Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Pinging Rocking and Writing

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When one begins to research the idea of adopting a child that is not an infant, some frightening things come onto the scene quickly. In my notebook, I scribble "attachment disorder -- Google that!"

From Wikipedia as pasted in my notebook:

Reactive Attachment Disorder (sometimes called "RAD") (DSM-IV 313.89) is a psycho physiologic condition (1) with markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate social relatedness in most contexts that begins before five years of age and is associated with grossly pathological care.

"Children who are adopted after the age of six months are at risk for attachment problems.[4] Normal attachment develops during the child's first two to three years of life. Problems with the mother-child relationship during that time, orphanage experience, or breaks in the consistent caregiver-child relationship interfere with the normal development of a healthy and secure attachment. There are wide ranges of attachment difficulties that result in varying degrees of emotional disturbance in the child. One thing is certain; if an infant's needs are not met consistently, in a loving, nurturing way, attachment will not occur normally and this underlying problem will manifest itself in a variety of symptoms. Bowlby"


I sit at my desk, steaming cup of coffee at my elbow, notebook balanced on laptop keys, piles of books and articles making a comfortable cave in which to work. I'm in my element. I'm researching. I'm gathering information, connecting it to what I know about the world and compiling questions about the things I do not. Except this time it's different. This time, rather than immersing myself in ruminations from my classroom or constructivist learning theory, I'm researching international adoption. This time I'm not building an article or a book; this time, I'm building my family.

I become a little obsessed with finding out all I can about attachment and the various levels of disorder surrounding it. Our home study and adoption agencies give us stacks of articles to read on the subject. I read every word with a critical eye and then scour the internet and the library for more information from different camps. In the two years between "We think we'll adopt" and "Meet Mason Cloyes Urbanski," I arm myself with information. I merge common sense, expert opinion, and all that I know about mothering my biological daughter Mackenzie, into a litany of what I think will be useful diagnostic tools and strategies for overcoming whatever gets thrown our way. I feel ready. At least this is what I tell myself and every one around me.


I read a novel to while away the months of waiting. In my notebook I write:

Laminations. What are they? How are they different from layers. This is a great question. The main character sees them as "the ability to allow facts and things to lie next to each other without actually touching or becoming connected" (209).

Perhaps layers imply protected, hidden aspects of a person. Laminations imply protected visible aspects.

Layers. When I am confident, I put myself out there, in all of my glory, with all of my flaws, in all of my complexity, but I am protected, laminated.


"We can do this," my husband and I say to each other, remembering former students of mine that we took into our hearts. We talk about the one who called us in the middle of the night from lock up and the one who brought us firewood one weekend when our heat went out. (He had plenty he said, because his house had no central heat.) We discuss the 17-year-old-girl who sat crying tears of joy in our garden tub one Saturday night because she had never taken a bath before. These children had rough, rough edges. The schools where I taught labeled them impossible and un-teachable. And yet my husband and I had found small fissures in the walls the children had built.

"Our son isn't quite two," we remind each other in conversations about the boy we plan to adopt. Though his life has not been easy, he has always been safe, warm, and fed. We have no illusions that he will thank us in the beginning for ripping him from everything he has ever known, but we tell each other that it will be only a matter of time before we find the fissures in his walls.

But at night, when I'm alone in my own head, I worry and doubt. "What if . . ."

Then I finally meet him. Those deep dark eyes reflect all that they see in dual mirror images. They are full of strength, defiance, anger and rage, and when I look into them, and see the true reflection of myself -- the hidden, carefully protected layers -- hiding my own insecurities and rage. That reflection brings me to my knees.


It takes us awhile that first night in our Siberian hotel room to convince our son that it is time for sleep. About 11 p.m., he decides that we really mean business and settles into the crib and begins to rock his head on the pillow. It isn't a peaceful soothing movement like a child sucking his thumb, but a violent, almost catatonic one. He locks his thin arms straight in front of his face, hands clasped so tightly that the knuckles turn white. His powerful eyes go completely vacant, all animation and expression leave his face, and he rocks head and shoulders, side to side, rhythmically and somehow desperately.

My internal alarms go off. The phrase "attachment difficulties manifest themselves in a variety of ways" echoes from the pages of my research. And then every instinct I've ever had as a mother screams "This is wrong! This is not what healthy self-soothing looks like." We stop the rocking. I pick him up and hold him against my chest until he falls asleep.

Our social worker in the States listens politely, empathizes, but says not to worry. Sigh of relief. We have done the right thing. We are on the right track. These things are to be expected.


Once home, all is well until bedtime. We sit in the rocking chair and read. No problem. But then, I snuggle him into my arms, and the battle begins. Screaming, kicking, fighting for over an hour, he gives up and passes out. We repeat the same scene the next night.

I write in my notebook.

Was that the right way to react? Is he doing this out of fear? I'm exhausted, emotionally and physically. I DON'T KNOW the answer. There isn't any one to ask. No one I can trust implicitly. Everyone wants to give us outs, find ways to make it easier, give us excuses to back off, take a break, and not do the hard thing.

"He's just come out of an orphanage!" Relax."
And so, rather than admit that I'm afraid, worn out, wrong sometimes, I create a façade of control.


Time passes. Bedtime comes.

We read, we sing, all is well. Until we rock. With tiny beads of sweat escaping from every pore of his deceptively small, thin body, Mason writhes, twitches, and battles against my constant, unmovable arms as if his soul is fighting the teeth of a hell hound. I breathe slowly, calmly. He cries and screams. "NOOOO!!" I cry with him, rocking slowly back and forth, back and forth, trying to sooth us both now, holding him closer, willing him to feel the connection between us.

Images and ideas sweep through my exhausted mind. I try to read the thoughts he doesn't have words to express. Words are the solace of my writer's soul. If I can put that rage into words, I can find a way through it. I write, in my mind putting words to my baby's screams.


I can't get too comfortable. I can't let myself give up all the control. I've always had to look out for myself, keep a distance, make my needs known and make a lot of noise until some one meets them. I can't get too attached to anything because it will change.


I take care of myself. It's one thing to snuggle and hug you when I'm awake. But if I let myself feel this warm safety when you tuck me into your arms, then I'll let my guard down and depend on it, and then you'll go away, like all he other nice people I've known, and I'll be alone again, taking care of myself again and what if I forget how? What if I miss you and this?


It's all too good. I don't want to lose it. I can't get too comfortable. I have to get out -- away -- back to normal, before I come to depend on you. If I trust you and then you go away, I won't be able to survive.

"No! No! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!"


The intensified screaming and the words I've imagined threaten my loose grip on sanity. I try to imagine scenes of calm. Suddenly I'm in the tattered green chair five years earlier in another house. The world is asleep. I'm once again exhausted. A three-month-old Mackenzie has been awake, screaming for hours until I finally coax her to latch on and eat. We are comfortable now, locked into an embrace that always reminds me of pregnancy -- that lovely time when she was tucked away, attached to me, protected from the harsh world. The very thing she had rejected hours earlier soothes her now.

My mind jumps forward to a conversation with a friend. In a fit of honesty, I expressed the regret that I wouldn't be nursing Mason. I'd told myself that I'd let it go. But as Mason struggles and cries, I realize this is our nursing, our connection, my only way of nourishing him. I dig deep, sing more softly, and rock on.


Ever the researcher, I grasp at advice where ever I can find it and then attempt to write my way into understanding. I blogged to keep family informed while we were in Russia and continued when I found the writing to be an extension of my beloved notebook. The blog's audience pushed me to keep writing, reflecting, and sharing rather than giving in to the reclusive nature that has always been my reaction to tough times:

Caesar (aka The Dog Whisperer) talks a lot about being your dog's pack leader -- very important if you have a dog. But what resonates with me is the term "Calm and Assertive." A calm assertive person is not pinging like a stretched wire. A calm assertive person is not trying to control her environment and everyone and everything in it. A calm assertive person is certain that the environment will be what she wants because she is in control of it. When there are bumps or obstacles in that path, pinging-wire girl snaps while the calm assertive girl relishes in the opportunity to assess, learn, grow. The calm, assertive person controls naturally. The pinging wire works herself to a frazzle to force an artificial control by avoiding every possible "what if" and loses sleep over the fact that that tenuously built control could crumble at any minute. It's way too exhausting to be a pinging wire.

My closest friends read between the lines and send notes of encouragement. I cling to all of them.


Suddenly, the screaming stops. One night, I cradle Mason in my arms, breathing deeply to prepare for the nightly battle, and he curls into me and sighs. I start to sing. He leans back into the cradle of my arms and looks into my eyes with total security. Heaven. I don't know how we got here, but for once, I don't try to analyze it, I simply relish it.

Yet, when I put him into bed, the catatonic head rocking begins anew. And so my husband and I take turns sitting with him each night until he's asleep, reminding him not to "rock his head."


Six months pass. I blog:

Bedtime remains the only time of day that we remember that Mason has not been with us since birth. Last week we noticed that when we check on him and tuck him back under his blankets he simply curls up on his side or belly, so we know we are making progress. Last night, as I read the last book and tucked him against my chest for some snuggle time, he said "Mommy, Mason's hair peez." I almost cried.

I've tried stroking Mason's hair to relax him, but he always looks uncomfortable, tries to wiggle away from my hand, and eventually pushes it away. I had hoped my stroking could somehow replace what he gets from rubbing his head back and forth on the pillow.

Rather than bursting into tears, (He was looking right into my eyes.) I said, "Sure, baby," and gently stroked his hair, just like every other night. Except tonight, he smiled at me, curled his arms around my waist, sighed and closed his eyes. We rocked in the chair like that for a good 10 minutes. When I forced myself to put him in bed, he smiled at me and went right to sleep.

For the first time, I am allowing myself to believe he is letting go and allowing himself to believe we are permanent, and he can truly depend on us. For the first time, I see the happy, loving, well-adjusted Mason that we have come to know stay with me all the way to bedtime. Another six months and maybe we'll be able to drop the "-ing" from "leave", "let" and "allow."


We are in the dead of winter. It is cold and flu season, and Mason can't shake his stuffy nose. We continue to sit with him every night, keeping watch, willing security and comfort as he falls asleep. He doesn't rock his head on the pillow while we are watching. Yet, we notice the hair on the back of his head is a tangled mess each morning. The winter days flow on into the hope of March, but we endure a bad case of croup, and the back of his head is totally bald.

Our doctor gives Mason antibiotics and tells us to get out of his room.

"This rocking thing is like thumb sucking," he says. "It will pass. You need sleep."

We follow his advice. Mason's bald spot gets bigger. My blog becomes overly cheery, and the posts are sparse. And then I write.

Jeesh! I've written this post several times. I even briefly posted it Saturday morning and then took it down. But, I know I'll be a little closer to the truth for having written it. So . . . here we go.

Since my last post things have taken a turn.

First, M-2 started waking up around 5:00 a.m. ready to play. Of course, this is not acceptable. I'm the only one allowed to play at 5:00 a.m. He spent several mornings, in bed, not sleeping, not getting the message. He was pretty good about it. No crying, just calling every now and then "Mommy! I get up now." Pretty normal stuff. Then, I started to hear him rocking his head on the pillow. I contemplated giving him some books , trying to decide if that would encourage him to wake up even earlier, wondering if it would prevent him from learning to fall back to sleep when he wakes up early.

But about the same time, he started rocking his head again at night as he was falling asleep. This is a giant step backwards from when he was doing it only IN his sleep. We know that hanging out with him until he's completely asleep isn't the answer. That would be another step backwards, and he's almost three -- he needs that independence. We've been told that it's like thumb sucking, which he did try for a few weeks when he was upset, sleepy, or just bored. So, we helped him stop it. He doesn't even think about it anymore. And yet, he rocks.

So, for now, we do the bedtime routine then we leave and come back to check on him. When we catch him rocking, we stop him. This entire process lasts until about 10 p.m., most nights -- an hour past my usual 9 p.m. bedtime (okay, maybe 8:30), and I'm totally exhausted.
Progress? I don't know. I shot a dear friend a whiny e-mail saying none what-so-ever. But, as I write, I see that there is some. He is spending more time talking to himself and his bear and wiggling around in bed than he used to. We know that the head rocking is his way of self-soothing, so our goal is to help him replace it with something healthier. Maybe, just maybe, he's starting to catch on. He's happy and smiley every time he catches us checking on him, unless we bust him for rocking his head. We know he knows that he's not supposed to do it because he stops if he hears us coming. We are developing our stealth tactics!

As I finish this up, both kids are cuddled up under a blanket in the green chair reading together. They are pretty sure that I'm ignoring them, as I haven't looked up. I find this the best way to eavesdrop on neat conversations.

M: "M-2, we are reading in the chair on a school morning!"
M-2: "Ahhh, it's a special treat!"

Reading with one's sister rather than getting dressed and eating breakfast is a special treat. Even better, the treat has been announced with a complete sentence that makes use of a contraction and an article with no coaching what-so-ever! Progress indeed!!!

I relax and do some more research. BINGO! I find a way to catch Mason rocking his head and deal with it.

I blog:

We have decided that more covert action was needed, so this morning, I bought this little beauty at Target! You've got it. We are now one of those people with a video baby monitor.

It went down like this. . .

• Mason reads with Dad, has a snuggle, and gets in bed.
• Dad leaves the room and closes the door.
• Mom and Dad sit down to watch the monitor.
• Mason plays for a bit and yawns a few times.
• Mom returns to the room to re-arrange covers and kiss her sweet little rascal goodnight.
• As SOON as Mom closes the door, brilliant boy deduces that head rocking is safe for at least two minutes before some one returns to check.
• Mom and Dad see rocking on the monitor and return to stop it.
• Mason is shocked and outraged that his little plan has been foiled.
• Mason stands in the middle of the room and screams his outrage.
• Mom returns, and Mason announces "No rocking . . . sniff, sniff."
• Mason returns to bed with a hug and a kiss.
• Mason lies on his side contemplating how his plan could have possibly failed.
• Mason falls asleep contemplating.
• Mom and Dad high-five one another and take a victory lap, then begin to wonder if this will work as well when he's not quite as exhausted and begin to plot for tomorrow night.

Really kid -- watch out . . . we're just warming up!


Then one day Mason announces, "I no rock my head! Babies rock heads! I am big boy!" And that is the end of that. In the end, my strong boy takes matters into his own hands.

No more head rocking, MUCH more sleeping -- as much as any almost three-year-old. The change is astounding. He is less likely to erupt in defiant outbursts, and his speech development explodes. He greets each new morning with a tremendous proud smile saying, "I BIG boy!!! I not rock my head!"

And then I blog:

One year ago today, B and I stood in a Russian courtroom and answered the toughest questions of our lives. Things like, "Why do you want this boy when you already have a daughter?" and "How can you love an adopted child as much as your biological child?" I don't remember my answer as much as I remember looking the judge in the eye and answering her with my heart. We were told that we could be Mason's parents. Some day, I will have the words to paint that day, but not yet. I will tell you that for all the clarity I have of those 47 minutes, today it feels like a movie -- like something that happened to some one else.

One month ago today, Mason rocked his head for what is looking more and more like the last time. We'll keep our fingers crossed

They say it takes a year . . . "It," that mystic sense of bonding and normalcy that slowly grows between forever parents and their adopted toddlers. "It," that moment where the family feels they have always been together. In this case I'm thinking "they" are darn close to right.


It is the first day of the first class I have taught in almost two years. "If we mean to teach writing," I say, "we must be writers ourselves." I hand composition books around to the group of 20 nervous K-12 teachers. "This is your notebook, your place to think and write badly, your place to wrangle all of the chaos in your mind onto the paper. Later, we'll mine this for ideas to carry into a larger piece. You will write more in this notebook than any one will ever read. Let's begin with 10 minutes of writing into the day."

I open my own notebook and begin to write along with the class.

Mason looked so grown-up and secure standing outside of the school with Miss Mary Ann this morning. Even though we were locked out of the building, and the routine was totally off, he did just fine. He is so very comfortable and confident at school, so excited about his lunch box and his blanket bag, so ready for the day and whatever it brings. I think I'm ready to write our journey, maybe here, with these teachers, maybe . . .

Cindy Urbanski is the author of Using the Workshop Approach in the High School English Classroom: Modeling Effective Writing, Reading and Thinking Strategies for Student Success and co-author of Thinking Out Loud on Paper: The Student Daybook as a Tool to Foster Learning. Her work also appears in English Journal and NCETA. She lives in North Carolina with her spouse, two children, and yellow lab where she is the associate director of the UNC Charlotte Writing Project and is working towards a Ph.D. in urban literacy.

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