One of the most difficult things about being a foster/adoptive parent is gaining the trust of the child placed in your care.
At a Bible class one Sunday the discussion was about the Israelites as they were getting ready to follow Joshua to the Promised Land. God told them -no- COMMANDED them several times in Joshua chapter 1 “be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid “. The question was asked “Why would this be a command?” One answer that struck me was that the Israelites were God’s chosen people. His children, who had seen Him do mighty works and miracles right in front of their very eyes, knew Him from birth just as a child knows the parents they are born to. This person continued with their answer, saying, “when I take my child swimming I can stand in the pool and my child will jump off the edge knowing I will catch him in my arms.” That’s the kind of relationship the Israelites had or should have had with the Lord. Simple as that, we should just be able to TRUST Him as children trust their parents. Wait - that didn't sit right with me. It doesn't happen that way for all children. It didn't happen that way for me.
I saw a picture in my mind of this happy father and his son laughing and splashing around in the pool and my mind flashed back to when I had our foster daughter enrolled in swimming lessons. She had been with us about 16 months and we were in the process of adopting her. You’d think by then she would KNOW she could trust me and jump into my arms. But she stood shaking on the edge of the pool, on the verge of a meltdown, overcome by fear. The only way she would jump into the water was if I was holding her hands tightly or if I lifted her with both of my hands under her armpits. No amount of coaxing could persuade her to jump without being attached to me in some strong way first.
You see, since I did not have her from conception or birth, my hubby and I did not even know her until she was placed with us at 18 months old. It took a long time to get to know her and for her to get used to us. She came from a very hard place where she learned throughout her first 18 months of life that adults CAN‘T be trusted. She was finally plucked out of a dangerous environment and placed into our home. I'll never forget the first time we met her at the agency. I remember thinking she was much bigger than I imagined for a one and a half year old, her skin was the darkest and smoothest of dark chocolate, and her black eyes were huge and excited. Her hair was twisted in sections with barrettes fastened at the ends. Her one-piece summer outfit was too big, one spaghetti-strap slipped off one shoulder. She was such a beautiful child, grinning from ear to ear, ecstatic at being surrounded by ladies who were showering her with attention. She had toddled out of the visiting room as if on cue when we were let in to meet her. She stopped at the door as we were introduced, and her grin never left her face as she stared at us smiling back at her.
She took my hand so easily and toddled to the exit with us and only became unsure at the threshold. I picked her up to carry her to the van, filled with a flood of feelings I can't begin to describe. This child had had never seen us in her life, and here we were carrying her away, taking her to our home for a yet-undetermined amount of days, months or years in our car. She had nothing of her own to comfort her. She was being strapped into a car seat and had absolutely no choice and no control over anything. She was like a glass doll encased in a layer of clear plastic, her frozen happy expression painted over things in her mind we would probably never know.
I had brought a stuffed bear - just in case - and picked it up to let her hold it when I sat next to her instead of my usual front passenger seat while hubby drove. She was not interested in cuddling the bear at all. Maybe the cuddle would bring on tears. Maybe the fear she was trying to hide was so numbing that she could not feel anything. The smile began to fade and apprehension began to appear. The entire 20 minute drive home I bounced that bear and sang silly songs to bring her out of trances and keep her distracted. I even managed to get her to giggle a few times. I couldn't bear the thought of her possibly remembering her first trip HOME filled with fear in ominous silence. Unbeknownst to her she was being carried to a home of safety, protection, love, and joy, so it had to begin immediately and continue from there.
Once home, our anxiously waiting 16 year old daughter, "DD", sat on the couch with just a couple of toys and allowed our new Little Princess to approach on her own. The rest of that day was dedicated to Little Princess and nothing else. We knew nothing about her, and she knew nothing about us. We had to show her around the house and yard, and introduce her to her room. I can't remember what I fed her for lunch, but I do remember not knowing for sure what she could or would eat. I didn't know if I was supposed to take her barrettes out of her hair to sleep, and I didn't know if she slept in a crib or if she had any kind of routine or if she had ever been rocked or cuddled. The first nap time, I sat with her in the rocking chair by her crib. She sat straight up stiffly in my lap and would not lean against me. I sang softly to her to try to sooth her tears, but no amount of gentleness, not even if an angel came to sing in my place would she be able to relax. She was so incredibly exhausted that she was falling asleep sitting up and I put my hand on her cheek to steady her head. She finally allowed her head to rest in my hand as I rocked in that awkward position and continued to sing and repeat over and over the words that DD and I had just finished painting and hanging on the bedroom wall. "You are safe, you are loved, you are chosen, you are strong, you are family..." I laid her in her crib for the first time wondering if and when she would ever get use to it, or if it felt like a cage to her. She continued to cry but soon fell asleep watching me as I sat next to her, singing, so she wouldn't feel so alone.
It took several days for Princess to get comfortable rocking in my lap before sleep times. Even once she "relaxed", she never was able to look into my eyes for longer than a split second. Even today her eye contact is limited, usually on her terms, and the rest of her body is usually in constant motion. I'd like to say that I was able to keep up the silly, energetic play every single day, 100% of the time for the entire 18 months up to her adoption day. That would be a lie. Life requires moms to do multiple other things to care for the entire family, not just one child. I have to give an incredible amount of credit to our two older children living at home for the countless hours of playing "get-you" while one held her and they other chased them around and around the house while she squealed and belly-laughed. That was her favorite game. She gradually learned to be able to sit through an entire board-book, and she tolerated having her hair done and all the normal every day necessary routines. But no matter how hard we tried to demonstrate love to her she struggled with accepting it. For several months when we went out in public she was easily attracted to strangers. At one period of time she wanted to kiss everyone who said "hello" to her. She could not understand the difference between giving affection to us or a friendly stranger. When we played with her, sometimes she would suddenly turn and bite without warning and without changing her smiling expression. We wondered if she would ever have a conscience about hurting others in this way - it seemed like she had no concept of other people's pain.
And yet as time went on this Princess did learn that we are her family. Even though she continued to struggle with accepting and returning affection appropriately and gently (still does), she began to hide behind me around other people. If we went someplace new to her, or if other people she did not see on a regular basis either held her or looked closely into her eyes as they spoke to her she would wake with nightmares the next evening and be aggressive and angry toward me the next day or two.
We experience some of the same with our foster son, who we've only had for 4 months. He is bonding much easier with me and has no trouble with eye contact - but from the beginning he would go to just about anyone and look deeply into their eyes. Afterward he would smack my face or push away from me when I tried holding or rocking him to sleep. Close eye contact and affection from other people are confusing to a child who is still trying to figure out who their new mom is and if they are going to stay with that mom or get moved again.
Last weekend Hubby and I took our Little's to a Chinese Buffet for dinner. Baby has never been to a restaurant with us, and Princess hasn't been for probably a year. She struggles with eating in front of other people even in our home. This time she did very well and so did Baby. After we were done and getting ready to leave, the sweetest Oriental lady came chattering excitedly about how cute our baby is. I could not understand a word she said, between her Chinese and broken English. She bent down to chatter at the baby and he looked with confused eyes at her, and back at me. Then she picked him up out of his high chair!! I quickly reached out and took him from her, feeling shocked at her lack of boundaries. Maybe it's her culture or she is just extremely naive.. I couldn't get angry with her because she clearly had no idea of the harm that she had just caused in the mind of our baby. There was no way that I could stand there and explain to someone who could barely understand or speak English that we have only had this child for 4 months and are trying to establish a bond with him, let alone the fact that you just don't pick up other people's babies!
That night Baby seemed to be ok, but like Princess, the next night he woke crying. Not just once, but FOUR times. This child normally sleeps through the night EVERY night unless he has a cold. Standing next to the crib while snuggling him and whispering affirmations in his ear was not enough. I had to sit in the rocking chair and hold him until he finally was comfortable and relaxed enough to start playing around with the crocheted blanket behind me before I put him back in his crib. Then he slept the remainder of the night - or I should say - morning, since it was around 4 a.m.!
My point to this story? In a perfect world we would have perfect parents as we have a perfect God, and we could EXPECT our children to trust us as God expects us to trust Him. But our world is NOT perfect. This is not heaven. People are selfish, children are abused and neglected, and they learn that adults cannot be trusted. Their brains are hard-wired to live out of self-defense. Fight, flight, or freeze. We can't command our children to trust us just because we love them. We have to work hard at demonstrating to them that we are trustworthy and pray hard for the Lord to re-wire their brains in the process so that they can have healthy trusting relationships in the future. This reminds me of the story of Hosea, who married a prostitute at God's command, and continued to love her and take her back even though she did not accept his love or remain faithful only to him. It is a task like no other, exhausting yet small glimpses of success and a tremendous amount of hope to keep us going.
At first no one could command me to be strong and courageous, just as I can't command my little children to be. It took several losses, including a set of twins that we almost adopted but had to give back to birth parents, for me to realize that God had adopted ME as one of His own when He sent Christ to die for me. He literally made me one of His heirs along with Christ. Christ is THE big brother I always wished I had! (If you're not a Christian, read Romans 8 - you're welcome to join the Family!) I had to look closely at all the ways He had blessed me over the years by focusing on all the joys and writing them down. When I went back and read well over a thousand blessings (numbered every day for over a year) along with answered prayers too numerous to count, I realized the Lord had been with me from the very beginning and had never left. He blessed me and my family in ways I never even asked. Had I not written them down I might have missed or forgotten them. Had I not learned to finally accept the love He has for me, I think He may have continued to put road blocks in the way to prevent us from becoming foster parents. I have to put my trust in the Lord completely so that He can work through me, and so our children will see, learn, and gradually absorb that love - love that goes past my own human capacity - HIS perfect love. It's the only way for healing to take the place of fear, both in myself, and in the children God has placed in my care.
Love..."always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres..." 1 Cor 13:7