BELGIUM: The Adopted Little Sailor
In preparation for our adoption, we had to take an intensive course, dealing with the many dynamics involved. A while later, our gained knowledge, but also our personal history, relationship, parenting skills and social network were scrutinized by a social worker and a psychologist.
During those months and months of preparation, there are two statements that came up several times and which I will always remember:
1) Having children is NOT a universal human right. Having a parent – or a dedicated caregiver – IS.
In other words: We were not entitled to a child. It’s the child’s benefit that comes first at all times. A hard lesson to learn for some, and next to impossible to swallow when the judge doesn’t give you the much hoped for green light. But true nonetheless.
2) We were NOT judged for our parenting skills. We were judged for our ADOPTIVE-parenting skills.
Especially to couples that were already parents, the course and social exams could be seen as an affront. And yes, it could be quite provoking and private at times. But in our case is was also very respectful at all times, and educating as well. And it was necessary.
Why? Because adopted children come with a backpack filled with their history. Because, as an adoptive parent, you might need to help carry that backpack.
A central topic to both the course and the exam was: attachment, and with that, basic trust. It was explained to us beautifully by ‘The parable of the little sailor’, in which a child is at first safely on a boat. All of a sudden, she finds herself in a storm. The boat sinks and she struggles to survive. When next she is picked up by a new boat, full of small children like her, and a new captain, it takes a while before she believes that the captain will keep them safe. And she proved right to be hesitant, because a new storm comes up and eventually, that boat also sinks. The child is alone again. From that point on, the child decides to not trust any captains any more. So when a new boat arrives, she goes in hesitantly, because she has no other choice. But she will keep her guards up for a long time now. She will test the captain’s sailing skills over and over again, and whenever a storm comes, she will be ready to take over control.
Some adopted children will have experienced more boats, more caregivers, than others. Some will have had worse storms than others. In quite some cases, gaining the trust of that little sailor will be a tremendous task for the final captains of its journey, the adoptive parents.
Attachment disorder can be an overwhelming Damocles’ sword that hangs above an adoptive family.
We were told the best way to avoid attachment disorder, was to make sure we were going to be the only captains during our precious sailor’s first months on our boat. A minimum of six months of semi-isolation, they recommended. Ideally not letting anyone else take care of her, not even hand her gifts. After that, the time she would need to safely attach to us and rely on us to steer the boat, was estimated as her age upon adoption, multiplied by two.
Our daughter was 2.5 years old when she came to live with us, and she’s been with us for three years now. That means we still have at least 2 years to go for her to let go of her anxieties and mistrust.
At least 2 years. Probably longer, if we look at where she is today on her journey towards trust and attachment. I personally believe attachment, at least for our daughter, will be a constantly evolving process for many years to come.
We’ve also had our share of storms. For one, we broke her trust those first, crucial months. You see, in Belgium, maternity leave is fairly short, only 15 weeks. When adopting, it’s even less. We were ‘lucky’ to adopt when our girl hadn’t reached the age of 3 yet, so I got to stay at home with her for 6 weeks. When your child is older, you only get 4 weeks. Or zero weeks, when the child has reached the age of 8, or when you’re a foster parent… So, a maximum of 6 weeks to complete this huge task of gaining trust. It’s extremely frustrating to have been pressed repeatedly on the importance of a strong basis for attachment and then being forced to send that little sailor off to another captain, one in the boat of day care or kindergarten, after a mere 6 weeks or less.
There have been quite some voices and petitions these lasts months, to once and for all equalize maternity leave rules for all sorts of parenthood, including adoption and foster care. The old statement of ‘You don’t need physical recovery from adoption like you do from giving birth, so you don’t need the same amount of time’ has lost its validity the moment regular maternity leave was extended with an additional (unpaid) month, for the sake of ‘bonding of mother and child’.
No need to say the adoptive community was outraged, or at least strongly disappointed at that time. We still are. The adversaries of our request don’t seem to understand that we don’t ask longer maternity leave for ourselves, although I must admit that some time for emotional recovery would have been very welcome in those first, stormy months.
But essentially, we request it for the benefit of the little sailors to come. They deserve more time to explore, defy and scrutinize their new captains.
How long is maternity leave in your country? Is the same for all kinds of parenthood? And how long do you believe it should be?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by K10K from The Penguin and The Panther.
Photo by Alejandro Groenewold under Creative Common license