I've posted about our 1st year home experience before (click here for link), but I feel the need to discuss it some more now that we have a little more distance from that time in our lives.
Expect to be in survival mode for at least for the first year home with your adopted child (the full 12 months). For us, survival mode was longer-about a year and a half, because of Smalls' complicated trauma history. She didn't know that she needed to be adopted and she didn't know about us coming to adopt her. Those are two HUGE things that her brain had to process in America and not in her familiar surroundings with people she sort-of trusted.
What is survival mode? What did that look like in your family?
My definition of survival mode is trying to make it one day at a time without going completely insane. You are living in the moment at all times and it's hard to plan for future events or even think about getting dinner ready. You are constantly managing one chaotic event after the next. Smalls gets mad because I said that she couldn't watch TV right now, but instead go get a book or a toy so we can play together. She throws a fit. She starts picking at her cuticles as a release for dopamine. She grits her teeth and stomps up to her room. And as a new mom to her, I'm trying to get her regulated so we can talk about all of these feelings that are coming up. I run after her to her room and the damage is already done. She has broken a toy and her fingers are bleeding from her self-destructive behavior. She also used the bathroom on the rug in her anger. In the first year of being home, these moments happened frequently for us. I felt like I was just getting her regulated so she could become dysregulated again or helping her to clean up a mess from her rage. It was a cycle that we had to break.
There were days that I skipped meals because I was so focused on taking care of Smalls. She couldn't eat by herself; she didn't know how. By the time meal time was finally over, she was in a rage and I was back to trying to get her regulated. Getting a child regulated who has never been is not an easy task. It could take an hour or two over a small incident. It was hard to take care of myself during this time. I had to put forth a lot of effort and frankly I had no effort left at the end of the day. We had grandparents come and watch Smalls for a few times. It was nice but we definitely reaped the wrath after the visit was over. Smalls would be ten times worse than before, so was respite care really worth it?
I felt terrible during this time. I was a stay at home mom (except on Saturdays when I went to work). As some of my friends would say to me, "I had plenty of time to get stuff done". Dinner was never ready. I would constantly apologize to Wes about not having a clean house or not doing a simple thing he had asked me to do. He understood completely and did not criticize me about not being a good "stay at home mom". I almost wanted to start applying for full time jobs, so I could put Smalls in a daycare facility, but who's going to take an 8 year old at a daycare? Is that even legal? She is suppose to be in school, but what grade? Pre-k? She's never been in that type of environment and she would probably get kicked out real fast. And besides my salary would have probably just covered the tuition and I would literally just work to send her away from me which was not good.
Everyday I would call Wes. I would cry on the phone about how terrible the day is going and ask what to do when Smalls acted this way or that way. He knew it was a terrible day when I called him three or more times. Usually after the third time he knew it was not going to get better, Wes would come home and help me. Looking back on that time, I am very thankful Wes did not have a demanding position because I'm sure he would have gotten fired for being on the phone with me and having to leave work without notice several times a month.
It was hard to wake up in the mornings. For me, the mornings were the worst. It was like an impending doom. I didn't want her to wake up because I knew the tornado would hit before I had a chance to get coffee. And besides, I was so tired from the night before. Smalls didn't sleep. She was so hypervigilent. I was on her schedule, which was so tough. Go to bed at 11pm or 12am and then wake up at 5 or 6am. I needed sleep! And taking a nap was not an option. Between all of the meltdowns and catastrophes, it was time for bed.
During this survival time, I've never felt so alone. Our parents checked on us from time to time, but having someone who has gone through this to understand would have been gold! No one brought us meals like you would when someone has a baby. No one gave us an "adoption shower" with toys and other things needed. I felt bitter about all of the baby showers I participated in and brought gifts to the new mom and dad. It wasn't fair. I started reaching out to groups that are online for support. They have encouraged me and have given me strength when parenting Smalls. They understood what I was going through. I have found a lot new friends this way. (I probably have more online friends than friends that I meet up with in person. Yikes!) I couldn't find a lot of blogs that talk about how hard it is to experience the first year. Not a lot of people, and I can understand why, who are sharing their lives regularly about living with a traumatized child. It's hard to be open in a public forum and it's even harder to find the time to write a post. I'm sure I get negative words about my blog, but I write this stuff for future parents who need encouragement from someone who has been there and done it. I want this blog to be a resource for others who are coming behind me and not feel alone.
I read books during this time. I really don't know how I found the time to read, but I did. I think I was just so desperate for answers, I made it a priority. Reading books on trauma and adopted children gave me a lot of wisdom to get through the first year. I even re-read books, The Connected Child, to see if I missed something and to keep reminding me of those principles.
I could probably keep going on about every detail of our first year for days....
Any advice for parents in survival mode?
Go easy on yourself. You are not perfect. In the past year I couldn't count how many times that I messed up and by messed up, I mean said an ugly word to Smalls or not parent with grace and compassion. I wish I could go back and undo some of the things that I've said or done, but I've asked for forgiveness from Smalls and started anew again.
You will get burnt out parenting a traumatized child. Schedule alone time for yourself, whether you close your door for 30 minutes while your child plays in their room or go crazy and hire a babysitter for a night out on the town.
You will feel so tired at the end of the day and that's okay, if everyone is still alive, fed, and was told that they were loved that's good enough (notice that I didn't put bath on the list). These kids will suck the life out of you. I'm pretty sure they have magical powers that can drain you physically and mentally.
It's okay that you don't feel love for your child during this year. I'll be honest and admit that it was very hard for me to feel that love. Smalls would defy everything that I said and did (on purpose!), just to make me mad or get a rise out of me. It takes patience to not hurt someone like that. Just the other day we were getting ready for the splash park and were going to have a snack before we left. I ask Smalls to choose from 3 different types of foods and she said she wanted chips. I gave her the choices again and boom! just like that, she went into full tantrum mode. I, unfortunately, had to choose for her and that made her so mad. When she used the bathroom later, she used it on the toilet (not in the toilet, but on the toilet-big difference). And then we had a big talk about using words and not behavior. She wanted me to feel angry at her for using the bathroom inappropriately because I mad her feel angry because I didn't give her the choice of chips. Moments like these are what frustrate me the most, but I know if I handle these types of situations appropriately, I am rewiring Smalls' brain to function better in society.
Find others around you who have experienced this survival mode feeling. Sure, you could talk to your social worker about all of the problems, but most social workers that I know have never adopted (might just be a regional thing in my area, so I can't say for all areas) and they were not as helpful as I would have liked. Finding parents who have gone through this would be an amazing resource for you. They will not (should not!) judge you for your crazy stories about your child.
Wow, this post is getting long.
Hang in there! It is an ugly fight. As my mom would frequently tell me, "you are getting poison out of this child. it will take time for all of it to come out". She uses the word "poison" to refer to all of the trauma, abuse, and neglect that the child has endured. If you need someone to chat or pray with you, please email me.
You can do it!