April 12, 2008

The truth behind the first month at home

Posted in The musings of Erin at 9:28 pm by Erin

Having K–it’s really, really, REALLY hard sometimes.  There are so many complicating factors right now, and there’s really no way to talk about just a part of it–so that’s my way of warning you that this is probably going to be a really long post, and not always PC.  I’ll probably try to split it up, maybe when I just get tired (it’s almost 11:30 on Saturday night and P had a friend sleep over last night, so no one got much sleep).

I hardly know where to begin.  Part of me wishes that I’d documented more of our first month home through my blog or other writing; another part of me knows that was just asking too much on top of actually being home with K; and a third part of me doesn’t particularly want to think about a whole lot of it. 

As it turned out, the times when I did see friends, K seemed perfectly happy.  I was constantly getting comments–from family, from friends, even from his pediatrician–about how attached he already seemed to be.  I agreed a lot at first, until I realized what it was…then I kept agreeing because I didn’t know how to admit what was really going on.

It wasn’t really attachment–it was grief and desperation and terrified fear that I would leave him.  How could I admit that my child wanted me with him constantly because he was so scared that we weren’t coming back if we were out of sight?  How could I admit that I knew that I was making it worse because I went back to work less than 72 hours after we got home from Ethiopia?  My beautiful, sweet-natured little boy was jet-lagged, scared…and I just left him in the care of people he didn’t know, who speak a different language, and without being able to adequately assure him that I really WOULD be back.

K has a very, very shrill scream.  It is different than his normal cry, but we didn’t know that at the time because it was all we ever heard when he was upset.  We just thought it was how he cried.  The big problem is that it’s at a frequency and volume that physically hurts my ears.  Not just annoys me, but hurts so badly that I often simply handed him to J while he was screaming because I couldn’t take it anymore.

Who does that?  Who says "Gee, I know you are scared and want me right now–but I can’t deal with the way you cry, and so I’m giving you to Daddy and going in the other room" to their new child?  But I was so tempted–SO tempted–to just put my hands over my ears and yell at him to just shut up that I felt like it was the best alternative.  He would do it for 45 minutes or more at bedtime or naptime, even though we would sit by his crib and hold his hand or rub his back, and take him out every few minutes to cuddle him and reassure him that we were there.  We tried to have him sleep with us, but he was more scared of our waterbed than he was in his crib.

The day that I sat with him for a nap for an hour and 15 minutes, listening to him cry and trying as best I could to soothe him, when he finally fell asleep out of exhaustion but woke up only 20 minutes later and started crying again…I don’t know how I made it through that day.  J wasn’t home that afternoon, as he was trying to catch up work from while we were in Ethiopia (the attorney who worked for him quit with no notice a week after we got back, which almost doubled J’s workload).  P was in quiet time in the playroom but needed some one-on-one time with me that I had promised him as soon as his brother fell asleep.  There is only so much patience that can be displayed by a 4-year old, and about the last 30 minutes of the hour and 15 minutes were both K screaming and P whining and begging for me to spend some time with him.

I know I have friends that I could have called, who would have come to help, but how do you admit that you can’t handle your children?  That you desperately need one minute, just ONE MINUTE, of peace to get your mindset back.  And what would they have done?  They couldn’t have sat with K, as it wouldn’t have helped him calm down.  They couldn’t have helped with P, since all he wanted was some time with me.

There are times, many of them after we first got back, almost none now, when I wish we hadn’t done this, when I have no idea what we were thinking when we decided to adopt a toddler.  When I don’t want K around.  When I resent him for changing our little family so much.  It’s easier to write that now that I don’t feel them on an almost-hourly basis; how could I possibly have admitted that there were days when K would cry and my first thought was "I don’t care…cry all you want"?

Fake-it-’til-you-make-it.  The fact that I’ve used that attitude many times in the past probably saved us.  I’m a pro at it.  Even when I thought I would run away if K didn’t stop screaming, I would pick him up and cuddle him, smile at him, tell him I love him.  I would do everything I could, even if what I could do was to hand him to J and go hide my head in a pillow.  Even if my brain was rebelling at the thought of hearing one more sound or feeling his little body fight mine as I tried to hold him, I still did what I could. 

It’s improved–he has an actual cry that we’ve learned to distinguish from his scream.  There’s a lot more to write and fill in the pieces, because it’s hardly been a sudden change from the hopelessness that I was feeling within a week of coming home (and included my ILs visit, which I will write more about another time) to the type of day that we had today, during which a friend at synagogue mentioned just how much he’s changed since we’ve come home.  But I have to finish this up sometime, and I really want to write about yesterday.

Yesterday was a really tough morning that simultaneously gave me some hope that we are turning a corner.  I normally spend all day on Fridays with K since I have no classes.  We were having friends over last night for dinner, and then their older son slept over–he and P are in the same class and are good friends.  My plan for the morning was to get the house clean and buy a mattress for P’s new bed, so that his room would be set up for that night.  K was having none of it.  He was…fretful.  He wasn’t crying but he wasn’t happy.  He wasn’t quite whining, but he was clingy and didn’t want to be held.  We were in the bedroom that he and P share, and I was trying to get it all set up but couldn’t with him grabbing onto my legs while refusing to let me hold him.

Finally, he started crying and I picked him up for the 80th time.  He immediately started fighting, but cried louder when I put him down.  And something clicked in me.  I remembered reading about holding techniques during grieving, and thought about what might have triggered it that day.  When P’s bed came in the other day, we moved around everything in their bedroom.  His crib moved, the room looks entirely different now.  Suddenly, his comforting bedroom was new and different.  Everything had changed again.

I know I won’t always be able to figure it out, but it might not even matter.  Somehow it clicked that he was actually grieving and not just crabby, as I’d previously thought.

I sat with him on my lap, and he screamed and fought me for a while.  Then he stopped fighting, and his screaming changed into crying, and he clung to me while he sobbed for almost 30 minutes.  I talked a little about how I knew it was so scary and new, but mostly I just held and said I loved him and was there for him.  We cuddled for a little while longer afterwards and he was starting to smile again.  I turned him around to give him a toy, and he started to scream again.  We repeated the whole thing–I held onto him and he fought and screamed, then he clung and cried.

An hour has never seemed so long.  It was painful.  It hurt my ears.  It hurt my heart.  When he started screaming the second time, I wasn’t sure I could do it all again right away.  But I was the only one home with him and I think that I somehow clued into the right way to deal with that problem, at that time.

He was exhausted afterwards.  I put him into his crib for a nap and he started crying again–but it was somehow so obvious that that crying was different than what we’d just gone through, that I knew he was OK with me sitting next to him and rubbing his back or his hand.  He fell asleep within 10 minutes and was out for almost 2 hours.

It was intense.  It was difficult.  And it has already made a huge difference in both of our attitudes and behaviors.  He’s just a little boy.  He’s gone through so much in his not-even 17 months.  He’s very, very much younger than 17 months emotionally and I’d forgotten that.

All of the reading that we did, all of the preparation?  Most of it flew out of our heads when K was actually in our family.  It all made so much sense before we had him home but once he was there, we felt completely adrift.  I think it’s coming back now, and I’m feeling more hopeful.  I know there’s a long way to go, but I do really feel more hopeful now.

At dinner tonight, I watched my boys eating their red beans and rice.  K had it everywhere, and P started laughing at him.  That made K start laughing, which made J and I start laughing.  The whole family laughing together–this is why we needed K in our family.  He’s brought us more opportunities to smile and laugh, and make more memories to treasure forever.



  1. jesspond said,

    I’m sorry it’s been so rough.
    It’s not surprising, really. It’s BOUND to be hard. So don’t be too hard on YOU when YOU are exhausted and at the end of your rope.
    You’re doing great and will continue to be a great mom…I know it.
    Meanwhile, your honesty? Astounding and touching. 🙂

  2. beagle said,

    I applaud you for sharing so honestly. I hope writing it all out helped you. I am SURE it is going to help others.

  3. Meg said,

    Your post brought tears to my eyes, Erin. You did a wonderful job with K the other day in helping him grieve.

  4. sky girl said,

    Erin, this took real guts to write. You are remarkable. Hang in there.

  5. Amanda said,

    I only wish that I had had the strength and self-awareness to write this in the month after we got home. You are a fabulous mama, and I cried and nodded and smiled along with this post.
    Love you.

  6. Carly said,

    I’m sorry things have been so tough, it sounds like you really did turn a corner and hope things continue to improve. I can only imagine how hard it’s been but it sounds like you’re doing the best you can and are doing better and better.

  7. Eva said,

    Thank you for writing this. I’m glad you felt able to do so.

  8. electriclady said,

    Erin, I’m sorry it’s been so difficult. Try not to be too hard on yourself. You are doing the best you can in a tough situation and everyone, K included, is learning how to make your new family work. It sounds like you have really made a breakthrough and I’m sure things will continue to get better.
    And thanks for your honesty in writing this. I’m sure every new mother has felt at one time or another that it is all a big mistake–I know I did. I’m sure reading what you wrote will help other parents now and in the future.

  9. Dr. Grumbles said,

    It is going to be hard work, but stick with it. Showing K love, affection, warmth, and consistent structure will gradually lead a more secure attachment. Adoptees will undoubtedly have attachment issues, but I have witnessed amazing changes over time with adoptive parents who were persistent and invested in convincing the adoptee they really were here to stay.

  10. Amy said,

    Erin, you made it through and you made it through while still showing your little boy love and that’s what’s important. I’m not sure if it would help you but I remember bringing #2 home and having some of the same feelings of resentment at changing our quiet little family. But then I remembered that he didn’t change it, WE did. I got over it and we moved on, got a little more sleep and the sun started shining so to speak! Hang in there and know that it DOES get better and at the end you’ll never question your choices.

  11. Brea said,

    Erin, it sure does sound like things have been pretty tough, with K acting out his feelings of grief. Hopefully as you keep in mind that he needs to grieve in order to come through the process of joining your family emotionally healthy, and that as you provide comfort when he is experiencing anger and sadness, he will bond with you…perhaps as you keep these truths in mind, it will give you hope that there’s a purpose in the pain. Praying that the good times will outweigh the hard times and that the grieving and healing process with be complete and relatively short.

  12. DD said,

    Erin, I don’t even have a decent way to reply to this. I can offer all kinds of platitudes and encouraging remarks but I really don’t think that’s what your goal was. I think you needed a way to put these thoughts into black and white, like a reference.
    I hope it has helped you. Like K, you had to vent before you could come down. We all have to do it or we risk blowing at the wrong time.

  13. My Reality said,

    I love your honesty. You have made progress with K and will continue to do so as time goes on. Thank you for sharing this, it helps, especially when we are considering adopting a child who may be a toddler or older. Your post has not turned me away from it at all, it has prepared me for what could come.

  14. Anna said,

    Erin, my son was 3 1/2 when he came home with us. His cry used to sound like an ambulance siren…it eventually stopped and now he has a normal cry. It’s been almost 2 yrs now and trust me things get better.
    The first 3 months are the toughest. He’s making sure you won’t leave him too, he needs to feel secure, he needs to feel that nothing else will change.
    My son is now 5 and is now asking about his birth mother, he is grieving losing her through adoption (she placed him adoption), he is grieving his dad who passed away (and is afraid to lose this dad too)…
    Your little fellow is too small to understand everything that is happening and is terrified…keep up the good work, and every once in a while take some time out for yourself…recharge and renew to be able to face the new challenges of the week.
    You’re doing a great job, don’t get discouraged…
    sending my best,

  15. Jennifer said,

    I don’t know what to say, other than you have such great instincts. You knew what he needed, and gave it to him. He’s like any other baby who gets scared and clings, but has all of this other history to handle. It’s tough just being 16 months old.
    You’re doing what you need to do, and as someone else said, all moms (even if they lie to themselves about it) feel this way sometimes. You have found a way to find the joy too; and how positive it can be for all of you. You’re doing great at what is an admittedly difficult job. Never hesitate to let it out here; we’re always here to listen and hold your hand (at least in the figurative sense).

  16. T with Honey said,

    Hang in there!
    I am sure that some day the screaming will stop and be completely replaced with laughter.

  17. May said,

    I wanted just to echo many of the above comments, and also add that I’m sorry you had to go back to work so soon, and I hope you aren’t blaming yourself for something so completely out of your control!

  18. thalia said,

    Oh Erin it sounds really really tough. Your session with him crying sounds like just what he needed. And the screaming reminded me of something my mum said when I wanted Pob to stop crying – that crying was her way of communicating and telling her to stop was like telling her I didn’t think her emotions were important. It’s stuck with me.
    Keep doing what you’re doing. I know it’s hard, but it will get better.

  19. Christy said,

    It really does sound overwhelming. I’m so sorry it’s been so hard. (I wish I had fancier things to say.)

  20. hope548 said,

    Wow, what a challenge you’ve had and still have ahead of you. I’m glad you have hope and are starting to figure it all out. I hope things continue to settle down.
    Take care.

  21. Samantha said,

    You are very brave and doing the best that you can with your new family. K’s and your life have been turned upside down. I can’t add more than the other comments. Thanks for being so honest.

  22. lucky2 said,

    Wow – what an honest and open post. Thank you so much for sharing. I am sure it helped to write about it as well. It sounds as if you are handling this as best you can, and admitting it is hard for ALL of you is important to. I wish I lived closer to help. Hang in there. It does sound as if you are turning a corner.

  23. Clover said,

    I know its not quite the same thing, but our twins screamed constantly for the first four months and those thoughts of “what did we do?” and “why did we mess up our nice little family of three?” were constant, particularly for my husband. Introducing new family members is hard on everyone and when there are complicating factors (international toddler adoption, screaming colicky twins, whatever the situation) it adds so much stress it seems totally overwhelming.
    Good for you for writing about it. Its important that people know its not all wine and roses.

  24. Clover said,

    I know its not quite the same thing, but our twins screamed constantly for the first four months and those thoughts of “what did we do?” and “why did we mess up our nice little family of three?” were constant, particularly for my husband. Introducing new family members is hard on everyone and when there are complicating factors (international toddler adoption, screaming colicky twins, whatever the situation) it adds so much stress it seems totally overwhelming.
    Good for you for writing about it. Its important that people know its not all wine and roses.

  25. Ferenje Mama said,

    It’s like you have lived my life before its happened… speaking about my worst fears. Thank you for sharing, Erin.

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