Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.
These five verses are among the first our children learn. Right now, I’m listening to Joseph recite them with Hope before kissing her and tucking her into bed in the other room. It is a sweet tradition we began with Savannah and there are countless memories of sweet mispronunciations, favorite verses, and sleepy faces peeking into our room at midnight to announce that, “Daddy, you fo-got to say prayers,” even though he didn’t – they were just fast asleep from a long day before he could get into their room.
We believe these verses. And God used them powerfully during our early marriage to shape our understanding of, and expectation for, children. Rather than two or three babies, we have seven in large part because of this Psalm. And every time I took a pregnancy test during a less-than-ideal season of Joseph’s job or life’s obstacles, we rejoiced. We trusted. And through that trust, God empowered us to love our little ones even when they came a year apart or with complications.
Attachment was just coming out as a thing when Savannah was born in 1998. I struggled through undiagnosed postpartum depression and dealt with years of fear over how those early months might impact her. But Joseph always reminded me that God’s grace is sufficient – sufficient for our shortcomings and pain and even less-than-ideal parenting. Savannah grew to be an adult with a strong sense of family and belonging.
I was determined to not allow my babymoon with Ginny to repeat those difficult months I had with Savannah. I quickly sought help when my moods turned dark. Working through Ginny’s first months without the complications of postpartum were so much more enjoyable. But, as Joseph had said, God’s grace was sufficient and perceiving Savannah to be just as attached to me and Joseph as Ginny was brought me tremendous relief.
Asher was one of my easiest and sweetest babies. And I never even experienced baby blues after his birth. He nursed well, relished snuggles, and adored the attention he received from two big sisters. He was contented from the beginning and we never had a moment of doubt about his sense of security in our love.
As attachment became a bigger and bigger buzzword, and as our parenting grew through wisdom and experience, our children received the benefit of more intentionality from us. We were better at recognizing the difference between childishness, which simply requires growth and maturity, versus inexcusable defiance. Our discipline became more subtle and varied with the child and situation. Georgia and Olivia were welcomed into a home that was much more comfortable with nuance.
With each new baby, our home’s culture shifted and our older children profited. Nathan was a snuggler and all his older siblings enjoyed holding him. We laughed together at the toddler’s escapades. We all participated in the growth milestones of each new addition. And together, we were knit into an emotionally connected family.
When Hope was finally born, we had our ups and downs like any family, but we had no markers of poor attachment in any of our children. Granted, we were already beginning to deal with difficulties in Asher’s behaviors (he had, at this point, been a victim of sexual abuse for 2 years). But looking back, I can see how Asher was trying so hard to maintain healthy relationships with us, and it was only certain moments that triggered his poor behavior.
We were greatly encouraged by our early therapists, as well. They were shocked that we sustained so much damage for such a long period of time while still remaining intact as a family. The fact that Asher had relationships with all his siblings, that our children were doing well in school and social settings, that we were not experiencing the unraveling of our sanity through misbehavior on all fronts was a sure sign of an abuse-aside, healthy home environment. And we relied heavily upon that hope as we remanded Asher into the juvenile justice system. We prayed that those early years of love without any abuse were enough to sustain him. We drew comfort from statistics that told us how quickly children develop bonds and that Asher’s abuse beginning at seven was a good indicator that his brain development was far enough along to hold onto those attachments in the face of trauma.
But sometimes it doesn’t work the way we hope and pray that it does.
Last week, we met with Asher and his new counselor for our first session of family counseling. Family is maybe a misnomer. It was me, Joseph, and Asher. We will eventually move to full family sessions, but right now everyone believes it best to start with just us. Asher’s counselor, Jon, led us through several insightful questions that guided us into valuable discussions. Jon also helped clarify statements and/or meaning for both parties. At one point, he looked to us and said, “Is there anything specific you would like to share with Asher?”
What a loaded question.
But Joseph and I had spoken on the drive to JCF that very day about what we might say given this opportunity. And while there is still much left to be said, we were eager to begin.
“Asher, we keep coming here, week after week, not because we are faking our commitment to you or trying to look good in your peers’ eyes. We keep coming because you are our son and we love you. We truly want to move forward and believe that’s possible. Your siblings worked so hard to heal and are prepared to take steps for rebuilding a relationship with you. We also believe you have worked hard at overcoming your unhealthy mindset and abusive behaviors. But there is still something that keeps us from connecting. It seems that you don’t really want to come home. You say you do, but it feels like home just represents not JCF.”
There were several seconds of unnerving silence after I finished speaking. I turned to Joseph to see if he had anything to add and then waited for Asher to say something. His reticence to immediately assure us of his desire to reunite with us spoke volumes. Then, when he did finally begin, my heart plummeted and I felt sick.
“I don’t know. I think I want to come home. But, I guess I don’t feel that strongly about it. I don’t really have a lot of feelings about our whole family. You say you love me, and I see you doing things that show me that you are telling the truth. But I don’t feel like you love me. I never really have. I don’t feel like I belong in our family or at our home. Not because of anything that you guys have done – or haven’t done for that matter. But just because I’m mostly detached from it all and I just don’t think about it much.”
And there it was.
So many conversations slid into place. The countless trips we’ve taken to visit him only to drive home wondering why, if he’s doing so well, we still feel utterly disconnected from him. Why the idea of returning to us isn’t more of an impetus for working hard at rehabilitation. Why the genuineness of our love for him is suspect. Why emancipation is a thoroughly acceptable idea to him.
Why he shows no real joy when we arrive and no real sadness when we leave.
Now, I’m aware that a 15-year old boy, separated from his family for over 2 years because of sexual offenses he perpetrated against his younger siblings after living through the terror of being victimized himself as a small boy, is going to find processing emotions incredibly difficult. And I hear Asher say things like, “I never really felt loved,” but know that’s not true. However, I also know that that same 15-year old boy has spent more than half his life under the shadow of sexual abuse. I know the neuroplasticity of his brain was molded through years of sexual reactivity. I know that we disciplined behavior that was a result of trauma when we thought it was defiance.
What I don’t know is how much of this detachment is a result of emotional pain he has yet to work through and how much of it is a result of genuinely poor attachment that may make his ability to feel our love and love us in return nigh on impossible.
And we can’t fix this. There is nothing we can say that will magically make Asher feel loved. We have no access to his treatment, but even if we did, this is all in Asher’s head and heart. The change must take place inside of him.
Each time I believe we’ve reached the end of the grieving process, something new appears on the horizon. This time, it not only asks me to prepare myself for a son who will never truly love me back but it asks me to surrender any idea of control I believe I have to alter him.
This is between Asher and God. Only Jesus can replace my son’s heart of stone with a heart of flesh.