Introductions: A How To… Guide

peppaReflecting back over my husband’s and my experiences of the adoption process from preparation and assessment through to being matched and Introductions, it strikes me that every step of the way we would have benefited from some basic tips; a kind of “How To… “guide to get us through some of the more challenging aspects of it all.

Of the many and varied experiences we had, Introductions – when you get to meet your child for the first time and immerse yourself in their world (in our case for two whole weeks) – holds a special place in my memory as I found it a confusing and bewildering time. I felt a bit like the Sandra Bullock character in Speed, when she’s desperately trying to take charge of that massive speeding runaway bus with no idea what she was doing. (Sadly I’m pretty sureI looked a lot more disheveled than she did.)

Here is what I wish someone had said to me before we set off…

You are allowed to be really excited. It’s a massive thing you’re doing.

You have been patiently (or not so patiently) waiting for this moment for quite some time now. You’ve been pinched and prodded by Social Services who have gone through every single thing in your history (some good, some bad. Some embarrassing, some odd). You’ve been CRB checked. You’ve drawn family trees, outlined family values, painted children’s pictures, role played in the preparation group, spoken passionately about violin lessons, swimming, dancing, football etc. You have been matched. Met family finders, seen photos, spoken to foster carers and now you are finally about to meet your child. YOUR CHILD! A new addition to your family! Someone you will love for the rest of your life. Have hopes and fears for, go on life’s twists and turns with and someone you plan to share a rich, challenging, rewarding future with. How much more exciting could it get right?

I know you’re not expecting it but you might feel overwhelmed.

- It really is a massive thing you’re doing.

Your excitement might temporarily desert you and turn into blind panic as you attempt to process an awful lot of information in a very short space of time in a very unfamiliar environment. THIS IS NORMAL! It’s imperative you understand that. You are on a steep learning curve with a small human being’s welfare being placed in your hands, it’s bound to be stressful. To add to that stress, people will be observing you, and most of them will probably know your child much better than you do right now. Will you come across well? What if your new child can see immediately that you don’t know what you’re doing? That you are a blatant beginner? AN IMPOSTER? Your brain might go into overdrive and play tricks on you. It may even tell you you’re not up to the task, but I’ve got news for you, you are! Be kind to yourself and hang in there. You have never been in this situation before. It’s odd and unfamiliar and there is a lot to take in. Deep breaths. You can do this.

 Try not to place expectations on those first vulnerable meetings.

It’s going to be like a blind date of epic proportions.

You might fall in love with your new child on first sight, and you also might not. You might actually be so psyched up that you are numb and can’t feel anything…. Doesn’t matter. There is no right or wrong here so take your foot off the accelerator. You have years of giggling, joyful (and sometimes maddening) getting to know your child times ahead of you. There is no rush.

And finally… you need to know that it’ll all be ok in the end. You will get through this strange process and bring home your beautiful complicated and amazing child who you will love more than you thought was humanly possible. She will continue to enchant and bewitch amuse and confuse you every single day. And your life will be changed forever, in a really really good way.

Lucky?

Wearefamily logoFrom the moment we started introducing our new sons to friends and family, something bothered me greatly and over time my initial frustration has grown.

We are not wealthy, but being older more financially secure parents we have stability and a lifestyle that we have had plenty of child free (DINKY) years to work towards.

We are also very child focused and have the luxury of one of us being a stay at home parent and I’m sure like most new adopters make as much time as possible for our new sons.

I think it was seeing us dedicate so much time, effort and energy to the boys and seeing them with an abundance of love, comfort and the security we could afford them that on meeting the boys many around us would declare ‘these boys are so lucky’.

Lucky?

Like all adopted kids our boys have had a very tough start to their lives and I should imagine that in their first 4 and 5 years they experienced more heartache and tragedy than most would suffer throughout their entire life. They were badly neglected in their early years – left unfed, uncleaned and uncared for – they were taken away from their parents who of course they loved regardless, removed from their home and everything that was familiar to them, they were put into a tough (but thankfully loving) foster placement where they stayed ‘in limbo’ for almost three years, they were then removed from the security of that home and were separated from other siblings and thrust into a new life with new parents, new extended family, new home, new school, new friends, new neighbours – well, new EVERYTHING.

Their loss doesn’t stop there as recently my sister – a beloved new aunt who they adored – died from cancer. In addition in the last couple of days the family cat -their first ever pet – also passed away.

They have had it tough and it is clear that it has left it’s scars, some of which will no doubt stay with them forever. As social services always tell us adopters – our children are damaged and may always be so.

So ‘lucky’! Really?

In addition to our day to day lives, in the two years they have been with us we have been able to give our new sons experiences that I guess could seem quite grandiose – holidays abroad visiting the other half of our family, a trip to Lapland to meet Father Christmas before it was too late to be totally convincing, Skiing in France at the invitation of French friends as well as other exciting experiences – all wonderful family times that have already given us great memories. Holidays and breaks for the family to enjoy and the boys to learn from and to grow from.

I am sure they will not be repeated with the same frequency ongoing and we know we are fortunate to have been able to do this so far and we also know that the boys are experiencing more than many and certainly more than they could ever have hoped for with their birth family.

But again, even though I know it’s said with the best of intentions people start to use that word – ‘what Lucky little boys’ we are frequently told. I appreciate that they feel it is a compliment and in stating it they are acknowledging the good job they think we are doing, but in fact it feels anything but a compliment.

To add insult to injury many now go further and declare how spoilt the boys are for getting so much – and I’m pretty sure that one’s not meant as a compliment.

Lucky! Spoilt! – Although I can see where the conclusion has come from, I just could not disagree more. However it feels wrong to correct the statement as I know that no ill intent is ever meant.

No matter how I look at what we give them or consider the good times we have, when I think of their past and the traumatic little lives they have endured I just can’t accept that ‘SPOILT’ or LUCKY’ are appropriate adjectives. In fact I would say the exact opposite – that they are in fact unlucky little souls indeed and that they just happen to be having a much better life now.

No matter what we can do for them, no matter how much love we give and how happy we can make them, we can never erase their past.

Our sons are settled now, we bonded quickly and it’s clear that they are attached and indeed happy with us. They love us, they love the new family that we are and they love their new lives. Of that I am sure, just as I am that they would not NOW choose to change it – not to go back to Mummy and Daddy or even the foster parents who they had grown to love, however that’s got nothing to do with the trips away or any of the other ‘spoiling’ , that’s all to do with the love we have smothered them with and the security we have built for them. Proper life long security – the first they have ever had.

I am sure that any young child – no matter how tough their life may be, given the choice of staying with their birth parents or swapping them for parents who can give what we can give will of course choose their own parents, no matter how bad their life was as a consequence. Had our boys been asked back then of course they would have chosen not to be removed from mummy and daddy regardless of what could have been promised to them.

So what if there was a magic wand, with the wondrous ability to turn back time and to make our children’s lives with their birth parents all OK. Would we use it?

Selfishly I instantly say NO – absolutely no chance, the thought of taking away the opportunity for the family we have been given, to deprive us of our amazing, beautiful, so very special sons – it’s unthinkable.

But then I stop thinking about myself and consider only the boys and in fact the answer is then a very different one. If I had the ability to take away all the bad that they suffered, if I could repair the damage by making it never happen, if I could give them the happy life they so deserved from day one – then how could I not? How could I deprive them for my own selfishness?

So I guess I would wave that magic wand and suffer the unthinkable consequences on my life. Isn’t that what parents do – put our children before ourselves?

However, if that wand is as good as I have presented it to be, it will also give the parents the ability to give the boys everything that we can and they will miss out on nothing. Hey it’s my fairy tale, so I get to make the rules.

There is of course no magic wand and my goodness how we adoptive parents benefit from that. I guess it’s not too selfish to be relieved that we are not in a fairy tale and maybe even to admit to being pleased about it. Regardless of the horrible reality that we have benefitted so greatly from our children’s suffering.

Family Resemblance

Wearefamily logoThe first time it happened, I felt it like a pole-axe. “That ain’t even your kid” yelled the woman over her shoulder as she barged past us in the street. I held it together until we got to the playground where we were meeting friends, then burst into tears. Furious on my behalf, one friend insisted, “but she is your child”, in truth although I had felt she was my daughter since some time during introductions, I was still very much aware that until we had the adoption order, anything could happen, and our little family felt fragile.

It happened a few more times, in the street or on trains, helpful strangers observing “your husband must have very strong genes” or “she’s got none of you and all of her daddy”. It still rattled me, but less and less, especially as I realised that because I am a different colour to both of my parents, apart from some similar but not striking physical characteristics, what makes us identifiably family is our mannerisms. I felt heartened by the realisation that my daughter and I will grow more alike the longer we are together.

Today, we went to the hairdressers, and were captive in the salon waiting our turn. One woman was staring hard at us “is that your baby?” she called across the space. I looked her in the eye and with no hesitation and a smile replied emphatically yes. A conversation ensued between her and the man who was cleaning the windows, they unashamedly stared at us and remarked on my husbands incredible strong genes. I didn’t say anything, but they didn’t need me to. They were fuelling their own fire. After a while, the man, who had resumed his window cleaning, remarked casually “just the eyes”. Another hard stare at us and the woman agreed… “that’s it!” she said, as if he had cracked some code, and there was general agreement all round the salon. We have the same eyes.

On the bus home from the hairdressers, we bumped into an aquaintance, who after retrieving my daughter’s dummy from the floor, recounted a story about how her children wouldn’t take a dummy at all, but then she’d breast-fed them all, which apparently explained that. She demanded of me if I’d breast-fed my daughter, and I felt strangely elated that although some strangers may question our relation, to some, who even know us slightly, we are unquestionably family and assumed biological at that.

Lessons with Sally Donovan

SD Unofficial guideOn September 15th we hosted a workshop with Sally Donovan in collaboration with North London Fostering and Adoption Consortium. It focused on therapeutic parenting as seen through the eyes of an adoptive mother. The workshop was based on Sally’s upcoming book ‘The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Pareting’. These were gentle but penetrating words of experience, of lessons that were hard earned. Of wisdom, in my eyes.

Sally gently criticised much of the adoption training as either setting out the theory and science but not delivering answers or simply setting the bar too high. Her workshop and book come with another label altogether: ‘Warning: contains real life!’

Especially the first half of the day welled up deep emotions in many of the participants. The session focussed on us as parents, on our engrained and often inherited beliefs and values that we are bound to repeat if we remain unreflected about our own childhood. Sally underscored the need to examine them closely. Soul searching is a cornerstone in therapeutic parenting; without self insight there can be little overall progress. And that takes bravery on the part of the parent to realise and pursue.

Closely related to parental self insight is the non-punitive approach. This is a stretch for many, since this is the parenting we know; it is what we were brought up with. But this approach is very likely to feed straight into the hand of their traumas. ‘Trauma is stronger than any of us’, as Sally put it. Our children will always have reasons to behave as they do. And it is our job to try to work out what these are, or – if we can’t – accept them none the less. Sally also stressed the importance of facing our children’s stories – warts and all -, without looking away. Herein lies the root of true empathy for them.

Being more mindful of how our children might see the world was a lesson that many took home. Sally taught us strategic and gave examples of what this might look like in daily life.

It was refreshing beyond words to hear these words spoken so compassionately and softly by an adoptive mother. Sally’s elegant workshop was down to earth and practical. Useful in a world of often useless and superfluous words (quite often my own I might add!). No nonsense kind of stuff. I’ve said it before but I will say it here again: I am tired of before talked down to. As a mother, and as an adopter. Not infrequently by experts who haven’t adopted or who haven’t been adopted. Sally spoke peer-to-peer. Eye height.

There were social workers present too. Some commented how refreshing they too found the workshop. Some found the ratio 3:1 adopters/social workers just right. Whatever the ratio, it showed the powerful beauty of delivering the same message to both groups of people – at the same time.

Today I am still touched by Sally’s musings as they continue to bounce round in my head. There are no quick and easy fixes. But there is an approach and a recognition that will take you further as a parent and as a family. At the core of this is self care and support for all parents, because therapeutic parenting is demanding and hard work. A belief that tallies strongly with that of We are Family. Only when we feel supported can we start to heal our children’s traumas, because only then have we got the patience and stamina to contain them and their emotional lives. We need to look inwards before we can look out. Well before we can listen and attune ourselves to our little ones.

It was a truly excellent workshop. I will be reading the book cover to cover as soon as I can get may hands on it!

I hope Sally will run the workshop again somewhere, and if she does – be sure to go, if you possibly can.

Sally Donovan’s The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishing in November 2014.

ORDER OUT OF CHAOS

chaosThe chaos of living with two traumatised children is sometimes completely overwhelming. But um, oh dear, hang on…

I speak, or write, as one who is, I regret to say, a bit chaotic myself. This failing makes their chaos a lot more difficult to unravel and remedy and all our lives a lot harder full stop. I try, I really do, but not a day goes by when I don’t lose my keys/ purse/staff pass / planner / phone / mind. I forget EVERYthing, even to have or follow my own plans – and that’s since I’ve had those miraculous weekly brain-fog-busting B12 jabs, so god knows how useless I must have been before them.

There is no known reason for my chaos, even if I did go through a few traumatic, death-swamped teenage years of my own, my chaos has been a part of me from earlier childhood. I’m sure the menopause, pernicious anaemia and the stress of parenting don’t particularly help but they are not the cause. I met up with some old (very old, how did we get so old?!) school friends a few months ago who reminded me again how very untidy I always was. My sisters are similarly shambolic (one of them masks it very well!) and my mum really wasn’t much better, may she rest in messy peace.

Our children have much more of an excuse. According to the experts, one of the casualties of developmental trauma and dysfunctional attachment is likely to be their executive functioning skills. The brains of babies who are not properly nurtured don’t process information in a ‘normal’ way and so they end up approaching tasks the wrong way round.

Both Django and Red seem verbally able and can be extremely charming, so anyone could be forgiven for thinking, what’s the problem? Their early need for survival skills has given them an extraordinary knack of knowing exactly what to do to impress when necessary but it often masks a real inability to break down and complete the simplest of tasks. Django still struggles with all the basics: eating, sleeping, toileting and cleaning himself. We have to overtly remind him to do things in order, repeating our ‘January, …., March, …..’ mantra ad infinitum, waiting for and helping him to fill in the blanks. In spite of his evident verbal skills, he still stumbles over the order of the months in the same way that he struggles with putting his clothes on before he goes out, sitting at the table before eating or going to the loo before it’s too late.

My own chaos is rooted in essential laziness and an unremitting faith that things will turn out ok even if I fail. I know deep down (if I take time to think about it) what I have to do and every so often I revise whatever is holding me back with a complete physical or mental, environmental or emotional declutter. Thus I turn my chaos into a stuttering order which just about works for me, for a little while anyway.

My lack of a well-made path towards anything permanent still drives my husband nuts and sometimes I worry that doesn’t really help the children either. I have enough order in my brain to know what they should be doing and guiding them toward it. They are learning to overcome their chaos in spite of mine, but it’s no surprise that they have started noticing the hypocrisy of me telling them to be tidy / organised / careful while I langour in the disordered squalour of a string of bad habits I’ve never quite managed to conquer.

At least living with their chaos makes me more aware of mine. We are helping each other.

Time for another declutter methinks.

Bad Advice

WearefamilylogoMost of us new parents came to adoption later than many of our peer group came to parenting, often it is after many years of trying for a birth child and many more attempting to ‘put right’ whatever issues were preventing that from happening naturally. For many same sex couples it can be after a life of assuming it would never be an option at all and embracing a child free existence, only to be confronted with the possibility of parenthood later in our lives which can require a long period of adjustment to the idea of being a family.

This can put us at a bit of a disadvantage as our friends and family are often a big step ahead of us, they have experience, they have knowledge and as we soon discover – they have advice. For most of them ‘children are children’, what they learnt raising their family will of course work for us and the experience and knowledge is passed on with the best of intentions and most of it of great value.

Of course when we run into problems or have doubts we turn to those around us who have been through it already, those we feel can help us and and naturally they have good advice, useful advice, much needed advice, but sometimes its well intended but totally misguided advice.

Our children come with ‘instructions’ and that’s something the established parents around us don’t realise and often can’t appreciate even when explained to them. Of course there is not a full manual to guide us every step of the way – if only – but there are strong guidelines for us to acknowledge and to adhere to.

Our children are different. As we are repeatedly told during the assessment process our children are damaged and as we soon discover they do indeed need to be parented in specific ways, ways that can make the advice we are being offered quite simply wrong.

I guess every parent dreams of a ‘perfect’ child and I think maybe there can be a degree of denial from adopters early in placement as we seek to see the perfectly normal in the child that has become our son or daughter, but gradually as the ‘honeymoon’ period gives way to our regular day to day life we start to see signs that makes sense of all that we have been told during the adoption process.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule, in fact one of our two sons has been amazingly resilient to the trauma he has suffered and the huge changes he has endured in his short life. He seems to cope astonishingly well – so far anyway – and we are hopeful that the toughness is not just skin deep, however we are under no illusion that all is OK and understand that he could just be bottling it all up and that we may well be dealing with it later on – bring on the teenage years.

Meanwhile his younger brother is a sensitive little chap and he wears everything on the outside. There is only 11 months between them and they have a wonderfully close bond which no doubt comes from the fact that the only constant in their chaotic lives has been each other, regardless of that they could not be less alike emotionally.

From very early on in the placement we had clear signs of how difficult our youngest was finding the transition into his ‘forever family’ and nearly two years on those signs are still there and the behaviour can be just as challenging. We have got better at understanding it and dealing with it, but he is still upset and angry and clearly affected by the lack of consistency and security he has endured.

You can make a child happy, give them lots of attention, lots of praise and of course limitless love and you may well get immediate results. Make them feel wanted and work at building the security they so need and the attachment that WE of course need too and you will see the results, hopefully lots of smiles and wonderful laughter and maybe even definite signs of contentment at the new life they have been introduced to. However, we can never forget that they are carrying their past with them every step of the way and those words that we heard in prep group and read about in all those books were probably true no matter how much we hoped otherwise.

And that’s the bit those around us tend not to understand. They see a happy child and they assume all is OK, they even tell us what a wonderful job we are doing, how great it is that we have become what is clearly a ‘tight’ and loving family, but they are usually not there to see the other side – the screaming, the shouting, the tears, the full tantrums ( and that’s just us parents) – they are not there to grow an understanding of what it all is and where it comes from. Then they witness a touch of ‘naughtiness’ and immediately judge us, even we aren’t sure the behaviour has anything to do with the child’s history and their emotional state, but we know it could be and we know it needs to be handled in the way that we have learnt from our – albeit limited -hands on experience.

However, we are given advice. Advice from somebody who obviously feels they have the experience and that they know so much better, somebody who has raised their children ‘successfully’ and maybe even with grandchildren they have advised on, somebody who has watched bloody Super Nanny and the like on TV, but regardless it is somebody who does not really know OUR child, our life, and it is somebody who does not have our understanding of the situation.

My partner and I are NOW not afraid to ignore the advice, but in the early days that was not so, we didn’t know what we were doing, we didn’t know what was right or wrong, We assumed those with the parenting experience where exactly the people we should be listening to – for goodness sake we watched Super Nanny too. We are now of course judged for not taking heed and no doubt blamed for the behaviour they feel that we have brought about from our parenting choices. We are told that we are indulging our son when we choose ‘time in ‘ over ‘time out’ or spoiling him for giving him attention when in their eyes he is clearly just ‘attention seeking’ we are told that we are making a rod for our own backs – but we have learnt for ourselves and we know that is not the case and we know that we are getting long term results handling things the way we are, in fact the way we were told we would need to, even before our boys arrived.

Of course there are so very many things we turn to our family and friends for to help us along the way, advice about day to day practicalities, about illness, about schooling etc and its wonderful they are there for us – but we have learnt what not to ask advice on and what not to listen to.

We get it wrong – of course we do – we know that sometimes we even make things worse, however, we learn from that and we get better. We are on the ‘front line’ 24/7 and every day with our sons teaches us something new and we know that things are improving, learning when not to listen has helped us with that.