the adoptive auntie: helping extended families understand bonding and attachment

It is never easy to become a parent.  It is wonderful, it is miraculous, it is fulfilling.  It is not, however, easy.  Being an adoptive parent takes that lack of ease and multiplies it by 200 (or more).  Nothing is known and you’re jumping into a game you haven’t been present for at the end of the first quarter.  It’s hard.
Being an adopted child isn’t easy either.  It is wonderful, it is miraculous, and it is fulfilling.  It is not, however, easy.  You’ve likely had multiple care givers, possibly insecure attachments, and, many times, too little stimulation.  It’s hard.
Being the extended family of this parent/child mix also lacks ease.  You’ve spent months (sometimes years) praying for, thinking about, helping prepare for, and anticipating becoming an auntie, uncle, grandma, grandpa, cousin, etc to this precious new little one and now all that is expected of you is restraint.  It’s hard.
I know this by experience.  One of the roles I have looked most forward to in life was that of “Auntie.”  When my nephew Ethan came home at seven months from a Russian orphanage, the self control required of me was immense.  I was helped, however, by the knowledge of his needs that my doctoral training had provided.  It strikes me that others don’t have that benefit, so I offer these thoughts to help extended family members think about their roles in their nieces’, nephews’, granchildrens’, and cousins’ lives within the broader context of the adoptive nuclear family.
When most of us encounter new families our first impulse is to want to help.  We want to hold baby so mom can take a shower.  We want to change baby to give mom and dad a break from the frequently required task.  We bring meals.  We take pictures.  And, we can’t wait to be wanted.  We live for the moment that our new little one reaches out to us.  It will mean that they know us, love us, and want us.
For an adopted child and her parents these kinds of helps provide special challenges.  When such a child (especially one who has been in an orphanage...facing an initial primary loss and then a secondary loss in being removed from the orphanage care givers) reaches out to people, they are looking for indiscriminate care.  What they need, instead, is intimate bonding with their parents.  They need ALL of their primary care-giving responses to come from the two people who are “theirs.”  While this is painful in the short term to all of us who are used to feeling loved and important in the life of a newborn by getting to care and cuddle and comfort them, it provides the basis for a life time of loving, securely attached relationships in the child’s future.
Without these initial months of mostly watching the bonding (and supporting the new parents by cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, listening to them, and enthusiastically supporting their very difficult job of being only-care-givers) your precious niece will never be able to develop the relational circuitry in the brain that is required for secure attachment.  Your son or daughter, brother or sister is not trying to be withholding when they request that you not change, feed, or hold your newest family member...they are doing the painfully difficult task of re-wiring their child’s mind and soul to know that it is o.k. to rely on them, that they will not fail them, that they are reliable sources of comfort and basic needs, and that they are their mommy and daddy.
Due to advances in brain imaging, a belief that many of us have held for years is now “provable.”  Secure attachment during the early years of development is crucial for most of the executive functions of the brain to develop.  This means that a persons’ ability to have self control, healthy relationships, attuned communication, and a cohesive sense of self is directly related to the security and consistency of early relationships.  This means that a child needs to be held and have their basic needs met within the context of trusting relationships in order to wire the brain to be able to have those same kinds of relationships later in life.  As you are supporting this kind of attachment for your extended family it can be helpful to remember that there are many ways of feeding, holding, and responding to a child.  While your arms may not carry her, your mind can hold her firmly in your attention.  You can hold her in your prayers and thoughts.  You can feed her with words of affirmation and by nourishing her parents with support as they engage in this exhausting process of bonding.  While these are not the first forms of holding and feeding you may think of, they are real and they are powerful.
It is easy for extended family members to slip up in this period and swoop up a crying baby, to feel as though they are walking on egg shells with parents who are holding firm boundaries, and/or to be hurt when mom and dad don’t involve them in baby care tasks.  It is imperative, however, that we, as this childs’ extended family, work to re-define our important roles.  Mom and dad need all the emotional and physical support we can give them and our best way of loving baby is to point her back to mom and dad at every turn.  In developing a strong love for them she is building the basis that will allow her to love us well later.  Teasing mom and dad about their rigidity and/or “begging for just one hold” does not help here.  Neither does telling them about all the other adopted kids you know who are just fine.  This is the time in life to welcome the opportunity to learn the discipline of waiting.  Your future relationship with this sweet child will be nothing but deeper because of your patience.
It is also important to know that most adoptive families experience a honeymoon period where the attachment and bonding seem to be going so smoothly that none of you remember why in the world there are all these seemingly rigid boundaries around your precious ones’ care.  It is tempting to sneak in boundary violations at this point and it is even tempting for the parents to bend the boundaries, leading to confusion about further interaction guidelines.
It is imperative during these times to be watchful and mindful of why the boundaries were established in the first place.  Your wee one is highly developed in directing himself and his attention to whomever meets his need, he has also learned flexibility in responding to whoever cares for him and to keep his needs quiet.  He is likely relieved and enjoying what may feel to him like a vacation from the monotony and want of the orphanage.  It is likely, however, that he is not done getting all he needs in the way of specific and targeted secure attachment to his primary relational objects...his parents.  Exactly because the boundaries are in place is why he seems to be doing so well.  Don’t make any changes in them until you have done careful considering and soul searching without the pressure of a deadline or audience.  If you feel tempted to ask to provide a basic need (extended family) or to do away with a care guideline you’ve previously set (parent), give it a day or two, lots of discussion, and use discernment over time.
During the months that mom and dad are doing all the responding to baby’s most basic and primary needs (especially feeding, changing, soothing to sleep and waking, and comforting) your role is both large and small.  Large in the ways you never thought and small in the ways you imagined.  Be patient...all too soon your precious new love will be running into your arms and this time of waiting will be but a brief and distant memory. A memory of a time when your new love was wiring his brain to love you well.  Then it will be your turn to love him back...well...