Six years ago, my middle son JJ was legally adopted. I first met him when he was a year old when we had taken our older 3 kids to visit their former foster parents. We were sitting in her living room chatting when a cheerful, chestnut-haired little boy in cute zip-up pajamas popped playfully around the corner. He was shy, but wanted to see who was there. His foster parents told me that his mom had not bee engaged in her case plan and that he would soon be needing a permanent home. It was obvious that they loved him. They’d had him from a month old and were just crazy about him. They had fostered for many years and were now in their 70s. He was to be one of their last foster children. Her hands were growing numb and she was having difficulty with basic caregiving, but did not want to see him shuffled off to another foster home so they kept holding on and hoping that the “system” would get a move-on.
My other kids and I were immediately crazy about this little guy, too. He was so smiley and sweet. We went home and tried to talk my partner into adding another child to our chaotic household. Understandably, she was hesitant. We had already adopted our others as a sibling group and they had very high needs. But somehow, I sensed that he was what we all needed to make our family complete. I knew that no matter what problems he might have or develop down the road, we could handle it and would stand by him no matter what. His foster parents knew this, too, because of how challenging our older 3 were. They also trusted that we would keep in touch and that they could keep their connection to the child they loved so much. They virtually begged us to adopt him.
After a bit of persuasion, my wife was on board and we started the monumental process of paperwork, background checks, training, meetings, etc. that comes with any adoption. And then we waited. And waited. We stayed away because I knew I was already in love and could not handle my heart being broken if we weren’t the chosen family. My other kids did not need another attachment disruption either. But it dragged on for another year!
In the end, we were chosen and when we returned to start our visits with him as his new family. It was stunning how different he was. He was not only older, but he had not had the enrichment that he needed during that year. This was not because his foster parents were intentionally neglectful. They were just too elderly to keep up with an extremely active toddler, so they rarely left their small house. He wasn’t yet verbal and seemed unable to focus on anything. But he was still happy. Still sweet.
We had a week of visits and by the time we had our last before he was set to move-in, he cried at the door for us when we left. We knew he was ready to come home.
He added a lot of crazy to our house as he was blossoming into a big world with lots to see, do, touch (destroy!) and interact with. My kids adored him* and doted on him in a way that made my heart melt. They have attachment difficulties, but the pure joy and love of a little sweet soul who hasn’t experienced abuse was so incredibly healing for them. They relished taking care of him and spending time cuddling.
But something completely unexpected happened to me. JJ and I attached strongly, quickly. And I felt something grow in my heart that I didn’t even know was missing. It was the intensity of attachment to someone who is attached to you. I knew that I adored my other kids, but I hadn’t realized how much deeper the feelings could be when the child is emotionally attuned to you.
This experience, this depth, this love that he showed me, then radiated out into our entire household. When my other kids did something upsetting, I circled back to how I would react to JJ if he had done it. Forgiveness and empathy are much easier with strong attachment. I drew upon those new feelings and projected them onto new situations. Suddenly I was seeing myself and my relationship to all my kids in a brand-new light. It was like a switch was flipped that allowed new ways of understanding, interacting and of loving that I would never have known were missing.
It was at this time that I really, fully understood what attachment disorder was and what it means to everyone in relationship with someone with RAD. It’s not just that the child pushes you away, the caregivers also have a hard time with bonding. I loved my kids so much, I did not understand that love was not the same as a deep bond. But JJ taught me that.
Though it has not always been easy to parent a bunch of kids with special-needs from different bio-families, the joys have far outweighed the difficulties. I can understand why some people we knew had a hard time understanding our decision to foster and adopt more children after our initial sibling group of 3. I am so naive as to not understand somewhat how an outsider looking in could be confused. But knowing the dynamics of my own family and how much we all needed each other, I have no doubt that we are all better off together. When I see my girls snuggle and spoil their little brothers, when I see the boys hug them and tell them how much they love them, it’s obvious how meaningful their relationships are and how much we have all grown with each other.
*My oldest son does love him, and JJ’s younger brother who we have also adopted. But, his attachment disorder was serious enough that he oscillated between love and hate. When things are sweet between them, though, it is so touching and lovely.