It’s early morning and like all mornings where silence is golden, I step quietly across the hall and peek into the room of my son, a precocious 6-year-old boy I’ll call P. He is sprawled out on his bed like a starfish amongst the “Underwear Crew”—stuffies sporting his old underpants—and snoring contently. On the wall beside his bed a sign reads: “Let him sleep, for when he wakes he will move mountains.” It’s a reminder of the day ahead.
Looking around his room littered with books, flashlights, and pieces of Lego, I can’t help but think that just less than three years ago, this was the upstairs storage room. A room that my husband and I had designated for our future child when we purchased the house in 2010, but was uninhabited and cluttered with junk for years: First, while my husband battled cancer and then through five years of unsuccessful fertility treatments that derailed our plans to start a family.
It was a Sunday afternoon in early spring of 2019 when we first met P at his foster home. He was just a little more than 3 years old. This was already the second home in his short life so far. He lived with his birth mom for 18 months before she signed off her rights as a parent to the York Children’s Aid Society and P was declared a Crown Ward.
I looked down the front hallway to see our son sitting in a high chair in the kitchen eating a snack. My heart swelled and I was overcome with tears of joy and a release of weeks of nervousness about this meeting that I never thought would come. I sat beside him as we ate ice cream and he showed me different shapes he had learned to make with his hands at daycare–the “triangles”, “ovals”, and “squares” he made joining his thumbs and index fingers delighted me. He was encouraged to call me “Mummy Ange” and my husband “Daddy Brad.”
Many child welfare agencies will tell you that the older the child, the longer it takes and the more challenging it is to develop a strong bond. Our caseworker said that for most children in foster care, it takes them double their age to fully bond with their adoptive family. That would mean P would be over 6 before we would feel fully bonded as parents and child. It was a sobering thought. But also—what if it took even longer than that, or never happened at all?
After a handful of day visits and two sleepovers we were officially parents on May 13, 2019. Leading up to it, we learned from his paediatrician that he was very small for his age, and was malnourished when he first came to CAS. He was below the third percentile on the growth chart and was a very fussy eater. Due to his history, P was referred to the York Region Early Intervention Services and an assessment determined he also needed speech therapy.
Like many new parents, we barely slept in those early weeks checking throughout the night that P was warm, settled, and most importantly—alive. During the day we worried about him missing his foster family, we fussed over every meal, stressed over trying to understand what he was saying to us due to his lack of fluency. In those early months with us, P had nightmares several times a week and wicked tantrums daily.
As a high school teacher who enjoyed banter with teens, I struggled with this little boy who couldn’t communicate to me what he was feeling and what he needed. My husband and I both knew little about the daily routines of toddlers. We had some experience with nieces and nephews but entertaining a child for a few hours before sending them home to their parents is incomparable to getting parachuted into the crazy of raising a toddler you don’t know.
My husband took a couple of weeks off to join me on my adoption leave to spend some time bonding as a family but after he returned to work full-time two weeks later, the thrill of being a new mom began to wane and was replaced with self-doubt and fatigue. My sudden departure from work and regular routines, the lack of sleep, and the demands of being a mom overnight to a child I didn’t know challenged me in ways I never imagined. My anxiety shot to sky-high levels. Exhaustion, self-criticism, and guilt took over and I questioned if we had made the right decision to create a family through adoption.
For all the years I wanted to be a mom, I finally had the opportunity, but I was blindsided that the ‘magic of motherhood’ didn’t just happen. With every tantrum, I worried that the bonding that needed to happen was never going to happen. I made lists to alleviate my anxiety and to put some structure into my days—places we could go, things we can do throughout the day, tasks and chores I needed to do, and little inspirational messages that I stuck on post-it notes throughout the house to remind myself that “I am enough.” Nothing worked.
After about two months, I reached out for help. The Adopt4Life organization connected me with two adoptive parents who were kind enough to offer me some support through text and email but I continued to be very anxious. I eventually connected with a therapist who worked specifically with adoptive families and recognized that I was dealing with early symptoms of Post-Adoption Depression (PADS), a disorder that I had never heard of during my years researching about adoption. Characterized by sadness, anxiety, panic, intense fatigue, and debilitating feelings of inadequacy, PADS is very much like Postpartum Depression and affects up to a third of adoptive parents.
Reaching out for professional help, connecting with Adopt4Life and other adoptive families, and being honest about what I was feeling with family and friends helped slowly. It took time but after a while, my son and I began to settle into some regular daily routines and my negative self-talk slowly diminished. I started to enjoy our quiet days together, walking hand in hand to the park, doing arts and crafts, playing trains, and reading stories. And just like that, September crept up and it was time for P to start junior kindergarten. I ended my adoption leave in October, joined the ranks of working moms everywhere, and realized for me that as much as I love being a mom, I loved my work as a teacher and the balance of work and home life stabilized me.
Now, P is a precocious Grade 1 student. Months of speech therapy got him back on track and he is thriving in school. He is still tiny for his age but makes up for it with a huge personality. The pandemic impacted us like many other families but I am so grateful for the time it gave us as a family to be together and continue to bond. The social isolation actually gave us uninterrupted time to continue getting to know each other. We found local nature trails to take walks, baked pizza and cookies, read most of the Dr. Seuss collection, and took road trips to check out the fall foliage.
Remote learning challenged us like many families with young children as P and I tried to figure out how I was going to teach online while supporting him as a virtual learner in senior kindergarten but I would say it sped up our bonding journey. Adoption wasn’t easy but being a parent can open, expand, and break your heart all at the same time and I don’t know of any other life experience that has impacted me the same way.
Today, I am in awe of this beautiful boy who is thriving despite the challenges of his early years. P is bright, joyful, and incredibly funny. We recently celebrated his 6th birthday and we will be celebrating our third anniversary as a family on May 13, 2022. It took awhile for us to truly bond as a family but I knew when P drew a picture of his “home” that included us and our cats to share with his SK class during online learning, we were a family. Today, there is no doubt in my mind that we were meant to be together.