Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Culture Shock and the Adoptive Mom

"Cultural Differences and the New Missionary", the title of chapter three in our Cultures and Customs class text book, may as well been called "Adoption Shock and the New Mom". The stages of culture shock described were mirror images of the attachment process I'd been going through as a new adoptive mom. As I read through my homework I thought, Why didn't the social workers and adoption books explain it this way? It makes so much sense!

As I adjusted to having a toddler at home, I struggled with a tremendous sense of failure both as a wife and as a mother. Looking back, I wish that someone had said to me, It's ok. Everyone goes through this phase. It's adoption shock. So here I am, writing in hopes that someone stuck in the failure and fear stage will read this blog and hear me say - It's ok! You are normal! It's just adoption shock and you will come through!

Comparing Culture Shock and Adoption
In the table below I've taken the causes and stages of Culture Shock, along with a quote associated with each, from the book Anthropological Insights for Missionaries and added an adoption comparison from my own experience. The book raises the point that the severity of culture shock largely depends on an individual's personality and I'll assume the same for adoption. Your reactions may not be the same as mine! The list is long, but I do hope that seeing the causes, symptoms, and stages of culture shock will help as you find your way with your new family.

Culture Shock
Adoption Shock
Causes of Culture Shock
Language Shock
“Suddenly, as strangers in a new world, we are stripped of our primary means of interacting with other people. Like children, we struggle to say even the simplest things, and we constantly make mistakes.”
Isaiah was just under 2 years old when he moved home with us. Much of the time I didn’t understand what he wanted and this led to much frustration for all of us. I simply hadn’t known him long enough to understand his toddler talk.
Changes in Routine
“Life during the first year in a new culture is often a struggle simple to survive. All our time seems spent in cooking, washing clothes, marketing, and building or repairing our houses. No time is left for what we came to do.”
Going from full time work to full time mother was a huge transition. Not only that, but everything took three times as long to do with a toddler in tow. Just eating breakfast became a 45 minute ordeal. I seemed to end up rushed and late for everything.
Changes in Relationships
“Added to all this is our loss of identity as significant adults in the society. In our own society we know who we are because of offices, degrees, and memberships in different groups. In the new setting our old identity is gone.”
Going from managing my department at work, confident and fulfilled in my job, to being a stay at home mommy turned my sense of identity upside down. No longer surrounded by friends and colleagues, I became desperate for relationships.  
Loss of Understanding
“When our knowledge repeatedly fails us, we become desperate, for our lives seem to be careening out of control. In the long run, it is the sense of meaningless arising out of this confusion that can be the most damaging consequence...”
Soon after moving home Isaiah began to have hour long tantrums several times each day and also night terrors. I tried everything I could, but nothing seemed to make any difference. It truly felt as though my life was careening out of control.
Emotional and Evaluative Disorientation
“We feel guilty because we cannot live up to our own expectations. We are angry because no one told us it would be this way and because we make such slow progress in adjusting to the new culture.”
After several months, the stress became too much and I decided to return to work part time. Unable to cope at home as a full time mom, I felt like a complete failure as both a wife and mother. These were by far the darkest days.
Symptoms of Culture Shock
Rising Stress
“In their first service year new missionaries have usually experienced marked changes in their financial status, occupation, geographical location, recreation outlets, church routine, social activities, and eating habits.”
Going from two happily married and content individuals to a family of three was extremely stressful. Our income reduced while expenses increased, our home was turned upside down, and all energy was spent on our new son.
Physical Illness
“One common consequence of high stress is physical illness. Among the more common sicknesses caused by prolonged stress are chronic headaches, ulcers, lower back pain, high blood pressure, heart attaches, and chronic fatigue.”
I developed chronic headaches and fear of Isaiah melting down and tantruming at any moment left me anxious and panicky.
Psychological and Spiritual Depression
“The most serious consequences of stress are often depression and a sense of failure. We are overwhelmed by constantly having to face confusing situations….there is little time for leisure…our support systems are gone…we do not dare admit weakness…”
Depression looming, I returned to work for a break for me and in hopes that Isaiah would benefit from daily interaction with other children at preschool. Looking back, I’m not sure how I would have made it through this stage without some type of separation from the stress.
The Cycle of Culture Shock
The Tourist Stage
“Our first response to a new culture is fascination…This honeymoon stage may last from a few weeks to several months, depending on the circumstances.”
Isaiah moved home and I felt like the most blessed woman in the world. My child, whom I’d longed for and dreamed about, was finally home!
“This stage marks the crisis in the disease. How we respond to it determines whether or not we stay…Another process, however, is also at work during this stage, one we hardly notice. We are learning to live in the new culture.”
This phase lasted about 6 months, with me returning to work in the middle of it. Work became my break and before long I was looking forward to spending time with Isaiah and able to handle his tantrums (and my attitude) in a much more constructive manner.
“The emergence of humor often marks the beginning of recovery…Culture shock is not simply an experience to be endured…it is, in fact, one of the most significant and formative periods…it is a time when we are “bonded” in one way or another to the new culture.”
I don’t remember the exact day, but it certainly was a turning point. Isaiah began to tantrum over something silly and Ben started to laugh saying something along the lines of, “Why are you crying about that?” I laughed too and slowly stopped seeing every behavior as the end of the world.

“The final stage of culture shock comes when we feel comfortable in the new culture. We have now learned enough to function efficiently in our new setting without feelings of anxiety. We not only accept…but actually begin to enjoy…we cherish…and we begin to feel constructive in our work.”
And here we find ourselves! I love the words the author uses – accept, enjoy, and cherish. Isaiah’s behaviors (which are very much improved) no longer leave me fearful and anxious. I am a full time mom again, but this time loving having my son home with me. Perhaps the best part is the realization that, having made it through, I want to do it all again with another child!