Author: Christine Hartmann

The Struggle For Love – How it All Began

I remember waiting in line to pick up my son from school and messaging back and forth with my husband. I was on a mission to convince him that we REALLY needed to adopt a child. Not just any child, my heart wanted a baby girl. We had 2 beautiful boys already, but I was getting older (good grief, I was only 26) and time was running out! I was so impatient because anytime I got an idea, I was all in and it needed to happen right now, or I could possibly explode! I was filled with butterflies and so much nervousness that he would say no, but I really needed him to say yes! I am not sure what was causing me more anxiety; the possibility of him saying no and needing to reformulate my approach to convince him to say yes, or the idea of adopting a baby. I was so close to him saying yes but he hadn’t officially said yes. 

He had lots of questions that I didn’t have answers to, and I think he honestly was content with me staying at home with our boys. We had a beautiful home; he was happy with only 2 kids and he loved the consistency that we had built. Our boys were 3 and 5 and full of energy, anything trains and loved doing everything with their dad. My oldest was a tiger in the cub scouts, my husband was a leader and our littlest tagged along as an honorary tiger. Unfortunately, this all felt slightly boring to me and I was ready to toss predictability out the window for adoption. 

I had absolutely no idea how much it would cost, how long it would take or where or who to call? All these questions flooded my mind as I was waiting in line to pick up my son from Kindergarten. While I waited. I searched my phone and found the name of an adoption agency and guess what! Not only was the agency in our city but I also somehow connected that “This must be the perfect one to call and God is arranging all of this just for us.” Recalling this is actually making me roll my eyes at myself and those foolish thoughts. By the time I got through the pickup line, I felt like I was walking on clouds because my husband said YES!! I couldn’t even believe he agreed so quickly, but I was so thankful because now I could fast track this whole process and adopt a baby in just a few months. Well, that is what I envisioned. 

We adopted our first daughter in 2011, which was 4 years after opening our home as foster parents and 5 years after my husband agreed to adoption. Our second daughter was adopted in 2012. There are so many things I wish I could go back and tell that 26-year-old version of myself. I am fairly certain I have a list a mile long that would save her from so much anxiety, grief and worry. If she would listen, I would tell her all of them. That younger version of me was a lot like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Bursting of dreams for a perfect child, hopelessly clueless as to the reality of the foster care system and filled with so much love. 

I am fairly certain that we had so many children placed with us because I could find a solution to any hurdle the agency would present and I was endlessly accommodating. Our certifier knew that we wanted to adopt so with each phone call asking us to take another placement, there was a twinge of hope left with us that this could be long term or possibly permanent. I held my breath in anticipation with each new foster child that showed up to our home. Would they be “the one?” This anxiety rollercoaster can almost become addictive to someone who has a strong burning desire to make an addition to their forever family. I wonder if this is something that the agency knows?

After 10 years of being a foster parent, I finally saw that man behind the curtain. I am not sure why I didn’t see him there the entire time or maybe I did? Either way, in that single moment, all 10 years of belief and hope I had in the foster care system was completely shattered. I was able to see that we had fostered 77 children and yet only 2 were ever available for adoption. We never adopted a baby, nor did I have a baby ever placed with us for adoption. We stepped into foster care having no idea what we were walking into, not having anyone prepare us or shelter us. There is no manual or best course other than making mistakes and doing your very best. 

We learned that the foster care system is so completely overburdened and sometimes in order to find a bed for a child to sleep in, you may be allowed to believe that this child could someday become your own. I have seen it be a beautiful experience, I have seen it completely wreck families and I have seen a lot of in between. The foster care system is not a place to search for a child to adopt. Would they be “the one” now shatters my heart in shame. The naivety of not understanding that these children belong to someone else is truly embarrassing to me. We were blessed to find our forever child through fostering, but the intention of the system is to return children to their family of origin. Our blessed occasions were ultimately at the cost and destruction of other families. 

When we adopted, we didn’t understand how the long list of diagnosis’ and trauma would affect the girls, the boys, our family, our marriage, or, and let’s be honest, any of our mental health. Today, my life looks nothing like what I imagined adoption life would look or feel like. I say feel because it has encompassed emotions from the far reaches of happiness to the deepest level of grief. Both girls are approaching their teen years now and life is becoming more challenging as the complexities of their early childhood trauma, adolescence and demands of young adulthood set in. Both have Developmental Trauma Disorder with a diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder. I use the word “challenging” because they are exceptionally smart, and I believe they know me better than I know myself. This makes most days hard because a calm and peaceful home for me doesn’t feel that way to them. They are incredibly creative, so they are never short on ways to make sure they feel comfortable. Which translates to: Mom is upset, stressed out or agitated. 

After losing half my hair from stress, suffering from severe anxiety and ptsd, I decided I needed to try parenting them differently.  I now let them learn from natural consequences and have let go (I am still such a work in progress) of my internal need to control and manage their behaviors. The more I have let go of trying to control them or their actions, the less anxiety I have. This is definitely not something that has been easy, in fact it is by far the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I now see it as loving them the way Jesus loves us. He doesn’t step in and correct us directly. He lets us mess up, destroy or even blow up our own lives and then is there when we ask for help. The love he has for us is truly unconditional, it is Agape love. To see how unloveable I have been and God still loves me is how I strive to be for my girls each day. I have seen some minor shifts from them behaviorally, which makes me believe we are on the right track. Some Days are so much harder than others but I just keep moving forward, drinking a lot of coffee and praying. 

Someone suggested the other day that I stop the “natural consequences” approach and try spending more quality time with them instead. Take them to ice-cream or talk to them about how much they hurt my heart or how I would prefer they treat others. This is what most parents would do. This is how I parent my boys, but I think they had forgotten that I had already spent 10 years parenting them this way. What I know to be true over the years is the method of parenting the boys does not result in the same outcomes for the girls nor has helped them attach.  Even more deeply, I am not sure a child with trauma unique to their experiences, is capable of intrinsically being receptive to something they don’t feel the same way as children without trauma feel. What is it they don’t feel you might ask? It’s the feeling we develop that tells us we are worthy of being loved and gives us the capacity to love others.

Just to be perfectly honest, I don’t believe that either of them love the members of their family, nor have ever loved us. Each of them deeply struggles with their own acceptance of being good and worthwhile people.  While life is not a pity party, I don’t believe that they truly know what love is. How can they care for someone in a way that they don’t understand or feel inside themselves? While I had only suspected the incapacity for love at the time, I never wanted to believe it to be true.  Then, one day my husband asked one of our children if they loved me? The response was “that’s a really hard question and I’ll need to think about it.” This alone was enough to break my heart. Then, shortly after sharing the belief that they do love me, they proceeded to answer how they knew.  Their response came in the form of a story about a time when my husband and I went to Hawaii. They said, “One night when you and Mom were gone, I felt a little nervous before I fell asleep. That’s how I know I love mom.”  

Until next time,

A Dad’s Struggle Accepting Reactive Attachment Disorder Diagnosis

Learn about a Dad’s struggle with awareness and acceptance of a Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) diagnosis and helpful tips to overcome the challenge of accepting related Developmental Trauma Disorders.