Parenting: A Crash Course

Well, we have officially survived a full week of toddler parenting!  Like any new parenting experiences, be it through adoption or birth, it has had its ups and downs, its victories and its defeats … but we made it!

After our brief but emotional goodbye with Baba and Jaja, our life as a family of three began hardly before I had a chance to realize it was happening.  Elliott and I arrived at the door of our fourth floor apartment, greeted by Alex, who was surprised to see that we were alone.  This was it.  We were on our own.

Elliott had been to our apartment once before when we came to Wroclaw to go shopping with Baba, and we were glad that it wasn’t an entirely new place.  The night before, we read in a book of ours about toddler adoption that toddler’s usually respond to the initial separation from their primary caregiver in one of two ways: by almost obsessively latching onto one of the new caregivers, or by acting completely ambivalent to the new caregivers.  Each of these reflect a different manifestation of separation trauma.  The former is the child’s attempt to prevent another loss of a significant figure, and the latter is a self-defense technique of avoiding getting close to another caregiver out of fear of another loss.

Within minutes of arriving at our apartment, it was clear that Elliott was taking the first approach and completely latched on to me.  For the first couple days, I could hardly put him down.  He wanted me to either be holding him, carrying him, or interacting directly with him.  When he woke up from a nap, he would sob hysterically unless I picked him up.  He wouldn’t go to Alex, and wouldn’t allow Alex to comfort him.  For our first day in the apartment, I couldn’t even leave him long enough to walk one room away to get a cup of coffee.  If I was not within eyesight, he would melt down.

It was tempting to see this as positive and affirming, especially after months of longing to have this little boy in my arms.  And of course, it was a good sign that he was seeking me out specifically and finding comfort in my presence.  Though, even in the midst of that, it broke my heart to know that the only reason he was acting in this way was not out of a particular deep affection for me, but out of sheer terror of losing yet another mother-figure.

But as moment-to-moment survival turned into hour-to-hour, and slowly to day-to-day, the walls around his little heart started to come down.  We started catching glimpses of the cheerful, charming boy we met months ago in videos and then in person just a couple weeks ago.  He began sleeping through the entire night, and waking happy to see us rather than disappointed.  He started venturing out on his own in our apartment, exploring and getting into mischief like a normal toddler.  He fell asleep peacefully without tossing and turning and whimpering in fear or frustration.  He began trying new things, like getting into his toy box, attempting crawling, and learning to feed himself.  He sought out our praise.  He let his Daddy comfort him.  He began smiling and relaxing and making eye-contact.

This doesn’t mean it has all been sunshine and roses.  No matter how you spin it, Elliott is navigating a degree of stress, life change, and loss that would send most adults reeling.  We still regularly have moments of soothing his curled-up body as he sobs in grief, temper tantrums when it is clear we are not the ones he wants, and instances of having him push us away when we try to comfort him as he communicates that he would rather be in his fear alone than risk connecting to a new person.  In these moments, our job is not to correct inappropriate behavior, but just to be there.  We stay close and soothe him however he will let us.  We allow him to grieve.  We give him space to be angry and frustrated and confused.  We do our best to take none of it personally and show him that no matter what he does, we love him and we aren’t going anywhere.  However he will listen, we tell him that he is safe with us and it is okay for him to trust us.  It isn’t easy, but it is what he needs.

And in the midst of it all, we have learned a lot about ourselves, about Elliott, and how to be his parents.  Here are some of the lessons we keep remind ourselves of:

Find what works, and keep doing that.  As Alex put it, parenting is a an experimental in failure.  Especially with a child that is unfamiliar to us, most of the time we are just guessing at what to do next or how to solve the moment’s problem.  Does he lie still for a diaper change when he can play with the taggy blanket?  Then keep it with the diapers.  Can we trick him into a morning nap by letting him fall asleep on the floor watching Curious George?  Then keep Netflix on standby.  Will he calm down during therapy by playing with an animal app on my phone?  Then pay the .99 cents.  This stage is not about ideal parenting, it is about survival/attachment parenting.  We do whatever we have to do to keep the dumpling happy and feeling safe and secure, even if it means we have to undo things later.

When you find something that doesn’t work, move on.  Don’t try and force it to work.  This has been a particular challenge for me, as I already have engrained habits in caring for young kids and WHY DOES IT NOT WORK ON HIM?!  I already know how to feed a child, put a child down for a nap, change a child’s diaper, etc.  But I have never cared for a child that is in the midst of trauma and grief, and it is just a whole other ball game.  Most everything I thought I knew about caring for young children has had to be thrown out the window, and I have had to force myself to unlearn habits.  Trying to force Elliott into behaving like a “normal” child and my “normal” ways of care just makes us all frustrated.  Oddly enough, this has made parenting easier for Alex, who doesn’t have much experience with caring for young kids.

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What works for everyone else might not work for your child, and that is okay.  Parenting an adoptive child is just a whole different type of parenting, plain and simple (see above).  We knew this would be the case, but nothing can quite prepare you for the actual experience.  Even among adopted kids, every child has a unique experience and unique challenges to attachment, so you really are mostly on your own … and that is okay.  The friendly advice your family or friends give you probably won’t translate to your adopted child, so don’t be disappointed or confused when it doesn’t work.

Don’t get hung up on all those by-age developmental milestone things.  I think this is would be important even if I had a biological child, but it is an especially important reminder for parenting an adopted child, particularly one who has had developmental delays since birth.  Kids who grow up in their biologically family just develop quicker – they have parents or older siblings giving consistent attention and who introduce new learning experiences all the time.  Orphans who have experienced orphanage life or transitional foster care have brains that are focused on survival and just don’t have energy left over for development (I believe that is the technical, scientific explanation.  Obviously.)  The best thing we can do is keep tunnel vision on Elliott alone, celebrating his improvements and encouraging him in ways to grow and develop.

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Find ways to make your life feel normal to you.  After our first couple days on our own, we realized we needed to make some changes.  We were trying SO HARD to focus 100% on Elliott, that we were not taking care of ourselves.  Our life felt so foreign to us, we didn’t know how to function in it.  We made a decision to “normalize” our life as much as possible.  We let Elliott keep eating his Polish food, but we started preparing meals that were familiar to us.  We started having music playing all the time, as we would at home.  We eased back into a schedule that was familiar to us, rather than trying to keep the one from the foster home.  When we were playing with Elliott, we would listen to our favorite podcasts in the background.  After a day or so of this, we could look at each other and say, “Oh, hey!  I recognize you!”

Divide up responsibilities to play to your strengths, but don’t keep score.  In the beginning, we tried to take turns on EVERYTHING.  Diapers, feedings, getting him to sleep, playtime, therapy practice, baths, bottles, etc.  We did this partially because we wanted Elliott to have exposure to both of us, and partially because we thought it would help our sanity.  It didn’t.  Turns out, we are each just better at different things (or, at the very least, Elliott responds better to us on different things).  For whatever reason, Elliott will only fall asleep easily for me, and will only eat without spitting food everywhere for Alex.  Turns out he is happiest with Alex for bath time, but will work on therapy homework better with me.  In order to keep the happy/secure levels high, Alex does all the baths and feedings, and I do all the bedtimes and therapizing.  We stopped taking turns on everything else (like diapers, for example), and each just deal with whatever comes up in the moment.  So far, it is working!

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Take breaks.  For the love, take breaks!  We do this in a couple ways.  In the mornings, we each take shifts of playing with Elliott so the other can have some quiet time to shower, get dressed, take a breather, etc.  Weather permitting, we also try to take about one family outing a day, just to get out of the apartment and do fun things together.  Beyond that, we try to each get out of the apartment individually every day.  One of us will run out to pick up some take-out for lunch, the other will go out later for diapers.  The outings are short, but they give us each a bit of alone time and fresh air.

Ignore bad behavior, reward good behavior.  This might not work for every kid, but Elliott is an attention-seeker.  Pretty much everything he does, good or bad, is to get a reaction.  We learned pretty quickly that the most effective way to influence his behavior is through our attention (or lack of it).  Do we want him to quit spitting food?  Then we just walk away from him every time he does and come back when he stops.  Worked like a charm.  Do we want to encourage him to crawl?  Then we make a HUGE deal over even the tiniest attempt, and soon he is trying to crawl his little heart out.  This approach is also a huge asset to attachment, because it is reward-based rather than punishment-based.

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Find your own special way to work on attachment.  It took us each some time to figure out our own ways to bond with Elliott.  He has his own likes/dislikes just like us, so the key has been matching up what I like with what he likes, and what Alex likes with what he likes, and using that to bond.  That way, we each have our own special way to spend time with him.  For me, that is in a lot of face-to-face time.  Elliott loves feeling my cheeks, ears, nose, etc., and having me mimic him.  Because of that, we spend hours making up silly little games that involve being face-to-face. For Alex, that is rough-housing.  He carries Elliott around by his feet, tosses him onto the bed, throws him into the air, douses him with water in the tub.  Those two.  It all terrifies me, but Elliott LOVES it.

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Set your expectations as low as possible.  Better yet, don’t have any at all.  No matter how good one day goes, the next day could be one long battle.  For the most part, we go to bed when Elliott does, because we never know when we will have another no-sleep night.  We plan our outings to be short, because the smallest thing might trigger a meltdown.  We stay as relaxed as we can, while always being prepared for the worst.  We celebrate successes, milestones, and small victories, but we don’t expect them.

Adoptive parenting (at least in this stage) is very reactionary.  As I said, our #1 job right now is to make Elliott feel as happy, safe, and secure as possible.  This means that our style of parenting probably looks a little foreign.  It involves a lot of spoiling, little rules, and many exceptions to the few guidelines we do have.  It means that while we do spend focused time encouraging his development, in general we treat him like you would treat a newborn.  We rock him, carry him, baby him, snuggle him, hand-feed him, bottle-feed him, and talk to him as if he was a baby.  We let him lead every interaction, and respond/react accordingly.  Going to sleep is one of the most poignant examples of this.  On a day that he is feeling safe and secure, he might want to fall asleep in his usual way, by just being laid down and left in the bedroom.  On a day when he is feeling scared, he may want me to rock him to sleep, or just simply sit in the room until he falls asleep.  At this point in his grieving process and our attachment process, his feelings of security/security/sadness and change moment to moment.  Our job is simply to react to however he is feeling until he feels secure/safe/happy again, even if that means abandoning most typical parenting practices.  There will be time for that later.  This was our plan going in, and our recent visit with a child psychologist from the court said this is the best possible thing we could do for him.  And so, we carry on!

 

Every day, we learn something new.  Slowly but surely, we are becoming a family and learning how to do this crazy thing called parenting.

 

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