(Warning: This is long.)
I'd like to break the pattern and speak about bonding with my *15 year old* because what he is teaching me is that bonding doesn't depend on age or the way our children come to us. Our 15 year old came to us this year, actually starting this January, and it has been an adventure. One of my sisters and I had a pathetic conversation several years ago in which she declared that there is something between bio moms and their children that is hormonal and biological that can never happen between non-bio moms and their children or dads and their children. Ultimately she was trying to tell me that my wife is like a dad in her relationship with our children.
Anyway, our 15 year old son came to us very unexpectedly. We were not even into the process of getting licensed as foster parents when we got a call from the agency we were working with telling us about a teen they thought would be a great match who was "legally free" and needed a permanent placement. When I got that call, I was thrilled. . .then totally uncertain, all in the course of half a day. There is nothing like that phone call you get. I guess it's the first step in bonding, kinda like a positive pregnancy test. . .and the reality always sets in right after.
We were given one evening to meet him and make a decision (due to some special circumstances around his placement). When we walked in the door of the agency and first saw him, nothing was at all like we had imagined. And there was certainly not love at first sight. He barely said hello to us, so we were desperately searching for something to give us some small inkling of a connection. He kept his distance, and I admit that we did too. He was also a very energy-sapping kid to be with, and had many behavioral challenges, and after he left, we just breathed a sigh of relief. The next day, as decision-time rolled around, we asked tons and tons and tons of questions. We were terrified, and we decided that we just couldn't do it, not with so little time to really think about it.
But somehow the agency bought us an extra week to think about it, and during that week, we met with him again. During the second meeting, we still didn't stumble upon any grand connection, but at the end of the night, while he was singing and dancing and acting in our living room, something in our hearts clicked. We again asked tons and tons of questions, and finally decided yes.
Telling him that we were to be his family, his final placement (after him having endured 10 years in the system), was something like a kind of birth. It was terrifying and euphoric and painful and beautiful all at the same time, and I am sure I had hormones run wild inside my body. And finally he heard the news and he looked at us, and all I could think was, "I want to tell him something and then end with, 'son'." But it didn't feel real yet, so I didn't call him "son." (By the way, I think for several days afterward he continued to wear his coat-- as he had since the begining-- during the entire time he was with us...clearly a protective measure.) But we hugged him hard after we shared the news, and then we left because we weren't licensed so he couldn't be at our home for over 24 hours at a time.
So we shared "custody" with another foster family. That was a really trying time, especially as the honeymoon period ended. He would get into a fight with us or be having a hard time with something, and we'd hardly get into it, and he'd have to go back to his other house because it had been too many hours. And having to co-parent with another couple was very difficult, especially since we were all of the sudden his "real" parents. Then he moved to another foster family, and it was one more co-parenting adventure.
Then something unexpected occurred at his other foster family's house, and something was worked out so he could come home with us, and within 18 hours, we had our son home with us. It was pretty anti-climatic. My wife was at work (a necessity), and a case manager pulled up with him and most of his stuff, and a case manager assistant followed behind with the rest of his stuff. I had some flowers for him in his room and a "welcome home banner" in the living room, something he had hoped for. That night we had a special celebration dinner together as a family, but it wasn't otherwise much different from any other day with him.
And that really started the adventures. He is just now coming out of that period where he was (hopefully this is a past tense thing) trying to test us to see if we are "for real" and trying to figure out where the boundaries are. There have been times during this period when we have felt totally unattached to him. Times when it seemed like we were barely hanging on by a thread to any sort of commitment to him. Times when we felt there was no way we could parent him.
Then we went through this totally blissful week or two where he was still his challenging self, but something mellowed and we could actually bond with him. We had some amazing conversations with him during that time. The mutual process of opening up to one another really was what that time period was about, and that is really where the bonding came from. But of course, a tidal wave of testing and trouble came back and we began to struggle again to maintain any kind of connection with him as he pushed us away in whatever way he could think of.
And now things have slowed down a bit, and all of the sudden I can look back and really see how bonded we've become. I truly do all of the sudden feel bonded. I know for sure there is not a single moment when it just happened, but it seems "sudden" because as he pushed us away, it was hard to see that it was happening. But it was happening the whole time. I'm not sure what really defines a "bond," but whatever it is, I feel it. We are so totally connected, and I am so totally in love with my son. Even as he sits right now in his room totally p**sed off at me, the connection is stronger than ever.
Quality time together as a family has been huge (we don't have a t.v., and we're very family focused during family time rather than being task-focused). Routines have helped a lot (we have a whole bedtime ritual that includes reading to him every night, and for that has become a time of true attachment-development, along with being a time when the whole family can connect). I know my son really connects with others when there is consistency (giving him a safe environment where he knows what to expect and is protected by limits). Sharing affection as a family has helped us connect (luckily he is a very affectionate child). We have bonded quite a bit over a good coversation. These come in bits and peices, as my son often skims the surface of life and his emotions, and I'm not one who is inclined to draw all that out myself. Being honest and trying to seem open to him helps. We also really connect when we are laughing together as a family (our son has an adorable sense of humor).
But bonding (now for the cheezy, cliche part) is like a dance between human beings. And the only coreographers are the dancers. And no two pairs can ever do the dance exactly the same because it comes from the essence of who we are as individuals and the way that moves with who others are as individuals. I know for sure that it is a lot more complicated than hormones.
The awesome thing I am discovering is the human capacity to attach, to bond, to love, in face of some of the worst possible, most destructive possibilities that stare us in the face. Children will attach to their caregivers, to their parents. That is tragic in some ways. But I watched my son today, after visiting the town he lived in with his bio-parents, totally grieving the loss of the biological family he always wanted (the family he still thinks is out there). Here were these memories of these people who had done these awful things, and yet his attachment from his first five years of life is still incredible, a thing to be grieved in its loss. And that gives me hope. Because in spite of everything terrible, somewhere along the way, my son learned to love. Is he confused about what love is? Sure. But he can do things that shows he loves and can be loved, even if in the smallest ways, and that gives him the opportunity to bond with others. Without that, he could not survive.
Sorry for the tangent. I've been thinking about this a lot the past few days.
I'm pro-adoption reform, but not anti-adoption.