Attachment Difficulties: A UK Story


In the whole long, fretful two year wait to adopt our baby Milly, the one dream that kept me struggling on was of holding my new small daughter. I couldn't wait to watch her while she slept in my arms, and to hold her tight at the start of our journey to get to know each other. I would look into her eyes; she would explore my face, and soon we'd be ready to set off into the world, mother and daughter, newly minted.

Sadly, for us, it hasn't been like that. M. is the world's most amiable, easy-going, placid child and for the first days, then weeks, I thought that the barriers I could sense between us were caused by the trauma of all that had happened in her short life. I felt confident that very soon she would find her way into my heart and we would be snugly bonded. But as months passed, I began to worry. M. refused to make eye contact. I tried to initiate it and she would look away, pparently unaware of what was expected of her, though I always wondered if she was avoiding it deliberately: eye contact, and the intimacy it brings, can seem very threatening to a vulnerable child. If I gently held her cheeks and caught her attention so that she would, however briefly, look into my eyes, she would grow very angry. My amiable baby was suddenly aggressive and difficult: she would scream and slap and pinch me to make me go away. For months, my face had weals and scratches from where she'd fought me off: I was too much in her face and she hated it. Similarly, she didn't like being held, or comforted, or cuddled. She didn't like sleeping with me in my bed, she didn't like sitting on my knee to look at books or play games.

Friends and family always dismissed my fears - see, she comes to me for a cuddle, they'd say - and she did. She was happy enough going to anyone. They all found her delightful, and sociable and completely charming - which she was. It drove me crazy that she preferred strangers to me. She wouldn't have cried if I'd asked the postman to watch her for the day. People would say - perhaps that's just the kind of person she is - independent. But I knew it wasn't healthy for her to be unable to make contact with me, and so I began to search out sources of help. This proved almost impossible.

Social services and our local family therapy centre were only taking on crisis cases, by which they meant suicidal teenagers. The Post Adoption Centre suggested a music therapist, but M. is pre-verbal, and the music therapist deals only with children who can talk. I found a psychologist who deals with attachment - only to discover that she only works with mothers who feel themselves unable to bond with their birth children. Eventually, I made contact with Adoption UK (formerly known as PPIAS - the Parent to Parent Information on Adoption Services) who can offer advice about attachment difficulties, as well as putting parents in touch with others who have experienced similar difficulties.

The book First Steps in Parenting the Child Who Hurts by Caroline Archer explains attachment dificulties, and suggests numerous strategies for overcoming them. The book ends with an extensive reading list. (ISBN I85302 801 0. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 116 Pentonville Rd, London N1 9JB.

The other invaluable support was the website, run by and for parents of children adopted from China. On this website and its associated mailing list there is a hugely comprehensive attachment checklist (my heart quailed when we scored 9 out of 10 for the first section) plus information about holding time, which I interpret as forceful cuddling of your child until you break through the barriers that are preventing attachment with her/him. If nothing else, daily contact with others who are experiencing the same pains as you will at least reassure you that you aren't alone.

One thing I've learnt since bringing M. home is that attachment is a process, a continuum, not something that will ever happen in a moment. The baby who clings to her new mother is merely a baby in terror of losing this latest care-giver: this is the way our first daughter reacted, and it made her very easy to love, and very easy for the real process of attachment to begin. With M., it has taken us many, many months, but now, almost a year after we brought her home, we can see the progress we've made. The simple round of daily life, the sameness, the routine have all shown M. that we are here and we are hers, and this has gone a long way to help her build her confidence in us. Our gentle insistence on holding, touching, playing have helped, too.

We are a long way down that continuum which stretches from emotional absence to intimacy and, while we haven't quite reached our goal, it is in sight now and I'm growing increasingly confident that we will be there soon.


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“Do you miss your parents?” he asked, resting his cheek on his knees, looking up at me.

“Do I miss my parents? Well, I never met my mother. My father died a few years ago, and yes, I do miss him. Sometimes a lot…”

“I’m starting to forget their faces,” Sohrab said. “Is that bad?”

“No,” I said. “Time does that.”

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini