Friday, 11 November 2011

Hard-ish Things: Tommy

I wrote this post before Nicolas came home. I'm not sure why I never published it, but since it is adoption month I thought the timing was right.

One of the things we did to prepare ourselves for Tommy's adoption was attend an adoption conference (it helped us get those all important training hours). We spent an entire Sunday learning all about health issues, evaluating referrals, emotional issues, attachment tactics, managing the wait, and adopting across color lines. It was a hard, hard day. Taking in all that information, much of it negative, made for a huge emotional punch. Even though we had repeatedly read and been told that adoptions don't always work out perfectly, hearing it ad nauseam over the course of one day made the transition after adoption seem like such an uphill battle. I know that for some families adoption is a very difficult battle. Sometimes kids come home with more physical or emotional needs than a parent or family is prepared to handle. But it seems to me that more often than not, while kids come home with issues that are not easy, they are far from insurmountable.

Thus I decided to write a post about some of the difficulties that we had or continue to have that are related to the conditions that Tommy grew up in. This is decidedly not a "feel sorry for us" post. We have been abundantly blessed by the addition of Tommy to our lives, and we made the choice to parent a child from a hard place, and we are happy to be flexible to meet his needs. Additionally, the "hard things" that we have experienced are minor compared to the long list of things that potentially could happen, which is why I am referring to them as "hard-ish things." This post is simply to share with others who have adopted, are in the process of adopting, who are considering adoption, or those who are just curious about some of the differences in parenting a child adopted from an orphanage, some of what we experienced. As a side note, we have relied fairly heavily on ideas from Keck's Hurting Child books and Purvis' The Connected Child/Connected Child Workbook, especially when it comes to nurture and food issues.

We entered into Tommy's adoption with an excessive amount of information under our belts - between our required adoption training courses (I highly recommend Adoption Learning Partners), adoption seminars, and extensive personal reading (The Hurting Child books are great), we were aware of just about everything that could be difficult. We were pleasantly surprised that almost none of the catastrophes we had prepared for occurred. We had a reasonably easy transition. Tommy was very much in a state of shock at first, but at the time we didn't see it, because we didn't know him. He didn't act out, thus it seemed like everything was fine. Within a few weeks there was a noticeable difference in his smile, and in his response to us. We were very blessed that he began to attach quickly, and that he took to us so readily. It helped that he was not touch-averse and that he loved to be held. Because of this we could wear him (we used an Ergo carrier all the time) and that helped our bonding process move quickly.

Still, there are a few things, remnants of his past, that continue to shape his responses and behavior.

The hardest thing for me on an ongoing basis is Tommy's intense need for touch. Had he been placed with us at birth he would probably still be a cuddly guy. However, having missed out on having his need for being held met on demand, as would be the case for many infants in a regular family structure, he has a nurture deficit that we are constantly trying to fill. There are days when he will want to be held for a very long period of time, just because he needs it. And not just held, but held as close as possible. Sometimes it feels like he is trying to burrow into me, he presses up against me so insistently, not for a minute or two, but for an hour. This is hard for me because I am not a touch person. Often it is a huge invasion of my personal space, and sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed by it. During the summer it is just darn uncomfortable because of the heat. Nevertheless, I snuggle on demand, and spend a great deal of time performing activities one armed while lugging 30+ pounds of squirming sweetness on my hip or my leg. Even Jeff, who does not require the amount of personal space that I do, has found it to be too much at times. When we first came home Tommy had very little capacity for being alone. Over time this has diminished a bit, and Tommy will now play by himself for increasingly longer periods, but that is a rather recent development (and welcome, because I can finally make a decent dinner!).

On a related note, despite being more than capable of feeding himself, Tommy frequently wanted to be fed "like a baby" (his words). This, according to adoption books, is very common for children from orphanages. What seems like regression is actually filling a need that was never met before. Kids in orphanages begin feeding themselves at a very, very young age, and often they are never fed by a caregiver (propped bottles are a common way to feed babies). Thus they miss the interaction and nurture - the touch, the eye contact, the cooing and encouragement - that comes with being fed by another person. In my mind there was no downside to nurturing Tommy in this way, since he already has all of the necessary motor skills to feed himself, although it sometimes made us late to things when he ate too slowly.

Food insecurities also continue. When Tommy first came home he would shove food into his mouth until he gagged, gag, and then keep shoving it down. He outgrew that as he became used to having more than enough food, but it took a very long time. He also had a great deal of trouble seeing food and not getting some for himself. If someone else was eating and I didn't have something for him it could result in a fast meltdown. He has mostly grown out of this. His big food quirk that we haven't gotten rid of (and won't force until he is a little older) is that every time we sit down at the table he has to have a mouthful of food before he will stop and pray. It is very predictably a bite followed by a drink of milk, then he will actually move his plate away from himself and bow his head. He just needs the reassurance of that one bite. He now eats more normal amounts and even will occasionally leave some food on his plate (mostly vegetables he doesn't like), but this is huge improvement over inhaling everything. He is still a gorger when it comes to food he likes, but will now handle it calmly when we tell him he has had enough, which is a wonderful change. [Update: Now that Tommy is older we are enforcing a no food before prayer rule, and it was easy to institute as he has grown much more secure about food]

Tommy plays rough (or tough, according to some of his more magnanimous peers). Yes, he is a boy, and a toddler, so a certain degree of acting out is normal regardless of background. I am well aware that many biological children go through hitting and biting phases. But orphanage culture is rough in Uganda (I can't speak for elsewhere, but I imagine it would be similar). As soon as kids can move they are fighting for scarce resources - especially food and attention. Hitting, slapping, biting, scratching, and so on, are normal, not corrected, and sometimes encouraged. Maybe you are thinking that Tommy couldn't have been in that type of environment at such a young age, but trust me, many other parents with similar situations have noticed how rough their children are - even when they come home fairly young.

I know I have shared about some of the physical damage that conditions at the orphanage did. His intestines have slowly been healing, but in the beginning we were cleaning up an absurd amount of poop. Sometimes up to 8 explosive diapers a day (although usually more like 5) including the requisite laundry and disinfecting. Not every child reacts to parasites in the same way (and they don't all have the same ones), but I know our experience is not unique. In fact, a friend who adopted from Tommy's orphanage attempted to prepare me for what was coming, and although she accurately described it, she couldn't transmit the foulness of it, or how much time it takes to clean up that much poop (and you have to treat it all as infectious), and coax your child into taking the worst tasting pills ever. As a point of reference, I had a very long babysitting career, and had changed an excessive amount of diapers, from brand new babies to toddlers. Trust me, parasite poop is entirely different. As far as skin issues, Tommy had only a minor fungal infection. I know that many kids from orphanages come home with pernicious fungal infections or contagious skin conditions, so we count ourselves very lucky that we just had the small one.

I think that sums it all up. What it comes down to is that all the information that we took in prepared us for a very difficult experience. It scared us a bit, truth be told. While I am glad that I had more information than I ended up needing, I'm also glad that we didn't let all of the "what ifs" scare us off (harder to do with us since "what ifs" for our biological children are so scary), or get in the way of accepting Tommy's referral, which consisted of two pictures, a brief back story, an HIV test, and no medical information - and accepting a child on no info is seriously frowned upon at adoption conferences. Had we let the "what ifs" stand in the way, we might have missed out on the most wonderful thing: being Tommy's parents.


Tom said...

Tommy and Nic have wonderful parents who love them very much

Heather said...

I just have to throw in my opinion that Tommy is very well-behaved and responds impressively well to correction. You guys are doing a great job!