If there’s one thing baby B hated when he came to us, it was diaper changes. But a close second: having his hands touched. He was already 10 months old so his grasp reflex was gone (except as applied to the death grip on his bottle), but he seemed unusually bothered by even the slightest touch of his hands.
For the first week or so that he was with us, we had Neal give him all his bottles. We wanted to quickly break down his obvious alarm at being near a man, and associating Neal with his beloved bottles seemed to be the quickest way. Once that was well in hand, however, I quickly claimed the rocking, bottle-feeding routine. I’d been waiting 6 years to rock another baby so there was no way Neal was going to get all that action!
The first couple of times I held him while he sucked down his formula at breakneck speed (seriously, you cannot believe how fast he could down 8 ounces!), I was struck by how insistent he was that he hold the bottle (even brushing his hand or the bottle could incite his wrath) and how tightly he held it, so much so that the blood would drain from his fingers and they would seem almost glowing white in the darkness. As I rocked, I would think back on how casually Addison had held her bottle. It was the casualness of knowing that someone would bring her another; there would always be another bottle, another time. Every last drop was not required to be sucked out with such force. Still knowing so little about the baby’s background, it seemed obvious that his grip was the grip of survival, of not knowing what the future would bring.
But I had a plan. I thought that if I could slowly supplant his hands on the bottle, taking care to not disrupt his flow of milk, his free hands would eventually land on mine. I would intentionally fan three of my fingers out so that as he moved his hands around they would begin to glance off mine. Once he brushed past my fingernail and his curiosity won out as he spent 15 or 20 seconds feeling around my nail with his tiny pointer. It felt pretty much like winning the lottery, if you’re wondering.
I still remember the moment, probably around Day 10, that he wrapped his little hand around my ring finger for the first time, and just held on. (As long as there was milk in his bottle, of course, after which all hell would break loose.) I wanted to whisper to him that he could hold on to me for survival, he didn’t have to “fend for himself.” But I didn’t, because on Day 11 or 12 or 13, they could come calling for him and he might have to go back to survival mode.
In those early days, my mind was a bit frenzied during these rocking sessions. I loved him so much in just a few short days, I would think about how wrecked I was going to be when he had to leave. During the morning nap routine, I was convinced that when he left I could never foster another child. And then by afternoon, I was sure that I couldn’t live without fostering 10 more babies. Because BABIES.
But most often my mind would rest on two thoughts. Or more accurately, it would rest on the first thought and spin on the second.
First, I would hear this poem in my head, introduced to me by my friend Steph. My mind might wander to the papers I needed to be grading or the discussion boards I had to post while the baby got a precious little sleep, but I’d hear, “I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep.” I guess that’s true for everyone, but it was so poignantly true for us. He might only “keep” for one more day, so I could just forget about my work for awhile and press my cheek against his one more time.
Second, less pleasantly, I was plagued by this question: what if what I’m doing for him — which in some moments is pure euphoria and in others is the most painful thing I have ever voluntarily put myself through — is actually maladaptive for the life he has in store for him? He’s still an infant, yes, but maybe the survival instincts he’s developed are what he needs for the life he has ahead. What if teaching him to depend on me will actually make his life worse if he goes back to an environment in which his needs are not warmly met?
Of course, my mind spins through any relevant studies I’ve read. There’s the ACEs work, but did it address my fundamental fear that not only will the suffering we’re putting ourselves through not help him, it could actually make his life harder? I’d have to revisit it. In those moments, it feels absolutely urgent that I find more data. Of course, there couldn’t be any sort of random assignment experiments comparing human babies from his background who got temporary, nurturing care with those who did not. But maybe there was something with mice or monkeys? But then I remember, I’ve got a baby. Ain’t nobody got time for scouring the research when you’re physically running on empty.
Despite these misgivings, however, my plan worked like a charm. Slowly, he began to take hold of my hand more often and cling to it — but gently, not a death grip. And about a week later, on Day 18, this happened for the first time. 18 days to go from deep fear and distrust of Neal to a little thumb hold on a leisurely walk. Be still, my heart. (Time stand still too, if possible.)