Sunday, March 11, 2012

Affection and the Adopted Child

Sweet luxury. I am at a friend's house for a mini writing retreat ... just myself and two friends sitting here quietly with our laptops. No kids. No interruptions. I love my children and my husband, but times like this are soooo restorative.

(Photo copyright 123RF Stock Photos)

But even as I'm enjoying this quiet space and time to myself, I'm also thinking about my kids. I'm thinking of my older daughter Mackenzie and some undecided issues connected to where she will attend school next year. I'm also thinking of the science fair project that she and I worked on together yesterday and the lab report still to be written. And I'm thinking of Ashley, my younger daughter, mainly because of a simple incident that occurred this morning.

As I was about to rush out of the house, laptop backpack slung over my shoulder, Ashley called to me. "Mom, wait!" I paused, expecting her to ask me to do something for her before I left. And she did ask me to do something, but it wasn't what I expected. "Give me a hug!" she said. I ran back up the stairs and gave her a warm embrace before heading on my way.

Now that probably seems like a pretty simple exchange between a mother and child, and in many cases it would be. But here's the thing you need to know: for many years, Ashley's hugging mechanism was broken. She simply wasn't a hugger.

She wasn't always that way. She was, according to her biological mother and grandmother, an affectionate and cuddly child. But by the time she got to us, the trauma of her separation from her biological family as well as the negative impact of moving from foster home to foster home and of some incidents that occurred during her time in foster care, including times when she was strapped down and physically restrained, had taken a toll. She was broken.

Look at the picture of my family in the sidebar of this blog; the body language tells a story. Mackenzie is the girl in the purple shirt. Note how her dad's arm is around her and how she is relaxed in his embrace, her own hand on his arm. Now look at my hand on Ashley's shoulder. It is there because the photographer told me to put it there, but I am being careful. I am conscious of her discomfort with physical contact. I am resting it there lightly, hoping that she won't shrug it off.

We've watched Ashley heal in so many ways in her time with us, but physical affection was one area where she still held back. She has sometimes sought out physical contact in tentative ways, such as asking to be carried or initiating play-wrestling or tickling. She loves massage, especially foot massage. And last summer, she began to tolerate hugs from Mackenzie. But until recently, if her dad or I tried to hug her, she would stiffen or even say, "Don't hug me." So we learned to express our love in different ways, and that became our norm. Ashley knew that her position on hugging set her apart in a family in which affection is given freely, but she viewed it simply as a personality trait. "It's fine for you and Daddy and Mackenzie," she said to me once, "but I'm just not the cuddly type."

I understood. To be honest, I'm not naturally a hugger myself though I have become one over time. Also, I've read accounts by other adult adoptees describing their tendency to "stiff arm" hugs in their adoptive families. Before Ashley moved in with us, I imagined that my relationship with her would be a cuddly one, as with Mackenzie, but when I observed Ashley's hesitancy toward affection I recognized a little piece of myself. Perhaps it's just an adoptee thing, I thought.

But recently, we've seen a shift. From what I can tell, there are a few reasons for this, mostly having to do with the openness of our adoption. Perhaps the most significant factor is that Ashley has had the "I'm just not the cuddly type" conversation with her first mom Erica as well, and in doing so has learned that this wasn't always the case. She came home from one visit and said, "My mom said I used to be very cuddly. Did you know that?" I could tell she was mulling it over. What did that mean? She had been so certain of her identity as a non-cuddler/hugger, but now her confidence was shaken. And if she was a hugger before, did that mean she might become one again?

Last weekend, Ashley had an especially meaningful visit with her biological family -- and by family I mean not just her mother and brothers but also her grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. She had an opportunity to see some relatives that she hadn't seen since coming into state care as well as meet some new cousins who weren't yet born at that time. When she came home from this visit, she was in a great mood, eager to talk about the visit with her birth family, but also seeking ways to reconnect with us, her adoptive family. At her suggestion, we decided on "family movie night," and as we were standing around in the living room engaging in the long negotiation process of picking the movie (parents, you know what I'm talking about, right?), Ashley walked up to me, snuggled in close, and said "hug me." I gave her a long, snug embrace as my husband and I exchanged meaningful glances over her head. And that wasn't the end of it. When the movie started, she plopped herself down next to my husband and snuggled right up with him. Again, Paul and I communicated joyful surprise to each other with our eyes.

We've had more hugs and cuddly moments since then, including this morning's goodbye hug. I must confess, I'm hesitant. I hardly dare believe it will last. But it's beginning to seem possible that maybe, just maybe, she may turn out to be a hugger after all.


  1. This made me beautiful. It's such a long road and you travel it with so much grace, as does she. It's a joy to learn little bits and pieces from you to take with me in my own parenting journey.


  2. Beautiful, just...perfect. I am so glad I found this blog.

  3. I admit I just shed a few tears. :)

  4. Rebecca this is just so beautiful and sweet! I'm so glad your daughter is starting to find pieces of herself that were lost. Thank you so much for sharing your families story. It is really such a miracle in healing for you all and I just love to read about how your own experiences have made it possible for you to be there for your daughters. What a gift!! Thanks again.

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your kind comments!

  6. Tereasa @ His Pen on My HeartMarch 18, 2012 at 10:25 PM

    Just stopping in after finding you on Bloggy Moms and am so glad! I really appreciate your perspective both as an adoptee and an adoptive mom. I find this post especially touching. My daughter wants to be cuddly, but she's never been good at it. She stiffens up and can't stay still. I suppose, where there's a will, there's a way. This post certainly gives me hope!

  7. Ok, so I'm sitting here at my kitchen table, bawling over this post. I know that "tense" feeling she has, and I'm so so happy, she is seeing that she can accept nd receive physical contact as a means for affection. Please don't ever stop doing what you're doing, I'm so grateful for you Rebecca, so grateful....

  8. It's a group effort! Together we are helping her find her way back to softness. :-)

  9. Thanks! I'm glad you found your way here!

  10. I would like to thank you so much for all you have done for Ashley and my granddaughter. I am Ashley's great grandmother. You and your husband have healed many broken hearts and made me sleep a little better knowing that Ashley is in a wonderful place in her life. From the bottom of my heart I thank you. Nana

  11. Thanks so much for this comment! We love having both Ashley and Erica in our life!

  12. ericaljohnson1980May 4, 2012 at 1:51 PM

    More tears of joy!