As the ‘at home’ mum of twin 3-year-olds, I spend a lot of time in the company of other parents and toddlers. We share our trials and joys – but largely the trials. We discuss what time our children are waking up, what they refuse to eat, how many times they’ve sat on the naughty step today, and all the latest misdemeanours – from drawing on the wall to hitting their siblings.
I join in these conversations with tales of my own frustrations with our toddler boys – and am often met with reassuring responses like, “Don’t worry – all children do that”, or “They will get through that phase”, or “My kid was exactly the same”.
While these reassurances are comforting and well-meant, I also have a nagging feeling that things are not so straightforward with my kids. On a daily – no hourly – basis, I feel like adoption rears its ugly head in each emotional response my children give to whatever is going on that day. Yes, they are toddlers, and on a surface level there is nothing to distinguish them from non-adopted toddlers. But, beneath the surface, there is something more complex going on – something which, nearly two years after our boys came home to us, I’m only just starting to piece together. Here are a few snapshots:
Our boys have two mummies.
I am their Mummy, in most senses of that word. They call me “Mummy”, and the reasons are obvious. I feed them, clothe them, play with them, care for them. I cuddle them when they’re upset. I put plasters on their cuts. I read stories to them and answer their (many) questions. God help me, I potty train them. They know no other person who is more deserving of the title “Mummy”, and so it gets transferred to me.
But I didn’t carry them in my womb, I didn’t give birth to them, I wasn’t around for the early feeds and sleepless nights, and I didn’t wean them. And that is confusing, even for children too young to remember the alternative mummies of birth and foster. Maternal bonding is not a figment of some psychologist’s imagination; in the womb, a baby is physically attached to mum, hears her voice, and feels her heartbeat. Separating mum and baby leaves an emotional scar, however young the baby was when separated.
Once or twice, I have heard one of my boys say “Mummy” and I know – don’t ask me how – that he’s not referring to me. More often, one of them is irrationally upset, and is calmed by looking at photos of “tummy-mummy” or talking about her.
This dual-identity is a struggle for any adopted child, not least before they’re old enough to be able to articulate it.
Our boys regularly have periods of inconsolable sadness, anger or frustration.
My children aren’t comforted as easily or as quickly as my birth children were at the same age – or, indeed, as the other children I observe through the week. I think there are probably many reasons for this. One – obvious from the start – is that they simply weren’t used to us. Babies are tuned in to respond to their caregiver’s touch and voice – and if that caregiver changes, this becomes confusing. To start with, it wasn’t surprising that it took us a while to calm them down. But now, nearly two years on, things have not improved massively. Whilst there are times when we can calm them down in what might be thought of as a ‘normal’ toddler calming-down period, there are many times when their whining, shouting or screaming just will not stop. At these times, I suspect that the reason is that our boys have deep, deep hurt and anxiety which is brought to the surface by totally unrelated, ‘minor’ triggers, such as us saying ‘no’ to a cup of juice or a chocolate biscuit, or asking them to let us put their shoes on to go out, or any other request that toddlers usually rail against.
Our boys need to test us.
All children do this. They test the boundaries, they test what they can get away with to see at what point their parents will intervene. In addition to this, our boys test us. They love us as their parents – I’m certain of this – and yet they push us away. They repeat behaviours that they know are inappropriate for a lot longer than ‘normal’. For example, it took them a year or more to stop throwing their empty (or not so empty) bowls on the floor at the end of a meal. We don’t believe this is because it took them that long to understand that we didn’t want them to do it, and that it wasn’t an appropriate way to communicate that you’d finished, but because they had to test us, to see if we were going to abandon them should they not ‘perform’ as we were expecting.
This is one small example, but we see lots of this in daily life: negative behaviour patterns being repeated longer than is normal, physical pushing or hitting us, and (more recently) struggles with potty training, beyond what might be considered usual. Every day is a constant stream of such ‘tests’. Being steadfast, consistent and reassuring against this backdrop is one of our biggest challenges as adoptive parents – it is exhausting and stressful.
Our boys struggle with daily transitions, and changes in routine.
Again – our boys are not the only toddlers to struggle in this area. But, whereas many toddlers will learn to become more flexible and accommodating as they grow up, our boys may always struggle with change. In this respect, I think our boys have something in common with children on the autistic spectrum, for whom any sort of change can be overwhelming, daunting and even frightening.
If it isn’t obvious why adopted children struggle with change, consider this: you are born to one person who, at some point during your childhood stops being your primary carer, and you move to a foster carer, eventually moving to an adoptive family. This scenario presents two major changes of carer (and all that accompanies this: home, locality, family, friends) – and this is one of the better case scenarios. Imagine that you’ve been moved between several foster carers before finding your permanent adoptive home (or, possibly, long-term foster home). These changes bring with them extra anxiety and heightened stress levels, as you have no idea how the new home will compare to the last. You have no security, and are not even sure of your identity anymore, as tied up as it is with what you know to be your ‘family’.
I noticed this summer that, when we were telling our children about our forthcoming holidays, we had to be very careful to reassure them that we would be coming back at the end of it. Our boys were also very keen to be reassured that Mummy and Daddy would be coming, and that their older siblings would be joining them too.
I’m just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of learning to manage change for my children, while they’re too young to manage it for themselves, but simply having identified it as an issue feels just a little bit freeing.
Most toddlers’ defiant behaviour will pass one day – but our boys will always carry their past with them – and this may present in a variety of different unhealthy behaviours as they grow up.
Our boys will grow out of being toddlers. They will start to get better at articulating how they feel instead of pushing or throwing, they will start to be easier to reason with, and they will stop being so bothered by the coat-and-shoes routine required for leaving the house.
But they cannot shake off their past so easily. The anxiety, the insecurity, the sadness, the anger – I hope all of this reduces as they grow older, but it’s unlikely to disappear altogether. As an older, wiser adopter once told me about her own grown-up adopted children, “They will always be vulnerable”. And, hence, we are prepared that this past may manifest itself in negative behaviours as our boys grow up – not the pushing and shoving of toddlers, but the withdrawal, sullenness, aggression and unhealthy addictions of teenagers.
I write these things not to scare you or upset you or make you feel incredibly sorry for me, but to give you a little insight into some of the challenges of adoption. In fact, I think I usually write about adoption in very positive terms (take a look at my adoption posts here), so this is written simply to balance things out. It is hard work – but it is Kingdom work, I’m sure of it, and it is this that spurs us on when things get tough:
God places the lonely in families; he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy.