We go to breakfast. Kembe points to what he wants on the buffet. “Sausage” he says with confidence, and points to the links. “Are you sure?” I ask. “You don’t like sausage.” “I WANT SAUSAGE” he says. I put sausage on the plate. A few minutes later, he appears to have discovered the sausage for the first time. He makes an attempt to throw it on the ground, and tells me that he doesn’t like sausage. I remind him that he asked for it. He throws a tantrum. I move the sausage to an extra plate. A few minutes later, he spies the sausage and starts to cry because I took it from him.
We are driving home. Our house sits at the end of a street shaped like a U – there are two ways to go home. Kembe usually directs me which way to go, and he usually waits until after I’ve made the turn. Sometimes he wants to go by Sascha’s house, other times by Ryder’s house. He intentionally issues his command just as the car rounds the corner, followed by a melt-down for not having read his mind in advance of the turn.
We are getting ready for bed. Our house is bustling at bedtime, and I ask Kembe to put on his own pajamas. He pretends that he doesn’t know how. He puts on quite a show – looking confused about which way the shirt goes, trying to put the neck of his shirt onto his knee, fake-crying and looking at me like he is totally helpless. The “I’ve forgotten how to do this” charade continues until Mark calls out that it is time to go over our reward charts – and Kembe wants that jellybean he has earned. Suddenly, he remembers how to put on his pajamas with speed and skill, and runs out of the room oblivious to the recent lapse in his abilities.
Before we adopted, we read the requisite books on attachment, and adopting a preschool-aged child. We expected there to be some “crazymaking” behaviors – behaviors intended to engage parents in the push-pull dance of attachment. Some call them “adoption behaviors” – though I prefer to frame them as attachment behaviors – as they were learned long before his adoption. Nevertheless, much of what we see Kembe do is fairly textbook. Institutionalized children usually have insecure attachments and resulting control issues. They often experience a parent’s frustration and anger as proof that they are controlling their parents’ emotions. This helps the child feel safe . . . therefore the child might spend a good portion of the day engaging the parent in illogical behaviors intended to frustrate and anger.
My day often feels like I am tiptoeing through a mine-field, never knowing when I am going to find myself in the middle of a massive power-stuggle.
When I look at these behaviors while wearing my “superhuman-detached-clinical-mom” hat, it all makes perfect sense: Child feels lost and powerless. Child craves control. Child attempts to push adult to lose emotional control. Child feels in charge. Solution: adult maintains emotional integrity and offers comfort to child.
But when I get caught up in it at random times of the day, when I’m tired or overwhelmed (which is always), I’m not immediately mindful of his background, and of how these behaviors are a coping mechanism. When we are sitting in a restaurant, or trying to load into the car, and he starts this behavior, my first impulse is not compassion and understanding. My first impulse is anger and annoyance.
There is constant talk in the adoptive community about better preparing parents for attachment issues. But I can say that no amount of knowledge or learned skills have prepared me for the way all of this gets to the core of my character. My experience has been that the number one skill I’ve needed in parenting Kembe lies in my ability to stay outside the tangle . . . to avoid getting caught up in the drama and to stay emotionally neutral while my buttons are pushed. In short, it relies on my patience, love, and compassion. Many days I find myself lacking, and nearly every night I go to bed praying for more of those things.
It is the same character traits that are required to parent my other children. But Kembe needs it in much more abundance because he has not had a parent to pour these things out to him for the last three years. He needs more, because he has not had it. We’re making up for lost time.
It has been a hard lesson for me to realize that no amount of books, degrees, or therapeutic skills are going to substitute for what Kembe really needs from me: this endless patience, compassion, and unconditional love. It’s not something that can be taught in an adoption training course, and it’s not something that can be quantified by a quiz at the end of a weekend seminar. It’s not something I magically have as a family therapist. It’s not something that can be measure by one’s desire to adopt. It comes down to what we’re really made of at the core – and I am being refined and humbled every day. Sometimes it is overwhelming to be constantly reminded of how flawed and human I am.
But also, I am growing. And so is he.