When An Adopted Child Won’t Attach
In her new memoir, Tina Traster chronicles adopting a Russian child whose mercurial mood swings turned out to be a common problem among orphans from the Far East.
We are driving down the New Jersey Turnpike on a raw Sunday morning in March. Julia is snuggled in her car seat asleep, her chest rising and falling gently. Her papery eyelids flutter. Finally, some peace for her. For me. For Ricky.
When Julia’s awake, she’s a constant symphony of sound. Not words, of course, but an ongoing emission of verbal fragments. Her mouth is always open. She is never pensive. She doesn’t lounge with a faraway look in her eye. Transitioning from motion to stillness requires relinquishing control, but to do so, Julia would need to fundamentally believe the world is a safe place. Something in her wiring has taught her that relaxing her defenses is dangerous. When I’m in a high state of anxiety, I fear sleep, too. Staying awake tricks me into believing I can ward off danger or control the outcome of whatever is plaguing me simply by turning the issues over in my mind a thousand times. It’s a fallacy, but that’s how you think when you believe you are alone, that the world is a quickly shifting, unreliable place where bad things happen. I know how I got there, but why does my baby behave like that?
It’s painful to watch Julia wage a daily battle against rest and relaxation. When I put her down in her crib after lunch, she immediately springs back up and sways back and forth with a crazed look in her eyes. I try to stroke her head or sing to her, but it agitates her. She won’t look at me. Eventually I leave her in place to fight it out with herself, and after fifteen to twenty minutes or so, she does succumb, but only because she’s out-of-her-head tired.
There’s even more drama in the stroller. When she gets groggy, she leans over the stroller’s safety bar, the way Kate Winslet does in Titanic at the ship’s prow, as forward propelling as she can get without doing a flip out of the vehicle. She rattles the bar with her clenched fists as though she is shackled to it, resisting the pull of sleep.
But the car is another story. The vibration and continuous movement, especially when we’re driving on the highway, is as irresistible as an undertow at sea. She bangs her head against her car seat to keep herself awake, but it’s futile. The motion is hypnotic. Her head flops onto her shoulder or forward onto her chest. She’s transported, but to where?
Does she dream? Do people in her dreams speak Russian? Is she back in the orphanage where it smells like ammonia and cooked cabbage? Perhaps she’s in the comfort of one of her caretaker’s arms, someone whose scent is more familiar?
She looks peaceful. Beautiful, really. She usually rests for exactly one hour, like clockwork, as though she’s been rigged like a bomb waiting to go off. She does not whimper or fuss or appear to be in discomfort. But then, like a scene in a horror movie, she will wake as though someone were coming at her with a gleaming knife. Or she’s seen a ghost, which perhaps she has.
Ricky has a theory about why this happens. He thinks when she’s asleep, she slips back to her early days in the orphanage, and when she comes to from napping, she has no idea where she is or who we are. She’s in an unsettling state of disorientation, a fugue.
We’re still motoring along the turnpike, fifty minutes into her nap, when I get the Pavlovian stomach clench, knowing she’ll wake in ten minutes. I lower the radio and twist around toward her. I extend my arm and cup my hand around her knee, hoping the warmth and pressure might make her feel more grounded and secure. She stirs. I hold my breath and stand ready with a bottle of formula in my other hand.
Her eyes bat quickly. She crinkles her brow and then, on cue, she emits a keening howl. “It’s okay,” I coo. “It’s okay. You’re here with Mommy and Daddy. Here’s your bottle.” If that doesn’t work, I offer her the abaye, the mysterious word she uses for her pacifier. Either way, her eyes never meet mine. Today, she takes the formula from me and sucks down every last drop of liquid like a desert-thirsty nomad. Then she tosses the empty bottle beside her on the seat. She sits up tall and strikes up her one-man band of sing-song sound.
“We’ll be there soon,” I say, guessing my words, or the assuring tone, mean nothing.
I shift back around in the passenger seat. Ricky can sense my discomfort.
“You okay?” he asks.
“Yeah, you know, I don’t know,” I say. Then I add in a hushed voice, “She’s so not at peace. It’s upsetting.”
“She’ll get there,” he says. “She just needs time.”
“Maybe, but that spooked look in her eyes worries me.”
Ricky puts his hand on my knee, and I lean back and close my eyes. What a gift it is to receive comfort from another person. My mind drifts and I think about something that happened a few days ago in the playground.
It was a dank, dull day like this one, but I was going stir-crazy in the apartment and couldn’t stand the thought of another trip down Broadway to Barnes & Noble. I bundled Julia into a snowsuit, and we set off to Riverside Park. This was both my and Julia’s maiden voyage to a playground.
I’d been to the Hudson River park countless times but never to the part with the swings and slides and jungle gyms. I don’t recall seeing a playground at the orphanage, and if there was one, Julia would have been too young to have seen it. I felt a mixture of hope and fear bubbling in my chest. I left the building and walked toward the river.
At the entrance, I bumped the stroller down a set of massive stone steps and looked around. It was desolate. The sky was flat. I could see joggers in the distance against the backdrop of the roiling silver river and a few scattered homeless people piled under ragged woolen coats on benches, but Julia and I were the only souls on the playground. A chill coursed through me, but I resisted the urge to turn back. It wasn’t snowing or raining or terribly windy; what could be the harm of giving this a go?
I parked the stroller at the base of the metal slide and wrestled Julia in her bulky snowsuit out of the belted contraption. I lifted her as high as I could midway up the slide and eased her down with a big, squeaky “wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee.” She was agreeable, so I repeated this exercise a few times. Then I looked around thinking, okay, what else?
The climbing equipment looked too daunting for a baby, so I turned in the other direction where I noticed two hulking behemoths with long horns. “Look, Julia, din-o-saur. Look at the big din-o-saurs. Ooh, you can climb on those.” I trotted over to the beasts and propped her up on one of the creatures’ back. Then I pulled her along its sloping tail. She seemed pleased. On the third excursion I said aloud, “Dinosaurs are extinct. They don’t live on earth anymore. But they used to.” She looked at me blankly. I suppose any baby would. There are times when you hear yourself talking and it catches you by surprise. I have just told my child that dinosaurs no longer live on earth. There’s no part of that idea she can absorb now, and yet it seemed like the right thing to say. I planted the idea like a seed, knowing one day it will have meaning. And then I thought, Right! That’s what it takes. Nurture doesn’t necessarily show its benefit right away, but if you keep planting seeds, they are bound to take root. Given enough time and experience, Julia will learn to trust. Napping won’t be scary. I won’t be a stranger.
“Okay, let’s try the swings.”
I carried her to the row of the little boxy swings. I hoisted her in one, with a moan because she’s heavy as a sack of potatoes, and threaded her little feet through the holes to let her legs dangle. I walked behind the idling swing and gave it a gentle puff of a push. With no warning, she released a blood-curdling scream. I ran back to the front of the swing, stopping it immediately, thinking I didn’t have her in the seat correctly.
I looked around to figure out what was wrong, but nothing was obvious. I smelled her bottom. She was clean. She had the queerest look of terror on her face. I returned to the back of the swing, and again, gave it a wee nudge. This time she wailed even louder. I fumbled again to the front of the swing and wriggled her from the seat. “Okay, okay, no swing, no swing!” and in an instant, she was fine. She stopped crying; it was like nothing had ever happened, like a button had been turned off. But when I pulled her toward me to comfort her and tell her that I was sorry, she instinctively flexed her muscles to deflect me.
I put her back into the stroller and trudged uphill back to the apartment, stunned. What had just happened? What baby doesn’t like a gently swaying swing? I always thought children are in thrall when they swing. Even adults like to shoehorn their bottoms into a malleable rubber swing and take a ride down memory lane. I kept thinking about the sensation of being on a swing. It’s a way to lose yourself. Then, in a flash, I realized something. Abandoning control is the last thing in the world Julia wants. Being suspended in a little chair, high above the ground with someone arbitrarily pushing you from behind is tantamount to torture. There’s no way to resist or brace herself, the way she does in the stroller. What she must have felt was the panic of a free fall, the absolute loss of whatever control she constantly fights for.
At home, I changed her diaper and slotted her into her high chair. I shook some raisins onto her tray, then grabbed a jar of Earth’s Best baby food. I tried to feed her, but she wanted to feed herself. She’s been doing that more and more. I watched her closely, analyzing my mysterious child. She’s not daunted by the high chair, which is also confining and high off the ground, but she can see the ground and there’s no motion. I gazed at her face for a moment and inhaled a deep, heavy breath. After lunch, I put Julia in her crib for a nap, and though she struggled, the excitement of the day took her under. I tiptoed into the other room and called Ricky.
“The weirdest thing just happened,” I said.
“What was it? Everything okay?”
“Yeah, we’re fine, I think. I took Julia to the park, to the playground.”
“It wasn’t too cold?”
“No, that wasn’t an issue. I put her on the slide and the dinosaur.”
“There’s this dino—never mind. Just listen. When I put her in the swing, she freaked out. I mean freaked out like you’ve never seen.”
“She howled, like she was being attacked,” I said.
“Maybe she was hungry or cold or wet?” he said.
“No, it wasn’t that. She reacted viscerally to the motion of the swing.
She was fine before and fine the second I extricated her,” I said. “But she couldn’t stand being in that swing when it was moving.”
“Well, don’t put too much stock in it,” he said. “There are a lot of things that don’t feel natural to her because she’s never experienced them before. One day she’ll love swings.”
“And me? Will she love me one day?”
“I’ll call you later.”
We are riding along the final section of the New Jersey Turnpike to a friend’s party in Pennsylvania. This ribbon of road is a vessel of memories. In 1992, I took a job as a reporter at a daily newspaper in New Jersey. I worked the late shift, more than an hour from my apartment.
My marriage was disintegrating. My career sustained me. A decade has passed, but the turnpike churns up those days. The most vivid memory I have is working on a story about Gail Shollar. She was a thirty-four-year old mother, walking with her three-year-old from a food store to her car in a shopping center parking lot. She was carrying groceries in one hand and holding her daughter’s hand with the other. A man with a gun crept up behind her and forced her and her toddler into her car. The next day, her toddler had been found, cold and crying, dumped in front of a daycare center. Four days later I was deployed by my editor to a drainage ditch behind a local lumberyard where I waited a couple of hours before police recovered the mother’s raped and stabbed body from a ditch. For months, I could feel Gail Shollar’s spirit. I’d picture her on that night, in her car, a prisoner, unable to protect herself and her baby. I was haunted by the thought of the small child’s confusion. Her mother was powerless to protect her. And the panic that child must have felt after being tossed onto the unfamiliar street. It was unbearable to contemplate. The man who committed this heinous act was caught, but what lingered was the sadness of a little girl who would always carry the memory of having her mother snatched from her and of a mother who knew she was defenseless to help her little girl.
When I can’t come to Julia’s rescue, I suffer.
Excerpted from Rescuing Julia Twice: A Mother’s Tale Of Russian Adoption And Overcoming Reactive Attachment Disorder by Tina Traster