“I would get too attached.”
It’s the most common hard pass excuse we hear as foster parents or social workers.
It’s been overused as an excuse and as a blog topic. As a foster parent, you can now Google for well-crafted snarky responses to this lame excuse for not wanting to foster. We ALL know now that it is an excuse. That people who “get too attached” are exactly what we are looking for in foster parents. We all know that they just don’t want to step out of their comfort zones and into positively participating in changing the trajectory of children and bio parent’s lives.
But, I digress. This is not the direction I am headed.
However, I start there because it was the first phrase that popped into my head when I was pondering and brainstorming topics for this blog. Because, strangely enough, I had the opposite reaction when I began to foster.
I thought I would get too attached…and then I didn’t. I researched and read all about what to do when a placement leaves your home. It was all for naught.
No one, not one single social worker, blogger, or foster parent I talked to, addressed the idea that as a foster parent who is also an adoptee, I might not get attached. In fact, I probably wouldn’t. No one prepared me for the suffocating feeling that was about to strangle my heart.
I still remember when our first placement was brought to our home. In stained pink smoke smelling pajamas that she’d been in for days, she stood by our front door gripping at the knees of the only person she knew, the social worker. Fear and exhaustion spilling out from her eyes. Instantly, my Momma Bear flared up from deep inside my gut and I KNEW I was going to protect this child. I knew that I would wash her, bathe her, soothe her, learn how to do her hair…I knew that I would fight for her needs physically, mentally, and emotionally. I knew I would do all these things fiercely.
I expected that we would bond and love one another. I thought we would cultivate a relationship forged in laughter and giggling, just like I had with my biological children.
But, we didn’t. There was nothing. I did the actions expected. I did my duties as a foster parent and as a mother. I washed. I soothed. I learned how to do her hair. I met her needs physically, mentally, and emotionally. I nurtured and rocked. I fed her favorite foods and kept her safe. But nothing happened. I felt numb. Silence echoed in my heart. I felt absolutely nothing. There was a blank space where a feeling should have seeded.
She left. I thought maybe it was just her. Maybe we were oil and water. Maybe it just wasn’t a good mesh of personality. I comforted myself in trite platitudes and the idea that maybe next time it would be different. Next time…this time was an anomaly. Our first placement meant a lot of room to learn and grow. I was just brand new at this and didn’t know what I was doing.
Then came our second placement…and the same thing happened. Nothing happened. After a time, I was so confused. I was so disheartened. I felt daily anger at myself for failing myself, failing him, and failing the system I’d volunteered to be a part of. My failing faith crept into my heart and grew, choking me in my throat like a noose, reminding me that every accomplishment with him towards his goals, I was the one who was failing. For every step he took forward, and I’m speaking literally in steps, this boy refused to walk. The floor was hot lava, every attempt was met with “wet noodle bones,” and our arms were the only safe place.
For every step he took forward, I was emotionally and mentally taking a step back.
However, shortly after he was placed in our home came the introduction of trauma into our state’s mandatory foster parent training curriculum.
One day, at a cold grey laminate table in a sterile conference room in front of 20 strangers and social workers, I wept violently.
The guilt of 34 years fell out from my heart like scales as each teardrop fell heavy into my hands and pooled down my arm.
Slowly, through research, reading, and intense trauma therapy, I learned how trauma affects an adoptee’s ability to bond. How even without a full diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder, an adoptee can have symptoms of it. I learned about how a brain that has separation trauma views abandonment, rejection, and love. I learned how an adoptee can have Complex Post Traumatic Syndrome. I learned how all of these diagnoses intermingling with each other can affect how one navigates relationships in a protective and defensive stance, placing their heart behind them.
After almost two years of fostering and six weeks into a signed adoption agreement and an official adoption placement with this little boy, he and I rocked on the frigid hard floor of his bedroom, both sobbing, as he raged, flailing against me with his body and spirit suffering through his own dysregulation.
I sighed with relief as, in that most difficult of moments, the realization came over me in relief like a breath of the metaphorical oxygen that my heart had been longing for: love can look different than attachment.
Love can be doing the expected without feeling a bond.
Love can be nurturing without having a positive emotional reaction.
Love can be walking through daily care without wanting to.
Love can be fighting for diagnoses and support because that’s what is needed.
Love can be recognizing my own trauma, it’s limitations, and saying no to adoption.
Love can be letting go…of guilt.
Of a planned adoption.
Of the expectation of attachment.
But it’s still love.
In my own way.
In a way that my own bruised heart and broken brain could.
In my own way, I dug a tunnel through my own trauma and mental health.
It wasn’t what others would have to worry about.
It wasn’t getting too attached.
But it was still love.
Andie Coston is a mental health trauma momma. She has four kids; two boys, and two girls. She writes about her experiences as an adoptee, an adoptive parent, and as a sexual abuse survivor. She also writes about mental health, foster parenting, motherhood, marriage, and everything in between. She is a raconteur of real, raw life. To learn more about Andie, follow her on Instagram @Andie.Ink.