Thursday, October 1, 2009

Bonding and Outrage

As I logged on to aol this evening, an article caught my eye. The catch line was something along the lines of "Mom's decision angers many", then proceeded to note that an adoptive mother returned her adopted eighteen month old after a year. Having a keen sense of deja-vu, I clicked and read the article.

Apparently the mother in question (and apparently the father, although no one mentions him) filed to adopt an infant that was abandoned literally on the side of the road. After a year of attempting to bond with the child, the parents realized that they were not successful and chose to return the baby, now eighteen months. The reporter clearly had some extreme reactions to the parents' choices--including comments such as, "What exactly could an eighteen-month old baby do that would inhibit bonding?"

I don't know about the child in question. But I know about my own. I know his fragile disposition, his neediness, his inability to play independently or even constructively. I know the chronic crying sprees where nothing is comforting, the fear in his eyes of every potential misstep, the lack of responsiveness to any of my inherent nurturing instincts. And I know it gets worse as he gets older.

Every challenge I have faced with my son has made me question my abilities as a parent. If it weren't for my daughter I would be convinced that despite my master's degree in early childhood education, despite my experience working with hundreds of kids with diverse backgrounds and needs, despite teaching at-risk children who lived lives I can only imagine in my nightmares, I would be convinced I am a bad mother. Good mothers have a loving relationship with their children. Good mothers don't pray for their screaming child to fall asleep so that everyone can rest. Good mothers are supportive and caring and never have negative thoughts about their children. Good mothers know what to do when children veer off course.

My list of traits that define good mothering is rather extensive and certainly the list above is not exhaustive. It has been pointed out to me on more than one occasion that my definition of a good mother is not only high, but rather unachievable. As an educator, I realize this on a logical level. Of course all parents make mistakes. We often don't know how to meet unrecognizable or nonverbal needs. We struggle to help children make good choices, and yes, even the most excellent parents I know occasionally have a negative thought about their kids.

What makes their experiences so different than mine? It's what I share with the mother who has angered many--the lack of bonding with my child. My son is, to some degree, unable to form a stable emotional bond. Not only with me, but with anyone. It took me years to figure out that it wasn't because of me and some fault in my parenting that kept him from attaching. The fact that he needed me--to know where I was, when I would be back, who I would be with, at all times--was not the same as him being comfortable with me. Neediness that is neverending can easily become an albatross around the comforter's neck. An infant's neediness is fundamental and understanding. And it lasts for awhile, then the infant develops skills that allow him to become less needy, more independent. My son is, for all intents and purposes, emotionally an infant. At age twelve, he needs constant reassurance that I am in the same space as him, that I am safe, that I am predictable. And he wears that albatross as well--it is a heavy weight that binds the two of us together.

I would not trade one minute of my life with my child. He is smart and funny and a tremendous blessing. He is someone, in his good moments, who exhibits an amazing capacity for empathy and compassion. I cannot begin to imagine my life without him, nor would I want to. My son has taught me so many lessons about life, about love, about myself. But I grieve for the child he could have been, had he been given the start in life that every baby deserves...a loving, responsive adult who could nurture his needs from day one.

I pray that eighteen-month old finds the right family to love him, to nurture him, to grow his brain and his body and his soul. Every child deserves to have those needs met--it is our right as human beings to be loved and nurtured and treated with dignity. But I also pray for the parents who made a heartwrenching give a child whose needs they knew they weren't meeting to another family. To give him a second chance to bond and grow. I clearly don't live in the hearts and minds of those parents, but I would imagine this decision was a torturous one for them. No matter what, the decision to give up a child is a painful one. But knowing that children must, MUST bond with a caregiver before age three to have secure attachments, I can't find fault with parents who know they are unable to achieve that task and make a moral decision to give a child another chance. God willing, that toddler will find a loving home--and loving arms--to help him bond.

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