Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Review: Like Family

I recently finished Like Family: Growing Up In Other People's Houses, by Paula McLain. This memoir tells the story of McLain and her two biological sisters who were abandoned by their mother at age 8. They spent time living with their paternal grandmother, who didn't want to raise them herself; their father, who was repeatedly incarcerated; an aunt; and a series of foster families.  The final foster placement- with Hilde and Bub Lindbergh and their biological daughter, Tina- lasted for over a decade.  However, given the foster care climate at the time, it's unsurprising that that girls were never adopted.

I would have enjoyed Like Family a lot less if I didn't have the experience and knowledge I've been blessed to acquire through my education and time as a foster parent. Something that brings both the content and the tone of this work into focus is this: quite often, children with difficult circumstances in their early childhoods will develop attachment styles other than a secure, warm, close attachment to their primary caregiver. Some children will have a full-blown attachment disorder, but more often, children will develop either an ambivalent or avoidant attachment style.

There are a myriad of resources out there about attachment theory, but for the purposes of understanding McLain's narrative, ambivalent attachment usually develops in response to a primary caregiver who is sometimes emotionally available and caring, and other times is unwilling or unable to respond to their child with emotional connection. An ambivalent attachment style developed in infancy or early childhood carries on into later relationships, which often demonstrate characteristic push-pull behaviors. The child wants love and affection, but is unable to accept them when they are offered. As babies, they will cry, but refuse to be comforted. As they get older, they will reject or misinterpret demonstrations of affection.

McLain writes Hilde as a block of concrete, unyielding and unloving. Hilde was German, so she probably wasn't demonstratively affectionate, but she opened her home to three girls who needed help and kept them safe there for a decade. She may not have rocked them to sleep at night, but she cared for those girls. To my reading McLain is an unreliable narrator. Her attachment style deeply colors her experience of her foster families, so that she can't see Hilde as anything other than cold.

McLain herself admits being unable to ascribe motives to her foster parents. She can imagine some of them taking her and her sisters in for the money, and one foster father for worse reasons, but she can't imagine motivations beyond the purely selfish. Most of the foster families I know are involved with foster care because they want to help children from hard places. But McLain's attachment style is so deeply ambivalent that she can't admit warmth, love, or care as motivators for the people who raised her.

Later in their lives, adults with ambivalent attachment stay emotionally enmeshed with their attachment figures. They feel preoccupied with those relationships, experience ongoing senses of anger and ambivalence, and tell vivid stories to reinforce their perspectives.

I found Like Family to be a fascinating look at McLain's thought processes. I would hope that she develops more insight going forward, but reading her current perspective gave me a clear look at how ambivalent attachment can shape the outlook of a young person in care.

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