03 Dec Grieving, Cocooning, and Our First Days Home
I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth saying again: Those first few weeks will feel like forever. Like things will forever be this way. Like things will forever be this hard. Like your child will never bond, never sleep, never eat, never transition from their bottle, never let you leave the house alone, never like you, never love you, never do all the things you thought they would. There’s this crazy phenomenon as your plane starts to back out of the gate from Seoul where time suddenly stops, then moves in reverse. You’ll start panicking that you haven’t started potty training, haven’t gone for the first dentist check-up, haven’t enrolled your child in high school…and then you’ll check the calendar and realize it’s really, actually, somehow only been two weeks since custody day.
The sleep deprivation, the jet lag, and the worry will bring expectations to the surface you didn’t even know you had. You’ll have to acknowledge those expectations, admit to yourself – however painfully – that this doesn’t feel much like what you planned for, and you might even find yourself face-to-face with grief. Or post-adoption depression. Or just with the overwhelming reality that the fairytale you always dreamed of looks a lot like laundry and specialist appointments and, yes, more paperwork. More. Paperwork.
But there will also be joy. So much joy.
We get a lot of questions about grieving, and cocooning, and what our first days home with Gideon looked like. For us, those three things are so intricately connected that it only made sense to combine them into one (very long) post. But hear me when I say that these three things are going to look very, very different for every child and every family. Personality, background, relationships with primary caregivers, history of institutionalization or hospitalization, and even your own personalities and dynamics as your child’s new family all play a role in grief, in how your kiddo adjusts, and what decisions you make (or need to make) for cocooning. So this is merely our experience and not intended to be any sort of textbook. There are many professional resources you can find on these topics, and we’re happy to let them be the experts!
OUR FIRST DAYS HOME
Those first days home, y’all. Holy cow, they were hard. Between the grieving and the jet lag, we were all quite the jumble of mixed up emotions and pure exhaustion. People often ask us now if Gideon is really as happy as he looks in the photos we post, and the answer is yes, he is almost always happy! But not that first week. Our sweet, gentle little boy suddenly turned into a raging toddler we didn’t even recognize, and we had very little margin ourselves. Imagine every moment of every day being pure chaos, and that just about sums up our first week home. You know all of this going into adoption, but when you’re in it, really living in it, totally jet-lagged yourself and up to your ears in laundry, it’s hard to actually understand it. But let me just tell you, you’ll make it through. Really you will. Remember, time is moving backwards still, but you’ll make it.
We were told Gideon had always been relatively anxious compared to other infants and toddlers, but his anxiety really came out when he joined our family. In the wake of losing everything known and familiar, he started seeking out control in his environment. He didn’t want to leave our hotel room in Korea, or later our living room at home. We live in 1500-square-feet, and it took him almost three weeks to even walk down the hallway to our bedroom. He hated open doors and would break out in a full sweat as soon as he saw one. He wanted every toy put back in its exact place. The correct lid had to be on the correct color of Play-Doh at all times. At the height of his transition anxiety, he carried around three full sets of stacking cups, and even though the kid couldn’t count yet, he knew exactly how many were in each set and would freak out if he discovered even one was missing. Those stacking cups went everywhere with us for the first two months or so. He even slept with them, the wave of 17-stacking-cups-worth of plastic echoing through the baby monitor as he rolled over in his sleep. He dropped a stacking cup from his stroller one time, and I literally stopped in the middle of Korean traffic to save it. Gideon later transitioned to stacking rings, then a plastic capsule from the doctor’s office, and finally his Goodnight Moon book. Now we rarely take a transition object with us, except his stuffed elephant when we know he will nap or sleep somewhere other than his room or school. Oh, and he currently wants to carry three combs with him everywhere he goes, but we think that’s just a toddler quirk at this point, haha.
Our social worker told us kiddos will control one of three things during times of stress and grief: Food, sleep, or going to the bathroom. Gideon chose food, is still choosing food, though we now know his food issues are related to a deeper oral aversion and not just adoption trauma. As far as sleep is concerned, other than a few nights here or there when he woke up grieving, Gideon slept like a champ from his first night home. Like he was used to in his foster home, he wanted to sleep in his own bed (though we had a crib instead of a bumper bed like he had in Korea), in his own room. We were prepared to co-sleep or to sleep on a mattress in his room for several weeks, but he wanted neither. He just wanted his space and his bedtime routine, and we were more than happy with his plan. Other than the initial few nights of grieving and a few instances of night terrors when he got sick for the first time, we really haven’t had issues with sleep.
And for the record, in case you’re wondering, the jet lag and tantrums finally wore off about day four of being home. Gideon woke up, and suddenly the fog lifted, revealing a smiley little boy with the sparkle back in his eye again! That was also the first day we started to feel a tiny bit like a family (though “normal” would take several more months to come).
Alright, let’s talk about grief. First of all, it doesn’t matter how old the child is at the time they are adopted; there is a trauma that comes with adoption, that comes with being torn away from everything they’ve ever known. Gideon may not consciously remember details about his foster family, or of custody day, or of those first few weeks in our family. But his body does. His heart does. Some adoption specialists refer to these memories as “body memories,” because they can be felt but not recounted. There is a real loss that comes with adoption, and that loss must be grieved, no matter if your child is 12-days-old or 12-years-old when they join your family.
And as heartbreaking as it is to experience, grieving in adoption is actually a good thing. It’s a sign of a deep attachment with a primary caregiver (or caregivers), and attachment is much easier to transfer from one person to another than to build from scratch. I wish we lived in a world where our babies didn’t have to know such deep loss, but we don’t. So for our babies, we must be their safe place to grieve. We must let them feel all of their big emotions so their little hearts can start to heal and can begin the attachment process with us.
We’ve talked a lot already about what grief looked liked for Gideon, particularly those first few days in Korea. Some kiddos go through a “honeymoon period” just after custody – sometimes lasting for days, or weeks, or months – and others, like Gideon, start grieving immediately. Those first few days were filled with deep despair for Gideon. He would cry, would rock, would scream for his Omma until he couldn’t breathe, and absolutely nothing we did would console him. He was very angry at me, likely because I was the biggest threat to the Omma he really wanted, but oddly enough, when he wasn’t upset, he was also most affectionate with me. Outside of his periods of what we’ll call “active grieving,” he let both Brian and me care for him. He allowed both of us to feed him, bathe him, play with him, and change him, and we’re told this is highly unusual, as kiddos generally only attach to one primary caregiver to start. It’s not out of the ordinary if your newly adopted child takes to only one of you initially – either you or your spouse – and attaches to the other in time.
Particularly in Korea and at night, Gideon was fairly obvious with his grief, at least most of the time, and for that we were thankful. We quickly learned the difference between his fussy cry, his hungry cry, and his grieving cry. Most of the time his grieving cry included the word “Omma,” which was our first clue! But still, we learned quickly – particularly at night – when he was only half-awake and just wanted to rock himself back to sleep, and when we needed to jump up and respond. Gideon did not (and still does not) like to be bothered or held when he’s just rolling over and wants to fuss and rock himself back to sleep, but he did need us for the times he woke up grieving in the middle of the night. You’ll learn your baby’s cues and how to help them, and you’ll also see their needs change and grow as you get more days between you and custody. A video monitor is also an amazing investment during the grieving stage. We knew if Gideon sat up, he needed us. If he was rocking himself and fussing, he preferred to go back to sleep on his own.
But not all grieving is so obvious as crying, and Gideon’s grief looked a little bit different when we got home as a new family. I have no idea if there is any scientific backing for this, but Gideon seemed to go through stages of grief, just like adults go through the “five stages of grief.” I have decided not to share the intimate details of how Gideon processed his “angry” stage of grief, because it was deeply personal to him. But suffice it to say, that first moment we saw him clearly angry grieving helped me start seeing Gideon’s behaviors and quirks and emotions through a new lens. I started (or at least tried) to look past the screaming or the fussing or the hitting to what was really going on beneath the surface. What was really happening in his little heart and his little mind. To this day, when I’m trying to figure out if something is adoption trauma or just plain 2-year-old, I find myself thinking about his tiny, shaking, angry body that day in his bedroom. And it helps me remember that he has big feelings and big hurts, just like me.
A practical thing that helped with the grieving for us – but may not be best for your family – was slowly eliminating the toys, photos, and clothes Gideon came home with from Korea. This was a gut decision we made, but it was very much supported by our adoption-sensitive pediatrician, who said that toddlers generally don’t have the emotional or cognitive capacity to understand two sets of primary caregivers at the same time. For Gideon, he needed the separation between his Omma and Appa, and his Mommy and Daddy. He needed the time and space to learn to love and trust us, and then we will (and have) slowly reintroduce those important pieces of his life in Korea back into his world. For Gideon, even the word “Omma” was a trigger for grief (which is how we became “Mommy” and “Daddy” instead of “Omma” and “Appa” like many Korea families), so we very slowly, imperceptibly, started replacing his Korean toys with ones we bought for him. We put the photo albums on a shelf, put his clothes in the attic, and let him start fully attaching to his new little family. For now.
Cocooning in adoption is a dedicated period of time after your child comes home where interactions and social events with people outside of the immediate family unit are intentionally and thoughtfully limited. The purpose of cocooning is two-fold: A simple, structured environment and consistent routine promote “felt safety” for your new child, which is the very first milestone of attachment; and the limited interactions with others help your child understand who their primary caregivers are and who lives in their new home, which fosters trust and bonding.
For some families, cocooning means totally cutting off contact with the “outside world.” No one touches, holds, or makes eye contact with the new child except Mommy, Daddy, and siblings, and life is limited to the four walls of the home. Electronic toys are eliminated, changes in schedule are almost non-existent, and even food is timed and planned. There are no trips to the grocery, no family birthday parties, and no visits from Grandma. For other families – and I’ve seen this most in infant adoption – cocooning means wearing your baby and mostly going on with life as usual. Cocooning is a heated topic for many adoptive families, and you can find websites and recommendations and anecdotal evidence that cover the whole spectrum, but most families fall somewhere in the middle.
Just like with grieving and the initial adoption transition, the length of cocooning and the intensity of cocooning depend greatly on the individual child. Things like anxiety, social history, initial bonding, personality, and even lifestyle of the new family all have their place as we talk about cocooning.
For example, one buzzword you’ll hear a lot in the adoption world is “indiscriminate affection.” Usually a learned survival skill characteristic of children who have been institutionalized for any length of time and/or who have had frequent changes in caregivers, “indiscriminate affection” means your child shows affection quickly and easily to just about anyone, without the ability to consistently differentiate between those people they should and should not attach to. These kiddos tend to be bubbly, smiley, and charming, because they’ve learned that’s what works to gain the attention and affection of their inconsistent and temporary caregivers. This isn’t generally a conscious behavior, but an instinctual reaction to their environment. For these kids, cocooning becomes extra important, to help them understand the permanency of family and to create boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate attachments. Gideon had no signs of indiscriminate affection, but it’s not uncommon, even in Korea where kiddos are generally cared for by foster families before adoption.
All kids crave structure, but for children who grow up in institutions – with very strict routines and limited food and toy choices – structure may be vital for felt safety, which again, is the first step in fostering attachment. It may help to limit changes in routine, as well as number of toys, or toys with lots of lights and noises, at least during the initial adjustment. Two weeks home is not the ideal time for Disney World! If your child’s world was relatively small – like Gideon’s – your child might feel safer limiting outside trips for the first few weeks after they come home, where children who were used to being outside and active may desire to be out and about, but just close to you. Those are all decisions you will have to make, as you will know your child better than anyone those first few weeks (even if they still feel like a stranger).
Things like length of maternity leave and future childcare plans – and therefore impending, necessary transitions – also play a role in how quickly you push the boundaries in cocooning. Gideon is still a homebody, and he loves more than anything to have all three of us at home together. But we knew we had just 11 weeks before I had to return to work after we brought Gideon home from Korea, which meant we had to start practicing transitions pretty early on. Therefore, our cocooning plans changed accordingly.
Okay, now for our specifics. Gideon bonded with us pretty quickly. He would seek us out in a room within 24-48 hours after custody, and he started showing spontaneous affection that first night, but only to us (again, that’s a good thing). Within the first 2 days, he consistently came to us to have his needs met, from bottles to bedtime to snuggles. Once we got home, we continued to solely meet his needs for food, comfort, sleep, and bath time so he could begin to understand we were his parents, but we didn’t have to be quite as careful in limiting who was around him or interacted with him. Because he bonded to us really quickly, we allowed people to greet us at the airport, and we even allowed a few grandparents to touch his hand or give him a quick hug. Having someone take him from our arms was initially really stressful for him, so we would not allow anyone to take him from our arms for the first few weeks.
Little man was our first child, and Brian had to go back to work our first full day home from Korea. I was terrified to be by myself with him, so my mother-in-law came to help the first day, and my sister came the second. Again, they knew their limitations on meeting his needs (and you need to not be afraid to set these limitations), but they were physically in our home. Once we realized about four days in that Gideon didn’t fully understand who lived in our home, we did start limiting visitors coming into our house from about day 4 – day 14. After that, visitors brought us meals and played with Gideon as they do now.
Gideon was stressed by quick changes in transitions, so even before he could understand English, we warned him before we made any changes in activity or location (i.e. “Gideon, in 2 minutes, we are going to put on our shoes and get in the car seat”). We didn’t push him to try new things – like sippy cups or exploring around the house – right away (this is really, really hard, you guys), except to practice going new places. Even then, his stroller was his “safe place” out and about, and we allowed him to stay in his stroller as long as he needed to. We expressly restricted anyone from taking him out of his stroller until he took their hand and placed it on the buckle (his way of letting us know he was ready), and we let Gideon initiate being held or hugged by someone else. As long as he initiated being held by someone other than us, we let other people hold him. But again, as soon as he cried, showed hunger, or needed us in any way, we took him back and met his needs. We met 100% of his needs (save for the two times we left him with his grandparents) until he went to preschool.
We went on our first outing (to my nephew’s baseball game) four days after we came home, and we left him with his grandma (at our house) for the first time a month later, because Brian’s tooth died (after Gideon head-banged in him the face during a particularly rough grieving day in Korea) and he needed an emergency root canal. Gideon’s first overnight trip (with us) was 2.5 months after he came home. His first time at preschool was 11 weeks after he came home, and his first full day at someone else’s home was about 12 weeks after we returned from Korea. My first work trip was a one-week-long trip to Orlando my first full week back from maternity leave (so about 12 weeks home), and Gideon did just fine.
Again, I must remind you that grieving, cocooning, and adoption transitions go hand-in-hand, so what worked for us may not work for you. Our best advice is to err on the safe side and be aware that your needs as a family may change over those first few months (heck, I’m assuming the first few years, but we’re only months in ourselves). I would love to say you should always, always do what’s very best for your child, but we’re a perfect example that sometimes life plays a role too. We didn’t have the choice for me to stay home with Gideon after maternity leave, so we supported him as best as we could, given our real life as a family.
And I’m happy to say, he seems to be quite attached to us now! His first few weeks of preschool drop-off were really rough. We started a brief attachment ritual, where we told him we were leaving, but that he was safe with [great-grandparents, teacher, etc] and we would be back for him. We kept things (and still keep things) really upbeat and fast, because we learned quickly he doesn’t do well with extended goodbyes. It took a few weeks, but now he walks proudly into school, separates easily, absolutely adores his teachers, and shakes with excitement from his head to his toes when we pick him up each day. For Gideon – and again, notice I said FOR GIDEON – going to his special preschool was the very best decision we could have made for him. His specialists are thrilled with his progress from being around other kids, his school is a perfect fit for him, and for Gideon, seeing us leave and come back every single day has really helped his little heart understand that we will always, always come back for him.
One last note. We’re told it’s completely normal to not feel super confident in the decisions you make for your adopted kiddos, especially in the beginning, and it doesn’t help that a lot of the post-adoption community can be intense and opinionated. I touch base with our social worker every few weeks, looking for advice, and one of the first things our dear social worker always tells me is to “trust your gut.” Brian and I look at each other at least four times a day, just to say, “What do we do in this situation?” And yet, our developmental specialist and psychologist both tell us we have a “fantastic instinct about what Gideon needs.” The first time we laughed, but we’ve slowly learned to trust ourselves a little bit more. Oh, and we pray a lot, haha! Mamas (and dads), reach out anytime through our blog or social media if you just need someone to talk to. We aren’t experts by any means, but sometimes during those initial months, you just need someone who gets it. And we get it, friends. We get it.