Updated: Jul 15, 2022
As a step-mom to an adopted child with Reactive Attachment Disorder, I'm constantly evaluating myself in the role of "Mother". In you case you don't know what RAD is, the basic definition is this: A disorder caused by a lack of attachment to any specific caregiver at an early age, that results in a difficulty for the child to form normal, loving relationships with others. Despite the acronym, it's definitely NOT awesome. I'm sure there are dad's who have experienced the effects of RAD, but from the research I've done, moms tend to be the ones who feel it the most.
The relationship I have with my son goes through cycles. We can talk to each other, and do things together as long as it doesn't take a lot of time. The more comfortable things get, the more nervous my son gets, the more he feels the need to push me away. So the arguing will start, maybe even a meltdown over something insignificant. This usually occurs after a really fun day together. Then things will spiral downward until he is barely speaking or looking at me. Time will pass, we'll talk, things will begin to be positive again and the cycle continues.
As I said earlier, I am constantly evaluating myself in my role as "mother". Are there things I can do different? Do I need to take a break? Do I need date night with my husband? Do I need my husband to be home from work early, so I can leave the house and have a whole day where I don't see my kid? Is my heart still soft toward my son? Do I need to forgive my son for anything he has said or done recently? Do I need to spend extra time in prayer? And so on and so forth.
Recently, my son and I have been in the downward spiral, where he is barely speaking to me. I spent several days last week in a depressed funk. Tired of the arguing. Tired of trying to figure out how to fix things again. Tired from spending an insane amount of hours working on the final project for the classes I teach. I was mentally and physically tired. My patience was shot and I was beginning to feel bitter.
I didn't seem to be getting any answers in prayer either. Just silence. But then I started reading a fiction novel called "The Orphan Train" by Christina Baker Kline. About two-thirds of the way through, one of the main characters, Molly, a current day, teen in the foster care system, is listening to Vivian, an elderly lady who's story as a child is juxtaposed with Molly's. The following lines are from Molly's point of view.
"...You're grateful for the slightest hint of kindness, and then, as you get older, suspicious. Why would anyone do anything for you without expecting something in return? And anyway-most of the time they don't. More often than not, you see the worst of people. You learn that most adults lie. That most people only look out for themselves. That you are only as interesting as you are useful to someone."
I read these lines several times. Understanding how someone who has been passed from house to house could feel this way, but also understanding that this is the underlying cause of RAD. A mistrust of people, caretakers in particular. It's a trait RAD kids learn at birth. "No one was there to take care of me, so I must learn to take care of myself, no matter what." A baby doesn't know how to take care of themselves. They can't feed, change or warm themselves, yet if they are abandoned, they have an unconscious knowledge as they get older, that they must look out for themselves. And there must be something wrong with anyone who calls them self a caretaker.
The more I thought about this, the more I thought about the prayers I prayed before my husband and I were dating. We were friends, and I was just hearing about my son's story. I prayed for them both, fervently, during those day. My heart broke for this kid.
As things progressed with my husband and me, and we started dating, my prayers changed a little. I realized God was going to put me in the position to be this boy's mom. He prepared me for it. He told me over and over again, "I just want you to love this boy."
It was the only instruction God gave me and it felt like a light switch went off in my brain as I read this book last week. For years I've been hearing how God wants us to love each other, even those who are hard to love. I was starting to feel like it was an impossible task to show love to a difficult person. Note, I said SHOW love to a difficult person. I love my son very much, but I don't always know how to show it, because the majority of the time I'm frustrated out of my mind with him.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that all this time, I've been trying to figure out how to have a close, meaningful relationship with my son. RAD and a host of other things, have gotten in the way. Which leads to me feeling as though I'm failing in the task that God gave me to love this kid. The light switch moment was when I realized that having a relationship with someone and loving them, are not necessarily the same thing.
We are called to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. (Matthew 5:44) Now, I'm in no way suggesting that my son is my enemy. I'm simply trying to explain that God wants us to love everyone, even our enemies. If He tells us to do that it must be possible. But most of us don't have much of a relationship with anyone we would consider and enemy. In other words, I need to stop focusing on the status of the relationship I have with my son, and begin focusing on simply loving him.
This is something I've struggled with. I know it's loving to raise a child to be responsible, and wise. I know letting him suffer the consequences of his actions is loving. It's not fun, but I am loving him when I show him how to take care of himself. Even if he's yelling at me the whole time about how unfair it is, and how I'm just trying to prevent him from playing with his friends. I know it's loving to try and get him to talk about difficult things instead of keeping it pent up inside of him. Even if, in the process, he tells me he hates me for it. But I also know that it's love when kids laugh and have fun with their parents. And that's the part I rarely get to do with my son.
Loving people isn't always easy, or fun. But if I allow myself to only love my son because I expect to get a better relationship out of doing so, things may never get better with either of us. Instead, I now aim to focus on showing him love no matter what our relationship looks like, in hopes that he will grow up with the knowledge that he is loved no matter what. Loved by me. Loved by his dad. Loved by God.
If you are curious about RAD, the following is a good article that talks about adoptive mothers of children with RAD. Click here to read.