Recently our daughter commented on how she couldn’t look at a particular photo of herself as a toddler because it brought back feelings of terror. Wendy and I were stunned to hear this. Even though we have learned much in the last few years helping Leah to work through her personal traumas as an adoptee, this one hit us by surprise.
The photo came about when we were living in Singapore. I loved to explore the city with Leah in a carrier backpack or with her toddling along beside me. On one such trip, we came upon a sculpture of fanciful figures in front of the National Museum that I found enchanting. I placed her on a ledge in front of the figures and backed off for about the millionth photo. Then I scooped her up and off we went, with me totally unaware of what just went down. Now when Leah sees that picture she remembers terror, and interprets it as feeling she was going to be left behind. The scene must have been confusing and, as I said, terrifying…a strange location, a scary sculpture that she didn’t understand, and Leah somehow not figuring out what I was doing.
Leah had two separations by the time she was four months old and we came along: from her birthmom at two months when the decision to put her up for adoption was taken, and then from relations of the birthmom who agreed to take care of Leah until an adoptive family (us) could be found. I don’t know how inevitable this is, but we’ve come to believe these traumas left a profound imprint somewhere deep in our baby. She had no words to express it, but the fear was real, visceral. Follow this with an episode like the picture-taking, and who knows what else, and the imprints just get deeper. Then, to our undying regret, when Leah was about 14 months old we arranged for our close friend Kathy, who adored Leah, to take care of her while we took a week’s travel break in Thailand. For our baby, it was happening again. She got extremely sick and clung to Kathy for the whole time. When we made an arranged call (no cell phones then), Kathy debated with herself whether or not to tell us, and just when she was about to, we lost the connection and were left assuming all was well.
What does one make of this? Why is it we miss these things? Some words I read recently by Canadian author Anne Michaels in The Winter Vault about all children hit me as ringing true: “We do not like to think about children’s fears…We push them aside to concentrate on their innocence.” I can so easily see myself in that statement and wonder how much I have covered up over the years. Then Michaels says this: “But children are close to grief, they are closer to grief than we are…In every child’s fear is always the fear of the worst thing, the loss of the person they love most.”
I talked with Leah about this realization recently and we chatted about how this issue of ‘abandonment’ affects her still. She mentioned she was going to reflect on it in her next post.