Our youngest grandchild just turned 9 months old. It made me reflect on the fact that I was 9 months old when my parents met me; when I became their daughter.
Since we do not live in the same community I do a video chat story time with my youngest grandson on a regular basis. I love getting to see him grow and develop even if it’s only on a ‘screen’. Partly as a result of these chats, my grandson knows who I am, he hears my voice and looks for my image. He sees my image on screen and reacts; I clap, he claps, I smile, he smiles, he belly laughs and my hearts just melts as I laugh too. At 9 months old he recognizes me. Even though we live hundreds of kilometres apart he knows who I am, and that we are important to each other.
Seeing my grandson’s secure attachment made me reflect on my placement into my adoptive parents’ care at about the same age as he is right now. We all know there is a 9 month gestation period for the development of a human being, and then the first 9 months of life outside of the womb are dedicated to the development of a secure attachment. I did not have that in my first 9 months. Instead I had an extended hospital stay (for housing needs not medical ones) as a newborn, followed by three foster care placements.
I was lucky that my third, and final foster parents and their children, loved and cared for me. I’m sure I must have been forming an attachment with them. I can almost see it in the few pictures I now have of my short time with them. As was done in those days, in a sudden and bittersweet moment, I was matched with my adoptive family and removed from my foster home without thought to trying to transfer that attachment.
There is an old 8 mm film recording of the day that I arrived at my parents’ home to be placed on adoption with them. My mother had given the film to me on one of her ‘spring clean-up’ days years ago as she no longer had the projector it needed. I did not have any way to see it either so I simply tucked it away. Years later my brother transferred the old film onto a new format for me so I could finally watch it. The film starts with a flickering image of a smiling worker carrying a tiny white-blonde-haired baby girl down the outside cement steps to meet her new family . . .
One sign of the age of the film are the blinding lights that were part of the technology back then. So throughout, there is a whole lot of squinting going on, often making my expressions hard to see. Somehow though, watching my image, I can sense what I was feeling.
Appearing in the film are the worker who was dropping me off, the other foster child she was transporting, my new parents and brother, as well as other women in the background, oh, and a random tiny little infant that I will talk about later.
Clearly my arrival was cause for a celebration as there were so many people in the house, including the person filming the event. If I’m not mistaken, my parents’ friends would have come over as a supportive gesture. I believe that were too many women present for me to figure out who my new mother was. My dad was the only man in sight so it may have been obvious to me who my new father was.
9 month old me, the star of the production, honestly just looks lost, confused, and uncomfortable. Today, I recognize that 9 month old me was likely traumatized. I watch myself staring into the faces of the people holding me or sitting near me, looking for some sign of familiarity, an uncomfortable smile on my face. You know that look, the one when you plop a smiling little one on Santa’s lap at the mall and they are all giggles, until they look up, staring blankly with a frozen smile, trying to figure out who this is, then suddenly bursting into tears from a lack of recognition.
In the film, while my new mother spoon feeds me lunch, I stare into her face as if trying to place her, or maybe even trying to understand why my foster mother is not there to feed me. I can be seen looking somewhat longingly over at the worker who is feeding my little carpool partner, after all they were the only two people in the room that were familiar to me. I noticed that while I opened my mouth automatically to accept the spoon, and later the bottle, from my new mother, I never seemed to take my eyes off of her face. Perhaps I was ‘filial imprinting’ in case I lost this mother too. Seeing this on film hits me right in the ‘feels’, every time.
There are at least two spots in the film where my parents are holding someone else’s baby (maybe to show me, or perhaps the worker, that they knew how to do it?) and showing the baby to me, even placing that baby on my little lap at one point. I feel that if my son and daughter-in-law were to be holding an infant, my grandson would be trying to pull that baby off of them, or at least be trying to move the baby so he could fit on their laps too. 9 month olds with secure attachment are territorial like that. Honestly my confused expression is only overshadowed by my complete, and obvious disinterest in that baby.
My brother, who was placed for adoption with our parents at 2 1/2 years old had only been with them less than a year, and was likely just getting settled when I showed up. His disdain for me is apparent in the film. Frankly, he seemed more interested and comfortable hugging the family dog than hugging me as repeatedly directed. It was a small consolation when I saw that he too had to hold that mystery infant; his indifference apparent. That poor little boy was like an actor auditioning on a film set with the directors telling him to hug me, to kiss my little cheek, and to accept this little intruder as his sister. He did not appear impressed. However, even though it was not a great audition, we were given the role of siblings.
When I look at this film it upsets me to see how many people were there on the day I met my new family. I wonder how I even knew which of these people belonged to me? If I had hurt myself, which person would I have shown my distress to and sought comfort from? I’ll even bet I felt abandoned when the worker and the other foster child left me behind in a house full of strangers. After all, they had been my only familiarity in that house. I often wonder how that other little girl, my carpool partner, felt when she was subsequently dropped off at her new placement, did she miss the worker and me too?
There is one spot in the film showing me jumping in a crib looking gleefully at my image in a mirror, reaching out and trying to touch the only image I recognized in my new environment! Another spot in the film finds me on the couch squinting and rocking myself; likely a self-soothing behaviour. Anyone outside of the adoption constellation who looks at this film might see a joyous occasion and celebration of a young child joining her new family. They would see a new family supported by workers, family members, and friends. What they would not see is the trauma, after all, how could there be trauma at such a happy event?
As I write and edit this blog I feel many things, grief for the way I was introduced to my family, and pride that as an adoption worker, I tried to do things better. There is always room for improvement but generally speaking adoption workers now try to mitigate the confusion of moving from one family to another. Pictures and videos are sometimes used before the parties meet. There are pre-placement visits between the foster home and the adoptive home before the big move. Visit calendars are created and information is provided (likes and dislikes, favourite foods, things like that) so that the receiving family is somewhat prepared. Thankfully, foster parents now play a huge role before a baby, child or youth is even introduced to their new family, and after they are moved.
I mention these things to give prospective adoptive parents an idea of what types of pre-placement activities they should expect, or even request if necessary, to help that baby, child or youth transition to their family. I believe that, to mitigate some of the trauma of changing families, contact with previous caregivers should be eased off, not cut off like the umbilical cord, no matter how challenging it might be for the adults. A huge bonus is when contact continues through openness.
I remember when I finally met my last foster mother (I was in my 60s and she in her 80s) and she talked about her grief at having me ‘just gone’, no further contact, never knowing if I was okay. She never got to tell my new family my likes and dislikes, or my usual routine so that I could be comforted. All those years, she worried about me while I wondered who she was and if she missed me. Our relationship mattered.
If this blog has struck a chord with you, pun intended, feel free to leave a comment here, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks for visiting and having tea with me in Blogville.