The other day someone asked me if I had kids. I hesitated, unsure how to answer this otherwise simple question. Am I a mother? I ask myself the same thing.
It's complicated. I know that I filled the role of mom once upon a time in the fairy tale people attach to adoption and trauma. But what about now?
For me, it was always between not having kids or adopting from foster care. I wanted the experience of parenting and also to help out society, but I didn’t feel the need to have biological kids. When the timing was “right,” we adopted a 10 and 14-year-old sibling pair. We did the foster care training. I read every book I could get my hands on, signed up for webinars, and did in-person Beyond Consequences and Empowered to Connect trainings. I thought I was prepared, but nothing prepared us for what we were about to take on.
That was eight years ago, and today we don’t have contact with either of our children. The younger is 17 and has reactive attachment disorder (RAD) along with a number of other diagnoses. We relinquished custody nearly two years ago after trying everything but having things only get worse.
The oldest is 21. She doesn’t have RAD but definitely has an avoidant attachment style/personality. She wanted me in her life when she needed me or at her convenience, but being reciprocal was too much effort, and she certainly didn’t want to hear my concerns over how she is living her life. We are complete opposites. The ball is in her court, but right now she’s not interested in a relationship and may never be.
All that brings me to the question: Am I a mother? Legally yes, but otherwise? I didn’t give birth to them, and I was only their mother for six years. We were their second adoption, so they’ve had many mothers.
When they were in school, their friends would say, “Is that your real mother?” I said what all adoptive moms say, “Of course I’m real. I really feed you, I really tuck you in at night …” But even then I didn’t completely feel like a member of the mother’s club. And now that we don’t have any contact, I feel less of a mother than ever before.
Looking back, I never did get that full experience of being a mother that I’d hoped for because of a very important aspect: attachment. Sure, the trainings I had and the books I read talked about attachment. They said it would take time. They offered suggestions on how to foster it. But they never told me the kids might NEVER attach to me.
They never warned me that trying to love and attach to my new children might actually trigger them, as is the case with reactive attachment disorder. Or maybe they mentioned it in passing, as they want to do with RAD – dismissing it as something rare or made up. They never emphasized that attachment is a two-way street, and these children might want nothing to do with where I was headed – might instead veer off into a field and take off full speed toward a cliff, leaving me waving my hands like a madwoman – a sad, confused, lonely hitchhiker on a highway to hell.
Because there’s a sugarcoating of the adoption experience – a fairytale narrative that what’s needed is mainly love – when love isn’t enough or is a trigger, we’re left feeling like failures. If we had only loved them enough or the right way, then we could have overcome years of abuse and neglect and those critical first three years of life. We could have overcome genetic differences and predispositions that make us complete opposites.
They never warned me that trying to love and attach to my new children might actually trigger them, as is the case with reactive attachment disorder.
It’s like if everyone in society told you that you could push a stalled truck up a giant hill through sheer force of will. TV shows and movies and the news all showed how easy it was. What’s wrong with you that you couldn’t do it?
The false narrative we’re sold is harmful to everyone. It’s harmful to the kids, who don’t get the help and services they need because everyone is misinformed and blinded, chasing down the false lead of the parental blame game. And of course, it’s a grave injustice to adoptive parents who are ill-prepared to handle the extensive needs of the children they’re placed with and instead are made out to be the failures for not having super-human abilities.
The other day when that person asked me if I had kids, I gave a long pause, and then I said, “We fostered for a while, but we don’t have kids.” It was just easier than any other response I could have given. Even though it’s only partially true, it most closely fits my experience. And right now, thinking of my kids hurts. It turns deep down in my stomach. Every photo memory or reminder is a trigger and sends me down the rabbit hole of what-ifs…
Because there’s a sugarcoating of the adoption experience – a fairytale narrative that what’s needed is mainly love – when love isn’t enough or is a trigger, we’re left feeling like failures.
I am glad for those of you who have healthily attached biological children in addition to any children struggling with reactive attachment disorder or other attachment issues. I’m glad you get that experience of feeling like a real mom. I am also glad for those of you who successfully bonded with your adoptive children. For those of us who didn’t, I am grateful to RAD Advocates. I just wished I’d found them sooner.
Not only is RAD Advocates filling the void and giving families real information to help them – not blame them – but they are also pulling over to help us lonely hitchhikers who have become lost along the way. They’ve got a bus – a big bus – and we’re all welcome aboard. There, we can find support and understanding – two things we’ve been gravely missing.
As humans, we seek connection. We want to be seen, understood, and validated. Although these are largely intangibles, finding other parents who have been through this – including those at RAD Advocates – is essential for healing. It also allows us to band together and hopefully change the broken system.
I may not fully feel like a mother, but maybe it’s my pain and heartache over my children that make me a real mother. I hurt as only a mother can.
And I am also the mother of words. Each month, I write for RAD Advocates in the hopes of helping other parents and professionals dealing with reactive attachment disorder. I can nurture my words, and maybe they in turn can nurture others.
About the Author:
Micaela Myers and her husband adopted a pair of siblings from foster care in 2015, when the children were 9 and 13. Since then, she has become an advocate for foster care reform and the support and education of adoptive parents. She was a member and is a supporter of RAD Advocates. Micaela earned her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works as a professional writer and editor in Colorado.