Anxious Attachment: From Heaven to Hell and Back Again This Emotional Life - PBS

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Attachment / Blog

   Leslie Potter

Leslie Potter's Bio

Leslie is a Parent Coach with a background as a body centered therapist.

Anxious Attachment: From Heaven to Hell and Back Again


This content is provided in conjunction with This Emotional Life’s Early Moments Matter initiative. Early Moments Matter is dedicated to making sure that every child has the best possible chance at emotional well-being. Find out how to receive the Early Moments Matter tool kit and provide one to a family in need.

“WARNING! WARNING!  You can’t do this!  You are single, you are too old and don’t have enough money! You are irresponsible….She is needy…She is desperate…She won’t be able to attach!  You are setting yourself up for failure, again!”

These were the distressing messages I heard when I proclaimed to my friends and family that I was adopting a 9-month old baby, from China, as a single mother, at the age of 44. If I hadn’t been so stubborn and rebellious I might have listened.

Instead, 14 months later, after 26 hours of travel, a night of no sleep in an unfamiliar hotel in Shanghai, and a 2-hour bus ride, I finally arrived at a the hotel where I was to meet my daughter.   We were told by our guides to go to our rooms until called.  Strange sounds and smells assaulted my senses as we entered the elevator and I was crushed against the walls in a sea of unknown bodies. I remember feeling as if I didn’t exist in this uncharted world.

Waiting in my room seemed unbearable.  I inched my way over to a slightly closed door and listened for the sounds emanating from the lobby of the hotel.  A thrill shot through my body as I heard the high-pitched cry of a baby.  My pulsed quickened as I peeked out the door to see a hall full of crying babies – beautiful babies nestled in their new parents arms.  I quickly moved into the hall touching, breathing and taking in all the joy around me.  Moving against the crowd heading down the hall I began my passage toward the lobby.  Everything around me was buzzing, and I felt as if I were lifting out of my body, watching a scene from a foreign film. 

As I entered the lobby, along with ten other eager parents, a frantic dad engaged me begging me to video his once in a life time moment.  Lost in my desire to please, I took the camera, intently focusing to make sure he got the shot.  The world narrowed down through the lens and I almost missed the most important moment of my life.  For, as I focused the camera to capture the awe before me, I heard my daughter’s name being called, “Yue Hui Chun, Yue Hui Chun.” I knew this name from a little white piece of paper and a faded photograph I’d been staring at for the last five weeks. 

As the nanny handed me my precious daughter I felt as if my heart was going to explode.  She came into my waiting arms, never looking back, and our journey toward attachment began. 

Before arriving, in China, I’d been anxious that my daughter wouldn’t attach.  Being a therapist, I’d done my due diligence and understood that she may not come to me and instantly adore me, fulfilling my fantasy.   I steeled myself for the fact that she might like my travel partner more than me and had promised myself I wouldn’t take it personally.  I was armed and prepared for this initial meeting. 

I wasn’t prepared for her to wrap herself around me and never let go.  The moment skin met skin it was as if we were one.  I couldn’t take a shower without someone holding her up so she could see me.  Her desperation met mine and we both held on for dear life. 

Anxious Attachment 101: Since I’d been so prepared for the other side I was caught off guard with the intensity of my longing and what it might truly mean as far as attachment.  All I knew was it felt amazingly wonderful to be so needed.  I was the light of my daughter’s eye and I soaked up every morsel of love that I’d been missing most of my life.  I was in heaven and even though I had a nagging thought that I might never work again—because she might never be able to detach—I held on for dear life matching her desperation one breath at a time. 

This was the beginning of a journey to learn a new way of being for both of us.  I had never married, due to my anxious attachment.  Any time my partner made a wrong move triggering my disappointment, I would high tail it out of Dodge.  Well, I had finally met my match.  A tiny black haired, brown eyed wonder.  I barred all the escape doors and was determined to provide my daughter with a safe emotional home where she could thrive.

A vault in my heart opened, and over the next seven years I was on a roller coaster ride of feelings moving from joy and delight to tremendous pain and suffering and back again.  Her trauma triggered mine, and we found ourselves in treacherous waters clamoring for a safe shore.  Due to the overwhelming love I felt for my daughter, I fought to find a way to forge a loving bond while creating a roadmap for others to follow.  The fuel for my journey was love, and many times along the way it was threatened by rage, fear and trepidation. 

My daughter fearlessly led the way.  She had a determination and fierceness that reflected my own.  Since it was just the two of us, the stakes were high.  Many times I wanted to run the other way, and yet I STAYED.  As our connection deepened the fires of rage exploded, in both of us, seeking solace.  It was up to me to find a way through by welcoming the rage with open arms.  Oh how I wanted to flee…. And yet for a split second I would look in her eyes and recognize something deeper emerging.  I glimpsed the spark of terror as it arose, and I kept returning over and over to my desire to open, to be safe and to trust that love was more powerful than fear.  I continue to this day to steer our ship toward vulnerable waters where attachment can and does happen.  

Today, my daughter is a bright beautiful alive 11-year old.  She is confident and strong and most of all clear that she is loved and lovable.  When I told her I was telling our story on PBS she was very interested and wanted to know more about anxious attachment.   Was there something wrong with her?  Was it bad?   I described to her how we both wanted to be loved and when I adopted her we began a process of bonding.  As this began to happen each of us experienced anxiety when apart.  I reminded her about how scared she would get if I left the house before her or how when I went on a bike ride she’d be scared I would get hurt.  We talked about how anxious I would get when she slept over at friends or did things without me.   As we were talking she said, “Mom, my wire still might be a little bent.”  I asked her, “what does that mean?”  She said, “Well you know like a paper clip?  We are joined together but there are still twist and turns in our connection.”

This is my beautiful child. She is my heart of hearts and through her courage and clarity shows me everyday that there are moments when we choose to attach or detach.  It is a process and I’ve learned the more I am willing to connect and work with my fear-returning to the present moment-the more I am able to connect with the love in my heart. From here I am able to reach out, trusting in goodness, opening to beauty and grace, continuing to find the courage to attach!

Everyday I travel the road of attachment, sharing my story and guiding parents to find their way. It is through your relationship with your child that you will be faced with your attachment story.  Embracing your story can sometimes feel daunting, and yet through the power of connection and relationship, love always prevails.  Understanding the importance of early attachment and how it can provide a healthy ground for your child to grow, allows you to engage in more compassionate parenting. By keeping a positive relationship with your child as the main/primary focus, you can through the power of attachment create a safe and loving home where everyone will thrive.

Early Moments Matter is relying on our community to help build a movement and we're asking for your help to spread the word about this valuable resource. Get your award-winning Early Moments Matter toolkit that introduces ways in which parents and caregivers can help their children build secure attachments. Your simple act can help parents and families in need.