Bonding with My Daughter Through Music—In Honor of National Adoption Month (November)

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Bonding with their new children is a common concern among adoptive parents. Will he love us? Will he attach to us? Will he trust us to take care of him and keep him safe? Adoption professionals define bonding as “the process that a child goes through in developing lasting emotional ties with his or her immediate caregivers.” Sadly, due to the chaos and lack of stability in their very early childhoods, some adopted children suffer from a form of a condition called attachment disorder. And while all parents worry about bonding with their children, the sometimes-long lapse of time from birth to adoption can present a special challenge for adoptive families.

My own adopted daughter, Rosie, was ten months old when our family flew to China to bring her home. I worried about all of the same things as I did when I delivered my biological son: Is she physically healthy? Ten fingers? Ten toes? However, with my son, it never occurred to me to worry about attachment, too. From birth I was able to hold him to my heart, sing to him, and give him unconditional love. With my daughter, it was different: She was born ten months before she met me. I remember that long, miserable wait. What is she doing right this minute? Who is taking care of her? Is she warm, safe, and dry? Is she being well fed? Is anybody playing and singing with her? Does she laugh? It was agonizing. And so I planned. What types of activities should I incorporate into our daily schedule to help us get to know each other? Parents of both domestic and foreign adoptees often wonder what they can do to strengthen bonds with their children. As a musician, I instinctively knew that it was essential to bring music into her life right away.

Since my own childhood, I had been told “music is a universal language.” This statement has been argued by researchers on philosophical, technical, and semantic levels for many years. For me personally, the adage had proven itself true over and over again, and our final connection proved to be no exception. My beautiful little girl had spent her first ten months exposed only to Chinese, while I came into her life speaking English, with sounds and inflections that she couldn’t understand. I smiled at her, she tentatively smiled back. She let me hold her and soothe her but was very hesitant to snuggle. Then I sang to her, and our life together began.

According to research by the National Association for Music Education (MENC), “We know that music is among the first and most important modes of communication experienced by infants. The youngest children lack the gift of speech, but they are deeply responsive to the emotional ethos created by music. The lullabies sung by parents help children to accomplish the fundamental developmental task of learning—to trust their environment as a secure one. Songs communicate adult love and the experiences of joy and delight; they teach children that the world is a pleasurable and exciting place to be. Music is essential to the depth and strength of this early foundation for learning and for connecting to life itself.”

From the moment we entered the room at the Music Together demonstration class, I knew we were in the right place. My daughter lit up. She was still tentative and scared, but she was also smiling. There were many adults and children dancing around the room joyfully and my Rosie was overwhelmed. As I held her, she wrapped her legs around my hips, her arms around my neck—and she wasn’t getting down any time soon. But she was happy. We ran around the room, playing, laughing, singing, experiencing, and I showed her—by my own disposition—that this was what made me tick. I knew that at Music Together, I would be able to share my musical outlet with her and help her learn how to use music for self-expression.

We also met other families who valued music in their lives. After the first few weeks, a dad approached us. Although it is visually obvious that my daughter is Asian and I am not, it wasn’t as evident that Mike and his daughter were just beginning to form their bonds, too. He shared with me that he and his wife adopted Lily from Siberia at about the same time we were adopting. A friendship bloomed between the girls, and it was nice for me to have another parent in class who was sensitive to our situation.

As the semesters rolled by and I opened my own Music Together center, I met many other parents of foreign and domestic adoptees. When asked how Music Together class helped facilitate her bonding experience, another adoptive mother wrote the following: “My daughter was thirteen months old when we adopted and brought her home from China. We got home in February last year and enrolled in the spring Music Together class. Josie immediately took to the music and I strongly felt it was helping her language acquisition. We loved spending our time together as mother and daughter in a fun environment. Singing and dancing are great things for mommy and baby to do together to enhance their bonding relationship.”

This experience with my daughter taught me plenty. I have come to realize that we are not alone. Bonding is not an issue unique to adoptive families. Every family in every class is moving through its own bonding experience. Adoptive families, biological families, and blended families are all alike. There are phases and stages, ups and downs, happiness and sadness. As I raise my own family, I have learned to be sensitive to the needs of others.

We recently celebrated our 10th “Gotcha Day” anniversary. It’s so hard to believe that a decade has now passed since our life-changing trip to China, and that Rosie is now eleven years old! Her musical activities include playing the clarinet in the elementary school band and singing in the girls’ ensemble and chorus. Gymnastics is her sport of choice—and it’s amazing to watch her fly! We still sing Music Together songs in the car, but now we alternate them with the Beatles. Her favorite is “Here Comes the Sun.” She misses her big brother who is off in college now. Our family has a very strong bond and I am so thankful to have left the fear of attachment disorder long in the past.

Historically, the Chinese have many strong beliefs. For me, this author-unknown quote rings the bell of truth:

“An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break.” —Ancient Chinese Belief

A “red thread” brought our family of four together: husband, wife, son, and daughter. It also brought us to Music Together, which in a sense, is like my children. It brings me work, play, laughter, joy, and the gift of music. Music Together continues to provide our whole family a wealth of daily bonding experiences that will be a legacy for us to pass down to future generations.

November is National Adoption Month, a time set aside to celebrate adoptive families and raise awareness about adoption, which began as a week-long celebration in 1976. Each year, the President of the United States issues a proclamation announcing National Adoption Month. Read this year’s Presidential Proclamation. Along with the month-long celebration, November 20, 2010, is the 11th Annual National Adoption Day.

Janet Billings is the director of Music Together of Blackstone Valley in Milford, MA. Janet holds a BA in Psychology with a minor in Music Education from Hofstra University. Janet is an accomplished classical pianist and experienced music teacher of both children and adults. She has sung in amateur and professional choruses, including competitive a cappella quartets. She is committed to enhancing her teaching skills and has achieved the highest level of certification offered by the Center for Music and Young Children (CMYC)of Princeton, NJ. “Music education supports all learning.” says Janet. “Many young children who are exposed to quality music experiences naturally learn to use their creative skills to solve educational challenges in other areas.”