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Going the Distance Print
Saturday, 21 June 2008
by Ansley Bernatz

I often hear adoptive parents asking, “How long?” How long must I travel the road of attachment parenting? How long until my baby trusts me? How long until he feels secure? How long until my spouse and I are able to go away for a movie, for the weekend?

Unfortunately, there is no attachment miracle wax. You cannot send your grieving baby to a mechanic to ‘fix’ them. You must be the one to go the distance. After all, you are the one choosing adoption. You filled out all the befuddling paperwork to prove you were ready to travel this road. You must also be the one fill your child’s gas tank with love and keep it full.

I think it is important when considering a timeline for attachment, to understand only you, the parent (or a qualified therapist) can determine when your child is emotionally healthy, secure, and ready to be left with a caregiver. Therefore, it is imperative you are in tune with you child. You must learn to recognize the signs of stress and grief in his little face and shoulders. Remember, you and your baby are cruising down a country road, not running a race.

Imagine you had given birth to your baby. How long would it take for you to differentiate between the hungry cry, the wet cry, the tired cry and the lonely cry? You don’t learn to drive in a day, but with practice and in time. Friends who have biological children routinely tell me it takes them four to six months to recognize the difference in their newborn child’s cries.

Somehow though, as adoptive parents, we assume we will know in a matter of weeks whether or not is okay to leave our child; a child who is generally older than a newborn, with more complex emotions; a baby who has already been traumatized by losing his birth and foster families and being placed with virtual strangers. You are parenting a child who has learned from his early history that Mommy cannot be counted on. Mommy is not coming back. And if I can’t count on Mommy- I’m not even going there with that ‘Daddy’ guy. Essentially, your child has been running on emotional ‘fumes’.

What’s a parent to do? How do we put our minds at ease? How can we know whether to hit the gas or the brakes?

My first suggestion is to get to know your child. What effect does trauma have on your child’s brain? How many hours a week can you spend with him? How much quality time do you have together? How much family leave will you/ did you take? Are you a stay-at-home mom, or do you work 50 hours a week? I don’t think every woman should stay at home. But I certainly think having a career outside the home will affect the amount of time it will take to learn all you should know about your newly adopted child.

Secondly, what is your ‘mommy gut’ telling you? We are all born with intuition. It helps keep us and our loved ones safe. However, western culture continually makes an assault on this valuable tool. We are told by society the doctors know better, the books know better- heck, even Fisher Price knows better. I will tell you this, though- I believe a woman who has been a mom for one day knows more about her child than any doctor or book will ever know. (Important distinction- She knows more, but still not everything!) It is your instinct to learn everything about your baby- to work out all the knocks and pings. I often hear my child crying upstairs before anyone else does. Most of the time, I’m not sure if I actually hear him crying, or I just know he is crying. Trust your intuition, not the advice of others. If in your heart you have doubts about leaving- don’t do it!

Last of all, make a trial run. Who says your first outing should involve a weekend away, leaving your child with a sitter he has only met briefly in the past? Perhaps, a relative or friend the child knows well could come over while you and your mate take a much needed nap? Maybe you could just run out for lunch, or take a walk? When you get home, evaluate your child carefully. Is his ‘check engine’ light on? Worse yet, has he completely stopped running- has he shut down? Perhaps he is running like a well-oiled machine? If so, you’re probably ready for the open road. After you give your child time to refill his emotional gas tank with love, try a longer outing. Whatever you do, don’t force a separation before you are both ready. Leaving should be gradual, not jump started!

Understand it may take longer than you think. For our family, at 14 months post placement we seemed to be on the home stretch. Now, not only are we moving ahead, but the road is smoother, with less twist and turns. In the months leading up to today, we made a lot of repairs to our relationship with our baby. Thankfully, most of the potholes have been smoothed over.

No one will be able to tell you whether your child’s attachment is in overdrive or on cruise control. You have to make that determination. If you learn all you can about your child’s neurological development and listen to your instinct; you will know if it’s time to idle, or to open up the throttle and move on.

Your child will only reach his full potential under your fervent care and attention. How long will it take? It will take as long as is necessary.

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Book Review: Trail of Crumbs Print
Wednesday, 16 April 2008
If you’ve ever questioned the impact of abandonment on a young child, read Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home. The author, Kim Sunee, is abandoned in a South Korean marketplace by her mother at the age of three. She is adopted by a couple from the United States and raised in New Orleans. The book largely follows her life as a young adult in France; there, she spends several years in a relationship with a famous French businessman who is almost twice her age.

Sunee travels the world, always in search of the place or person who will make her feel at home. At times, she continues in relationships with very controlling and/or selfish men in an effort to maintain a connection to someone. Her return to South Korea on a visit is particularly painful. Sunee recounts, “…the female hotel clerk seemed to delight in informing me in broken English that the only Korean women with white men at five-star hotels are high-end prostitutes.” To that end, she and her French boyfriend are refused service when they try to eat at a high-end Korean restaurant.

Throughout the story, Sunee gives us a glimpse in what it feels like to be constantly searching for home…and searching for love.

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Anxious vs. Avoidant Print
Sunday, 30 March 2008
I am blessed with two beautiful children who came home forever from Korea as infants. While I would not change a thing to be the mother of my children, my journey with each was very different. It’s my tale of two children – one who came home avoidant and the other anxious – and how very different each experience shaped our current relationship.

My youngest came home in a state of shock. Something we could wrap our brain around and understand. His reaction just made sense after all of the changes he had to go through before finding his final placement in my arms. During the day he had a look that said, “What happened to my life?” and at night he grieved. There were smiles, laughs, and cuddles mixed in, but for the most part he was reserved. As days, weeks, and months went on he began to form a bond and attach to me, his mother. This attachment was a very anxious one. He did not want me to leave him and he became what my husband lovingly referred to as my tumor. He was only happy to be glued to me, playing with me, eating with me, sleeping with me. He had an intense fear of separation from me. Yes, it was exhausting and claustrophobic at times, but it was all understandable and meeting his needs was relatively easy…he just wanted and could not get enough of me.

The experience with our youngest was nothing like that of our oldest child. While waiting for our baby to come home, we were both excited and nervous at the prospect of becoming first-time parents. We prepared for and expected a baby, much like our youngest, to be scared and confused. What we greeted instead was a happy, content, easy baby who had nothing but smiles and laughs for us. Was this his personality? Was this just a well-adjusted and secure baby? Were we lucky? I wish that were the case. When the honeymoon was over we discovered that this baby, who could not even sit up on his own yet, was not a baby. He was independent in a weird way. He did not want to be loved and nurtured. Little by little he pushed us further and further away, but boy was he charming for family, friends, and complete strangers. After a few months he was only content to sit and play by himself for hours. He was the most focused baby I had ever seen…we discovered later this was a way to avoid. He was the master avoider. Alone, he completely ignored me. He was so avoidant that when we took him to our first attachment therapist, she questioned whether he might be deaf…he was not deaf.

What is it like to mother a baby who had an avoidant attachment? There is only one word to explain it. It is horribly painful. I questioned my sanity regularly. I became irritated and angry especially when anyone had anything nice to say about my son, for they only knew the charming fake baby, not the baby that filled me with resentment. This was a child who even as an infant was not willing to “go there” again. He did not want a mommy and fought having one with every fiber of his being. It hurt. Looking at it outside my shoes it’s easy to think, “He’s just a baby” or “He’s been through so much” but when you live every minute of every day being rejected, it hurts.

Both of my children had very similar early experiences. Both were deeply affected by their early experiences. Both did not trust that this Mommy is always and forever. Both required professional help along with therapeutic and attachment parenting. And each presented differently. One could not let go for fear that this Mommy would leave and one who could not open his heart because of the same fear.

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Food for Your Child's Brain Print
Monday, 17 March 2008
Think your child may have ADD (attention decifit disorder)? Consider NDD...nutritional deficit disorder in this interview with Dr. William Sears.

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It's a Game of Skill and Chance Print
Friday, 07 March 2008
by Ansley Bernatz

As I reflect back, I’ve come to compare my son’s attachment journey to a game of poker. It seems to me we always knew which game we were playing. We knew the hand we had been dealt, but we had no idea what cards our son would play. There were four suits- stress, trauma, grief and attachment. Would he have a full house, or four of a kind?

In the months leading up to his adoption, I was obsessed with the psychological aspect of adoption. I read all I could find about trauma and grief in adopted children, and infant neurological development. Since I was going to be a first time mother, I devoted lots of time to my new ‘hobby’. I even joined a local attachment support group. The women there mentored me, answered my questions, and gave me hope that if I played my cards right, I could help my child form a healthy attachment. I could help to heal his grief. The best pro poker players find a coach, and those women coached me well!

When we traveled to bring our son home, he was just four months old. I remember having all of the normal first-time mom fears. But those fears paled in comparison to the fear my son would not form a healthy attachment with me. I had done my research and I knew trauma had stacked the cards against us. Luckily, my own mom worked in adolescent mental health. She was the first to talk to me about attachment disorders. In addition, my adoption agency encouraged me to research attachment, and gave some good suggestions of books I could read. I learned of the 4everfamily website from an internet forum for adoptive families and I read every word published there. In other words, I anted up.

On the first day we met our son, I realized the stakes were just as high as I had imagined- Thank God I had prepared. My son was noticeably grief stricken from the moment we met him. He KNEW his world was about to turn upside down. I don’t know how he knew, but he knew. He cried for hours as though the world would end, and I’m sure in his mind the world was ending. Where was the woman he thought to be his mother? Who were these other people? They didn’t look right, sound right or smell right. I can only describe his transition as violent. The game was on, and we were ready.

I employed all of the attachment parenting methods I read about during my research period. I ignored people who questioned my ideals and my sanity. It was hard. People told me he was going to be spoiled, and that I was being unfair- after all, they had waited for him, too. Few understand why my husband and I were the only people to care for our baby. Friends and family members begged to hold him and feed him. We stuck to our guns. We looked for our baby’s ‘tells’. We watched and waited before we placed our bets.

I distinctly remember crying with my mom, telling her I wish she could jump right in and fill the grandmother role she wanted so badly. It just wasn’t going to happen. Nothing about parenting an adopted, traumatized child is the same as parenting biological children. You’re dealt a different hand from the beginning, and you have to play the cards in front of you.

After a year of wearing my baby whenever I could, limiting visitors, having only one, infrequent babysitter (grandma), responding to every cry, implementing holding time, and doing lots of other attachment promoting activities, my son is well on his way to a healthy attachment. I did a lot of good work to help my baby feel secure. I also know things could still go the other way. The trauma he experienced as a result of his adoptive placement will affect him his entire life. If our attachment process stagnates, I have cards up my sleeve. I know who the premier attachment therapist is in my area. I know where to find traditional and alternative therapies to help him. I have relationships with experienced “been there, done that” moms who will help support me. I’ve got the ‘nuts’- the best hand possible.

I urge you, if you are an adoptive parent, please do not be intimidated by your fear of attachment difficulties. Some children attach well, despite less than ideal circumstances. Some don’t. Learn all you can about your baby’s neurological development and how it relates to the trauma he will inevitably experience. Watch for ‘tells’; keep a vigilant eye on your child. As his mother, you can positively influence him to the greatest degree. Don’t listen to the well-meaning, but amateur, advice-givers in your life. Become an attachment expert and listen to your ‘mommy voice’. Instinct counts, and sometimes you just have to bluff your opponent.

I am so thankful I listened to my inner voice even though I was a first time mom and plenty of people wanted to disregard the ‘rules’. After all, I am the best advocate my little one has. Whether you have a long and difficult road to healthy attachment ahead of you, or an easier one- your child can heal from his painful beginnings. (a. 4mo, FC)

Thank you to Ansley Bernatz for submitting this piece from her blog, Noble Seoul.

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