After my last post about Baby M, a woman in her sixties called me. She shared that she spent the first year of her life in an institution and wanted to know what the cognitive and emotional deficits were that occur in order that she could begin to heal from them. She told me that despite a wonderful step mother who came into her life when she was one who loved her completely and deeply, she has struggled her entire life with emotional attachments to people, and that she never really felt connected even to her children.
Someone else told me that her single mother struggled with giving her up after birth and though in the end she kept her, mentioned that her mother would keep her in a drawer in a closet when she taught. She is now doing a lot of work to heal from her experience as a newborn.
For many years it was believed that newborns were little blobs that weren’t conscious of what went on around them. If they were fed and changed, that was all the care they needed. There are those who still are unaware of all the research that shows how extremely aware and influenced newborns are by the circumstances and even feelings of those around them, and how the experiences of this very formative time in an infant’s life sets the foundation for his emotional future. Unfortunately, Baby’s M’s parents (who I haven’t met but believe are genuinely kind and well-intended people) are in this category and though it is sin is one of omission rather than purposeful denying of an infant’s needs, the end result is the same.
Babies are hard-wired for attachment to one or two primary people and secure attachment is at the root of their emotional and physical development. When from the earliest days of life an infant is responded to, held close and given lots of love, he integrates a positive sense of his own value and is able to later have healthy and emotionally satisfying relationships. When this closeness and resulting trust is absent for whatever reason and however unavoidable or undesired it was by the parent, the result is a deep seated sense of insecurity and unworthiness.
A child is biologically programmed to thrive with lots of love and physical contact. A child denied that won’t thrive. When I first met Baby M, my overriding concern was that at the age of one month she was already emotionally shutting down. Her brain was protecting her from the pain of not being emotionally tended to by keeping her asleep and lethargic. It was extraordinarily difficult to wake her up.
Once she woke up, she wasn’t able to focus her eyes. Learning to focus is a skill that comes with practice and she wasn’t getting it. She also wasn’t getting the sensory stimulation and input that is important in activating different parts of the brain.
The attachment deficit was my biggest concern, however. (Reactive Attachment Disorder is the diagnosis when this deficit is prolonged but the damage is there even when less apparent.) When I found out that Baby’s M’s parents weren’t going to keep her, I called someone experienced with this issue and told her my concern about the effect being in an institution for 2-3 months could have on her long term emotional health. She suggested that since ‘Mohammed wouldn’t go to the mountain’ (ie Baby M isn’t being placed yet with a loving family), that ‘the mountain go to Mohammed’ (that we provide her with consistent attachment figures by being there with her all day long).
This advice really resonated with me because it matches my own conviction about what she needs, and dramatically limits the damage she is experiencing while in an institutional setting.
Dd15 and I have been with her the last few days – I took the first 25 hours, she took the following day and a half, and dd20 arrived late Weds. evening and will be there until early Friday morning. I hope that we will continue to be allowed to offer this support for her. It’s quite moving to see her becoming dramatically more alert, socially interactive and physically active – a senior staff member exclaimed that it was obvious that our time with her was making a big difference.
We would love to make Baby M part of our family and it is my hope that this will somehow happen. There is a lot we can give her that most families can’t. However, the parents want the family who takes her to agree that they could take her back in nine months or two years or five years or ten years or whenever they might change their mind.
I can’t do that. I just can’t. While I’m willing to allow the birth family regular contact, it isn’t fair to agree to raise her without the security and sense of belonging that she deserves.
Right now Baby M and her parents need prayers. I could use some prayers as well since this is a very hard situation to be part of.