Monday, July 22, 2013

Orphanage Behaviors

When Lily first came home, she rocked herself to sleep. This is a classic "orphanage behavior", a strategy many children develop to cope with the stress of living without a family. No matter how wonderful the staff are at a care center anywhere in the world, they aren't a family. They don't rock babies to sleep.  They feed them and burp them and change them and swaddle them and put them down in the cribs. That's it. If babies cry, they cry.  Rocking is soothing, so babies learn to self soothe.

At 15 months, just adopted, Lily would thrash her head back and forth, back and forth quickly.  She only did this a few times, thank goodness. It was so sad and stressful to watch. The couple of times it happened she was strapped into a car seat (a hated contraption unknown to African babies).  Since I couldn't pick her up to soothe her, she soothed herself in the only way she knew how. From the very first night we were her parents, we rocked Lily to sleep. After a couple of weeks, she stopped self soothing. She'd learned that we would soothe her when she needed it.

I still rock Lily to sleep every night, even at 3 years old.  She still snuggles in my lap every night, and we sometimes chat or sometimes sing or sometimes we just rock silently.  She (almost) cannot fall asleep without at least 10 minutes rocking. When I get frustrated with all the time I've spent rocking Lily- especially those nights when she's not sleepy and is wanting to talk or be silly or get off my lap for a drink of water- I think of all the months she spent crying alone.  I think of the time soon, when she is a big kid who neither fits nor wants to be on my lap.

Rocking is a classic orphanage behavior, but not the only one my kids have. The other ones are subtler.  If you didn't know my children better, you'd think "Wow, these are some friendly, outgoing kids!" And they are, but that is also an orphanage coping skill. Who is going to get better care, more attention, a second helping of food or an extra cuddle? Cute, friendly, outgoing kids.  Kids who like to talk to adults and make silly jokes for them. Kids who know how to connect quickly and negotiate for what they need. It's no accident that Lily always (ALWAYS) gets a ride on the coolest set of wheels in the playground. It's no accident that Daniel quickly joins in baseball/handball/whatever ball games with older kids at the park.

Today at the beach my kids' amazing set of social skills was on display. Daniel got to ride on a giant float. Lily scored a giant shovel and a handful of crackers from the family next to us.  If you didn't know them better, you'd think, wow, these are some well adjusted kids!


Until a dog scares Daniel and he storms off, tears running down his stormy face. His social skills extend only to making connections. He is lost when a connection is broken. He is easily embarrassed. When the dog's owner laughed and said, "he won't hurt you!" Daniel was mortified and ran away.  He didn't know what else to do.

Until Lily tires herself out so much from chatting up all the people at the beach that she forgets to tell me she needs the bathroom, twice.

Until Daniel loses (or thinks he loses) at a board game and tosses all the pieces on the floor. He's unable to separate the loss of the game to loss of his self esteem.  His tenuous sense of control over his little world is lost with every toss of the dice.

I'm grateful, often, that my kids are so outgoing and so happy to be out in the world. I worry though, when Lily spends an hour sitting on some other mom's blanket, talking her ear off about who knows what. I worry at the amount of energy Daniel is exerting to hang out with the big kids, and the lengths he will go to make them laugh.

Later, at home, we shower and change out of our sandy suits and settle down for some cozy family time. We knit together the unraveled threads of ourselves. We try to teach our kids a little bit more about the deeper coping strategies; the ones that don't take quite so much energy. Reflection, talking, connecting.  We're not always successful. Sometimes we have games tossed on the floor. Sometimes we have lots of laundry to do.

Sometimes we spend a long time in the rocking chair.  Which is just where we need to be.

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