Thursday, February 16, 2012


You may remember Renee Johnson from Hope at Home 2011. We are excited for you to read what she shares from her personal experience in loving her three adopted daughters. In addition to being a mom, Renee holds degrees in Physical Therapy and Public Health. She balances her home life with her responsibilities as a Senior Scientist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

All or None?
Thirteen years ago as I prepared for the adoption of my first daughter I, like many other parents, embarked upon reading every piece of "helpful' guidance that I could find. The plethora of advice and opinions available related to attachment and/or bonding really heightened my awareness of the great importance of this issue. It seemed like every author had both their must do and their must don't lists: the problem  was they weren't in agreement. By the time I headed off to bring home my sweet baby (actually a 6 year old), the possibilities of attachment failure and the potential long-term consequences of not achieving an adequate attachment weighed heavy on my mind. I had bought into the idea that attachment was an all or none adventure and that the possibility of messing it up was high. 

I’m glad to report that my perspective and understanding of attachment has substantially changed over the years.  I have come to discover that attachment is far from an all or none endeavor.  Below is a peek into the journey of my changing thoughts. 
Measuring Attachment

In the all or none model, frustration is inevitable.  After we returned home many well meaning people would ask me about “how the bonding was going” or if “my sweet baby was attached to me yet”?  This question evoked feelings of failure in me, because of course she wasn’t fully attached at 2 weeks or one month or 3 months or even 1 year or 3 years. About 6 months into parenting, it became clear that I was using the wrong measuring tool and if I didn’t find a new one then I’d both miss our progress and feel ongoing failure.  A cook doesn’t expect to make a delicious cheesecake while measure vanilla by the quart, nor does the auto mechanic measure engine oil by the teaspoon if he wants his garage to run efficiently.  Similarly, as a parent, I needed to define for myself some more appropriate units of measure for this topic of attachment. 

Physical, Emotional, Spiritual
Upon observation, I could initially see that there were three specific dimensions which were important for me to focus on.  They were physical, emotional and spiritual.  I began to think about our attachment progress in the format of three bar graphs.  This allowed for encouragement based on progress along any of the three dimensions.   All of the sudden I could see that specific activities were increasing our attachment in each of the dimensions.  Achieving eye contact while playing a game at the table became a attachment success.  I could see attachment growth and was no longer focused only on the tipping of the scale to being “attached”.  This three dimension model seemed to work well for a couple of years.    
With the addition of my second daughter, I could see that there were some additional dimensions that were significantly impacting our overall attachment.  Good food, particularly meat, was incredibly important for her and seemed to somehow be a dimension of its own.  Not only food, but everything sensory seemed to come into play. Again after my third daughter came home I could see even more areas that I could focus on to facilitate attachment success. The visual bar graph in my mind was becoming complex and not as helpful.

Rejoicing in Progress
At some point along the way I had a discussion with some of our Russian friends that shared a model which looked like a spider web or radar graph.  In this type of graphic, zero is in the center and 100% is at the end of the spoke.  As success is found along each of the spokes the center is pulled out and I can see a visual representation of the window to my children’s hearts opening.  In reality, the exact point of our attachment along each of the individual spokes fluctuates as life moves forward.  In all of our relationships, level of attachment fluctuates as our circumstance and priorities change.   Also, it was my experience that each of the spokes of attachment was different for each of my children and seemed to fluctuate over time.  
How refreshing it is to have moved from an all or none model, in which it seemed nearly impossible to get the scale to tip from unattached to attached, toward a model which is fluid and lets one see progress and regression as a normal function of life.  As we and our children move toward progressive levels of attachment in any one area we can rejoice in seeing our progress instead of always waiting to attain some level of perfection before our attachment scale can tip.


  1. We adopted 12 year old twin girls from Ukraine. I didn't think the bonding would be such an issue. However, they are so attached as they had to be to survive what they went through. People keep telling us to separate them more...take one girl with one parent and another with the other one. When I am together with one or the other of my girls we get along just fine. When they get together they go into this "mode". OUr house is so small that theya re in the same room. We are going to try to move them apart when we can. We must tear the office room apart and put it out in the family room. Anyway, I wish I would've known more about the attachment issue before we adopted. I would've approached various things differently I believe. Their birth mom was so cruel and vicious that I believe they have rage toward her. This anger comes out towards me...I'm the convenient target. Then you have the normal teenage girl issues. It has't been a bed of roses for sure. I hope I hold up through the next 3 years until they are 18. They want to "launch" so we will not stop them. Of course, when the time approaches things may seem different.

    1. Summer, what a difficult situation. It sounds like your girls have a bond with each other that is formed in trauma, which is quite strong and will take time to make more healthy for them. I am very familiar with being the target of a child's rage. It is so hard. I really encourage you to find someone who will speak life into you, refreshing you and reminding you of who you are. Even though we understand it is not really us they hate, it is very difficult to be on the receiving end of such pain. Keep your eyes on the Lord in these years-- He really does have answers. And He is your protector and the lover of each one of you. He has a plan for your girls and God is using you to release life into them. No one can be a better mother for them than you (even at your worst), for God chose you for them. That is enough!! Grace and Peace be with you Summer.