When the Polsgroves arrived at the adoption agency’s foster home in Addis Ababa, a startling scene awaited them. Lolling in the yard were 15 babies in nothing but disposable diapers, laid out on quilts in the morning sun, clearly enjoying their belly time. Stunned, the Tupelo couple walked promptly past their future daughter.
“She just looked at us.” A caregiver placed Lucy Samrawit in Anna’s arms. “It was a little too much for her: the different color [of our skins], the different language. Of course, I cried. In the end, she cried, too.” Anna handed her back.
A year and half earlier, the 30-year-old part-time teacher of character education and her husband Russ, 34, youth pastor at The Orchard in Tupelo, had decided to adopt from Ethiopia. In January of 2011, they flew to the capital to bring Lucy home. But once on the ground, the Polsgroves learned that an official investigation into their adoption agency had slowed proceedings to a crawl. Social workers were warning the couple not to become too attached to the then 7-month-old baby.
“They told us, ‘Limit your affection and bonding during the first visit because you’ll have to leave,’ “ Anna recalls.
Ordinarily, couples expect to return with their baby on the first trip, or to make the second trip just a few weeks later. Because of the investigation, however, the Polsgrove’s adoption dragged on for six long months. Anna grew desperate.
“I felt like I was apart from something that was already so much a part of me. There were days where I wondered if it would ever happen.”
The couple had talked about adopting long before they got married. “We always kind of felt this desire to take care of children who did not have the advantages we had,” says Russ.
Then Anna became pregnant. When word finally came that they could head back to Ethiopia in August of 2011, Anna was already sporting a bump. In the span of just four months, Anna and Russ would become parents twice over: a 13-month old and a newborn; a daughter and a son; one adopted, one biological; one black, one white.
“Yes, people do look,” Anna admits. “Most of the time they just tell me that she’s so sweet. We’re not naïve to think that some people may not agree with us. But so far, we’ve had nothing but positive comments.”
At times, the adjustment was difficult. A few days after Lucy arrived, guests came to visit. Afterwards Lucy’s behavior changed. Picking her words carefully, Anna tries to balance honesty against sharing too much intimate detail.
“She distanced herself from us,” Anna recalls. The problem was that Lucy was overly friendly towards others, seeming to make very little distinction between her parents and other adults. “Our gut feeling told us she needed more time just with us.”
What helped were very clear instructions to anybody who came into contact with Lucy in those early months. Don’t pick her up. Don’t soothe her. Don’t bathe or feed her. Getting Lucy to understand that mom and dad were permanent, primary caregivers proved hard work.
According to Dr. Susan Buttross, professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Child Development and Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, this kind of behavior may indicate a reactive attachment disorder, which comes in two types: the inhibited form in which the child shows a lack of social responsiveness and a persistent failure to initiate relationships, and the disinhibited form. In the latter form, the child lacks the ability to be selective, seeking out attachment figures indiscriminately.
“They will often just go to anyone for comfort,” Buttross explains.
Often children in institutional settings have learnt that their needs are best met if they can endear themselves to their caregivers. For brand new adoptive parents, however, it may seem that their child doles out love indiscriminately. Developmental experts therefore advise parents to “cocoon,” which is exactly what the Polsgroves did. In other words, shut your door to friends and family until the child has understood that it’s o.k. to place her trust in just two people, mom and dad.
But that’s easier said than done.
“Often it is difficult to deal with this type, because friends and family love the fact that the child will go to them easily,” Buttross says. “Even though it may be hard on the extended family to draw lines, it is important to have the child learn boundaries.”
“We were basically on lockdown for several week,” says Russ. “It wasn’t easy for our families; she was the first grandchild.”
What helped Lucy finally understand that she was no longer reliant on an ever- changing set of caregivers was the birth of her brother, Rivers, in December. Something clicked. Seeing how baby Rivers related to his parents and sister made Lucy understand her own role in the family.
“Having Rivers really helped,” Russ says.
“For the most part she’s attached,” Anna agrees. “I can’t say it’s a 100 percent, but it’s only been ten months.”
Already, the family has come far. One evening, about a quarter of a year after the adoption, Anna kissed Lucy good night and tiptoed out of the nursery. Suddenly, she heard a little voice. Something was new and Anna recognized it instantly in the tone of her voice, in Lucy’s inflection: “Ma-ma!” And this time, Anna knew instinctively, Lucy really meant it.
Photos by Adam Robison // Story by Sandra Knispel