Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Foster Children and Attachment

I’ve been browsing a lot of foster parent blogs recently and one topic has really stood out to me:  the hurt and frustration parents have with children who have trouble attaching to their foster or adopted parents.  Many parents feel rejected by their child’s struggle or inability to attach to them.  There are even dangerous therapies created and practiced to help or force children to attach to their new parents.  I understand why these therapies exist and why parents would feel rejected, hurt, and frustrated with a child they adopted's seemingly inability to attach to them, wanting nothing more but to give them a good life and love them.  I totally get how hard it must be to love a child who appears not to love you back.  I would be devastated if I adopted a child that couldn’t trust that I loved them and didn’t feel attached to me no matter how much I tried to make them feel loved.   I would also understand why my child can’t trust that I love them and that their place in my heart and my home is permanent.  I know what that is like. Most foster children know what that is like.

Foster children live in a world where they never feel safe or loved.  They never know if their new set of parents will keep them or if they will eventually have to move again.  They don’t know if they might mess up their new home and/or if their new parents will fall out of love with them.  Most children grow up feeling loved unconditionally.  They just know that their parents love them.  They never once have to question where they belong or if their parents might get rid of them in the future.  Most children are loved without conditions.  Most children can act out, freak out, have learning problems, behavior problems, medical and mental health problems and their parents have to love and keep them despite their current or future problems.  The thought that their parents may leave them never even enters their mind. Foster children constantly think about these things and continually worry about being loved and kept.  They are hurt and constantly worried without the adult ability to process and understand what is happening to them.  Because of all this fear, anger, frustration and sadness, they may end up acting out.
I was born to a mother who couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of me.  From the very beginning, the world taught me that people always go away, and that people don’t love me, at least, not forever.  Some of my earliest memories are of being alone in the closet or scared because my mother left my siblings and me home alone for days at a time.  Alone and scared, we would take all the cushions and make a fort in the living room until she got back.  When I was with my mother, we were constantly moving, living in cars, living in shelters, living in hotels, living in different countries.  I had no stability.  Nothing was permanent in my life.  I had no one and nothing to attach to.  Still, I was a child desperate for love.

I remember a set of foster parents from when I was four or five.  I don’t remember their names, but I remember how they read me stories at bedtime and how they hugged me when I had nightmares.  I remember them trying to keep me, but I had to go back to my mother.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted.  I wanted my mother but I wanted my new parents too.  Who was I supposed to love?  Who was I supposed to attach to?  I was attached to both and I loved both.  Either way I was going to be hurt. Ultimately, I lost them both.

My childhood was spent bouncing from home to home, school to school, parent to parent.  In the beginning, I wondered, dreamed, hoped, prayed that my new parents would love me and keep me forever.  In the beginning, I fell in love with every foster parent, and I believed them when they said they loved me. But with each new home and family, it became harder, and eventually impossible, to believe in their love and commitment to me.  The reason I can’t trust that people love me and will always love me unconditionally is because my world has shown me that that just can’t or won't happen no matter what they do to convince me that they aren’t going away.

As I got older and I was in and out of more foster homes, it became harder to attach to my foster parents.  Attaching just meant more pain when I would inevitably have to leave.  No matter how much I fought against it, I would eventually attach, but it seemed like the minute I did, I would have to move.  Every time I was rejected and sent away it was harder and harder to attach and harder for my foster parents to care about and attach to me.  Maggie and Tim were one of my set of parents that promised to adopt me and keep me forever.  I even went by their last name at school.  That story does not have the happy ending I dreamed about when I wrote Santa Clause the letter asking for a family.  That story ends a little over three years later with my new mom, who had promised to protect and love me forever, abandoning me in a hospital room and never looking back.  Another parent was my former therapist.  She had not been my therapist very long when she retired and became my foster mom.  She bought me a dog and promised me that she was forever.  That forever didn’t happen.  Instead, she sent me away and put my dog down. 

Then there came the offer of my sister’s foster mom, who was also my temporary foster mom years before, to come be part of their family.  I jumped at the opportunity to live with my sister.   I barely knew her but she was still my real family and I wanted nothing more than to be part of a family.  My sister’s foster mom, Marlene, decided she didn’t want two kids after all, and I was sent away.  There were a few more families that made big promises they didn’t keep but by then, I hadn’t believed them or attached to them anyway.  It was less painful that way. Even when I wanted to and tried to, I just couldn’t feel attached to my friends at school, my foster parents, my bedroom, my foster siblings, my own siblings.    I just couldn’t attach to anything.  How could I attach to something I knew was going to disappear?  

Later, C and D became my foster parents.  I met C at the children’s psychiatric hospital when I was mute.  Later she became my “CPS special friend” and eventually my foster mom.  They also promised me forever.  They promised I was family no matter what happened.  She stressed that last part and she stressed it often. She said nothing I could do or say would make them send me away.  I did feel attached to her because at this point I had known her for a long time and I wanted so badly to believe her.  I felt like they were my last chance at family since I was 15.  Forever turned out to be seven months.  Their unconditional love and support turned out to have pretty strict conditions.  I was sent away for writing disrespectful emails to a friend because they grounded me.  I was sent away for being a normal teenager.

As an adult I have had relationships end because I didn’t trust enough or attach enough to the other person.  My ex-boyfriend and girlfriend felt that they were more committed to me than I was to them. They were right, sort of.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t committed.  It was that I just couldn’t believe that the other person was going to stick around if things got difficult or complicated.  Even my current girlfriend has gotten upset and stressed, feeling like I don’t believe she loves me.  It’s not that I don’t believe she loves me.  I know she loves me.  It’s just that I have a really hard time believing that her love or our relationship is forever.

My friend wrote in an email to me that she thought I felt rejected by her commitment to be my family.  She’s right.  I did, sort of.  It really scares me when people try so hard to convince me that they love me.  In my life, it has always been the people who have tried their hardest to convince me that they weren’t going anywhere who bailed on me and hurt me the most.  As soon as people start calling me family, I start to resist and push them away, but I also want to be loved so badly that it’s hard to resist.  I end up jumping in with full force and pulling away - over and over again.  It’s not something I want to do.  It’s something I fight against, but I honestly don’t know where the appropriate boundaries exist.  I don’t know how much I’m supposed to love someone.  I don’t know if I’m attaching too little or too much.  I don’t know how to love someone. 

When I say that I don’t know how to love, I really mean that.  I don’t mean that I cannot love.  I mean that I don’t know how.  Foster care and my life experiences have left me severely handicapped in love, trust, and the ability to attach.    No matter how hard I try, I always end up driving people away.  I know that I drive them away because of my inability to attach correctly.  I know it exhausts people, but I don’t know how to change it.  I don’t know how not to make people feel bad when it’s obvious that I don’t trust that they love me or will stick around.  I wish I did.  I wish they could understand how hard it is for me to trust people and not take it personally.  I wish they would stop trying to convince me they won’t go away.  I wish I could trust that people really do love me and will continue to love me in the future.  It’s painful never trusting people or feeling loved.  I just don’t know how to trust that people won’t eventually go away when life has shown me over and over again that they do.  I wish that the people in my life would stop trying to be the ones who save me or fix me and just be  able to accept that it’s hard for me to trust them completely -  and  stick around and love me anyway. 

Even if your children cannot fully attach to you and act as if they don’t love you, they do.  They would be devastated if you left.  Children with attachment issues don’t want you to force them to love you.  They don’t want you to force their love on them.  They don’t want you to go out of your way to prove your love.  Children just want you to accept them as they are and love them anyway.  They want you to stick it out through the bad times.  They want you to put up with their challenges and love them no matter what.  And maybe, just maybe, after you don’t go anywhere for a while they will feel safe enough to attach to you too.