The One About Attachment

There are a lot of ways to parent, and that’s true whether you are parenting biological or adopted children. However, adoption parenting often looks a lot different than typical parenting. To start with, an adopted child comes to you as a stranger, a wounded stranger. When your adopted child lands in your arms, he or she has lost everything known. This is true if even if your child comes to you as an infant, for the time spent in utero counts as time, too. If you are adopting internationally, your children come to you with even more time under their little belts. And so there is work to do from the first day you meet. That work is called attachment. It is the process by which your child begins to recognize you as the parent and form an attachment to you. It is what allows them to trust you and know that their needs will be met. The work of attachment is often largely practical, and while after a time it becomes more innate and natural, I find that when I am not being intentional about it, the deepening of our attachment slows significantly.

I have mentioned before that the #1 thing we’ve done that has fostered attachment is co-sleeping. I’ll ‘fess up and tell you that at first, I didn’t think we’d do this. But it seemed like everywhere I turned, someone was talking about co-sleeping and the good work it had done for them. Then, when we knew our daughter was three years old, and that she’d been falling asleep in a room with other children, I started to think about how scary it would be for her to fall asleep in a room by herself. So we decided to co-sleep. On that first afternoon, when we laid her down in the bed between us, and she turned to each of us, just beaming, I knew it was the right thing to do. Attachment is largely about children feeling safe with you, and knowing that you will always meet their needs. This allows us to build that feeling of safety and to let Zinashi know that when she needs us, we are right there. I feel so good about providing for her in this way, and the truth is that I also simply like it. I do miss the bed space sometimes, and certain, ahem, husband-wife relations require alternate venues, but seeing her smile that goofy grin when she wakes up and realizes we are right there is priceless. Also, lately our shy cat has been snuggling up to her head, and she is delighted to wake up and find that the cat will actually let her pet it as opposed to just running away.

Another attachment activity that relates to bedtime is how we put her to sleep. When we were in Ethiopia and at first when we were home, she would fall asleep between us in bed, but that stopped working right about the time I allowed too many people into her life in too short a time span. We are working our way back to that, but it may take time to recover from this regression. So for now we rock and sway and jiggle her to sleep (if you’ve watched the Happiest Baby on the Block DVD, you know about the jiggling action of which I speak), and she always falls asleep in our arms. It is hard physical work, and probably explains why my pants still button, even though people continue to bring us sweets when they provide meals for us, and I feel it is my moral responsibility to eat everything that people have given us. She really needs the help being soothed into sleep, and it allows us to be physically very close to her. So even though it’s a step backward that she needs the help, it’s a good thing in terms of simply creating the cozy bond we want with our daughter.

I would also count our approach to food as attachment work. By feeding her what she needs and giving her the security of knowing that there is always enough food, we are giving her one more task to trust us with. I’ve written before about our food approach while in Ethiopia, and it is largely the same here. At the table, she eats her fill of whatever we are having, and we continue to hold her on our laps and feed her if she wants us to. Some days she wants to eat everything on her own, and other days she allows us to put some things in her mouth. She also likes to feed us, and we love it; this is not only good attachment, but retains the Ethiopian cultural practice of feeding one another. In Ethiopia, she suddenly wanted to sit in her own seat, but with the big adjustment to life in the US, she has regressed a little bit and has only wanted to sit in her seat for very short periods of time, usually when she’s doing more playing than eating at the end of the meal and I’ve told her that she is welcome to continue in her own seat, but I have other things I must do. For the meals Jarod is home for, she usually sits on his lap, which is fantastic since he is away at work all day and has less time to work on attachment with Zinashi. We also continue to make food available to her all the time. We will say no to some specific requests (to carry around the bag of chocolate chips and eat them at will, for instance), but we always offer an alternative right away and tell her when she’ll get to have the desired food item. Basically, if your child has a history of the need for food being unmet, saying no reinforces their fear that they will be hungry again. To prove that we can be trusted to give her food when she needs it, and that food is always available so she will not go hungry again, we give her food when she needs it and always have food available. That’s pretty simple and logical, right?

Another thing we do to foster attachment is simply being present. If at all possible, we pick her up when she holds her arms out. Increasingly, she understands when I tell her that I cannot pick her up right that second because (insert valid reason here–hands are full, thing you’re stirring on the stove is very hot, etc.), and she will wait. But I always pick her up once I am able to. In addition, I make space for her to play right by me wherever I am. If she is feeling secure, she will wander the house and come back to check in every now and again, but on days when she’s feeling insecure, she always has a spot next to me, and I will make a point of doing things she can either participate in or sit on my lap while I do them myself. And finally, Zinashi never gets a time out. I know, right? What kind of hippie permissive parenting are we engaging in? I didn’t say that we don’t give consequences, just that we don’t give time outs. For a typical kid, time out indicates that you don’t get attention for negative behaviors, and it works because the child already knows that you are not going to abandon him, just give him the space to figure out that no one gives you anything when you throw a fit. With a child who has experienced loss, time outs have the unintended effect of telling the child that she will be left behind if she misbehaves. So we do what is called a “time in,” which means that we are holding her while waiting for her to figure out how to do the right thing, or we are right next to her. Examples of when we need to be right next to her as opposed to holding her include when she has decided to hit out of frustration and when she is doing something I just asked her not to, but that she can reach if she’s on my lap or in my arms. For example, if I’ve told her that she cannot type on the keyboard while I’m paying bills, and she continues to do so, I will set her down and wait for her to get her stomping and whining out (because she will stomp and whine when she doesn’t get her way). I then require that she say sorry before she can return to my lap. If I were a real hippie, I would just redirect and go do something else with her, but guess what? I need to pay the bills/wash the dishes/feed the cat, and it is not unreasonable to expect her to learn that when someone is doing work, we don’t impede their progress.

A quite enjoyable thing that we do, or that I do, is this:

zinashi's favorite mode of transportation

That right there is some babywearing. Our Beco Butterfly 2 also can be worn on the front. Many mothers in Ethiopia carry their children on their backs, so that position was natural for Zinashi from the beginning. It also allows me to do a ton of things hands free. One day we even swapped out seasonal clothes from the basement and hung everything up, all with Zinashi on my back. The front carry position still leaves my hands free, but there’s not as much space for arm movement or to carry things. I also find that the back carry is a little more comfortable for long periods of time. We have noticed that on the days that I am unable to give Zinashi some babywearing time, it is harder for her to settle at night. So every day, rain or shine, we do it. We prefer outdoors, but in a pinch we can be mall walkers at the nearby mall that isn’t crowded, or I can wear her in, say, Costco. (Like I did yesterday. She was the belle of the ball there, for sure.)

Finally, we are encouraging attachment by having Zinashi spend the majority of her time only with us. It is important for Zinashi to understand that we are her parents, and the way we do that is by being the ones to attend to all her needs, whether it be for food, sleep, or nurture. Of course it is natural for others to want to hold her or give her things or feed her, but we find that the more people she sees that are allowed to provide for any of her basic needs, the less secure she is. This shows up in the magic of two hours of sleep resistance at bedtime. So we keep life fairly quiet, and sometimes when we meet people, it is very briefly, with her in my arms or in the carrier. We made huge mistakes in this regard in our first two weeks home, and now we are making up for that unfortunate start to our time in the US. This is the hardest part of attachment for me, even harder than rocking and swaying for two hours at bedtime, as we have to tell people that they cannot see her, or that it is unwise for them to hold her. Once we have moved further forward in our attachment work, this won’t be an issue, but for now, we are keeping her close. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of hugs and kisses left for all of you in the future.

I promise.



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7 responses to “The One About Attachment

  1. Glo

    Reading your blog, I learn so much about parenting strategies. As I plan to adopt as well, outside of the joy of reading about your personal journey, it’s incredibly informative. Thank you!

  2. Kelli


    Thank you for being so open about your experience! Your techniques are exactly what I’ve been reading about in all the adopting books…so good to hear that they are working!

    I have already been figuring that when our time comes, I am going to need to send out a similarly worded email, etc. to friends/family to explain why our parenting will look a little different at first. You’ve written it all so well though…I think I might have to send them a link to this post (with your permission, of course).

    Hope all continues to go well for you guys!

    Kelli (Regier) Hermon

  3. Thanks for sharing!! seriously learning so much from you! I got to hear Karyn Purvis talk all about “time in” at the adoption conference! She’s amazing. I’m pretty excited about empowered to connect.

  4. Zinashi is in your lives to stay. There will be plenty of time in the future for hugs and play time with other people. Right now, she needs you; she needs security. You are so wise, and I’m sure your loved ones will understand that you know what is best for your daughter. I think you are doing great.

    • Elizabeth Faherty

      I would love it if you would list the resources (books, DVD’s, particular authors or theories) that you have found to be really good in preparing yourself to adopt. For those of us planning to adopt in the future, it would be helpful.

      Again, LOVE the blog. WRITE A BOOK, girl!


  5. findingmagnolia

    I am so glad to share all of our experiences–or at least the ones that don’t invade Zinashi’s privacy or share her story too much. I think of all I gleaned from other blogs while we were preparing, and I figure it is only right to pass on that favor. Also, I think it is good to give people an honest and realistic look at what adoption is really like. I also think there is great value in sharing experience so others won’t feel alone. Thank you all for your interest and encouragement.

    Kelli, please feel free to share the link to this post or any others when you write your email. If what I have written helps others understand your situation better, I am more than happy to provide some info.

    Elli, I am planning a post that lists some resources, and I also hope to put a little something on the sidebar with links to all the resources we’ve used. The post will likely come first; I just need to remember all the things that I read and watched! As far as writing a book is concerned, if someone will find me an interested publisher, I will settle down to writing it straightaway. The advance will surely help me afford a cleaning lady, right?

  6. I know this is an old post, but I only found your blog recently and have been reading back because we brought a three-year-old girl home as a foster-to-adopt placement at the end of October, so I see you as sort of a timing twin. (And I envy your freedom to share Zinashi’s gorgeous face and hope someday I can do the same.)

    I’m sure you don’t need reinforcement, but all these things are substantially similar to how we were also running things last month, though we’ve eased up on a few as Mara signalled she could handle more autonomy. People have preconceptions of how three-year-olds “should” be but when you’re dealing with a child who’s grieving and has experienced the trauma of being uprooted, I think it’s a great help to have parents who are listening to the child’s needs rather than the world’s expectations.

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