The Power of Attachment

by Nancy D'Antonio

updated April, 2014


After receiving our "referral" photo from the adoption agency, I paced the floors of my apartment in the dark night. Realizing that I would never know what type of prenatal care my daughter had received, the conditions surrounding her birth, and the motivations for and circumstances of her abandonment, I felt anxious, worried and at times powerless. Now my daughter is nearly in kindergarten and I lie awake in the same darkness, marveling at how these mysteries manifest themselves at each stage of development.

It took me years to understand how emotional security and attachment create the base from which infants develop. The ability to trust, listen to and respond to others are crucial elements that form a strong foundation for learning. These processes begin at conception and continue throughout the early months of life when the emotional brain develops. A child who has spent that critical time unattended to in an orphanage crib is clearly at a disadvantage.

My adoption agency contract was for a healthy infant under one year of age. During our home study I explicitly told the social worker that I did not have the resources to raise a special needs child. We chose to adopt from China because at that time most people were able to adopt a healthy infant girl within six months of completing their paperwork. When my daughter's referral photo and medical report arrived unexpectedly via Fed-Ex one afternoon, the excitement became a reality. She was eight months old and weighed a mere 11 pounds. Although worried about her weight and scanty medical report, I immediately fell in love with her picture, convinced that we were destined to be together.

My husband and I traveled to the city of Ningbo, China on Christmas morning, 1994. After years of infertility and wondering when I would have a child to love and care for, this was clearly the happiest holiday of my life. The orphanage director came to our hotel and said "Eeet woood be goood luck to meet you baybay on Chreestmas Day." We hailed a cab and drove through cold rain, on foggy, bumpy roads. The director told us “your baby, she is the most smart baby...always watching, knowing what goes on, always happy face. She is lucky girl.” We wondered if that was true and hoped for the best, trying to keep our fear of the unknown at bay.

Back then China was a poor communist country – international adoption was new and the orphanages were overcrowded and understaffed. The one-child policy was strictly enforced and most people could not afford the penalty associated with a second child. The Enmei Children's Welfare Institute was in a rural, undeveloped area and did not have a foster care program. Babies were bundled and swaddled so they couldn't move, 2 or more per crib. They were picked up three times per day for feeding through bottles that had large holes punched in them so the formula ran out quickly. The rest of the time, they lay on their backs unable to move, with little stimulation and no one responding to their needs. Bare electric light bulbs hung from a cord in the ceiling and several window panes were missing glass. There was one cold water faucet in a cement trough next to a gas-fired water tank in the hallway and no central heat. The nursery had 2 caregivers who worked 12 hour shifts and at night one adult slept on a cot in the room with as many as 30 infants.

The city of Ningbo had two hotels and no paved sidewalks. We were the third group of families to adopt from here and the facility was just starting to benefit from the donations made by foreign adoptive families. Although conditions appeared bleak, the director and staff were warm and welcoming. They explained that baby formula, food, supplies and medicine were scarce.

When we entered the nursery, my long awaited for baby looked up curiously, smiled and reached out her bundled up little arms. A floodgate of emotions burst from my heart. The love I felt in that first embrace washed away the recurrent, cloudy longings that had tormented me throughout my adult life. I had had a tumultuous adolescence and resisted motherhood for many years. As an artist I could not identify the driving force and passion that kept me wandering the world in search of inspiration and fulfillment. It wasn't until I held that little baby in my arms that I realized maternal love was the hidden treasure I had been seeking all along. This was clearly the best Christmas present ever.

Now, finally, I was holding the missing puzzle piece that made me complete. My baby was bundled in layers of handmade clothing and looked up with innocent curiosity. She appeared bright-eyed, engaging, and affectionate. Hugging her tight, I promised she would never be alone or hungry again. She gazed directly into my eyes while drinking her bottle. She wanted to be held and rocked continually. I saw her kiss her caregivers and respond to their chatter. I was convinced that she was a true survivor who would thrive in my care and quickly catch up like the other Chinese adopted babies back home. In retrospect, I see how those friendly behaviors were her survival skills and not exactly appropriate for an eight-month old. In that overcrowded and short-staffed nursery, if she hadn't been cute and charming, she may not have attracted the attention of an overworked caregiver and gotten a few more minutes of being held or fed.

I was naive when it came to infants. I went to China assuming that babies didn't have memories. If they can't talk, how can they remember being abandoned, hungry, cold or neglected? Part of me believed she was unaffected by everything that happened prior to my arrival. Another part wanted her to remember so she could tell me. China's one-child policy meant that infant abandonment was dangerous and risky. It was against the law to relinquish a child. We have no information about our daughter's past, not even her birth date. I wanted to fill her up with love so that she would forget anything bad that might have happened. I couldn't bear the thought of anything painful having happened to such a tiny, helpless, beautiful girl.

When we came home to America our lives were filled up with the joys of new teeth, gurgling smiles, grasping the bottle, and learning to roll over. Our daughter seemed to be making great progress despite the obvious delays she came home with.

At fifteen months though, we started to notice little things that didn't seem right. Our daughter could not crawl or bend her knees without collapsing. She could not transition from lying to sitting, nor from sitting to standing. The pediatrician suggested physical therapy. We discovered her rib cage was depressed from lying on her back in the orphanage crib, thus preventing sounds from coming out of her diaphragm. This led to speech therapy. And when we learned that her hypersensitivity to touch, sounds and light were because environmental deprivation prevented her brain synapses from processing sensory input in an organized way, I was heartbroken. How could this happen to my precious pumpkin? After further evaluations we added sensory integration therapy to our schedule.

Despite great progress, I sensed there was something else preventing this feisty girl from being whole. When in severe distress, like teething, she was unable to accept comfort from me, despite her clingy, whiny behavior. The worst times were when she woke in the night, crying inconsolably, reaching out for help but then arching her back and pushing me away when I tried to pick her up. Was it me? Was it her past? My thoughts turned to her abandonment. Looking at her beautiful face it was hard to imagine that an innocent baby could be so traumatized. I was overcome by defeat. I felt rejected and didn't know what to do. What kind of mother can't comfort her child?

My high-pressure advertising job required traveling and working late with little advance notice. Often when I returned home, my daughter was mad. She wanted me physically near her, but rejected my attempts to play or sit in my lap. I found this aggravating and unrewarding.

I did not understand her emotional needs. I ignorantly assumed that because she was now well fed and cared for she should be fine. It never occurred to me that my going off to work and leaving her could create anxiety and stress. At 18 months, she started randomly hitting whoever came close. I dreaded changing diapers and clothes, not knowing whether I would get kicked, slapped in the face, have my glasses grabbed, or hair pulled. She hated having her hair combed or face washed. We could not touch her head without a screaming fit. She was super sensitive to lights and sounds and could easily be set off into a meltdown for no apparent reason and was unable to tell us what was wrong.

People said "Welcome to the terrible two's. She'll grow out of it." By my observation, her behavior was intolerable. Why was she so wonderful with extended family she rarely saw, but deliberately rejecting me? I despaired. Her slapping and hair pulling reawakened the abuse and emotional abandonment I experienced growing up in a large, authoritarian family. My dream child was opening a Pandora's box of childhood nightmares that I thought were successfully repressed.

I vowed not to repeat the sins of my upbringing. But time-outs and firm reprimands proved useless. This child thrived on the intensity of my reactions. In horror, I watched her abuse our cat by starting to pet him gently and then either try to choke him, or pin him down and slap him repeatedly in the face. Much too easily, her impulses became destructive. Whether or not it was a matter of impulse control or calculated violence, I was deeply disturbed and knew that this was not normal. Oftentimes, she put a Little-Tykes baby in the doll house crib and then cried incessantly. When I said "Oh, babies need to be picked up when they cry. Where's the Mommy?" She picked up the baby, threw it on the floor or into the garbage forcefully and shouted "No, No, No."

In our neighborhood playground, parents and caregivers saw us coming and left. My little girl would sweetly approach infants in strollers, gently stroke their cheeks, and then viciously slap them. One day, an observant mother declared "My daughter went through a hitting phase that drove me crazy, but there is something about the lack of empathy in your daughter's face that scares me." I was embarrassed and humiliated. Although painful to admit, instinct told me this woman was onto something. My daughter's violent behavior was escalating and I did not know how to effectively respond.

I read articles on disrupted attachment in post-institutionalized children. I didn't want to believe my daughter had an attachment disorder. We had such positive experiences with the orphanage and she seemed happy when we first got her. I blamed myself. I must be a bad mother. But still something had to be done and I kept researching. It wasn't until I read Foster Cline and John Bowlby that I understood how deprivation and prolonged neglect can cause children to feel helpless and angry. Thinking back, I knew the babies in our orphanage were rarely held. Rage at not having her needs met was her defense against endless crying and crying. I don't think the orphanage staff was deliberately cruel or withholding of love or comfort. They simply had too many babies and not enough caregivers, food, or supplies to adequately take care of the children. My arrival came about 8 months too late.

At home my daughter continued to be superficially charming with adults, hugging strangers in the subway and blowing kisses to store owners. Yet when I wanted to cuddle, she was quick to stiffen up. Affection was clearly on her terms. Reciprocity was an unknown concept. Frustration came easily. She could not calm down when upset. She sucked her thumbs to the point of infection. Transitions between activities and changes in routine made her irritable and fussy. Her attention was unfocused. It was difficult to make sustained eye contact. She couldn't sit still. She was excessively clingy in groups. She never played by herself, but rather demanded constant adult interaction/attention. Her behavior was frequently oppositional. She fell apart easily.

I felt inadequate. I reflected on the emotional damage caused by my own childhood spankings. I wanted my daughter's self-esteem to be better than mine. How could it though, when her early experiences were far worse than the ones that turned me into a rebellious teen. How would she survive adolescence if we could barely get through the two's? I grew up feeling unwanted and undeserving. I was looking for a new model.

In desperation, I went to a nearby bookstore where I found a book called "Holding Time" by Dr. Martha Welch, a reputed child psychiatrist. Although her book was written to help normal children achieve optimal development, I had heard she worked successfully with post-institutionalized and adopted children. I read the book and decided to give her techniques a try.

Dr. Welch's book gave me courage to face my daughter's wrath and oppositional behavior. Initially, I was terrified by her unwillingness to be held close. Being unused to intense confrontation, I didn't think I could persevere with the phases of a therapy session as outlined in the book– confrontation-rejection-acceptance-resolution. I told my husband that I had a plan for the next time our child started to act naughty. Instead of putting her into time out, I picked her up, sat on the couch and tried to make direct eye contact telling her that she was not allowed to poke the cat. She started to squirm away. I continued to address the issue and demand she look at me and pay attention. She got angrier and angrier. The more she raged, the more afraid I was to let her go. Someone might get hurt.

In desperation, I held on. She then started hitting me, poking my eyes, pulling my hair. I kept her in my lap and told her it hurt when she hit and pulled my hair. I described specific situations when she had been hitting and asked her why she did it. I told her that instead of hitting she should come to Mommy and use words to describe her feelings. While she screamed and fought, I rambled on. "It's okay to feel angry but you can't be mean and hurt other people any more than I would let other people hurt you." She raged. Holding on tight, her heart beating against mine, re-established my sense of being in control. Despite her stubborn resistance, I knew she was listening.

Eventually fury softened to sadness and she turned to me for comfort. Her crying sounded like her forlorn grieving when we returned from China. This triggered a compassionate response in me and I started to cry. My tears mixed with hers as she accepted my love. She fell asleep against my chest and I rocked her. Twenty minutes later, she woke up utterly transformed. Tiny hands cuddled my face. She kissed me all over, and couldn't stop hugging me. She was curious, happy and calmer than I had seen her in months. That afternoon she actually played by herself, and didn't hit anyone in the playground. My husband, who hates confrontation, was impressed.

My daughter's profound expressions of anger and grief demonstrated how early separations from her birth mother and the orphanage caregivers, followed by the transition to America, created a core of insecurity and mistrust that thwarted her development. Holding her through intense emotional outbursts helped create a safe place for her to release feelings that had been bottled up for most of her life. I worried about her stubborn refusal to connect with me. I thought, "If she can't be close to me, how will she ever be close to anyone else?" Through these holdings I began to witness what seemed like flashbacks to the terror and pain of her past, and by crying with her, I was able to re-establish her ability to trust. She identified with my sobbing. I once asked "Do you like it when Mommy cries?" To which she replied "When Mommy cry, I not alone." This was the beginning of her learning to feel empathy on a deep level.

Through regularly scheduled Holdings, I watched my daughter acquire confidence, patience, trust and security. She learned to accept limits. As she gained more self-control, her frustration levels decreased. She was better able to work harder at learning new tasks. I saw a relationship between her releasing deep emotions and an increased ability to verbalize and focus attention.

In her pre-verbal stage, at the end of a holding session, complete sentences tumbled out of her mouth in grammatical forms that I thought she would never grasp. Our speech therapist said "Her whole character has matured overnight." And our sensory integration therapist said "I don't know what you're doing, but keep it up. I've never seen such dramatic leaps in such a short time."

I called Dr. Welch to thank her for writing the book. She invited me to visit her support group where families do "holding" and discuss parenting issues. The evening after our first visit my daughter eagerly allowed me to cut her fingernails and toenails, brush her teeth, and comb her hair; three areas of constant battle had dissolved after one session. I was lucky to live in New York City and was able to spend the next 13 years working with Dr. Welch. I eventually became a mentor for some of her families in crises and gained a broader understanding of the needs of both adoptees and their parents.

Fortunately, not all post-institutionalized children have such severe problems. However, it's important to remember that because of their history, these children are at-risk for a wide range of developmental delays, learning disabilities, and a spectrum of attachment issues. There is sufficient scientific documentation showing that an infant's brain chemistry is altered by trauma and early deprivation. This means that their development may not progress in the same manner as a child who received normal nurturing and stimulation. I know this sounds scary. But what it really boils down to is, the more parents educate themselves on what the risks are and the earlier they recognize and treat symptoms, the quicker damage can be repaired.

The quest for solving my daughter's problems has given me a deeper understanding of who she is, and why she behaves the way she does. It has helped me to understand why she has so much trouble learning and being in unfamiliar situations. After several years of supervised holdings and daily practice, I felt like she had re-lived the pain and trauma of her early life in a way that allowed her to move forward. On a daily basis it was emotionally grueling and physically exhausting. But the love and fulfillment I have gotten back exceeded my expectations.

At my grandmother's funeral a few years after we had been doing holding, my daughter hugged me, crying, and said "Mommy, I wish I could bring great-grandma back so she could make you feel special again." And then in the same playground where people used to leave when they saw us, my daughter was pushing a toddler on the tire swing, asking her if she wanted to go fast, or slow, spinning or just side-to-side. Her mother commented "Your daughter is very loving and gentle. It's unusual to see such empathy in a 4 year old."

I am now the proud mother of an eighteen year old who has remained very close to me throughout adolescence. She continues to live with learning disabilities and struggles with the issues that most teenagers face during the transition to young adulthood and life beyond high school. A strong attachment to my husband and I has helped her stay out of trouble. She has strong family values and a deep sense of justice and goodwill towards others. I believe that the early intervention and continued therapy she received gave her a strong foundation for a successful future. Many tutors and teachers comment to me on what a wonderful, empathic and sincere human being she has grown into and how rare it is to find those qualities in a teen.

Along the way I have transformed too. I went from being petrified of receiving a "damaged" baby to realizing what a gift she was. Her problems forced me to look at and resolve my own past in order to help her. Together, we have healed so many family dysfunctions and improved communication with all brances of the family. It has been the the most fulfilling and transforming experience of my life.

Biography: Nancy D'Antonio is a free-lance writer and photographer living in New York City. Her children's book "Our Baby From China" was published by Albert Whitman & Co. in 1997 and is now in it's second printing.

© 1998 & 2014 Nancy D'Antonio, all rights reserved, may not be reproduced in any form without written consent of the author.
Nancy D'Antonio, 255 West 98th St., NY, NY 10025
tel: 212-666-1107
e-mail: Nancy D'Antonio

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“What if you get tired of me? What if your wife doesn’t like me?”…

“I won’t ever get tired of you, Sohrab,” I said. “Not ever. That’s a promise. You’re my nephew, remember? And Soraya jan, she’s a very kind woman. Trust me, she’s going to love you. I promise that too.”…

“I don’t want to go to another orphanage,” he said.

“I won’t ever let that happen. I promise you that.” I cupped his hand in both of mine. “Come home with me.”

His tears were soaking the pillow. He didn’t say anything for a long time. Then his had squeezed mine back. And he nodded.

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