December will be magic

20121201_130647Christmas 2014 will be our third together as a family. This is the first year our three-year-old has really understood something about the fuss. Needless to say, it has brought new meaning and depth to the whole period for his parents. Having a child trumps everything, most importantly it offers instant validation of wanting to stay at home, thus avoiding all travel nightmares. Yay!

In 2014 however, the hitherto quiet crimbo tables are being turned on us, as my family will be descending on us in reasonable numbers. There will be family members snoring in every room. I predict our son will love having the family in his house; he will love being close to so many people he loves and who love him. These are truly days out of the ordinary.

But it is not all calm and magic. In fact, December has already been tough on our son. Sure he’s enjoying the daily rituals of opening the advent chocolate calendars and lighting candles. We’ve been wrapping presents and writing cards. We got the tree up and have been decorating (and moving baubles around) for days. We’ve been baking: at home, in nursery, with friends. Sugar intake and party attendance has rocketed. No wonder excitement levels are sky high. Our son normally is good a self-regulating, but we have had more meltdown, and more major meltdowns, in December than the rest of the year put together. There are usually straight-forward reasons for the explosions, but I think the undercurrent is Christmas-related. It certainly isn’t helping.

Admittedly, I never really acknowledged the darker side to this time of year. Call me stupid, but I never noticed just how ramped up it all is – it was all water off a ducks back. I enjoyed the nice bits, and ignored the rest. But now it seems inescapable. Loud and sleekly commercial. But worst of all: it is so coldly aimed at children. It makes such demands of small people. (I imagine the need to manage December will only increase over the next many years as he grows older and more aware. As school and peer pressure set in in earnest.)

I’m happy to report, that we successfully have been escaping Father Christmas. Much as I love Christmas, I never got the attraction. I loathed the lines of waiting only to perch on a stranger’s knee, and perhaps to be handed a cheap present. You won’t see me going to any lengths to convince my son he exists, and that he will only get presents if he is nice. A strange and bearded man sneaking into the sanctuary of our house through the chimney? At night? Leaving stuff around? Let’s not jog the imagination, or worse still memories of lives and families past.

Traditions have memories at their core, casting shadows or glitter over the past, and hopes (or fear) into the future. I can’t help but think that for our children, this can be a painful, soulful season. New traditions is a careful balancing act for us all.

Our son LOVES Christmas as much as I do, but the protracted excitement is taking it’s toll. I’m trying to embody super parental calm (yeah right) to weather his frequent storms. I’ve found the best escape in entering straight into the spirit of it by making stuff together (mostly) at home.

When we bought our tree, our little man was sweeping pine needles off the ground with a broom he found. He did a damn good job of it, and so the salesman gave him a cut off branch of fir – his own little Christmas tree. Daddy tied it to his bed and we put two small baubles on it. He falls asleep looking at it every night. Oddly, enough, this does seem to have a very calming effect on him.

December is magic.

If I could.. Gifts for you..

2011-09-03 13.04.34The following is a poem that our ten year old birth daughter wrote last week for her five year old sister, who we adopted four years ago.

Her class teacher had set them a task – write a poem for someone you love. Her ‘gift list’ that she’d give her sister moved me more than I can say. Her sister’s reaction, when I read it out to her, was wordless – a shy smile and a big hug. Here’s the poem:

I would, if I could, give these gifts to you…
A bottle full of dreams high in the sky
A spark of light from the bottom of a volcano
A fight for the night
And a songbird that will drop a long feather, as warm as can be

The raindrop from the heavens,
A puppy called Kevin
A pinch of golden sand from the far desert
The wonder of a unicorn

And so these are the gifts that
I would, if I could,
Give to you

Moments of Wonder

20140315_121005Here are a few of my moments of wonder -

- First of course the Adoption Panel saying YES!

Then:
– The first time I lay eyes on my beautiful sons.
– The moment I realised I was totally and utterly in love – instantly.
– The first ‘Daddy’.
– The first ‘I love you Daddy”.
– A hot little body climbing into bed as I wake.
– Every time one of their tiny hands reaches out for mine.
– The spontaneous kiss brought about from a moment of sheer joy.
– That moment of sheer joy.
– The first painting of ‘our family’ for the fridge door.
– The first painting of our family with five smiling faces (the cat was happy too).
– When the ONLY seat is my lap, regardless of the six empty ones.
– When I caught them singing along to a pop song (a little less wondrous that it was Gangnam style).
– When they say something really smart.
– When they do that Meerkat thing of looking up straining their necks to make sure I’m still there.
– When they hurt themselves and desperately need you and only you.
– When they hurt themselves and they respond to the magical healing powers of a hug and kisses.
– The first time ‘they’ remind ‘me’ that it’s time for the bedtime story.
– The first time they pick up a book by themselves and start to ‘read’ it.
– When they fall asleep in my arms.

- Those certain heartfelt smiles that say ‘I’m doing it right’ .

- Realising I have everything I ever wanted, but thought that I could never possibly have.

My Best Boy

lucy photoMy best boy.

Lights up our world like a Christmas tree.

He is the shiniest star on our horizon and a compass for us to navigate towards.

The devil is in the detail and our wait for him now seems a distant memory. It’s as if he’s always been here at the forefront of our lives and we were just treading water in between.

So what’s my favourite part of the story? Where he squeezed my hand and smiled within the first 3 minutes of meeting him? Or the first time he fell asleep in my arms? Or, or, or – the list is endless (as it should be ) so instead I have been perusing on the bits that drive me mad. Treading on Lego in bare feet ( ouch) realising there are no wipes and you know you need plenty. And also realising that you really shouldn’t leave the house without wipes at all. The smart cookie element that points out I am attempting to cross the road when the green man is clearly NOT illuminated. The niggly bit where you hear yourself sounding like your parents ( that you swore you would never resemble) so this is the truth. The cats are not loved, brushed or played with half as much. Yet they are terrorised, tailed pulled and pushed through the cat flap backwards double the amount. I don’t always get to change our bed or finish the ironing. But our boy’s room is immaculate, toys ready for a hard day’s play every morning and a true connoisseur of Annabel Karmel. Now, I have got smarter on choosing the battles, winning the wars and always hear a ‘love you’ as he turns over to snuggle up to blue bunny at night.

Having our boy has given us consistency, forgiveness and a toughness that you never would have believed possible before crossing the threshold of parenting. The tolerance of ‘I have no idea what that is on my collar’ epiphany. Fronting out a stray nappy moment on the busy 73 bus and just looking the other way. I no longer deliberate on whether it’s acceptable to change into our pyjamas at 4pm so we can get cozy under a blanket and read stories whilst the evenings draw in. Our boy loves, teas on knees, being given his milk (this is called lamby in the trade) in our arms and lying down together and infers constantly ‘we are family’ because in his eyes we are together, so we are family.

The beauty of my life, of our world has been turned inside out and is without a doubt AWESOME. He makes me feel 10 feet tall and I can only hope and dream how he is going to feel when he falls in love and shares his awesomeness as he shares it with us.

The Things Kids Say…

2011-07-12 17.27.34We have two girls – a birth daughter, aged 10 and our youngest, aged 5, who we adopted four years ago…Here’s just a few gems they’ve come up over the years.

1. During a somewhat drawn-out tour of our local secondary school before making the final choices for our eldest daughter for next year, our youngest, after an hour and a half, obviously decided it was time she cut in on the action.

Lightly touching a maths teacher’s arm to gain her attention, and stopping her in mid-flow, our daughter piped up: “I can go to ANY secondary school I want to when I’m old enough…cos I’m adopted!”

“Really?” says the teacher, rising to this magnificently. “That’s great… and I really hope you choose this school when the time comes?”

Our daughter, after a thoughtful pause…

“No. I won’t.”

2. After a particularly (and unusually, these days, I have to say) fractious afternoon recently, wherein it seemed I could do, or say, nothing right by our youngest, I was pretty relieved by the time she was in bed. An hour later, it was time for our 10 year old to go up. Giving me an extra big bedtime hug she said: “My mummy. My only mummy.”

I laughed and said: “Well, I hope so!” And then, after a wee while I added, ruefully: “Though, of course, I’m not your sister’s only mummy, am I? And I sometimes think, especially on days like this one, that she’d probably prefer to be with her other mummy…”

I’d meant it lightly, I thought, but maybe she detected something that needed to be aired? So she considered this statement, solemnly, then nodded and said: “You know, birth mum’s got a huge advantage over you because, basically, well, she gave her life, didn’t she?”

“Yes, good point, love, and that’s just the way it is and there’s nothing I can do to change that,” I agreed.

“But remember, you have an even bigger advantage, Mum – you’re giving her a BETTER life than she would have had.”

3. Our youngest now regularly says she loves us but, recently, she added an extra something: “I love you mum. And I’ll never, in my life, un-love you.”

“Never un-love me,” I repeated, savouring the words and tears pricking my eyes. “I’ve never heard that before – and what a lovely phrase that is…”

She frowned, then: “It’s not a phrase. It’s what I feel.”

4. I got back from a solo overnight stay at my mum’s and the girls wanted to know how nanny’s new rescue dog, TJ, was getting on now? I said how nervous, over-excitable and unpredictable he still seemed, even two months since he’d come to live with mum.

Our youngest put her little hands on her hips, waggled her head and exclaimed, in mock outrage: “Well, whaddya EXPECT mum? He’s been adopted hasn’t he, just like me! And when I first came to live with you, you were just RANDOM people. I didn’t even know you! And really, we’re all still totally RANDOM to him!”

5. A very ordinary teatime, about a year on after we’d adopted our youngest and I’m making boiled eggs. Our eldest casually mentioned how big Auntie V had got now her baby was almost due – and was I that huge when I was pregnant with her? The youngest froze in her tracks and the room seemed to hold its breath: “So, she was born out of your tummy?”

We’d all been upfront from the beginning about adoption and discussing with our youngest her life story, before us. There were no secrets here, we thought. But what we’d not thought of before was her assumption that her big sister was also adopted.

I wiped my hands on a teatowel to give myself time to think and suddenly, thankfully, the words came: “Yes, she was in my tummy,” I said, “and, later on, me and dad and your sister really, really wanted another child to join our family that we could love and look after and keep safe. But I wasn’t able to grow a baby in my tummy anymore. So we decided to find out about adopting a child…”

“And then you came and found me,” she said, a slow smile spreading…

“Yes, we did,” I said “and, I want you to know, although the two of you came to us in different ways, you are BOTH my girls – and I love you just as much as I love your sister.”

I glanced, then, at our eldest, feeling nervous – was this an okay thing to hear, so explicitly? Without hesitation, she came to her sister’s side, smiling, slid an arm around her shoulders, her head against hers. “Yes,” she said, “and I love you too. And now you’re my sister and you’ll be my sister forever and ever.”

Then both looked at me, then, and almost in unison, said:

“Are the boiled eggs ready yet?”

6. On a day out in the park, our youngest, and a close friend of ours, climbed a hill a bit ahead of us, towards the trees. The wind was rustling in the leaves and our friend, in poetic mood, said to her:

“The trees are talking to each other, whispering secrets,”

She didn’t miss a beat:

“Yes. Or it’s the wind,” she said.

Tiara

Wearefamily logoIt’s early and as usual I am up first and I’m watching the news on TV. Our 6 year old comes downstairs and after the briefest of ‘good morning’ hugs and kisses goes into the play room and busies himself.

His brother is up minutes later and comes and joins me on the sofa and starts asking questions about the news, I would love to think that at 7 he has discovered a real interest in current affairs, but in fact I have worked out that it is his way of getting me to give up on the news – which I am now missing big chunks of – and agree to switch to CBBC.

I do and we are watching something together when the younger brother walks back into the room, I look up as he enters and immediately notice his posture and his slow, determined walk – it’s positively regal – and then I see that he is wearing one of his favourite possessions – his Tiara.

It is not one of any value – well monetary value anyway – just a cheap plastic affair with brightly coloured plastic ‘jewels’, but he loves it with a passion and keeps it safely stored away for special occasions – and apparently he has decided that this is exactly that.

He takes a seat beside us, he is sitting very upright and has just a touch of a smile and is radiating a look of total contentment.

Not a word is said by any of us. I was somehow touched by the moment and I take the opportunity to snap a photo and post it on Facebook. The boys watch their 30 minutes quota of morning TV and joined by my partner we go for breakfast.

My partner’s question of ‘it’s a Tiara kind of morning this morning is it?’ was simply answered with a huge beaming smile.

He decides to remove his Tiara and return it to it’s special place on the way to breakfast and it doesn’t reappear for a couple of weeks or so.

Although the Tiara is his pride and joy he has a fascination for all jewellery and has amassed quite a collection of cheap and cheerful bits – which he calls his treasure – given to him by various family and friends who have been so touched by his interest in it. He plays with his treasure and wears certain pieces as he pleases.

We are gay parents and having our son show such an interest in what others may call ‘girly’ things is of little significance to us and in fact barely registers most of the time – he clearly knows what he likes and neither of us would consider for one moment trying to stop something that obviously brings him so much pleasure.

In our 2 years as a family we have never questioned his choices and never pointed out that some things that he enjoys so very much are ‘meant for girls’, We have a general attitude of ‘people are people and that’s cool’ and it’s expressed whenever we see the boys notice somebody ‘less normal’, which in London is wonderfully frequent. In the early days it was with some regularity, but now I am proud to say that it is hardly at all. They just don’t notice ‘different’ or ‘unusual’ the way they used to.

We have never said ‘we shouldn’t judge others’ because somehow in stating that you seem to be setting yourself apart as somebody who has the right to judge, we just want them to feel that everybody is equal – no matter how they come or what choices they make. We want them to feel that they can indeed follow paths that they feel are right for them – no matter how ‘non normal ‘ they may be.

Do we feel our son’s interest in girly things is a sign of him being gay? Not for one second.

It’s true that many gay men had an interest in girly things as children, but many – like myself – didn’t. Equally many boys who enjoyed playing with their sister’s dolls and the like when young turned out straight, so it’s certainly not an indicator of sexuality.

Do we think we could be turning him gay by allowing this behaviour?

I think we are maybe the exception to the rule in embracing the behaviour so freely and those parents that don’t, who force their children into ‘appropriate’ gender roles don’t manage to stop their gay offspring being gay by making them play with cars – so no we do not, not all all.

I would also like to say that regardless of how comfortable we are as gay men we wouldn’t choose it for our sons. It’s a misconception to think that prejudice against gay people is a thing of the past – I would argue that in some respects it’s getting worse – and of course we want to protect our children from anything and everything negative – however, not by trying to make them into something they are not.

Do we consider that it could be a sign of ‘sexual identity disorder’? Again no, he has as many ‘boy’ interests as ‘girly’ ones and there is nothing at all suggesting to us that there is a stifled little girl inside our son trying to break out. However, we are aware that he had almost five years before we became his parents of being conditioned by others and may already feel a need to hide or pretend in order to suit the values of those around him, so we will always be observing him and will keep an open mind.

If there is something that he needs to come to terms with then we need him to know that we are not questioning that or judging him and certainly not putting up any barriers. We need him – and indeed his brother – to know and to be sure that we will support them no matter what. Literally – no matter what.

I guess it’s obvious that we are trying to do what our parents – as most parents of gay children back then – sadly failed to do, to prevent the pain caused when they fail to understand and accept their offspring for who and what they are. Even worse when they try to change and shape them into something they are not, just to suit their own bigoted or ignorant view of the world.

We know what that pain is like and how tough it was for us and there is of course no question that we would want to be responsible for that in a child of ours.

Something amazingly positive we have learnt from the above Tiara episode is just how wonderful the people around us are. We both have great families and have clearly chosen our friends well, the Facebook post got nothing but positive comments and more ‘likes’ than anything else I have posted. It’s heartwarming to see that those close to him embrace our son for exactly who he is and not what they want him to be or indeed need him to be.

Swimming in new waters: my first year and a bit as a single adopter of a 7-8 year old

Wearefamily logoFifteen months ago I held a not baby shower at our local lido. The not is important. I was neither having a baby nor wanting a baby shower. But it seemed fitting to mark the start of my new life, and bid farewell to the old one. It was a lovely gathering in which close family and friends shared their tips for the future. Two weeks later I headed west to meet my seven year old daughter for the first time. All I wanted from that initial encounter was to feel it would be ok. That neither of us would repel the other. It was better than that. She overcame her initial shyness quickly, raced me to the swings and smiled a lot. I returned to my digs, opened a bottle and contacted my family in upbeat mood.

Swimming was to play a major part in the months that followed. On the third day of knowing my little girl, let’s call her Marin, we went to an outdoor pool where it poured down, but there was no talk of an early exit. Instead we sheltered under foam floats and laughed about it, then warmed ourselves up with hot chocolate. This was a lifesaver after a downer of a day two, when we’d hung around a pub over lunch with the foster family, a disconnected group of adults and children each in her own world and struggling to converse. I subsequently came to feel very warm towards those people, whose wise words I still hear in my head, and I am eternally grateful also to the teacher who recommended venues for the intro period and calmed my fears before we met.

Back in London ten days later, we began our lives together, Marin and me. It was the start of the summer holidays, which was great for bonding before the return to school, but pretty intense for two newly matched people with independent ideas. The lido became our shared haunt, a refuge from the heat and a place to play. I’d taken my nephews swimming since they were babies and dreamt of bonding in the water with my own child. Sometimes we played a game in which I’d wrap Marin in a towel and unwrap her like a parcel in which I could express my delight while she acted out the role of a frightened animal despatched to its new owner, squirming and squeaking fearfully until she could learn to trust and relinquish control, and then she let herself be soothed and cuddled. Sometimes we would start the game before she’d say she didn’t want to play any more and I’d struggle to hide my feelings of rejection. In the real world the attention and touch of complete strangers were less threatening than the affection of the new mum who was bursting to bestow it. The literature suggests this can be about pre-empting rejection, maintaining control and avoiding closeness, because adults you get close to become frightening, or leave you, or both. But it’s hard not to take it personally. In adoption that’s a lesson you have to learn.

Alternating between pool and shower, Marin sought interaction with any remotely responsive adult or child. I tried to keep her close and struggled to achieve it without seeming like a control freak myself. Without those early years in which you are the one that smiles at her, feeds her, changes her nappy and rejoices in her first steps your authority in those first months comes only from the rights bestowed upon you by social services with the agreement of the court – an institutional arrangement through which, overnight, you have become mother to a child who has already been in the world for seven years, has other ideas about how things are and will be, known other mothers and lost them. And who doesn’t call you mum.

One day, in one of the many episodes in which I take no pride, but from which I’ve learned and about which I have cut myself a little retrospective slack, I found myself playing ball at the lido with a little boy we’d seen several times who seemed to enjoy my company, while willing Marin to experience a pang of jealousy that would push her in my direction. I’ve studied attachment theory. I’ve done the classes, reading and the thinking (though there’s always room for more). But nothing can ever prepare you fully for how it feels in the moment. It can be a struggle to stay in adult mode at times. Another day Marin left my side to befriend a family on the train while I was guarding the luggage. I went over. She pushed me away and started climbing on to the father’s knee. Thankfully he did not let her. Others were less resistant. They didn’t like her to feel unwanted and they liked to be wanted themselves. I do understand that, but I wish they could have understood what she and I were experiencing. Other people and adoption is a big topic, as blogs here have eloquently shown. Another day I’ll write about it. But for all her smiles and the apparent exuberance that gained positive comments from others, Marin often seemed vacant and disengaged.

During that time, though, we also began creating our bank of shared memories. We cooked together from children’s recipe books, drew pictures and visited the library – what a Godsend they are. She began to gain confidence on her bike and tried out her scooter in the skateboard park. We developed our little routines, alternating between sugary breakfasts and healthy ones, between her choice of radio and mine. One day when I badly needed soothing background noise I tuned into Radio 3, thinking she’d object strongly. Instead she said: “I like this classic stuff.” Somehow at that moment this was marvellous. I couldn’t stand any more Heart FM. Along with half the living room, dedicated to play, she put her stamp firmly on each room, rearranging the cutlery drawer, delineating her section of bathroom shelf and sticking pictures on my bedroom door. For my part, I loved arranging her artwork on the kitchen walls and began to smile when I found her stickers in the strangest places.

Gradually our bond has developed. Fragile at first, but growing ever stronger. She began to call me mum when she went back to school and has done since, and often now I’m Mama and Bubs! During the last year and a quarter I have done some grieving for the life I had, for all its imperfections, and for the life I’ve never had. But I have also experienced great joy and delight and a renewal of excitement in events and sights I had stopped getting excited about. We have our own expressions and songs, we share a love of practising accents and I’ve relished her enjoyment of some firsts, most notably holidays, at home and abroad. I am, of course, very annoying to her several times a day and she tells me so. But she’s engaging with me when she does. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s all happened, but those rights bestowed on me are also a massive privilege. It can still be incredibly hard, but we have something underneath us that let’s us bounce back. My daughter is an incredible human being.

One summer on and the sun is shining. “I know what we can do”, I say, and her eyes light up. “Go to the lido”, she says. I am thrilled. Afterwards she makes me the most treasured card I have received from her, which seems to have an authenticity about it that is different from before. It has blue and yellow on it and says: “A day came round at the lido. To mum. I love you.”