Tuesday, July 12, 2011

(my) love bites

Several weeks ago I found myself at an all-day adoption training. It was part of our homestudy process, required by WACAP, and the content was almost word-for-word identical to the training I attended with Andrew in December of 2008 as we prepared to adopt J. Andrew was home sleeping after working the night shift and J was at her grandparents, so I was flying solo. At some point during the morning the social worker running the training said something I remembered clearly from the first training two and a half years ago. It was a tree thing, something like this(paraphrased):
When you have a biological child, it's like you are an oak tree and you know that your child will also be an oak tree. There are still hundreds of variables, but you know that at least you're getting an oak tree. When you adopt, you have no idea what kind of tree you're getting - it'll still be a tree, but it could be a pine tree or a shrub, it could be a maple or a redwood. So you have to be prepared for that - for any kind of tree.

She went on to talk about how both herself and her husband love to read and read to their four adopted kids all the time, but only one of their kids is a reader. The other three love other things - sports, computers, etc.

The first time I heard that spiel, before I was a parent, I thought it was pretty silly. Ridiculous even. People are not trees, I said to myself. And of course, we were resolved to love and nuture whoever we got to parent. Even if they didn't like reading, or Star Wars, or playing the drums or whatever. Now I think I had the wrong interpretation for the social worker's metaphor. Or, at least, now that my toddler has bitten enough times to be labeled "a biter" I see it in a different light.

"Oh dear," my mother says, with a slightly horrified edge to her voice after I tell her my eleven month old got excited and bit a friend. "I hope you don't end up with a biter."

I'm not sure exactly when she said it, but I keep hearing it in my head, over and over.

"I don't know what I would do if Sweetie had been a biter," my sister-in-law says sympathetically to me when I call her to apologize for the bruise on her daughter's arm from a bite. "I know that (certain women on your side of the family) were biters, so I thought she might but I'm so glad she never bit." She is being nice and it isn't the first time J has bit Sweetie, so I appreciate it. But my hand is shaking with emotion when I hang up the phone and I'm not sure exactly why.

We are at Andrew's parents house and I am holding a sobbing J, who is in a time out (or time "in" for those of you familiar with that technique). Across the room his cousin sits with her mouth pressed closed and her eyes looking determinedly away from me, nursing her whimpering toddler who is two months younger than mine. J pulled her hair and little E burst into tears. My apologies were met with silence. Even though obviously it was my child who did the "wrong" I feel furious and upset. I want to leave and not come back.

"Why" I whisper to Andrew as J snoozes on the ride home, "Why is it like this with our families? I hate it." He knows what I am talking about - J is around kids all the time. She's one of five little girls in our building and has regular playdates with other kiddos. And yes, she struggles with normal toddler agression with those kids, too. She has been working very hard to learn to be gentle, to say "hi" before trying to physically interact, and to never, never, never put an open mouth on another person's skin. (more than half the time her "biting" behavior is as surprising to her as it is to her "victims", like many toddlers she will bite out of excitement more often than anger or agression.) She doesn't have all the words she needs to express her feelings and desires yet and she is very tactile, so she uses her body instead. And the response from every parent of these other kids when J has pinched, hit, or bitten their kids has been a nonchalant shrug. "Kids bite," they say and go on to give so many examples of people they knew, or kids from daycare or whatever whose kids bit or were bitten.

"I have never been bothered by J's biting and neither has D," our neighbor S says to me as we watch our kids chase each other, barefoot, around the front garden. I have been venting, and S has been listening. D is five and her and J adore each other. As we watch J catches up to her friend and pulls a hand back as if to hit her.

"No hitting, J, I don't like that!" D says, and turns away. J immediately softly pats D, making singsong noises and saying "hi! hi!" D turns back around and gives her a hug.

"Oh man" Spring, the WACAP social worker doing our homestudy says to me when I confess that J has a tendency to bite. "I was covered in bruises when my son was a toddler. It's so normal." She smiles. "He's seven now and I can barely remember. This will pass, please don't worry."

"It's like everyone in the universe knows that it's normal for toddlers to bite except for our people," I lament while Andrew nods. He's heard this before. We've been over it before. It is normal for "toddlers" to bite. J's behavior does not fall outside the norm. But none of the other toddlers in our family do it. So in the eyes of my family "our" babies don't bite. We are a not-biting sort of tree. I worry that my family will judge her, and even more importantly that they are judging me.

Now, this is all my stuff. I have normal family-of-origin stuff (second born desire to fit in, only extrovert in my immediate family-stuff) that results in some high sensitivities to certain situations. I am fully aware that this feeling I am experiencing is not my family's fault. They're not doing anything wrong, they are entitled to offer comfort, sympathy, hopes and opinions about their grandchild/cousin/niece. They are entitled to feel upset when our kids fight or hurt each other. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they do not intend for me to feel as angry, judged, protective and upset as I have in the past few weeks. What I am sorting through, what is difficult for me to parse out, is that these feelings of horror and shock around biting are in me, too. This is my family's culture that views biting as a horrible terrible thing. I was raised here (and, for the record, did some biting here) and I need to reorient myself. Nobody (not me, certainly not J) is doing anything wrong. It is normal for a toddler to bite. There are reliable, calm, ordinary ways to address it.

J got a new shipment of board books in the mail yesterday, and we started reading them right away. They all got five star reviews on Amazon, and my girl loves books so she was all over them. Here's the titles:
Hands are not for hitting
Teeth are not for biting
Feet are not for kicking
(also Diapers are not forever, but that's a whole different blog post.)

These are bestselling books for kids 1-3 years old. That is how normal this is.

So I think about the tree metaphor and realize that maybe this is the sort of thing our agency was trying to prepare us for, to help us anticipate. Not so much oh horror of horrors what if our kid likes different things that we like?!?! But rather, you may need to look outside your own genetic family culture for the resources to fully love and parent this child. You may need to change some of the preconceptions you have been enculturated with around child behavior in order to fully love and parent this child.

So that's what I'm doing. And if my upset comes out of the shadow of my family of origin issues that is okay, because my ability to deal is the strength those issues have taught me. It means listening as deeply to the voices in my life offering reassurance and support as I do to the ones in my head telling me I'm screwing up, wrecking my kid, doing it all wrong. It means doing research to put my child and the immediate family I am building with Andrew in a perspective wider than what my own family culture and life experience can offer. It means doing my personal work so that I know what of the emotions I am feeling result from my own family-of-origin issues surfacing and when I should step up and be an advocate within this fig tree family for my little magnolia, or whatever.

So, yes my little love bites. Ultimately I think I'll be glad for it. I hope it will make me a better parent for bigger challenges later on. I suspect this is a shadow side to what I perceive as one of her greatest strengths - the passionate, personal, and physical way she grabs ahold of the world. So while I will do everything I can to help her interact physically with other people in appropriate ways, there is a part of me hoping that on some level she never stops biting.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I never really thought about having to go through something like this, and I am sure your insight will be helpful when our little one finds our way to us.

  2. I occasionally get these "our people" comments too, and it sucks in a weird, subtle way. There is just something unfair about being compared to others that were born into a commonly accepted trait or experience. Also, I hate it when people express relief that they don't have to "deal" with whatever (supposedly adoption related) "problem" I'm having, that's just insensitive, IMO. I am SO grateful for my adoption community because they usually get these experiences that those who haven't been there won't. It makes it that much easier to let go of this noise and go on just being one happy family. Great post!

  3. Oh my, I have so many things to say about this post, I'll suffice it to say I was smiling and nodding my head in agreement while reading this! As baby I's adoptive mother I can tell you she also bites, she is a 19 month old now... and for all the reasons you mentioned, is occassionally biting. I am sorry that anyone is making this seem "unusual", it may not be a desirable thing for any parent, but it is unavoidable toddler behavior that gets sorted out with everything else as they grow and learn. At least that is what we think as we try and teach "I" not to do this. I know you are a modern family show watcher, as we are too, so if you remember they had a whole show on "Lily" biting and their realization that their perfect little toddler was actualy biting... It was actually hilarious and Glenn and I laughed out loud the whole show, again, nodding in agreement and howling with laughter that we were not alone in this :) So, dear friend of a toddler, I would like to say, we as parents of toddlers are "trees in the same forest" it seems... And it is our humble opinion as adoptive parents it doesn't matter or have any association whatsoever with the fact that J or I are adopted~ this happens with many more biological toddlers I'm sure by even simple statistics (like you said there is a book on it.) Both of my nieces, biological through my sister, were on occaions biters and they outgrew it at a normal pace just like ours will. We so need to get together and let the girls play and we need to catch up girl! lots of love!

  4. I don't think it's useful to pin traits onto small people. They develop so quickly and some days they will bite, or kick, or cuddle and labelling them as 'clingy' or 'a biter' doesn't help anyone. Comparisons within our family have labelled my girl 'demanding', sometimes she wants to interact, sometimes she doesn't, I hate the fact that people find it necessary to create permanent character flaws when kids are just doing their thing.

    With my professional hat on, people make dispositional attributions (blame personality) more commonly when outgroups (those they aren't as close to) make mistakes whereas they tend to blame situation when those they are closest to are witnessed making errors, they cut those people some more slack. Maybe that's why it upsets me when people make unkind comparisons with other babies in my family, it is singling her out, not making allowances for her.

    Thanks for this post, it has made me think. I am glad that you and your community are there for J to just work it out as you all go along.

  5. I found your blog by typing something inane into Google like "How I decided to Adopt Blog". We're busily grieving infertility, (I wish this stage would be FASTER!!), so I'm just dreaming of adoption, but THANK YOU for writing your blog. I've just spent an hour pouring over your posts. I love your tone, your writing style is perfect, and your thoughts are so helpful.

  6. One of the reasons I love blogging is the support from all you lovely people! Thank you.

    Mrs 5C - welcome, I'm so glad you found me. :)

  7. I just wanted to say I thought this was a really great and incredibly thoughtful post. I read it about a week ago and I keep thinking about it. I have been dealing with something similar, (our guy is only 14 months so no biting yet) but he is an incredibly picky eater and it has just been making me absolutely nuts, kind of an over reaction really but I think your post really made me realize why. The other babies in our family tend not to be picky eaters and so I think I'm extra defensive about it. Thank you again for such an insightful post it has really helped me.

  8. This is going to come across really callous perhaps, but one of my favorite shows right now is True Blood--so, in my eyes, J is COOLER than her peers. There, I said it.

    Also, I would feel hurt too if a family member looked down on my child's behavior--adopted or not. I just don't think that's very "adult." I mean, they're *kids*, right? But, as you said, families are who they are and we love them anyway, and we learn to find other families when we need them for other things. xo

  9. Isabel has a fiery spirited attitude about her that no one in our families have. To the point that my MIL tells me we should be praying for her roots to be removed from her (whole other issue).
    But Isabel's bio great aunt has told me so many times that she is 100% their family because of that. For me when I see it come out in her it's nice to know where it comes from and I just have to learn to mold it correctly. But I'm at a loss sometimes because she's an oak and I'm a shrub.