Tina Traster, a journalist, and Rick Tannenbaum, an attorney, seemed to be an Upper West Side couple that had it all — except a child. It was not a trivial decision to make, but in 2003 they ultimately decided to fly to a Siberian orphanage, in the winter, to bring home a baby girl.
They journeyed across the world twice to bring baby Julia home, but once they did, Traster knew immediately something was wrong with her child.
“She didn’t clutch to me or gaze in my eye. She never rested her head on my shoulder or relaxed into a warm embrace,” Traster remembered.
“Just as a mother knows instantly, let’s say, if a child has a disease, I knew instantly that something was wrong,” she said.
“You couldn’t hold her, you couldn’t soothe her … I couldn’t play with her,” Traster said. “She wouldn’t respond if I read or sang to her. She was there, but wasn’t.”
This was far from normal behavior for a baby.
And this was a tremendous blow to the family.
At the beginning, Traster was beating herself up for not being cut out to be a mother. But at the same time she was all in—she was resolved that she would care for this child and give her a loving home.
“You don’t go to the other side of the world, twice, to Siberia in winter both times, and take a baby from an orphanage and think for a minute that it’s something you’re not going to throw your full self into,” Traster said.
Traster remembered the first time she saw Julia. The first time she and her husband flew to the Siberia, she remembered the caretaker walking toward her with Julia cradled in her arms.
“I will always have that image embedded in my mind,” Traster said. “That first time I looked at her, I thought, ‘I have never seen a more beautiful baby.'” She had alabaster skin, a red and runny nose, dimples, and adorable cat eyes. Traster was just stunned.
But the resolve itself was not comforting.
“Our family was not solidifying. There was a lot of sadness, which was really heartbreaking,” Traster said.
“By the end of the first year, I was really in despair.”
Traster came to the conclusion that something was horribly wrong with herself, because she was not able to connect with her child. Rather than the “mother duckling–baby duckling relationship” she saw with other mothers and their children, it felt like Julia was always running away from her.
“So this relationship only goes so far and there’s this invisible barrier and I couldn’t close this up,” Traster said.
“When I couldn’t find my way to her, I had become convinced that I was unworthy, that I couldn’t parent, that I had made the mistake of a lifetime.”
“There was nothing warm, there was nothing fuzzy,” Traster said. “And the more time that it went on and the more it felt like that, the worse it felt.”
After about three years, Traster remembers mentioning these behaviors to Julia’s pediatrician, who brought up reactive attachment disorder (RAD). At that time, Traster was not ready to hear it.
But after a few more months of thinking she was not good enough and that she was doing everything wrong, Traster thought back to that conversation and knew she needed to look into it. She needed to put on her journalist’s cap of objectivity and do whatever she could to — essentially — save her child.
She took to the library, the internet, the bookstores, and her home became a big research center she dubbed “Operation: Save Julia.”
RAD is severe but rare and can occur in both children and adults. It is a result of trauma, and displays as disturbed and even inappropriate behaviors — some children flinch or even hurt when being touched, and positive feelings and affections are viewed as threats.
“The baby suffers a traumatic disconnect from love and nurture and care so early on, and they come to believe in their mind so early on that the world is an unsafe place, that there’s no one to trust, that adults come and go,” Traster learned. “And ultimately they absorb this idea into their tiny little minds.”
Traster also learned that RAD was disproportionately high in children adopted from institutional orphanages — places where they have 10 or more babies in a stark room, with many caretakers circulated in and out sporadically. There is no way for the babies to form a connection, and they can never expect that their needs will be met.
These babies, who feel abandoned, develop a sense that the world is not safe.
They can develop behavior issues and have trouble bonding, eliminating the possibility for loving moments, Traster said. It has also been proven to be just as debilitating for parents — some cannot bear the unresponsiveness of a child, and, after some years, end up abandoning the poor children yet again.
But as soon as Traster understood why Julia was behaving this way, she changed her strategy.
“It was like our house became a war room,” Traster said. It was around this time that Julia began talking as well, so they were able to have some kind of dialogue. She and her husband found a lot of what would seem like counterintuitive parenting advice, and used it to “slash through her chaos.”
“These children are hooked — and I mean addicted — to chaos, they’re only comfortable when there’s chaos,” Traster said. But little by little by little, they were able to change that.
Little by little, Traster and Tannenbaum were able to coax Julia out of her shell. They were able to help her feel safe, and learn how to connect with other people.
Julia has always had an inclination to express herself artistically, Traster said, but now she is a budding artist and cartoonist.
“There’s a whole life that lives in Julia’s head,” Traster said, and words don’t properly convey the joy of seeing Julia being able to express that. Today, her actions are night and day from when Traster first held her in her arms.
“I cling to that happiness,” Traster said. “She’s become — she’s everything. ”
Now Julia is a vibrant and artistic child who wants to help others — she has dreams of becoming a special education teacher so she can connect with special needs children who see the world differently and need guidance.
Traster wrote her experience into a memoir in hopes that her story will help other mothers who may be quietly suffering through similar things.
“I’m hoping my story is one of optimism,” Taster said. “Even when you feel like you want to give up, you can never give up on a child.
“You can never give up on that possibility of getting that child to bond with you.”
The irony of it is, Taster said, is that in the earlier days of her journey she would have said that she had no maternal instincts. But it was her instincts that led her to find a solution and rescue Julia.
“I guess what she brought to my life in a weird way, a mission. Julia’s hurt gave us a mission to heal,” Taster said.
Watch Taster’s story below: