Friday, April 15, 2005

Learning to Love...

I guess I had the inward belief (even if my MIND knew better!) that parental love was something that would come the beating of my heart.
Continue reading...

We have three beautiful children…two adopted from China and one from Taiwan. The eldest is gifted, the youngest is as normal as rain and joyous as a Spring sunrise, and the middle child is my mystery. The oldest and the youngest became mine when they were still tiny infants. They were planned for...longed for...sought after. Then came our middle child. He was a crisis adoption...not planned for...not longed for...not even heard of until we were ‘finished’ building our family. He did not arrive as a tiny infant. He arrived as a six year old with profound challenges. As an infant, he sustained a cervical fracture which left him temporarily quadriplegic. To the doctors’ amazement, he regained motor function. He also survived a severe head injury. He still carries the scars in his scalp from the burr holes drilled through his skull to relieve the pressure of his brain’s swelling. His skull will always be pressed in behind his right ear...its asymmetry bearing silent witness to his injury so many years ago. What are not visible are the tiny scars scattered throughout most of his brain...small ‘dead’ areas that make speaking or correctly mimicking sound an excruciating challenge to him and remembering a slippery skill. Nor can he focus. The harder he tries to concentrate the more spastic and jittery and ‘spacey’ and distracted he becomes. After seeing the results of the CT scan of his head, our family doctor told us that the ‘lacunar strokes’ he had suffered most likely left their mark on areas of cognition, language, and memory...that often such strokes in elderly patients are misinterpreted as early signs of Alzheimer’s.

We did not enter this adoption blindly. We entered it prayerfully and with our eyes wide open. We had not sought our middle child out...but we believed then and believe now that he was our child, chosen for us. He IS my child...became my child, officially, nine months ago. It has been a hard adjustment, though. I had anticipated struggles in some areas that never materialized...his inability to put down solid roots in our family and open his heart to us. He had been bounced from place to place and suffered so much rejection and neglect (not to mention outright physical abuse through infancy) that I was braced for reactive attachment disorder. That is not my son, though. He is a tender-hearted, empathetic, loving child. What I was NOT braced for was an ‘attachment disorder’ of my own heart...

With my ‘mind’ I know intellectually that love grows over time and that instant bonding is not necessarily reality...that sometimes bonding is a gradual, elusive process...I know that intellectually, but when faced with the reality of it in my own heart, I cringe with guilt and self-recrimination.

In the beginning, this child became a wedge in my own rock solid marriage. My husband and I each had very strong (and very conflicting) opinions about how to relate to our new son. My naturally quiet, gentle, patient husband turned into (what seemed to me) a critical tyrant...berating the child (the only thing he actually seems to respond to) every waking moment over his failures to measure up to our family’s standards of conduct. Truly, this child did come to us lacking competence in even the most basic of self-care skills. We had to teach him how to LOOK where he was voiding...rather than spraying urine all over the bathroom as he bounced around and twisted in crazed distractibility as he would stand at the toilet. We had to teach his to WIPE himself after a BM. We had to teach him how to wipe up his bathroom messes. We had to teach him how to dress himself. We had to teach him how to use silverware, not scatter his food everywhere, not grab food off of other people’s plates…etc. We STILL struggle with teaching him to LOOK at what he is doing. If he is voiding, he looks everywhere EXCEPT at the toilet...if he is reaching for his glass at the dinner table, he will invariably have his head twisted the exact OPPOSITE direction of the path of his hand to the, nine times out of ten, his hand clumsily knocks over his glass instead of grasping it competently. At school, he fought other children...knock down, drag out fist fights. He would run away during recess and roam the neighborhood. He would walk out of class when the teacher wasn’t looking and roam the halls. He thought spitting on someone was a perfectly acceptable way of getting their attention. He reserved this for the people that he LIKED! He had no sense of personal boundaries. If he liked another child’s shirt, he would run up to within mere inches of the child and shove the child’s chest with the flat of his palm in his excitement over the illustration on the child’s shirt and in his desire to communicate (albeit unintelligibly--be the words Chinese or English) with the child about it. (Speaking as much Chinese as he does, I know that his spoken English has now surpassed his previous ability to speak in his birth language...but he still speaks only in a single words (not even phrases) and has atrocious pronunciation.) I say all this, only to explain that his entry into our lives was a stressful event. It took a LOT of readjustment between my husband and I to find our balance with each other again. We finally have. But, I think we are still struggling with finding our balance with our son.

When I write out what he was like when he joined our family, I see how FAR he has come in nine months. He doesn’t thumb his nose at authority anymore. He doesn’t run away from the playground or the classroom. He doesn’t hit other children anymore. He stands in line, keeping his hands to himself and he listens to his teachers. He dresses himself. He finally learned how to line his socks up correctly over his heel and toes and which shoe to put on which foot and how to zip his coat and his jeans….and how to pull his shirt over his head. He puts his clothes away….pj’s under his pillow and dirty clothes in the hamper. He cleans his own room. He can drink from a regular glass without drowning us all. He can eat without putting the handle of his utensil into the food...or spreading food on the table cloth with his drippy utensil. He knows how to use a fork and spoon now. He doesn’t trash our bathroom anymore. And he sometimes remembers to wipe his bottom. He blows his own nose...instead of obliviously letting it run down his face. It is good to remember those things. For, so often, all I can see is how far he has left to go and how hopeless it feels.

After eight months of struggling through the bureaucracy of the system, my son is finally in the special education program and beginning to receive much needed help. There have been huge gains. Why is it that the moment a gain is in hand, my mind dismisses it and only sees what HASN’T been accomplished yet? It frustrates me that my husband is always (it seems to me) putting the bar unrealistically high for our son...yet my own responses to his accomplishments aren’t gracious, either. It’s as though we both are just so exasperated with his day in day out behavior and so wearied by his hyperactivity and IMPULSIVITY that we can’t enjoy what he does do well. When he accomplishes something, our hearts feel like ‘well it is about time!’

He is so frustrating to teach. I am a homeschooling mom, yet I dread even trying to help my son (the only one in public school) with his worksheets. His attention span is about one and a half seconds long--literally. He twitches, jerks, and squirms incessantly and his eyes flit from one end of the room to the other constantly on ‘scan’--never on ‘focus’ or ‘pause’. But, what frustrates me the most deeply is that when I finally have seemed to SUCCEED with teaching him something (the letter ‘M’ for example), a day or two later it is as though he has never even been exposed to the concept before. This is not willfulness. It is complete inability either to store the information in memory or else to RETRIEVE it once it has been stored. It is so frustrating. Even his successes become a frustration and discouragement because I know from experience that what he knows today, he very likely will be an utter stranger to tomorrow. I get so tired of starting all over again at square one. What makes this even more frustrating is how OBSESSIVE he is with the things that DO interest him….like Spiderman, Batman, and Legolas (of Lord of the Ring). THESE words he can say. They are the majority of his spoken vocabulary. THESE images he can remember. THESE things he fixates on...chattering on and on unintelligibly about them CONSTANTLY. He can’t eat his food because he is fixated on the superhero of the moment. He can’t listen to family members because he is so intent on chattering away about the superhero. Every waking moment is constant obsessing about the superhero of the moment...incessantly begging for a costume in the superhero’s image...constantly vigilant for any product at the stores and in the community that bears the superhero’s mark. Why can’t he obsess about the letters of the alphabet???!!!!

What distresses me most of all, is my own heart. It grieves me that my love for my own son waxes and wanes...swinging on the pendulum of my own emotional equilibrium. I do not love him the same way I love my nine year old daughter and my three year old daughter. I remember when we approached our second adoption, truly fearing in my own heart that I might not ever love our second child with the same intensity that I loved our first. How could any child ever measure up to the one we already had? Our first child excelled at anything and everything she tried. She was so intelligent with almost a photographic memory and so talented--musically, physically, intellectually. I secretly feared that any other child would be a hidden disappointment to my heart. I was wrong. Along came our second child...nothing at all like her sister. The only area she excels above normal in is her love of relating to others. She never met a stranger and takes for granted that everyone will love her...those are her self-fulfilling prophecies! She stands out in a crowd, capturing with natural ease every heart she gazes towards. She isn’t unusually bright or particularly talented in any area or even possesing the striking beauty her older sister was graced with, but she stole my heart utterly. She came to us so emotionally neglected and so emotionally needy. As a nine month old infant, she banged her own head repetitively and would rock herself back and forth furiously, withdrawn into her own self, staring blankly ahead. But she was STARVING to be touched and held. And that little baby captured a part of my heart that I never even knew existed. I didn’t have to worry about finding room for her in the part of my heart that already belonged to our first child. Caught in the gaze of her sparkling black eyes, a part of my heart that I didn’t even know I had was forever lost to her. So, when we approached adoption number three, I didn’t worry that I might not love that child as I would be the same way all over again...but it wasn’t. For the first few months it felt like I was babysitting some neighbor’s child. He doesn’t feel like the neighbor’s child, anymore...but...
I honestly DO love my son. If I had no other children, I wouldn’t know that something was amiss in my own heart. But, I DO have other children...and my heart knows that it does not receive him the same way it does the others. I realize this in odd moments. Like the other day when we were walking in the parking lot towards the entrance of the WalMart...all three children were strung out holding hands as I held the hand of the youngest. I wanted the two older ones to break off and walk in front of us so that we would not be meandering into the line of traffic. You know how you internally size up a potential hazard? The fleeting thought that registered in my mind was that if one of them were injured in our current configuration it would most likely be my son. And in that nano-second, I saw my own heart and knew that if I had to lose one of them, my son was the one I would choose to lose. How can a mother ever choose?....even hypothetically in the most secret recesses of her heart? When the day comes that I could NOT choose, I will know that I truly have learned to love my son. Learning to love...what a strange concept. I never thought I would have to LEARN to love my own child. I thought it would be instinctual and inescapable...not capricious at best, and sometimes downright elusive.



Anonymous Monica said...

Can I post a comment to my own piece?....First off, I KNOW I should not compare my children. One of the greatest gifts a child can be given is to grow up without feeling the need to measure himself or herself against anyone else. Something I am really struggling with learning is that each child is his or her own measure. I wrote the comparisons I did because the CONTRAST of my children has complicated my journey of finding my footing with each of them. In ‘Italy’ my eldest is admired and highly valued. She is the born leader...the consummate confident, accomplished child...the one other people would like to be. In Italy she would be valued most. My youngest would be valued second most...she is so very normal...bright, but not exceptionally so...cute but not strikingly beautiful.....gregarious, spontaneous, bubbling over with love for life and love for others. Her gaze falls upon everyone...missing no one...and her heart reaches out to each person as though that person were the most precious, exciting, wonderful person that ever chanced upon her path. Her one exceptional gift is the gift of making everyone else feel important, special, loved. Maybe she perfected that gift because of her hunger to be held. Maybe it was from her earliest scars—nine months of absence of the individual love that she so desperately yearned for—being one of hundreds in an understaffed institution where bottles were propped and the children were only touched when being cleaned—maybe it was that wound from which sprang the gift that is so uniquely her own.

As we boarded the plane to China to adopt our youngest daughter, I still remember our oldest child—seven at the time—informing us adamantly that though she was quite excited that she was getting to return to the land of her own birth, she didn’t want there to be any doubt in our minds...she did NOT want a sibling. She had pondered it long and every way she looked at it, this was not a good decision that her parents had made. She liked being an only child and in her mind, there was still time for us to reconsider! I remember the searing doubts in my own heart...our family was so ‘perfect’...were we about to ruin it all? How would this unknown child affect the dynamics of our family? And were we being fair to our oldest child? We had limited financial resources...already the downsizing had we scraped together the funds for the second adoption, gymnastic lessons had to fall by the wayside. Were we cheating the child we loved so fiercely? Ahhhh....the needless meat-grinder of misery steeped doubt we can put ourselves through! Adding the second child was not a colossal, irreversible mistake! From the vantage point of almost two and a half years later, it was the best thing we could have possibly done for our oldest child. Everything came easily to our oldest child, EXCEPT empathizing with others. She was not a nurturing child, nor was she very compassionate. She had never been interested in dolls and only liked children that were older than herself. But something happened the moment we placed her baby sister in her arms...a piece of her that I had never seen before blossomed in her heart. Her baby sister was so emotionally needy...yet so detached. She craved being touched and held, yet she guarded her heart...she ‘trusted’ everyone, but relied on no one. She was so broken that even a seven year old could sense it. And our seven year old IDENTIFIED with her baby sister INTENSELY and immediately. Our youngest touched a part of our oldest child’s heart that neither she nor we knew existed. The baby gave form to something that had haunted the recesses of our oldest child's soul. The youngest gave voice to a need the oldest had never allowed herself to feel. The two of them to this day are so close to each other...each bringing forth from the other something that neither of them had before.

Then came our middle child...our son. He bonded first with his protective oldest sister (long before he allowed himself to bond with either parent) but it is his youngest sister that he shares the most time with, buddies around with the most.

After I posted today, I went back and read many previous posts that I hadn’t yet read...including my little sister’s post “coming to terms” (wish I could write like you, Moreena!)...and that has left me thinking... Like Sarahlynn, I, too, would change my son—‘fix’ him if I could. Before we had even MET him, before he had joined our family, I remember struggling with such anger at what his birth parents had taken away from him...the ‘normal’ life that he would never have with his brain injuries. But, that bitterness was not something I could hang on would have poisoned me over the years. I had to step back and acknowledge that though his birth parents had hurt him terribly, they probably did so out of ignorance...ignorance of how to love and how to parent. I had to acknowledge that even though they were unfit parents, they did, in their own way love this child and they did try to make his life better. Both were, by this time divorced, yet, they made the long trip to the city where the court proceedings were being held, not once, but twice so that their son could be relinquished for adoption. They could have left him in the system...but they didn’t. They rode together on a motorcycle more than six hours each time a court appearance was needed. Many parents drop the ball as these cases wind through the Taiwanese court...they did not.

If I start comparing my son’s life to what could have been, it breaks my heart. But, the one thing I KNOW with certainty is that where there is broken-ness, God pours out His grace more richly. In ‘Italy’ my oldest is treasured the most deeply, but in God’s measure, it is my son who is treasured the most dearly. The deeper the wound, the greater the capacity to hold God’s love in our lives. I do not say that the deeper the wound, automatically the deeper the measure of God’s grace in one’s life...simply the deeper the capacity for that grace. Only in comprehending that, do I find peace in the fact that I cannot ‘fix’ my son. I cannot ‘fix’ his ability to remember, learn, reason…but I can teach him that there are more important things in life than knowing how to read or being able to count...there is loving one another. And that is the one thing that my son is so far ahead of me, in. He loves. He loves without measuring.

5:10 PM  
Blogger Moreena said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:34 PM  
Blogger none said...

I can relate very much to your paragraph about teaching your son.

My autistic son has a similar problem, he will gain a skill only to lose it again.

He is also extremely obsessed about certain things and only goes about "chattering on and on unintelligibly about them CONSTANTLY".

I have similar troubles with my husband, as he has neither energy or patience to deal with our son´s own special challenges.

And of course I knew exactly what you mean, when I read the title of your post.

In the beginning I was questioning myself constantly: am I loving him enough, have we bonded properly, shouldn´t I feel more for him?

4 years later, that´s so not an issue anymore.

But of course the interim isn´t easy...

2:47 AM  
Anonymous Monica said...

Wow, Ciara, it was encouraging to hear that someone else is driven nuts by their son being extremely obsessed about certain things and "chattering on and on unintelligibly about them CONSTANTLY". There are days when THAT wears me down more than anything else....him just saying the same thing over and over and over every single waking moment. I can't even get a word in edge-wise, he is so busy pounding the same sentence (often only barely intelligible if intelligible at all) into the ground. The moment he spots a new super-hero, he repeatedly asks for a mask, costume, and shoes to match that character. No, is not an answer that registers in his brain, so he reasks the moment the 'no' has left my mouth. (He DOES have a Spiderman costume and a Batman costume which he LIVES in and often sleeps with...I am not of a mind to purchase any more costumes at this point!) Once he starts asking for something, it takes months (literally) for him to give up on it. So, he will ask me for the denied item a couple of hundred times each day, week after week. Sometimes I think maybe he obsesses on TALKING about the same thing over and over and over again so that he will get it cemented in his own brain...maybe he has to obsess in order to, for the things that are important to him (from his perspective), he obsesses on...? That is my theory, anyway!

Teaching a child that seems to 'get it' only to be utterly clueless again a day or two later--losing 'mastered' skills regularly-- IS discouraging. Sometimes I stop and think how utterly discouraging it must be for my son as well...though he actually doesn't seem bothered by it at this age (6). Thankfully, he just lives very much in the present moment. It is hard not to worry about what life will be like for our kids once they are grown. I hope he always is as happy-go-lucky as he is now.

Thank you for writing. It is good to know there is someone else out there who feels the same frustration. (I keep thinking I SHOULDN'T BE is good to know I'm not the only one who has felt this frustration.)

I hope the interim is short!!!...

7:35 AM  
Blogger Moreena said...

I removed the coment above, realizing I used your son's name while you hadn't yourself...

I am so glad to see my big sister joining in!

But I am so sorry to read how hard this has been. I mean, I knew it must be hard. How could it not? But this is really rough. You all are of course dealing with not just the difficulty of adjusting to a special needs child, but also of adopting an older child. Most of us have had the time to come to grips with where we are somewhat more gradually, while you all were thrown headfirst into all this, compounded by the language/cultural/social issues of adoption at an older age.

I don't know. I always feel better writing about these things, even if they are feelings that shock me. I hope you are, too. And I hope that it becomes easier.

I would love to read about the progress your son makes becoming a part of your family, and making his own room in your heart (most likely with dynamite, it sounds like)


8:02 AM  
Blogger none said...


The more I read about your son the more I´m convinced he must be my son´s long lost twin...

A good theory you have there, I never thought of it that way.

If you ever need someone to listen, feel free to write to me, Moreena has my e-mail address.

1:12 PM  
Anonymous Monica said...

Moreena, it is fine that you originally used Doug's name! And I would love Ciara's e-mail address. Thanks!

5:43 AM  

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