How I Learned That Routine and Rituals Are Key to Family Bonding

Establishing routines my daughter could count on helped us create a happy, healthy family.

Igisheva Maria/  Shutterstock
Igisheva Maria/ Shutterstock

Impending motherhood was not a joy for me.

As I awaited the finalization of our international adoption process, I was becoming more stressed every day. One question nagged at me constantly:

What if our daughter hated us?

It was a possibility. Neither my husband nor I had any experience as parents. I felt confident that the odds were not in our favor. In my heart, I had a feeling our child would hate us. After all, we were a hard party to crash. 

We had an appointment with our social worker, Wendy, about our adoption. After talking through all of the legalities, Wendy asked if we had any questions. 

“How will we be able to bond with a child that doesn’t even know us? She won’t understand us because she’s a baby, and has probably never heard words spoken in English. How will we communicate?” I asked.

Wendy thought for a moment, and responded: “I know this is hard, but I see it time and again. It will happen. A connection will form. It’s a different process for everyone, but eventually your family will come together. Just be there for her when she needs you.”

Her answer was a little vague, but at that point I was looking for a lifeline. It sounded like I really just needed to have faith. But as a planner, I needed more of a plan. 

The Secret Sauce for Bonding

As we were getting ready to leave for China, I hit my breaking point.

I was at my parents’ house picking up some outfits that my mom had bought for the baby. I was in a terrible mood, and I was snapping at my parents over everything. I was being a jerk.

Finally, my dad said, “What is wrong with you?”

I lost it. I sat down and started sobbing. “I am so scared of adopting this kid. I’m worried she won’t like us. How are we supposed to bond with her when she doesn’t even know us? Everyone keeps telling me that it will happen, but stuff doesn’t happen magically. I need to know what to do.”

My dad sat down next to me and put his arm around me while I cried some more. When I was starting to calm down, he gave me some of the best advice of my life. 

“With all kids, especially when they are babies, the best way to communicate with them is through routine,” he said. “By having a routine, you are showing them they can count on you. That means you do all you can to preserve that routine, especially in the beginning. They wake up at the same time. They eat at the same time. They play at the same time. They nap at the same time. It is the most important thing you can do, especially as you begin to establish yourselves as a family.”

“That seems pretty basic,” I said. “Is it enough?”

“Think about it,” he said. “Look at how routine gives us all comfort. That’s why people have their morning routines or their nighttime routines. It’s the thing we all return to as humans again and again. When you do it as a family, like by making a point pf always being together at the end of the day to share a meal and relax, it helps build in this idea that they are part of something special. That is how bonding happens.”

I thought about that conversation as we prepared to get our daughter and bring her home. I didn’t have any other ideas, so I decided to give the routine method a shot.

Routine and Ritual Are Everything

Our daughter finally came home after two grueling weeks in China, where it was impossible to establish a routine because we had to keep traveling around the country to finalize the adoption. We were all exhausted when we finally made it back to the United States, but I was determined that we would establish a routine.

The first three weeks at home were rough. My daughter was sick, and cried all the time, but we made a schedule and stuck to it. After three weeks, everything got easier. My daughter was sleeping. She started to smile. These were baby steps towards progress.

As the weeks, months, and years went on, we built on the basics of our routine by adding rituals. Every night there was at least one bedtime story. We sang the same song when it was bathtime. We made feeding the dog into a game every day. My first words to my daughter each morning were “Here is the plan!” so she would know what to expect. To this day, my healthy, smart, and happy 13-year-old wakes up and asks, “What’s the plan for today?”

Having routines and rituals was absolutely critical to establishing our little family. It has become like a super secret handshake to our exclusive club of three people. My dad was so right. 

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