The social worker stood by a dry erase board. The first thing she said was: "This is the seminar that scares people." This, the state-mandated bonding and attachment seminar.
She wrote the word bonding on the board and drew a circle around it. Through the circle she drew a fat X.
"Your adoptive children will not bond to you." She used the word adoption as an adjective. Then she smiled. It seemed almost mean.
My husband and I sat in the conference room with 20 others in various stages of adopting.
"Bonding occurs only once, and only with the biological mother and her baby," she went on. "And only in the womb."
I understood on some level this was a tactic she'd developed to get our attention.
A man asked, "So, if the kid won't bond, why am I here?" He was confused. And you know what?-so was I. Even though I understood theoretical frameworks, and understood them well. I'd interned at the County of San Diego locked psychiatric unit for adolescents and was subsequently hired by the City of Hope to work in pediatrics. I'd majored in child development, studied theories related to the family. Now it was as though all knowledge had been erased and fear was making a comfy home in its space.
The leader's grin grew wider. "Attachment is the why," she said.
I sighed. I took a deep breath. Right. Of course. I. Knew. That. Rather, as a professional I knew that.
As a professional I wondered often about what our daughters-to-be felt, preparing to enter a new family, and what we could do to help them make that transition.
But as a parent-or soon-to-be one-I felt fragile, vulnerable, completely naive. Like the oncologist diagnosed with cancer. I needed everything re-explained in a way that's personal, not theoretical. I needed the beginner's tutorial, the Dummies version.
"The attachment process is about building a relationship," the social worker said, more earnestly now. "Biological mothers can bond to their child but the child might not attach to that mother after birth." Likewise, a parent may have problems attaching to a child.
Attachment means connection by ties of affection and regard. If you compare dictionary definitions of bonding and attachment, they might sound alike. But when it comes to adoption the two are viewed differently.
"Write this down," she said. "‘Bonding before birth, attachment after birth.'"
Someone asked if attachment ever occurred without bonding.
The leader clasped her hands over her heart. "It is the only reason fathers can have great relationships with their children." This is why fatherhood works, she said, adding, "attachment can happen at any age," which is "why marriage and adoption, as institutions, work."
"Can bonding occur though?" a woman asked, frantically scribbling notes on a napkin.
The social worker deadpanned. "It's over, let go."
We left that morning with the others, certificate of completion for the state requirement in hand. I didn't want to let go, however, like the leader suggested we do-as a parent or a pro. I found myself focused on that initial, sacred bond in the womb. And I wasn't just thinking about our children-to-be. I was thinking about their mother. Wondered who she thought the other mother was. I understood it was I; that it would always be. I felt it, too.
I realized something about the word "other." That once I understood it in theory-like the words bonding and attachment-I didn't have to make it my focus as a parent any longer.