It was late and I was ready to leave. For the past couple of hours our kids had jumped in bouncy houses, had their faces painted and eaten way too many cookies at our foster care agency’s picnic. There was still a training to attend. And as much as I begged my husband to skip out on it, he refused. Our recertification was just a few months away and he was short on hours. Reluctantly, I followed him up the stairs to the meeting room.
It’s crazy how God knows what we need, and is faithful to be sure we get it. Because that night’s training, the one I didn’t want to go to, provided the missing piece to understanding the breakdown in bonding between my foster daughter and me. At that time, she was five years old and had been with us for nine months. Her behavior had improved tremendously, and the multiple-times-a-day (sometimes hours long) meltdowns and tantrums occurred less frequently. We had dramatically changed our parenting style. In the evenings I would often put her in a toddler carrier and walk around the nearby lake with her. I held her while she drank juice boxes. Before bed I rubbed her back with essential oil and practiced making eye contact while I told her how much I loved her.
Maybe it was because I was doing so many things right that I felt utterly ashamed we weren’t bonded. Because it wasn’t from lack of trying! What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I fully accept and love this little girl who has been through so much? My constant heavy heart did nothing to help the irritation and disconnect I felt towards her.
And then I went to the training.
And it had absolutely nothing to do with foster care or attachment.
It was about understanding your children’s personalities. My husband and I filled out questionnaires for each of our kids, and for ourselves. Each personality type was classified as a Lion, Otter, Golden Retriever or Beaver*. The presenter explained the general characteristics of each personality type and how many people are a blend, like a Lion-otter or a Retriever-beaver.
“But a pure Otter? And a pure Golden Retriever? Well, those two usually don’t get along,” I heard her say. My head snapped up and things suddenly clicked. Because the quiz right in front of me said I was a complete Golden Retriever. My foster daughter was 100% Otter.
The more I thought about our personality differences, the more our struggle to bond made total sense. When children come to us as infants, they kind of come personality-less. No new mom wants to think that, but it’s true. A baby’s personality is almost entirely hidden, until it begins to unfold and develop a little bit, month by month. By the time that happens, a lot of bonding and love has already occurred through daily interaction, care and closeness.
But when we are placed with a foster child over the baby age, a large part of their personality is firmly in place. It takes time and effort to mine the heart of a child, to begin to truly know them, and to genuinely like and enjoy who they are as a person. And in some situations, like mine, personality conflicts can make it really hard.
Armed with this new awareness, I began to parent with our personality differences in mind. I had planned to do a little family party for her upcoming birthday. But I realized that was the kind of birthday I would have liked, not her. So I threw her an over-the-top tea party with twelve of her very best friends. I also began to openly address our differences, saying things like:
“Honey, I know you love to talk. But Mommy doesn’t like to talk ALL the time. I would love for you to sit here with me while I work and you look at books, but we are going to do it without talking.”
The more I lived in awareness and acceptance of our personalities, the more God began to show me the beauty in our differences and our bond began to strengthen. I realized I admired the fearless way my foster daughter approached new situations, how easily she made friends and her fun, adventurous spirit. Yes, our differences still rubbed each other the wrong way, but I embraced the idea that God brought us together for a purpose.
She’s an Otter. I’m a Retriever. But God has made us mother and daughter—I believe He did it for our good and His glory.
*concepts developed by Gary Smalley, www.smalley.cc/personality-quiz
Corrie and her family live in South Carolina, where she spends her time raising kids (foster and bio) and doing diy on their old cape cod home. She is a staff writer for Respite Redefined and you can follow her on Instagram @corrievanderploeg.