For the last six months or more, the expectant parents have been busy. They've painted a room, bought little tee shirts, shoes, and diapers and gone over the baby name book at least a hundred times. Daily, if not hourly, their thoughts turn to the baby waiting for them, thousands of miles away. They take out the precious photo and examine it again and again, wondering "How much older will he look?" The hearts and minds of these loving parents are never too far from this baby. For the baby, however, these folks haven't even been a fleeting thought.
Somewhere, often in a far away country, the baby has already experienced immense loss. For nine months, he lived and breathed with his mother. He learned to know her voice, her smell, her moods-both good and bad-and her sleep. At birth, he abruptly lost everything he had grown to love. He may show signs of grieving at the time, or he may store the loss deep in his brain and body, at a visceral level that will become more obvious with time.
At the time of birth, a child perceives himself as being one and the same as his birth mother. He does not recognize that they are two separate individuals. Physically, his respiration and heart rate regulates in sync with hers. Emotionally, he sees the world through her eyes. Her anxiety is his. Her joy and contentment are his. So what happens when a part of him, the part that regulates not only the physical, but also the emotional, disappears?
Perhaps he is placed in a foster home at birth. He spends his days getting to know the smells, voice, tastes, and moods of his new caretaker. Although it is hard to trust, having already lost a mommy, he enjoys the soft touches and the warm feeling he gets when she fills his tummy. He feels confused and worried, not knowing who this person is and what happened to his first love.
If he spends time in a hospital or orphanage, his little body grows increasingly anxious. After all, he can only focus about nine inches from his face, and the images that move in and out of that space are constantly changing.
In both cases, the sheer separation from the birth mother can put his body on high alert. The primitive part of his brain, the "fight or flight" center, works overtime, flooding with cortisol, sending the body messages akin to that of an adult who senses his life is in danger. "Will I get food?" "Who will comfort me?" "Will I survive?" A variety of factors-genetic predisposition, prenatal environment, ongoing transitions, early environment-contribute to the level at which the child is affected. The initial abandonment alone affects his brain and body, with hospitalization, foster homes, orphanages, multiple placements, and pain increasing the potential for long-term attachment issues.
And then, without warning, it happens again. Just as he is getting accustomed to the new caretakers in his life, he is suddenly handed to a stranger. This person's hair, skin, smell, and voice are all wrong. The stranger takes him to a place filled with people. They go and go and go for what seems like an eternity. Eventually, the child is handed to more strangers. Bright lights flash everywhere. Nothing smells right. Nothing sounds right. Nothing looks right.
The adults are in love. The baby is in shock.