When I first laid eyes on my oldest daughter, she was 3 1/2 years old and 18 lbs. Step by step she came down the spiral staircase. Closer and closer to the carpet which spanned the distance between our chairs and her feet. I studied her face first, watching for signs of excitement or fear. There was the smallest of grins that pulled at her mouth as she intentionally took each stair one at a time. That intentionality would become the mantra of our next three years.
When she finally raised her eyes to look in the direction her nanny was pointing, it wasn’t excitement or fear I saw, but a small flicker of anger followed by very clear body language of refusal. I expected the action but not the way it triggered my own emotions.
The next three years were hell. A stranger would knock at the door, smile at my daughter, and leave her in a fit of rage. “I want to go with that lady!!! I want to go now!!!” Every Sunday she would attach to her teacher and detach from me. I say detach like there was even attachment there to begin with, but there wasn’t. Many in the adopted world say “Fake it till you make it,” and they are talking specifically to the parents, but I have to say that my daughter was struggling with the same superficial emotions toward me. She wanted to feel safe, but couldn’t. She wanted to love, but wasn’t sure how. She wanted to please, but on her terms and with her rules.
And I thought I could bring her closer by being stronger in who I was as a mother. I thought that standing firm would mean I was standing still and making myself available. I thought she was the only one entering this relationship broken, but during the three years following her homecoming, I was forced to look in the mirror and see all my ugliness, all my sin, and all my need for Jesus.
Grace. I wanted to parent her with grace, but every time she rejected me for another woman, every time she looked at me with hatred, every time she trashed the room I had put together for her–all I could think of was, “We are never going to make it. I’m doing this all wrong. I have ruined her. I’m not fit to be her mother and she knows it.”
Grace. I wanted to parent her with grace, but I needed to first learn to receive it myself.
After our youngest daughter was born, we saw alarming and harmful behavior manifest itself between the girls. Our friends offered to take our oldest for respite–a break–but I turned her down. I was overwhelmed by guilt. We have five kids–the oldest three are boys while the youngest two are girls. Our fifth was a surprise and so were the incredible feelings of attachment and love and adoration I felt for this baby. The guilt was more than I could handle. This was what I was missing with my oldest daughter. While I had always known it was missing, I could now feel what was missing. The stark contrast gave birth to incredible sorrow for the three of us–my daughter, her birth mother, and myself.
Each day passed and the chasm in the degrees of my attachment to each daughter widened. While I could stare of this infant child for hours at a time, the manipulations and lying of my oldest taxed my patience, leaving me begging for space for an hour or six. The colicky baby could cry for hours while I held her, but my oldest daughters tantrums would land her in her room–alone–until she modified her attitude. I could feed on demand every 45 minutes around the clock, but the demands and hyper-vigilance of this child who had come home to us malnourished and underweight made me feel consumed.
Food. The need for food was the only one of her needs she could both recognize and receive from me. Regularly my daughter would creep upstairs to my office in the morning and I would ask, “How was your sleep? Did you dream any dreams?” To which she would respond, “What’s for breakfast? The boys are having _______. Can I have _____?” As I tucked her in for bed at nights she would need to know the next day’s menu. If she heard the fridge opening for ice or juice, she’d run downstairs. If we left the main floor for a second, she was scouring cabinets. She was hungry for so much–most things she was too young to articulate such as love, security, acceptance, affirmation. Much of that I tried to offer, but she rejected in cyclical behavior. But food, she could recognize the need for food and meet that need herself.
Finally, winter passed and summer came. I don’t remember spring–I think it vanished beneath a mound of cloth diapers (horrible idea, but we are surviving), infant feedings, college papers, and traumatic tantrums. But summer did come along with the offer for “a break.” This time, I didn’t care if it made me look like a bad parent. We set it up and away she went.
The first three days were blissful. The house was quiet. The fighting subsided. I looked at my husband on the third day and said, “This is so peaceful. Is this what we’ve been missing for the last three years?” I was torn between the unholy longing I had for my house to be like this–all the time–and the hard work I knew it was going to require when she came back home.
By the end of the first week, I had spoken with my friend on the phone and was given the gift of realizing I wasn’t crazy. Our friends are also an adoptive family and they know the ins and outs of attachment, trauma, and manipulative behavior.
“I see it,” she said.
“I’m not crazy?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Then what am I going to do to keep from losing my sanity?”
The second week of her absence I had to embrace a hard truth. Peace was no longer an option. Jesus promised it. I wanted it. Somebody was bringing some peace in this house. I spent the next few days watching myself and seeing how it was that I interacted with our other children. I imagined my reaction to the same behavior as if it had come from my daughter. It took less than 24 hours to realize there was a huge discrepancy.
I had no idea how to fix it and time was up.
Our first days home and the cycle was already spinning. Respect, obedience, and honesty are the three Big Ones we work on with all our kids. In the low points of her cycle, disrespect, disobedience, and dishonesty are all her BIG GUNS. They are the ones she pulls out when she needs to make sure I understand she doesn’t want me to know she needs me.
I panicked. We were headed back to that place. The two weeks of peace were just a teaser. God had none of that in mind for our family. We were destined to be dysfunctional, disheartened, and a general ‘dys-aster’ until all these kids were grown and gone. And after that–then what? Would she ever come home again? Would I be there when she graduated college? Got married? Would she want her children to call me Grandma?
Cycle. Cycle. Cycle. I could feel myself detaching from the too-familiar cycle, refusing to ride this ride of manipulation again and I was afraid. Afraid of failure. Afraid to fail her.
So I chose to stop the cycle myself. No more reacting to the dishonesty. No more expectations of obedience. No more personal offense taken to the disrespect. I will only vocalize her poor choice in behavior. I will only allow the natural consequence of poor decisions. I will always let her know where the mistake is, but I will no longer be making a list of offenses.
I will choose to respond in peace for the sake of peace and no longer give her a piece of my mind.
And what the Lord showed me was heart-breaking. My daughter feared me. Slowly, my non-reaction allowed her room to feel safe. She began to ask questions after choosing poor behavior, “Do I lose privileges today mommy? Do I lose screens tonight, Mom? Do I lose dessert after dinner because I disobeyed? Do I have to sit with you even though I disrespected?”
For once in my life it was hard to say ‘no’. Saying no was really saying ‘yes’ and it just about killed me. It was all poor behavior without consequence. All for the sake of peace.
All for grace.
And the peace came rushing in.
So for all you adopted mamas who share my journey, I advocate for a little respite. A little space to see clearly. A little room to grow.
I know you can read all the above and see my ugly heart, and I’m okay with that. I see it, too. She sees it, too. We all know it’s there. But more than anything, I have learned to live with my own ugliness and embrace the beauty of grace for the sake of ‘us’. If I parent in my own strength, I fail this adopted child who has already experienced so much loss. If I let go–if my discipline grows weak and my expectations low–then I gain everything.
She crawls up in my lap and says she loves me, spontaneously and without asking for food next.
She braids my hair and says I’m beautiful. Not because she needs to reattach after a tantrum, but because she wants to spend time with me.
She apologizes on her own, not to regain privileges, but to mend the fracture she senses in our unity.
I love her. No faking. All real. And I know she loves me, too.
So here’s a thank you to my friend and her gift of respite–of rest.