When we went through our pre-adoption screening – which is quite extensive in Belgium – we had some interviews by a psychologist and a social worker. These interviews were quite intense and detailed, going from the amount of bedrooms in our house to the amount of people in our network that didn’t fully support our adoption plans. Most of all, we were questioned about the flexibility of our parenting style and our knowledge on adoption issues.
There’s one fact the social worker told us, which I will never forget. It’s something I still reply to non-adoptive people who try to commiserate and state how awful it must have felt to be screened in order to become a parent. Because, you know, “there are a lot of miserable parents out there that breed like rabbits and could benefit from some screening”. Not my words.
The fact is, as the social worker explained, the screening wasn’t to check whether we were or would be perfect parents. We didn’t need to defend ourselves and our parenting style and we surely didn’t need to show we were prefect.
The screening was to check whether we had the skills and strength to become good adoptive parents. A very important nuance.
Today, I understand it more than ever.
This very moment, the Panther is sleeping right beside me. She’s exhausted. I’m too.
We have fought for over an hour. Fighting being: her kicking me in the stomach, slapping me in the face, hitting me on the head and occasionally biting me wherever she could get her teeth. The only thing I did was holding her so she couldn’t really hurt me, but still allowing her to get free of me. Don’t ask me how I do it. I’ve grown octopus skills over the past three years.
She screamed, growled and begged. It’s generally very hard to hear and see, and today was particularly bad. My husband had to turn away to make sure the Penguin was safe and because he couldn’t stand to witness, although he did check on us several times. The neighbours are probably planning to file their next report of child abuse first thing tomorrow.
The thing is, I don’t hold her close to me against her will. She just attacks me and rarely tries to run away from me. It’s prone to attachment disorder: you try to drive away your prime caretaker. By now, I’m pretty sure that prime caretaker would be me. I have the bruises to show for it.
Usually, there’s a tiny conflict that sets her off. Today it was putting her pyjamas on, to go to bed. Yesterday it was me talking to a friend instead of her. The day before it was because I wouldn’t buy her strawberries. The fact that there were no strawberries to be seen in the fruit ally didn’t matter. When she’s having a bad day, or bad moment, she takes all of that as a personal rejection.
Typically, a child that has this kind of aggressive anger outburst will be given a time-out or another punishment. Or, you ask someone to take over, and you tell your child that she can not stay with you as long as she hurts you. That’s how we dealt with it with the Penguin, although I didn’t quite feel comfortable with it. We have tried this with the Panther as well.
But it doesn’t work that way with her. It doesn’t work like that with attachment disorder. She tries to provoke her biggest fear, to be abandoned again. She seeks proof of what she believes, that she is disposable and unworthy. After three years, she still doesn’t believe in unconditional love.
To me, raising an adoptive child means putting attachment first. In this case, that means classic upbringing comes second.
So instead of punishment, time-outs and reprimands, I stay close to her. When she begs over and over again to let go of her, while she can easily get away, I don’t move. When she hits, kicks or bites me, I do tell her it hurts and I ask her to stop, but I don’t separate her from me. When she yells she’s angry, I tell her I’m not. When she screams she hates me, I reply I love her.
Like many other parents, I constantly doubt whether we’re doing it right. Because, in the end, she does need to stop attacking me. I won’t be able to hold her off when she’s twelve. She needs to learn how to deal with frustrations. And she definitely needs to understand she can not just go and claim me for over an hour in such negative way whenever she feels she needs my attention.
Luckily, I have the Panther myself to back me up. She’s wonderful at expressing herself. When I asked her, somewhere in the middle of our attritional fight, how she would deal with a child of hers that would attack her, in the far far future, she told me she would hit it back really hard and send it away.
I asked her what she meant. Would she send her child to her room for a time-out?
No, she said. I will send it right back to Africa.
With that, I had enough strength and patience to hold out the remainder of our push and pull struggle.
After she finally gave in and she allowed me to put her pyjamas on, she cuddled right back into my arms, where she fell asleep almost instantly.
Right before dozing off, she begged me to hold her and to never let go again.
I’m not intending otherwise.