Lessons from the Ocean on Attachment
In October, I attended the 30th annual ATTACh conference in Virginia Beach. I’m not a “beach person” but I was intrigued by the setting of the conference juxtaposed against the subject of the conference–the nature of attachment is a lot like the nature of the ocean.
Hosted at an oceanfront hotel, the ATTACh conference was three days full of intensive refreshment and re-exposure to attachment and trauma-informed practices. This conference at this setting provided me a sorely-needed, refreshed perspective that came from watching the waves crash on the sand and thinking about what I was learning. I came away with new information and good reinforcements to parenting tools I’m already trying to use.
Here are three lessons I learned from the ocean on attachment.
1. Attachment is like the waves. Neither ever stops moving.
On even the calmest, most serene days, the waves are constantly rolling, cresting and breaking on the shore. Little critters are carried in gently to rest for a while on the firmer ground. Debris from previous waves is washed out to sea, leaving behind a pristine beach in the wake.
When the weather is volatile, the waves are crashing. It’s loud and wide-reaching. Huge chunks of shoreline are torn down and leveled. Nothing in the path of incoming waves is untouched – the rough waters take over every nook and cranny on the shore.
The constancy of the waves’ actions gives me great hope as a parent to kiddos who’ve experienced tough starts to their lives. We have calm, serene days when the attachment we’ve crafted together is restful. There are beautiful, peaceful moments when our bonds feel uncluttered and untouched by the cares of the history behind them.
We also have dark, hard-crashing days. Dysregulation (theirs and mine) feels like it’s tearing down the shoreline we’ve so meticulously built up. The brokenness of their stories can be triggered easily by a sibling squabble or by (even) a gentle correction during a hard homework session. Their struggle to process and own those stories magnificently wrecks everything it touches in those moments. The raw loss that is part and parcel to adoption creeps into the nooks and crannies of our days.
No matter the climate of our relationship, that attachment is always moving. We move forward gently and serenely. But we crash awkwardly and violently forward as well. The connection never stops moving – it’s a vibrant, life-giving and life-wrecking force of our life together. Always together.
2. Attachment has high tides and low tides.
As my friend and I walked along the shoreline, I was reminded there is a cycle to the ocean tides. The predictable nature of well, nature, establishes the pattern of the tides. Wildlife depends upon and innately responds to the ebb and flow of these cycles in order to survive. Fishermen plan their expeditions around these patterns. Surfers anticipate the tides to maximize their experience. Both halves of the cycle are necessary for the health of the whole ocean’s ecosystem.
Parenting a child toward strong, healthy attachment has cycles and predictable patterns too. Fair warning: you might have to look for them – especially in the early days of forming your bonds. But they exist.
Looking for the patterns:
Paying attention to typical developmental milestones. Watching both the seasons and the family calendar. Noting our family’s comings and goings and how they affect the kids who struggle with good-byes. All of these are patterns that I can use to build stronger attachment. I use what I learn from observing our family’s patterns and each kid’s unique patterns to meet the need. My responsiveness to the tides of our life help keep our little ecosystem healthy and growing forward. We depend on each other for it.
A practical example:
I know that the start of a new school year brings a “high tide” of anxiety and insecurity for one or two of my children (not just my adopted ones). I’ve learned the hard way to prepare for that tide by pulling our whole family higher up the beach for the first weeks of the school year. I anchor my own feet in the shifting sand a little deeper for the high waters of the adjustment period. I’ve learned that we are far more connected in loving ways when I hold tightly to the reins of a predictable routine and build in plenty of intentional “presence” together.
We all breathe a sigh of relief when the “low tide” rolls in after about the third or fourth week of school. With routines firmly established, we can go about the business of enjoying each other and the peace that comes with the sense of having adjusted successfully.
3. Our attachment has depths that may never fully be explored.
I love watching documentaries about the ocean. The deepest, darkest canyons where odd and scary creatures lurk are fascinating to me. (But to be clear, not fascinating enough that I’d ever suit up and go diving. Those marine biologists are pretty brave folks.)
As curious, brave and adventurous as they may be – researchers will tell you that there is so much more under the surface than mankind will ever fully know. They can extrapolate useful information that offers the opportunity for innovation and advances in technology, health care, and so on. But the depths of oceans are vast and expansive – beyond our ability to access it all.
The human heart’s capacity to love and be loved is vast. The need for connection, the innate wiring for true relationship is expansive. It’s actually quite remarkable – even the most traumatized heart longs for deep connectedness. To know and be known. Decades of research has been conducted to dive deeply into the human spirit and the brain science of attachment. But the fact of the matter is, we (the collective we) will likely never “finish” our exploration of attachment.
I am forever seeking more information about building strong healthy attachment with my children. Now that I also work in adoption education, I’m now exposed to an even greater expanse of deep dives into the study of trauma, the brain, and human capacity for connection. Standing at that shoreline, watching the water break over my (freshly painted) toes, I renewed my resolve to never stop learning.
I also made peace with the fact that I may never fully understand the depths and intricacies of our attachments. And that I don’t have to.
Choosing what I can choose. Letting the rest go.
My job is to be a safe equipper for my child. To create an environment in which she can feel safe to inquire, to feel, to be curious, to wonder. My goal is to give her language when she lacks the words. To respect her limits and teach her to recognize and respect them for herself. I choose to speak life into her vast future and speak honor over her history. It’s important to be practical in my equipping, giving her tools to help her process her story. I will teach her to take that story as her own and possess it and guard it well.
There is much I can choose to do. The rest is not mine to control. I felt refreshed simply acknowledging that.
The ever-moving waves. The cycles of the tides. The unexplored depths. All of these elements of this journey of attachment challenge me to be present in exhausting, unfamiliar or uncomfortable ways. But I find them challenging in an “oh, I’m intrigued, tell me more” kind of way. My perspective was adjusted and refreshed. It’s just the kind of self-care that this momma loves.