This originally appeared on Redbook. Republished here with permission.
Everyone thought Tina Traster’s adoptive child was developing wonderfully, but she wasn’t so sure.
We’d be at the park with a bunch of tots and their moms on weekly playdates and I’d tell myself my little girl was doing fine. More than fine. Julia was walking, even running before the other toddlers. Her vocabulary was robust, impressive. Bright-eyed and cheerful, other moms constantly remarked on her exuberant spirit, self-determination, and confidence. Solid and athletic, too—such fantastic signs for a child adopted less than two years earlier from a Siberian orphanage.
I clung to the outward signs, these so-called “milestones” and approving glances, to quell a nagging feeling that churned my guts constantly. “Look at her,” I’d whisper to myself. “She’s thriving.” That’s what the world was telling me. That’s what the pediatrician said. I second-guessed my instincts for a long time, because at 40 years old, and a first-time adoptive mother who found diapering a challenge, what could I possibly know about motherhood?
What I couldn’t understand was why my precious blonde daughter didn’t cling to me or look me in the eye or tolerate being held. Or why she wouldn’t reach for my hand or let me read to her or play with her. Every attempt at mommy-and-me anything was a complete bust. She wouldn’t engage with me. I was uneasy with her manic behavior. She hated being in a stroller or anything confining, especially an embrace. She was superficially charming, particularly with strangers to whom she’d dole out quick hugs, but with me she was emotionally absent. I told myself she might just be an independent child, but deep down I knew I was fooling myself. She would actually recoil when I tried to hold or soothe her. This tiny force of nature needed to control everything, all the time. Nothing flowed naturally.
One night, a woman in orange-issue prison garb was on television telling a reporter her story. Natalia Higier was spending a year in prison for involuntary manslaughter of her 2-year-old Russian-adopted son. Filled with regret and solace, she said she’d accidentally thrown the child into the air and he hit his head. I wondered if it were really as simple as that. She revealed she was living with a child who refused to become hers. She described a child who was unaffectionate and exceedingly difficult, impossible to manage. That her husband, who traveled a lot, wasn’t there to comfort her or her son. Higier was alone in the world. She didn’t even know how to ask for help.
Sometimes adoptive parents don’t realize they need help. I believe Higier’s story was sent to me when I was ready to hear it. Julia looked good on the outside, but she was lost on the inside. She’d been with us for nearly three years and she was not bonded. Our forever family was adrift. I could have been any caretaker to her—as interchangeable as the women who minded her in the orphanage. She called me Mommy but she didn’t mean it. She couldn’t—but it wasn’t her fault.
Higier’s story was the wake-up call. It led me and my husband, Ricky, to the Internet, to medical papers, to books and to professionals. It didn’t take long for us to learn about Reactive Attachment Disorder. In truth, we’d heard the syndrome mentioned by another parent of Russian-adopted children when we were in Siberia. Only now were we ready to admit Julia was its poster child.
RAD, as it’s called, is a syndrome seen in many internationally adopted children, particularly from Russia and Eastern Europe. It is also common in foster care children. Julia was only 8 months old when we brought her home. Babies have trouble attaching to their adoptive parents because they been traumatized or neglected, and they view the adopted parent as another caretaker who may or may not abandon them. Because their needs were met so randomly when they were young, they believe the only ones they can trust are themselves. The notion of intimacy is particularly threatening. If I let someone get close to me, they will hurt me. It is easier to stay in control, at a safe distance. Young children do this by being disruptive and creating chaos. They push you away. As an adoptive parent, it’s easy to be misled and think you’re experiencing the “terrible twos” because it’s subtle. RAD is a complex condition, not generally understood by many pediatricians and certainly not by the many early childhood educators who can’t comprehend the mixed messages.
What you end up with is life down the rabbit hole, where everything is confusing. When you’re with other mothers of children the same age, you feel as though nothing you see among mother and child mimics your own experience. Where you are really alone and isolated in your feelings, and unable to rescue your child.
Knowledge, hard work, and commitment changed our course. By understanding RAD and how Julia had been re-wired by abandonment, my husband and I made it our life’s work to heal her. We learned that raising a child who has trouble bonding requires counterintuitive parenting instincts—some that disturbed and surprised family and friends. People could not understand when we’d respond to Julia’s fussing with a passive poker face rather than react to her. We’d laugh during her tantrums until she abandoned them and moved on as though they’d never happened, because RAD kids are addicted to chaos and it’s crucial to take away drama. Neither family nor friends understood why Julia wasn’t willing to give hugs and that we didn’t ask her to do so.
My husband and I were certainly met with disapproval along the way. You could see the looks of surprise or even disgust on relatives’ faces when we were stern or intractable with her. But we knew for the first time that we were on the right path. With the help of research and case studies, we had a toolbox. Some advice was invaluable, some failed. Some techniques worked only for a while. We were living inside a laboratory. I knew how lucky I was to have a partner like Ricky, because so many marriages and homes are ravaged by the challenge of adopting difficult children.
Within six months we saw progress, and that progress compounded with every passing month and then year. It wasn’t necessarily loving and warm at first, but it was moving in the right direction. We were drawing her out. She started to become angry instead of indifferent. As her verbal skills developed, we explained to her that we loved her and would never leave her. That we understood how scary it was for her to be loved by an adult and that she was safe. We taught her how to feel at ease when we looked her in the eye, and trained her to do the same. Understanding how hurt she was also opened my heart and made me more compassionate, and more motivated to be her mother.
By the time Julia was in first grade, she was finally ours.
Progress took time—and the work of staying bonded with a wounded child is a lifetime endeavor. The important thing is that Julia shook off her helmet and armor. She let me become her mother. I honor that trust by remembering each and every day how she struggles with subconscious demons and how mighty her battle is and will always be. At 11 years old, she is a marvel to me. It’s not just her ace sense of humor, which enables her to draw sophisticated cartoons, or the way she is playing the violin or doing well in school. Her greatest accomplishment is letting love in.
And when she calls me Mommy, she means it.
Photo of the author and Julia
Tina Traster is the author of the new memoir Rescuing Julia Twice.