was puzzled.

‘Erm. I’m his mum and he reaches straight for me if he is upset…?! …: Erm … dunno. We are very close. We have a strong bond… I think… I just know.’

‘Ok. How long has he been with you?’

‘Three years.’

‘I’d be very surprised if he was securely attached. Most adopted kids are insecurely attached.’

The point about my son’s attachment was only said in passing.
My riff was actually about how I was finding these boxes of avoidant and preoccupied/anxious/ambivalent very constraining or too simplistic. Surely it is a scale. Surely we all slide down in times of stress. How far down we slide is a matter of … a lot of things.

I first heard about attachment at a prep course for adoption. My husband and I looked at each other. ‘You’re ambivalent and I am avoidant.’ He said. I agree. Now years later I see ambivalence in him too and avoidance in me. Nothing is quite so clear cut as we want it to be I guess. But yes… there is a strong tendency towards one type more than the other in us both.

We enjoy a strong bond within our family. We are close. But it is also true that we are all insecurely attached. To some degree.

Looking at what we each bring into the family attachment cocktail has been interesting. How can he the son be secure if we adults are not?

Once we have established that baseline, we can work with it. Admitting that the secure base we are building is actually of immense benefit to all of us. It is something we all actively invest in. We are the grown ups so of course we do the heavy lifting. We carry the responsibility for the quality of our relationship with our son. And with each other. We fail. Reassuringly regularly. We let ourselves down. And we get up and on with it.

A big big thing within our family is dynamic separation. His from us. It’s huge. Only within the last year has our son been able to physically be in another room from us. He still wakes a few times a night needing to know we are still there. He can freak out big time if he can’t see or feel us parents. Freak in a way that I can’t reach him. The first few years he was a limpit – on me mainly but increasingly my husband too. He was on my body every waking hour and much of the sleeping ones too. Verbal reassurance didn’t and doesn’t do anything. Repetition and routine do. As does time.

Yesterday my son made me a pot of tea.
We’d been playing and when I heard kettle click as the water started to boil, I got up to make my tea. He stopped me saying he like to do it.

‘Trust me, Mummy.’ He said placing his hand on my arm. ‘I can do it.’

First time for everything I thought. ‘Okay. Off you go…’ I could hear his movements in the kitchen. Each step of the tea making. Even putting on the tea cosy. He returned. Smiling. Proud. He’d put everything on a tray. Including his prized batman cup. For me. I poured a cup. Of plain boiling water. We both laughed. It’s all work in progress.

I stood in the adjacent room, debating with myself if I was crazy to let a six year old alone in the kitchen handling boiling water. I’d say it was borderline. But that it paid off.

These small moments matter. This was actually very big for us. On many levels.

Yes attachment is responding to needs. Distress and otherwise. At the moment I’m toying with the reciprocity of trust. As a basic need too.

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A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME.

Just to set out credentials here, I’m not an academic, I’m not a behavioural psychologist, I’m not an expert in genetics, I’m not an etymologist (however, I do however know the real meaning of the word semantics, as opposed to its common use meaning. Good for me).

So, I’m a Dad. I’m a Parent. I’m a Father. I’m a Guardian. I’m a Carer. I’m an Educator. I’m a Counsellor. I’m a Philosopher. I’m a Taxi-Driver. I’m a Nurse. I’m a Playmate. I’m a Guide, literally a Girl Guide. I’m any number of words that describe taking care of someone unable to take care of themselves (for the time being), nourishing someone in body and mind and helping them grow, emotionally, spiritually, physically.

Is there a word that sums up all of these roles? I’m sticking with what she calls me, because to her, that’s what Da-Da means.

Now, we are told there are any number of ways someone in my situation becomes a Da-Da. And all of these ways have equal merit. Except they don’t, no matter what our social workers told us to tell our daughter. Previous blog authors and commentators are right; let’s face facts – there’s something diminishing in being an adopter, whether it’s not being the “real” father – not having become a Da-Da directly through sexual congress with my wife – or whether it’s having to spend a lot of time writing dutifully on behalf of my daughter to her “real” mother, who hasn’t written back to her “real” daughter in three years.

Right? Wrong; there’s nothing diminishing about it at all in my eyes and in the eyes of almost everyone I know who has become a Da-Da through adoption.

I’m truly weary of being preached at by people who in theory should know better, of adoption apologists, of adoption guilt-vendors. I already know somewhat intuitively and also from practical experience that denying a part of someone’s history or genetic make-up is not a positive-impact exercise on any time- or development-spectrum, thanks.

I also know about nuance – I know what it means and I know what it actually means. Maybe my daughter doesn’t right now – she’s getting there, slowly but surely under our Guidance, Parenting, Taxi-Driving, Teaching, Caring – but adults ought to know, to varying degrees possibly, but at least get the gist.

Who’s the Daddy? I am. And so is someone else. So what.

Feeling a Fraud

In retrospect it’s easy to see that it was probably just self doubt, but at the time it felt like something so much bigger, something so much more significant.

We were new parents and loving (mostly) everything that entailed, we were totally smitten with our two sons and relished every moment we spent together.

It had been a long and at times very difficult process to get us to where we were and we were delighted and relieved in equal measures to finally be the family we set out to be some three years earlier.

We were in our early and late 40’s and new parents to two brothers almost 5&6 years old and we were embracing the role wholeheartedly and from the moment they woke to the moment they went off to sleep we were there for their every needs.

We were active in their school and would ferry the boys around for various after school activities almost every night of the week. We engaged more with friends who had children, encouraging friendships amongst the little ones and had play dates with school friends and big birthday parties with kids and parents in attendance.

Yet, regardless of all of this we didn’t truly believe in ourselves, didn’t truly believe in the fact that we were indeed parents. We knew the reality – that we had children and that we were now a family. We knew that we loved our sons unconditionally and immediately couldn’t imagine life without them – yet we felt a bit…fraudulent.

We hadn’t gone through the 9 months of pregnancy, the wonder of birth, the sleepless nights, the caring for a being so helpless that the need for your attention and your love 24\7 outshone everything else – literally everything else.

Being school age meant that after the initial few weeks of settling in, we packed them off every day and made them somebody else’s responsibility – and we have to confess to a certain relief each and every time we did so. It was proving to be so much harder than we ever could have imagined and on many levels we were struggling and we figured that IF ‘real parents’ had the same struggles they would be so much more adept in dealing with them.

We got on with it all, we walked the walk, we talked the talk and we smiled our way through it, yet looking back I realise just how much we felt that we were bluffing.

Now with five years of experience behind us we realise that bluffing is not unique to adoptive parents at all, in fact probably ALL new parents start out bluffing – because in fact nothing can truly prepare us for being a parent.

However, I think the feeling of being a fraud is possibly unique to us adopters and I can see that it takes a while for us to shrug it off.

We now feel like fully fledged parents and we know that our sons are 100% ours – regardless of being born to others, but in those early days the ghosts of their birth parents were always with us as indeed were those of the established (and oh so accomplished) foster parents where the boys spent almost three years.

We felt we could never really compete with the history of either of those and that we possibly never would. We felt we were somehow just ‘standing in’ – not their real parents at all.

Looking back now, it seems unthinkable that we doubted our role. Amazingly from day one the boys simply knew us as their new parents, and of course they fully relied on us as their parents – as we were the ones putting clothes on the back, food on the table and a roof over their heads. It may well have taken a little while for them to emotionally attach, but I don’t feel that got in the way of their understanding of our role in their lives right from the very start.

They were open to us nurturing them every step of the way, we were their security, we were the one’s putting them first and reassuring them that we would always be here for them and that we would be protecting them no matter what.

So regardless of how fraudulent we felt and regardless of the fact that it took time for our sons to fully attach to us, in their eyes we were the real thing right from the very start.

Reassurance, reassurance reassurance.

‘That’s the name of the game in the early days. Reassurance.’ said the social worker on the phone. ‘Just reassure him that everything will be ok. As much a you possibly can.’
The nice reassuring lady was the social worker on call. Not our assessing social worker, nor my son’s social worker. Just the one around in the week after our son moved in.
It was August. London was wonderful calm, and the weather was good. A perfect time to start a family. If ever there was one. I was nervous, scared and happy. And many, many other things.
Reassure we did. Him as much as ourselves. Every time he cried. Or even might cry. At the very sight of a lower lip starting to wobble.
‘Oh, darling. It’s ok. It’s ok.’
I’d rush to him and pick him up. Gently bobbing him on my hip. Hushing him, Shsshing him.
‘There, there. It’s ok. Everything is going to be ok.’
In truth I think I was a little scared of his tears.
As the weeks turned into months, I felt reassured myself that I could settle him. That he would let me. That my bosom was a place of safety and comfort. I put pride in being able to stop his tears. Only… he was a quick learner. He read me. I could stop his tears quickly, because that’s what I wanted.
Except that one night…. when three hours after we had successfully put him down for the night, he woke up crying. This time, neither I nor my husband could settle him. He cried for a solid three and a half hours. Solidly. Ebbs and flow but tears throughout. Sometimes sobbing, sometime just silent tears, sometimes loud and angry. Wailing, screaming, sobbing. Snot and tears running into one around his O-shaped mouth.
We call the NHS helpline, and as we could find no outwards sign of illness or pain, we got rushed through the system, and at 2am we drove to the hospital, where they had made us an emergency appoint. We were all in distress.
The tears stopped the moment we activated the entrance doors at the hospital. The glass doors slid to the sides, and we stepped through, holding a silent and mesmerised baby. They gave him a bit of paracetamol and we left. He fell a sleep on the way home and we transferred him to his cot without him waking. For the first time since he moved in six weeks earlier he slept for more than 90mins in one stretch.
I have never been in doubt that this outburst was existential. That was the episode when it finally dawned on him that this was it: he understood he was going to be staying with us. Foster family gone. Replaced by smiling middle-aged amateurs.
I now also believe that’s where the tears that I has so successfully stopped for weeks flooded out. I hadn’t left him much space for waterworks. So he kept it in – most of the time.
Over time I slowly learned to accept his screams and tears. To gently squeeze him like a lemon till he was all cried dry. Letting him how that it is ok to cry and let it all out. Till he was done crying. Not when I was done listening. I brace myself, and stick it out. Because the return is so wonderful. It is like torrential rain followed by sunshine. And the sunshine lasts if he is allowed to let it ALL out. It is simply the most effective, and quickest way for him to shed whatever is really bothering him. All he needs from me is me being there. And staying there till the storm has passed.
I’m no longer so sure that what he needed was reassurance, as much as acknowledgment (something I needed too). Acknowledgment that it was a scary and crazy period for us all. And that there was huge loss involved.
I’m no longer a fan of reassurance. All it is saying is ‘I can’t deal with how you are feeling right now. I want you to go to normal.’
Reassurance is a little like telling someone who has just lost a loved one that it is all going to be ok.
No, it’s not. Everything has changed. And nothing will ever be the same. Ever. Again.