My daughter’s sister.


I had wished and wished for her and then suddenly there she was with her long blonde hair smiling back at me, looking familiar.
The envelope had come from the local authority so I assumed (wrongly) that it was the long overdue contact letter from birth mum but out tumbled all these pictures of a beautiful teenage girl who looked remarkably like my own daughter – but older.

I was taken aback… I don’t know why because we had known for a long time that there were siblings – lots of them in fact – all adopted by different families across the country and for the first year of placement we had relentlessly persued social services to try and track them all down and put us in contact.
We had naively believed that all we had to do was round these siblings up and we would have a real life Brady bunch at our daughter’s disposal. They would write to each other, confide in and and support each other; and she would have six family members to go to with her questions.

Of course it didn’t turn out that way.

Social services did search for us for a long time, but due to the transitory nature of birth mum’s living arrangements (she moved about with each pregnancy) it was a very difficult process and eventually the trail went cold with only a couple of siblings having been identified. Of these two, one of the set of parents made it abundantly clear that they wanted nothing to do with us and were clearly put out about being approached; and the other set – while sympathetic – told social services that their child was way too traumatised by her early life experiences to be able to deal with letterbox contact with a younger sibling. … and so the trail went cold and we accepted the situation.

Later on in our placement I started to see how naïve I had been.
I attended various courses on ‘explaining life story to an adopted child’ and in doing so encountered many parents who had this type of contact with siblings in place and it appeared to be complex at best.
I was very quickly enlightened as to the confusion that can arise from such contact. How I would probably have no control over how siblings might impart upsetting or unsettling information about their birth parents and heritage to my child. It was clearly a minefield, so I stopped feeling sad about her lack of contact and just got on with being her mum.

We have always talked about her siblings but as a tiny child it didn’t mean very much to her, and as she has got older she tells me she doesn’t understand because “brothers and sisters always live together” – and she doesn’t live with any other children.
To be honest we’ve talked about it less and less as there has been nothing really to say as we had no new information…..

Until now.

The letter I opened was from the parents of one of my daughter’s half siblings. They had reconsidered their original decision from six years ago and decided to get in touch. They sent us pictures and a letter describing what their daughter was like.
And here she was. So many images of her. So similar and yet nothing at all to do with me! It was a strange feeling and part of me felt scared because this was not the old me who had happily imagined the Brady bunch all those years ago; this was the new me. The adoption savvy me who is now acutely aware of how my daughter can be thrown by new information. Who knows just how much she had ached for siblings (especially a big sister), and I wasn’t sure now how the reality would be for her.
I knew the first and biggest question she would have would be “When can I meet her?” and in reality I don’t have a secure answer for her, but it probably wont be for quite a few years.

So my initial response was to try and protect her from disappointment and uncertainty so we haven’t told her yet. We will wait till we feel we know exactly how to proceed..
but in the meantime… a little bit of me now is now also starting to get excited…

My daughter’s half sister… The big sister she has always wanted – with beautiful tumbling blonde princess hair, wearing a sparkly red dress – my daughter’s favourite colour.

If we manage this right…It might just make her Christmas!

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Yearning for secure attachment

I assume that most adopters feel that the most crucial aspect of our relationship with our child/children initially is getting them to attach. I think it’s fair to say that we feel that attachment proves that we are doing a good job, that we are creating real security and that we are ‘getting it right’, in fact that we are unquestionably becoming a ‘complete’ family – and the sooner that it is achieved the better.

It’s only natural that we all yearn for that child/parent bond to be significant as quickly as possible, the bond that we are enviously aware is no doubt automatically there with birth children, yet is one that we have to work hard to achieve as adopters – after all we are competing with the ghosts of birth parents, foster parents and other parental figures that have been in their life prior to us, maybe even a teacher or a grandparent, aunt/uncle or older sibling.

Our children arrive as strangers and although they reassuringly turn to us right from the start we know that it is as their care givers and that it is led by circumstance and need – not emotion. We take what is on offer and as time goes by maybe even start to kid ourselves that it is real even though we know that it is too soon and more than we should be expecting, regardless we know that we have to keep trying, keep doing the best that we can to win our way into their hearts.

And gradually we see change, we see a increasing level of closeness, an intimacy that is new and of course so very rewarding. We feel that all our hard work is paying off and we allow ourselves to assume that all those fears of damaged attachment that the social workers planted in our minds throughout the preparation course and beyond are indeed unfounded – even for those of us who may have children who have been diagnosed with attachment disorder. We feel fortunate to have escaped the issues we were told could so clearly be a part of our life – forever.

Or maybe not! Maybe our child/children are not as settled as we hope for and maybe we are dealing with difficulties, with challenging behaviour, behaviour that we are truly struggling with, maybe there are clear signs that the attachment is questionable, signs that I think many of us chose to disregard or play down in attempts to convince ourselves that they have indeed attached, or at least started to attach.

My partner and I certainly did, we saw clear signs that our sons had attached from quite early on in the placement, or more to the point – we felt it. We felt the love, the bond, we felt the attachment and it seemed so real – and in the case of our oldest son amazingly it seems that it was.

However for our younger son, it is now evident that we really have been fooling ourselves. We certainly knew he had issues, which we always put down to the trauma he suffered. We knew that he was diagnosed with attachment disorder and that he displayed behaviour reflecting this, yet we still believed that there was true attachment. We feel his love, we see his joy when he interacts with us, we see his need for us and the unquestionable security that we bring.

Yet now we know that it is just not enough and that we still have a way to go regardless of the more than 5 years we have been together and we also know – and now accept – that there may never be full secure attachment.

Because of behaviour problems (mostly at school) he recently underwent a phycological assessment in view to undertake ‘theraplay’ and we have been truly shocked by one set of results in particular.

The therapist had asked our son to draw a circle and then a larger circle around this and the same again and again. She then asked him to think of all the relationships he has had and currently has in his life and starting in the centre circle write the names of the people that are most important to him and then work his way out as the relationships feel less important.

Our son wrote just 5 names, 4 in the centre and one in the second circle. These names include the one constant in his life – his brother – as well as his one and only friend and the family dog. Shockingly these 5 names did not include either myself or my partner.

They also did not include birth parents, long term foster parents (of almost 3 years), other siblings (who we are still in contact with regularly), a new aunt who he was especially close to until her death 3 years ago or any other of his new extended family – other than Granddad (my father), who we have not witnessed a particularly close bond to and who sadly has just died – adding to our son’s loss.

The therapist gave us time to digest the information and then said that she realised that it must be difficult to hear, but in fact was not too surprising. She pointed out that he had left off all the people he has got close to who have in some way deserted him – undermining his attachment. She said that our absence was evidence that he was still not able to fully attach to us because of the fear (probably subconscious fear) that we too would ultimately let him down and leave him – as all these people in his life before us have and as indeed Granddad has now done too.

We know the loss he has suffered has severely affected him, but I guess we hoped that we had broken through that and that the close, loving relationship that we have is proof of secure attachment and that we really had reassured him that we are not just here for him now, but that we always will be.

We just hope more than anything in the world that we will eventually get there. The positive is that we are optimistic and even if full secure attachment never happens, we feel confident that he will always know how much we love him and that we will always be here for him, no matter what.

‘What ever makes you think your son is securely attached?’

‘What ever makes you think your son is securely attached? ‘ The kind therapist said.I was puzzled.

‘Erm. I’m his mum and he reaches straight for me if he is upset…?! …: Erm … dunno. We are very close. We have a strong bond… I think… I just know.’

‘Ok. How long has he been with you?’

‘Three years.’

‘I’d be very surprised if he was securely attached. Most adopted kids are insecurely attached.’

The point about my son’s attachment was only said in passing.
My riff was actually about how I was finding these boxes of avoidant and preoccupied/anxious/ambivalent very constraining or too simplistic. Surely it is a scale. Surely we all slide down in times of stress. How far down we slide is a matter of … a lot of things.

I first heard about attachment at a prep course for adoption. My husband and I looked at each other. ‘You’re ambivalent and I am avoidant.’ He said. I agree. Now years later I see ambivalence in him too and avoidance in me. Nothing is quite so clear cut as we want it to be I guess. But yes… there is a strong tendency towards one type more than the other in us both.

We enjoy a strong bond within our family. We are close. But it is also true that we are all insecurely attached. To some degree.

Looking at what we each bring into the family attachment cocktail has been interesting. How can he the son be secure if we adults are not?

Once we have established that baseline, we can work with it. Admitting that the secure base we are building is actually of immense benefit to all of us. It is something we all actively invest in. We are the grown ups so of course we do the heavy lifting. We carry the responsibility for the quality of our relationship with our son. And with each other. We fail. Reassuringly regularly. We let ourselves down. And we get up and on with it.

A big big thing within our family is dynamic separation. His from us. It’s huge. Only within the last year has our son been able to physically be in another room from us. He still wakes a few times a night needing to know we are still there. He can freak out big time if he can’t see or feel us parents. Freak in a way that I can’t reach him. The first few years he was a limpit – on me mainly but increasingly my husband too. He was on my body every waking hour and much of the sleeping ones too. Verbal reassurance didn’t and doesn’t do anything. Repetition and routine do. As does time.

Yesterday my son made me a pot of tea.
We’d been playing and when I heard kettle click as the water started to boil, I got up to make my tea. He stopped me saying he like to do it.

‘Trust me, Mummy.’ He said placing his hand on my arm. ‘I can do it.’

First time for everything I thought. ‘Okay. Off you go…’ I could hear his movements in the kitchen. Each step of the tea making. Even putting on the tea cosy. He returned. Smiling. Proud. He’d put everything on a tray. Including his prized batman cup. For me. I poured a cup. Of plain boiling water. We both laughed. It’s all work in progress.

I stood in the adjacent room, debating with myself if I was crazy to let a six year old alone in the kitchen handling boiling water. I’d say it was borderline. But that it paid off.

These small moments matter. This was actually very big for us. On many levels.

Yes attachment is responding to needs. Distress and otherwise. At the moment I’m toying with the reciprocity of trust. As a basic need too.

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME.

Just to set out credentials here, I’m not an academic, I’m not a behavioural psychologist, I’m not an expert in genetics, I’m not an etymologist (however, I do however know the real meaning of the word semantics, as opposed to its common use meaning. Good for me).

So, I’m a Dad. I’m a Parent. I’m a Father. I’m a Guardian. I’m a Carer. I’m an Educator. I’m a Counsellor. I’m a Philosopher. I’m a Taxi-Driver. I’m a Nurse. I’m a Playmate. I’m a Guide, literally a Girl Guide. I’m any number of words that describe taking care of someone unable to take care of themselves (for the time being), nourishing someone in body and mind and helping them grow, emotionally, spiritually, physically.

Is there a word that sums up all of these roles? I’m sticking with what she calls me, because to her, that’s what Da-Da means.

Now, we are told there are any number of ways someone in my situation becomes a Da-Da. And all of these ways have equal merit. Except they don’t, no matter what our social workers told us to tell our daughter. Previous blog authors and commentators are right; let’s face facts – there’s something diminishing in being an adopter, whether it’s not being the “real” father – not having become a Da-Da directly through sexual congress with my wife – or whether it’s having to spend a lot of time writing dutifully on behalf of my daughter to her “real” mother, who hasn’t written back to her “real” daughter in three years.

Right? Wrong; there’s nothing diminishing about it at all in my eyes and in the eyes of almost everyone I know who has become a Da-Da through adoption.

I’m truly weary of being preached at by people who in theory should know better, of adoption apologists, of adoption guilt-vendors. I already know somewhat intuitively and also from practical experience that denying a part of someone’s history or genetic make-up is not a positive-impact exercise on any time- or development-spectrum, thanks.

I also know about nuance – I know what it means and I know what it actually means. Maybe my daughter doesn’t right now – she’s getting there, slowly but surely under our Guidance, Parenting, Taxi-Driving, Teaching, Caring – but adults ought to know, to varying degrees possibly, but at least get the gist.

Who’s the Daddy? I am. And so is someone else. So what.

Feeling a Fraud

In retrospect it’s easy to see that it was probably just self doubt, but at the time it felt like something so much bigger, something so much more significant.

We were new parents and loving (mostly) everything that entailed, we were totally smitten with our two sons and relished every moment we spent together.

It had been a long and at times very difficult process to get us to where we were and we were delighted and relieved in equal measures to finally be the family we set out to be some three years earlier.

We were in our early and late 40’s and new parents to two brothers almost 5&6 years old and we were embracing the role wholeheartedly and from the moment they woke to the moment they went off to sleep we were there for their every needs.

We were active in their school and would ferry the boys around for various after school activities almost every night of the week. We engaged more with friends who had children, encouraging friendships amongst the little ones and had play dates with school friends and big birthday parties with kids and parents in attendance.

Yet, regardless of all of this we didn’t truly believe in ourselves, didn’t truly believe in the fact that we were indeed parents. We knew the reality – that we had children and that we were now a family. We knew that we loved our sons unconditionally and immediately couldn’t imagine life without them – yet we felt a bit…fraudulent.

We hadn’t gone through the 9 months of pregnancy, the wonder of birth, the sleepless nights, the caring for a being so helpless that the need for your attention and your love 24\7 outshone everything else – literally everything else.

Being school age meant that after the initial few weeks of settling in, we packed them off every day and made them somebody else’s responsibility – and we have to confess to a certain relief each and every time we did so. It was proving to be so much harder than we ever could have imagined and on many levels we were struggling and we figured that IF ‘real parents’ had the same struggles they would be so much more adept in dealing with them.

We got on with it all, we walked the walk, we talked the talk and we smiled our way through it, yet looking back I realise just how much we felt that we were bluffing.

Now with five years of experience behind us we realise that bluffing is not unique to adoptive parents at all, in fact probably ALL new parents start out bluffing – because in fact nothing can truly prepare us for being a parent.

However, I think the feeling of being a fraud is possibly unique to us adopters and I can see that it takes a while for us to shrug it off.

We now feel like fully fledged parents and we know that our sons are 100% ours – regardless of being born to others, but in those early days the ghosts of their birth parents were always with us as indeed were those of the established (and oh so accomplished) foster parents where the boys spent almost three years.

We felt we could never really compete with the history of either of those and that we possibly never would. We felt we were somehow just ‘standing in’ – not their real parents at all.

Looking back now, it seems unthinkable that we doubted our role. Amazingly from day one the boys simply knew us as their new parents, and of course they fully relied on us as their parents – as we were the ones putting clothes on the back, food on the table and a roof over their heads. It may well have taken a little while for them to emotionally attach, but I don’t feel that got in the way of their understanding of our role in their lives right from the very start.

They were open to us nurturing them every step of the way, we were their security, we were the one’s putting them first and reassuring them that we would always be here for them and that we would be protecting them no matter what.

So regardless of how fraudulent we felt and regardless of the fact that it took time for our sons to fully attach to us, in their eyes we were the real thing right from the very start.

Reassurance, reassurance reassurance.

‘That’s the name of the game in the early days. Reassurance.’ said the social worker on the phone. ‘Just reassure him that everything will be ok. As much a you possibly can.’
The nice reassuring lady was the social worker on call. Not our assessing social worker, nor my son’s social worker. Just the one around in the week after our son moved in.
It was August. London was wonderful calm, and the weather was good. A perfect time to start a family. If ever there was one. I was nervous, scared and happy. And many, many other things.
Reassure we did. Him as much as ourselves. Every time he cried. Or even might cry. At the very sight of a lower lip starting to wobble.
‘Oh, darling. It’s ok. It’s ok.’
I’d rush to him and pick him up. Gently bobbing him on my hip. Hushing him, Shsshing him.
‘There, there. It’s ok. Everything is going to be ok.’
In truth I think I was a little scared of his tears.
As the weeks turned into months, I felt reassured myself that I could settle him. That he would let me. That my bosom was a place of safety and comfort. I put pride in being able to stop his tears. Only… he was a quick learner. He read me. I could stop his tears quickly, because that’s what I wanted.
Except that one night…. when three hours after we had successfully put him down for the night, he woke up crying. This time, neither I nor my husband could settle him. He cried for a solid three and a half hours. Solidly. Ebbs and flow but tears throughout. Sometimes sobbing, sometime just silent tears, sometimes loud and angry. Wailing, screaming, sobbing. Snot and tears running into one around his O-shaped mouth.
We call the NHS helpline, and as we could find no outwards sign of illness or pain, we got rushed through the system, and at 2am we drove to the hospital, where they had made us an emergency appoint. We were all in distress.
The tears stopped the moment we activated the entrance doors at the hospital. The glass doors slid to the sides, and we stepped through, holding a silent and mesmerised baby. They gave him a bit of paracetamol and we left. He fell a sleep on the way home and we transferred him to his cot without him waking. For the first time since he moved in six weeks earlier he slept for more than 90mins in one stretch.
I have never been in doubt that this outburst was existential. That was the episode when it finally dawned on him that this was it: he understood he was going to be staying with us. Foster family gone. Replaced by smiling middle-aged amateurs.
I now also believe that’s where the tears that I has so successfully stopped for weeks flooded out. I hadn’t left him much space for waterworks. So he kept it in – most of the time.
Over time I slowly learned to accept his screams and tears. To gently squeeze him like a lemon till he was all cried dry. Letting him how that it is ok to cry and let it all out. Till he was done crying. Not when I was done listening. I brace myself, and stick it out. Because the return is so wonderful. It is like torrential rain followed by sunshine. And the sunshine lasts if he is allowed to let it ALL out. It is simply the most effective, and quickest way for him to shed whatever is really bothering him. All he needs from me is me being there. And staying there till the storm has passed.
I’m no longer so sure that what he needed was reassurance, as much as acknowledgment (something I needed too). Acknowledgment that it was a scary and crazy period for us all. And that there was huge loss involved.
I’m no longer a fan of reassurance. All it is saying is ‘I can’t deal with how you are feeling right now. I want you to go to normal.’
Reassurance is a little like telling someone who has just lost a loved one that it is all going to be ok.
No, it’s not. Everything has changed. And nothing will ever be the same. Ever. Again.

Unattached to school.

Photo by lili Gooch

Our son has been kicked out of school.

That is two and a half years of almost constant struggle (and endless meetings) with the school reduced to just one line.

Two and a half years of trying to get them to realise that his behaviour is not naughtiness and that is is controllable, two and half years of trying to make then understand his needs (which are quite typical of adopted and traumatised children) and the correct way to address them, two and a half years of him suffering and consequently failing to get an education because of their inability to make him feel safe and calm.

Sadly, ultimately it boiled down to that one simple line and that is all that now matters for us.

The school tried – at times they tried very hard indeed – but their attempts were often misguided and sadly short lived. They would feel that they resolved one issue and another would raise its head and then they would simply give up. It has never felt that they were wanting to learn and to grow as a school, frustratingly it always felt like they were doing what was required to placate us – the frustrated, demanding parents. Without the belief that it was benefitting them too I fear that their investment into it lacked any true conviction.

We never felt we had the understanding or the assistance of the SENCO to fight our corner or from the ‘Pastoral support teacher’ who barely seemed to even understand pastoral care – so it always felt like a battle we were fighting alone and in hindsight we can see that it was one we were never destined to win.

The suggestion of finding him a ‘special school’ was made regularly throughout the two and a half years, yet nobody could tell us what kind of school he needed to be in or indeed where to find one.

Fortunately we had started looking into alternatives and had found a school that seemed to offer an amazingly therapeutic approach within reasonable distance of where we live and which does indeed put the special needs of its children first and foremost.

However we were yet to introduce ourselves to the school or indeed apply for admission for our son when on the last day of term the old school informed us that our son is no longer welcome there.

Thankfully the school we had found has been incredibly understanding and have accepted him pretty much immediately as they could see that it was a critical situation.

It’s very early days and we are fully aware that we are in a ‘honeymoon period’, however we are full of hope as so far things have been amazing. Our son is clearly at ease and comfortable in an environment that is welcoming and inclusive of his emotional needs.

They have not witnessed one issue so far and have said that his behaviour has been exemplary and for the first time in a long while he is concentrating on work and he is actually achieving.

It is a total turn around.

He is the same child, we are the same parents parenting in the same way that we always have – yet the old school just couldn’t accept that THEY were failing him and creating the environment that was so difficult for him to function in.

We are told as adopters that mainstream schools must meet our children’s needs and I understand that the government are allocating a dedicated teacher in every school who is aware of the special needs of our children and will be there to support them.

However, how well trained and how capable they will be and just how willing the school they are part of is to listen to what they have to say remains to be seen.

Our son is not a bad child, in fact family and friends around us are shocked when we share the issues that the school have been facing as they know a child who is nothing like the one the school knows.

Even if it is just a ‘honeymoon period’ which comes to an end and the new school are subjected to the behaviour that the previous school struggled so deeply with, we know that they will still not see him as a bad boy and just like we have learnt to do at home, they will see that they are doing something wrong and they will address the situation accordingly – and they will get the results required.

Isn’t that what ALL schools should be doing?