Third and fourth foster/adopt training classes today. 3 – Communication (with kids and with other workers), and then 4 – Grief and Loss.
Just a little snapshot for you:
We were in the Grief/Loss portion of the day, talking about Attachment. Our instructor for this whole 7-part series is actually fantastic. She is articulate and thorough, compelling and challenging. I truly believe that she would rather have someone leave the class (and her agency) than have someone licensed who is ill-equipped to care for “her” kids (she is a case worker as well). I like her a lot and also based on how much she talks about shopping at Target and being neurotic about eating timely meals, I think we could be great friends.
So, attachment. It’s a major word in foster-adopt world, if you didn’t know. People go to seminars and hundreds of hours of therapy and read books and obsess and cry and pray about The Almighty Attachment. We were discussing the different types of attachment from the good (“secure” or “earned secure” attachment) to the pretty bad (avoidant, hostile, etc). It essentially describes the relationship a child has to their caregiver or parent, and she was describing how studies show that kids show significant signs of mirroring their caregivers’ or parents’ attachment styles within 3 months of entering a new situation.
So this means that if a kid has never had a trusting, nurturing, “secure” attachment environment and instead avoids or conflicts with their caregiver all the time, and that is how they are accustomed to relating to their caregiver (and therefore the world), it is typically within 3 months of being in a nurturing safe trustworthy environment that they begin to “latch on” and respond in kind to the new parent or parent figure.
All good things. A bit oversimplified, in my mind, but she’s not saying all problems are gone, just that kids respond in a relatively short time and begin to mirror healthier ways to relate to people, so okay, I’m with you.
She described a study in which (older) babies were brought into a room by Mom, and then left there for about one minute with a different supervisor adult, and they studied how they responded to their mothers leaving them. They then had the mothers come back in but stop just inside the door, and see how the infant responded. The ones with “secure” attachment would of course cry when Mom left, not be particularly soothed by an unfamiliar supervising adult, and then when Mom came back in they would book it across the room and hold up both arms to be picked up. Our instructor described how the babies would be quickly pacified as soon as Mom was back, and would often lean back to look in her face, and reach around and hold onto Mom’s hair, or the back of her neck.
This brought back some pretty acute memories of our baby, and the ways he would respond to me, and filled me with that sort of sick-sweet achey-happy warm-memory feeling of how healthy he had been, how happy, how attached, how wonderful it was, but you know. No more. So I kind of said to Dane, “Ha, I think I might cry,” not really meaning it.
I raised my hand at one point.
“What about the other direction? So for instance, we had a baby from 3 months old until 13 months old, and he had all of these ‘Secure Attachment’ things, but then he went back into a more chaotic environment where he probably had inconsistent caregivers, less needs met, stuff like that.”
As far as I can tell so far, we are the only “experienced” (meaning having ANY experience at all) foster parents in the room, so I wanted her to tell all of these parents about how even if their little one goes back home, they have made a forever difference in that child’s ability to relate to the world and to connect to people. I thought I already knew the answer.
“Well, it really lasts about 3 months,” she said. “Children from secure attachment backgrounds also really shift into the other attachment types if they are put into that environment, after about 3 months.”
So I clarified. “So the secure attachment, it doesn’t, like… stick with them somehow?”
“No,” she said, “not really. They will begin to be defensive or avoidant or whatever they pick up from the situation they’re in.”
Now listen. I know this is entirely too simplistic. I believe that this instructor knows a lot of things I don’t and has been involved in cases I couldn’t dream of, but she has also never parented, foster or otherwise. I think some of these things are coming from a textbook for her. I knew that her word was not gold. But it stung.
She seemed to kind of catch herself; what she was saying, and to whom.
“I mean, um, I didn’t mean to like, that sounds so depressing…”
I just said “It’s fine, I shouldn’t have asked,” but my eyes were sort of welling up. “I thought you’d say it leaves a positive impact long-term,” [uncomfortable laugh], “but I just shouldn’t have asked.” I had this idea, I thought, about how that year we had with our baby made such a difference, but when I think about it, where’d I get that idea from? Wishful thinking?
So I sort of waved her off, like please move on, because I was kind of embarrassed, because you guys I am still so often caught off-guard by how potently certain random things can sting and hurt. It’s not in the rational part of my brain and I can’t talk myself out of it, like I typically have with everything else in my life. I just sort of scrambled to take my hair out of the ponytail and let it hang down, look down at my paper, act cool, pull myself together…
I could tell the instructor was still looking nervously over at me every so often. Not so much nervous as kind of guilty. I’m not sure what she thought I meant by my question, or what she thought the answer would mean… I gave her the context.
But it wouldn’t pull together. So I ducked out the back.
In the stall of the bathroom the tears just FELL. It was as much because of this clear-as-day memory of little one booking it across the floor to me when I walked in, and his fingers in the back of my hair — as it was about her just telling me it was basically for nothing. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was but I tried to just wait it out.
A minute or two later the door opened and I heard “Hey….?”
I said “Hey,” and kind of wiped my face and came out trying to smile it off.
This lady from our class who I’d never spoken to before, but who I recognized as someone who came up with great questions and had very challenging input, who is actually super gorgeous and sort of assertive and smart and I had already developed a tiny girl-crush on her, was standing out there, looking kind of nervous to be butting in.
“I didn’t want to make a whole thing and tell my life story to the whole class, but I just really want to tell you,” she said. She proceeded to tell me about how she grew up in the projects with a single mom who I think she said was an addict, and a ton of siblings, and she lived in the world of the chaos and the defensive and the fend-for-yourself. She never knew her dad, but her grandma on the dad’s side would keep her for a few days at a time, just when she was REALLY little. She said they moved away and she stopped going to her grandma’s house when she was 4 years old, but she remembered, still and always, how Grandma’s house had different rules. You spoke more softly. You treated people with respect. You knew you were going to be taken care of, and you didn’t have to fight for yourself. She had her hair washed and brushed out at Grandma’s, but usually not at home. She wore shoes at Grandma’s house, she went to church at Grandma’s house, she was listened to at Grandma’s house even without shouting.
She said every time she went back to “Mama’s,” you better believe the gloves came off again, the shoes came off, the shrieking and pushing and clamoring came back, because that’s what you had to do there. She said “I think she’s talking about behavior. My behavior went right back to chaos every time I went back to chaos, because it had to. But I never ever forgot that environment.”
She said even though she was too young to have clear memories of it, she always carried with her this idea that the mess she lived in was not the only way to live, that this wasn’t the only way to treat people. She said when she grew up she based her life around “I want to create a home that’s like Grandma’s, not like Mama’s.” She said she doesn’t do perfect, but that’s why she’s here, in this class, that’s why she wants to care for these kids, is because Grandma showed her a different way to live.
I don’t think he’ll remember us, not at all. I reconciled myself to that idea almost 2 years ago. But the familiarity with a different kind of family, a different kind of relating to people, the idea of a place that’s safe and sweet and nurturing, my new friend says — that can stick a lot longer anyway.
So yes, I did end up hugging a total stranger in the bathroom today. I’m not sure there are many people who could have given me THAT medicine at THAT time but she was just there, just then. And thank God for that.