"The absolute essence of parenting is being able to step outside of your own emotional discomfort in order to meet your child at his level of emotional (dis)comfort."I was reminded of a conversation I had with the children a few days ago. We were having dinner and "telling stories." This is one of their favorite things and they beg to hear stories of my childhood or my memories of them. I usually try to get them to tell their own stories and memories of one another which for the older kids usually means telling stories about the younger ones. Since we were about to celebrate Pollito and Milagro's birthdays the conversation naturally gravitated to when Milagro was born and when Pollito first came to us. Tortuga told the story of going to the "Baby" store to get gifts for Milagro just before she was born. I had encouraged each of the children to get a gift for her and for C. and we had gone out in the rain to pick out gifts for them.
At the baby store Tortuga, Corazon and Pollito each picked out a onesie with some clever saying and then they asked to pick out a toy for her so we walked over to that aisle. As Tortuga told the story he couldn't remember what he or the other kids had picked out for Milagro but he did remember something much more important to him. He remembered that as the day it "rained really hard on us" and he got his "baby keys." He also recalled "how happy" he felt. He was 8 1/2 years old. I had forgotten that I had allowed each of them to pick out a baby toy for themselves. I recalled curbing my impulse to say "no" because they were too old for those toys and deciding to let them pick something out. They were all so excited to pick out baby toys for themselves and they spent a long time making the decision. Ultimately two kids settled on those "baby keys" and the other chose a rattle. They still have those toys in their dressers in the top shelf where they keep other "special" things. None of them came to us as babies so they didn't come with baby toys so this is all they have. I am so happy that I let them choose these toys and got over my own embarrassment at the checkout when each of them pointed out to the cashier which toys were for their baby sister and which ones were for them. I do remember her quizzical expression but I had forgotten how special these things were for them.
Tortuga's retelling got me thinking about the ways in which I have, and have not, been able to step outside my own "emotional discomfort" to meet them exactly where they are emotionally even if it doesn't match who they are physically, chronologically or even cognitively. Corazon went through a phase when she was about 6 years old in which she would "show me" everything she could do--walk, crawl, roll a ball, eat with a fork--and at first I was puzzled and even annoyed by this until I read somewhere that this was sometimes part of how a child behaves when they are starting to "feel" the connection to a caregiver. In some cases they re-live some of those critical milestones that they (we) have missed out on. I learned my lesson. When Pollito started doing this I had learned my lesson and tried to respond with the glee and excitement that I would with Milagro.
I also started trying to be more mindful of things they had missed out on that could help us build emotional security and maybe fill in some gaps. When each of our children came we got them three "bed toys." Each one got a stuffed animal of a cat (we have cats) and another animal. They also each got one of those baby blanket toys with a stuffed animal head at the corner (sounds weird but I think people know what I mean.) We also started working on their lifebooks and collected pictures and stories from foster parents and social workers. Over time I realized the importance of collecting mementos for them that might have greater meaning as they got older. This included pictures of them in the outfits they wore when we first met them, their first drawings, a lock of hair from first haircuts and first tooth lost while living with us, etc. Over time I have added "baby items" that they have expressed a desire to have or that I hoped would help them connect to that part of themselves.
When Milagro was born, Pollito asked if he had a "baby blanket" so I gave him two receiving blankets with ducks on them that he loves to this day. Soon afterward, Corazon asked for a baby blanket for her doll so I gave her two and they quickly became blankets for her "bed toys." She still keeps them on her bed. Tortuga decided he also needed blankets for his "bed toys" so I gave him two and one has been reduced to shreds because he slept with it on his face every night and used it for all kinds of other things. The other one "accidently" makes it on every trip we take. We are now at a stage where the two boys use "baby wash" and "baby shampoo" when they shower because they claim to like the smell of it. All of them have had baby mobiles hanging in their rooms even though we bought them based onthemes of interest (moon and stars or fish) and not because we thought they needed the mobiles. When we took Milagro's hand and foot prints for her baby book I bought card stock and took the older kids handprints which we framed and labelled. All of the younger kids have had "footed" pjs at one time or another. These now hang in their rooms. Tortuga noticed that he didn't have any and after my initial response of "you are too big for them" I went on a serious hunt for footed pjs in a size 12/14. (I found them and he loved them!)
I have tried to remain open to "noticing" when baby or toddler things catch their attention and whenever possible have tried to support their desire to have or participate in play related to this. I think all of these things have helped foster attachment and emotional security. This summer we travelled with Milagro's current favorite blanket which C.'s mother made for her when she was born and we were talking with her about how much Milagro loves that blanket. She mentioned that she had thought about making them for the other kids but thought they were too old. A little lightbulb went off in both C's and my head at the same time and we simultaneously exclaimed "No! They aren't!" We laughed and now she is going to make "baby blankets" for each of them as a Christmas gift.