The truth, the whole truth and not always the truth.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few months after our sons moved in we went to visit a dear friend who was dying, he had arranged for somebody to buy presents for the boys, he engaged with them and he gave them lots of attention. Even though he was very poorly and in quite a bit of pain he made every effort to smile and welcome them and he clearly left an impression.

Although they saw him only once again they still remember him and talk about him, as far as we know this was the first death the boys had experienced and we did our best to be totally honest and to give them as much understanding that we felt their 5 & 6 years merited.

Of course they had questions, some simple matter of fact queries, others quite deep and difficult to know how to respond to. The most difficult was in response to my saying that death was very natural, that everybody dies and it wasn’t something to be afraid of. To which our 6 year old asked ‘so are you going to die and leave us Daddy?’. They had been with us for just over 6 months at this point and we had been reassuring them almost daily that we were a forever family and that we will always be here for them.

The temptation was of course to say no, which is no doubt what he wanted and maybe even needed to hear, but instinctively I maintained the honest approach we have when confronted with any questions from our sons and said ‘yes of course like everybody else I will die’, but added that hopefully it will be a long time from now when they are both grown up and maybe have families of their own. This appeared to work and seemed to put his mind at rest.

However, the subject of my death did raise its head in little remarks here and there quite a few times over the next couple of months, which made me realise that it was clearly something he was still thinking about and was possibly worrying him.

Eighteens months later the boys experienced another death and this time is was much closer to home when my sister died, she had built a wonderful relationship with the boys and they both thought the world of her and in fact our youngest seemed to have a particularly close bond with his special new Aunty.

Again lots of questions which we answered as honestly as we always have. However 18 months older meant that their questioning had a little more maturity behind it and that they were less willing to simply accept our answers at face value.

My ‘when you are both much older’ was now met with ‘how old Daddy?’ And my response of ‘when you are grown up and both men’ resulted in uncharacteristic on the spot mathematics and them pointing out that I would be nearly 70 when they were 20 and that people died much younger than that, like their Aunty who was only 53.

More attempts at reassurance and I pointed out that both their daddies (we are 2 dads) ate well, that we didn’t smoke, that we drank very little and that we were reasonably healthy which meant that there was nothing to suggest that we would not live until we are in our 80’s and that by then they would probably have children of their own. I also pointed out that their other daddy is almost 8 years younger so would likely be around a lot longer than me.

Again we could see them considering this and then with rather a glum expression we were met with ‘our uncle is older than Aunty and she died first’ A slight pause and then ‘and what if you both die together, who will look after us then?’
At which point we caved in and all our principles disappeared as I replied ‘Don’t be silly, that is never going to happen. I am sure that you will always have both of us and that we will always be able to look after you’.

Not the thruth that I put so much value in of course, but not exactly a lie either. Most importantly though it was clearly the reassurance they both needed as our deaths have not been mentioned since.

My secret weapon

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I was struggling,

I had no idea how much I was struggling.

But living and coping with daily threats of violence, verbal and real takes its toll in a cumulative way. Previously I became angry when struggling with these difficult behaviours but then something changed and I stopped being angry and became devastated.

Was this aggressive, disruptive child the one we were going to have to lead through life. Would they ever be able to cope with the demands of day to day living? I spoke my deepest fear to a counsellor, what if I wasn’t enough for them?

Then I went to the Doctors; he prescribed antidepressants. That day I stopped crying, I started brushing things off, I started smiling more, I became calmer. And my child did all these things too.

Learning how interlinked my own mental health was with my child’s was extraordinary and daunting. The pressure feels immense. But for now things are better and I am able to feel that completely overwhelming love for them with joy, not fear.

Always be by your side.

Photo by Lili Gooch

Photo by Lili Gooch

A few months back my 4 year old daughter astonished me by suddenly opening her eyes as she was drifting off to sleep and whispering “I’ll always be by your side Mama.” She gave me a sweet little smile afterwards and I was so taken aback that it brought tears to my eyes.

It’s not something I had heard from her before, nor is it a phrase I use so it was surprising and delightful to me. I will never forget it and for a time, it became a bit of a theme for us. We would say it to each other when perhaps previously we would have said “I love you”. It also became something of a weapon in times of conflict… “I don’t love you, and I’m not going to always be by your side” she would emphatically inform me, incandescent with rage over something I had done. My usual response would be “That’s a shame but I still love you and will still always want to to be by your side” But there were no concessions from her at times such as these.

Eventually we forgot about our little phrase and went back to the normal “I love you mama, up to the moon and back” that we had used for years.

And then something happened.

Her grandfather (my father) died and we were all thrown into the chaos of profound grief and bereavement while also attempting the day to day stuff of normal family life. Somehow I was supposed to carry on parenting when I felt like a child myself.
I did try to explain to her that there would times when mummy and daddy got a bit sad over this event and that it was ok if she did too; but this only served to make her feel guilty that she wasn’t as sad as us so I backed off it a bit. I was also worried about the funeral and the carnival of grief that would surround it, but she was surprisingly fine. She admired the flowers, took out her little box of crayons and colouring book, a few My little Ponies and grinned at everyone. She even said “Ooh I like your dress!” to one of my aunties.
For me, it was a day of joyous celebration of everything my father was and in the main I was pretty upbeat and happy to remember him… except for one tiny moment when I wasn’t and I faltered. Quick as a flash a little hand slid into mine and pulled me round to face her. She was smiling so broadly that I couldn’t help but smile back. It totally lifted me and after a second, a little voice rang out “Don’t worry Mama, I’ll always be by your side.”

Beatings

20160728_110151It almost broke my heart. She wouldn’t leave my side to join the hordes of screaming girls running up and down the stairs at the birthday party. And I told her I had to go, at first imploringly, but then a little tinged with anger. She held on to my leg and begged me not to. So I stayed. But not with good grace.

She sat on my feet while the other girls were playing musical chairs and bumps. I pulled her up and pushed her forward to get involved. She pushed back against my insistence. She didn’t want to. She sat back down on my feet, and I audibly sighed. So I jiggled her up and down in time to the music, playfully yes but with a slightly graceless undertone of pushing her forward again. And asked her why she didn’t want to join in. “I just don’t”, she said. I felt sad and frustrated.

She got up halfway through one of the games and went part of the way into the dancing crowd, all the while stealing little looks back at me. I smiled at her. She made the last three and won a sweet.

Then joined fully in pass-the-parcel and won some stickers. She helped a 2 year-old boy sitting next to her to join in the game.

She went politely down into the kitchen to sit at the table with the other girls and wore her party hat, but managed to find herself seated at the end of the table with nobody opposite her. She thanked the hostess politely each time she received some food. The other girls were chatting away; she waved at me and smiled.

After the cake, there were 15 minutes left before the end of the party. I spoke to some adults about Trump and tennis, while she came back into the room on her own and played with the birthday girl’s dolls’ house. By herself.

I felt embarrassed. I just wanted her to have fun and make friends; or I just wanted her not to be the one who wouldn’t join in, the shy girl. I just wanted her to be confident, to be the one the others wanted to play with.

I know she is a little shy. But she’s considered. She’s considerate. She’s exuberant at times and introspective at others. She’s fun and funny. She’s thoughtful, she’s joyful, she feels deeply.

So I beat myself up over my feelings and the way I behaved towards her.

And then we left. She said thank you to the parents and happy birthday to the girl.

On the way home, she was bubbling over with talk about the party and what fun she’d had and told me all about one of her friends who was going to see the film at the cinema that she had seen the day before, and chatted about all the girls and the little boy, and skipped along looking into her party bag and asking me what the things were; she’d had the best time.

And I realised that the sadness and frustration, embarrassment and lack of grace were all my own. I realised that I just didn’t want her to be me.

As good as we are.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI should think it’s pretty obvious to say that our parenting dictates our child/children’s behaviour.

We all know that if you are a ‘bad’ parent it will most probably translate into our child/children being badly behaved, but what if you are a good parent, what if you have read the books, been on the courses and you put your heart and soul into raising your family? What if you feel that you do everything that you can and that you are exhausted with the effort? What if everybody around you is telling you what a great job you are doing… yet still your child is displaying truly troubling behaviour?

How easy is it then for us to look at our parenting and to see how we are often responsible for the difficulties that we are facing.

Are we able – or indeed willing – to spot the small mistakes, the subtle errors that we make as we go about our day to day parenting – which regardless of being minor can have a huge affect on the behaviour of our children.

Do we notice how we fail to maintain the sense of order and security that is so vital for most adopted children, children who almost always come to us with a degree of trauma and attachment related issues that can result in behaviour that they have NO control over… but that WE do.

A simple and what seems like unavoidable change in their routine (as innocent as something like organising a play date, or having family around or going out for the day) can result in a major (and what seems like totally illogical) tantrum. A tantrum brought about by choices that WE have made and that they have no understanding as to why it has unsettled them and consequently no ability to make sense of their instinctive reaction to it.

From their past experiences our children have often learnt to be hyper vigilant and consequently they pick up on the slightest emotional change we present, which can result in situations such as when something as simple as a justifiably angry ‘look’ can be read as a sign that we don’t love them anymore, or worse still – that we want to get rid of them, just as their birth parents did.

Or when a relatively mild reprimand can make the child feel that they have totally failed us and that they are not worthy of us and that we are about to send their entire life into turmoil again (immediately unravelling all that has been achieved in their attachment to us) resulting in panic and desperation which displays itself in totally unreadable and possibly uncontrollable behaviour?

Justifiably telling them off!? Shooting a angry glance at them!? Surely we all do that daily and no doubt with just cause, but can we then in the midst of our anger and frustration see that WE have made the situation worse? How easy is it for us the parents to be self aware enough in these situations and to step back or take control of something that we are often unaware that we have created?

I am sure many out there want to shout ‘well obviously it’s impossible’, but – put simply – it can’t be impossible. Impossible would mean that we would be failing our children even further, that we would inappropriately be putting blame where it doesn’t belong – on them! Blame for something that is impossible for them to deal with because from lack of nurture as an infant their brain has literally not formed to understand it or to recognise it.

It’s not about beating ourselves up over our ‘failings’, it isn’t about blame. It is about recognition and acknowledgement, it is about accepting the fact that no matter how good a parent we are we are still fallible, that we will always be getting things wrong, that we will make mistakes and that we can’t be perfect regardless of how hard we try, we can only ever be ‘good enough’ parents and that is just fine.

We HAVE to allow ourselves to see where WE are failing and to see that it’s perfectly OK.

However it is essential that we recognise that in being imperfect WE are the ones who often create the situations that results in our child misbehaving and consequently we must NOT look to make THEM responsible – not reprimand them (which of course usually just makes things worse anyway), not shame them and most importantly not consider the situation beyond our ability to deal with. We can deal with it and we must deal it and by rightfully taking the blame away from the child we will deal with it appropriately, we will deal with it therapeutically and we will deal with it with empathy, with love and with understanding – and consequently we will get results.

I can feel so sure of this because I see it just about every day with our youngest son. It has taken my partner and I over four years to develop the relationship and understanding that we now have with him, we have made countless mistakes along the way and we can now see how we continuously made the situation worse – worse for us and sadly so much worse for him. Our inability – or indeed willingness – to recognise how we were mishandling him is a tough thing to admit, but acknowledging it has been essential for us to be able to move forward.

As a result the improvement in his behaviour is amazing. Not only at home, but maybe even more importantly at school too where he was becoming impossible to handle and we were being told that he would need to be moved to a ‘more specialised’ environment. By sharing our experience and understanding with the school they have become better equipped to understand his needs, thankfully we had teachers and staff who were willing to listen and were able to acknowledge that they too were handing him inappropriately and were ‘getting it wrong’.

I apologise if this is sounding self righteous because I certainly have no right to be so, trust me reaching this understanding (which took us an awfully long time) is one thing – living by it is something completely different and my partner and I are still failing daily – but at least now we fail with an understanding of the consequences that brings. It has been a long – and at times very painful – learning curve, but I can now see how misguided and indeed foolish we could be in the past and how our child – and indeed our family – suffered as a consequence. Now that we are willing to look inwards and to recognise our part in our sons behaviour, it feels like we are becoming better parents and consequently a much better family.

There is an assumption in this blog that ALL behaviour is manageable and that is deliberate. I am not remotely qualified to state whether or not that is so, but personally I feel that it is crucial that parents always start with that assumption and that they parent accordingly and maybe – just maybe – we can prove it to be true.

Always wipe the seat.

20160621_102206We were that couple who cleaned and cleared as we went about our day, we both like a tidy home and even when we may have been feeling a little lazy or just not in the mood we still recognised that the other had expectations that needed to be respected.

We knew that bringing children into our home was going to change things and indeed understood that our home was never going to be the same again – and we were both OK with that. It’s reassuring to see that we are still OK with it 4 years later, in fact we are probably even more so now.

The perfect white walls are now covered in marks, the nice clean windows are smothered with goodness knows what, the wooden floor – chipped, scratched and marked -and do you know what? NONE of it matters.

In fact we often find ourselves smiling as we see a distinct hand print somewhere surprising and unexpected or a mark in a piece of furniture or an ornament we realise that we once valued FAR too much.
However there is ONE thing we struggled with as indeed our sons continue to, but for entirely different reasons- pee on the toilet seat.

Our struggle originally was to remember to check before we sat down (after decades of always having a clean seat – guaranteed – that was not as straight forward as it may sound) and we soon discovered that failing to do so had consequences that were far from pleasant.

Once we got to grips with that our struggle changed to trying to get our heads around why it was SO difficult for our sons to remember to lift the seat or at least to wipe up after themselves if they failed to.

Because that really is a struggle for both of them, as is apparently remembering to flush.

Our conclusion is that going to the toilet is way down their list of priorities and while they are busy playing or watching TV or generally running around, any need to pee is pushed to the back of their mind until it becomes an absolute necessity and then it it done as quickly as possible so that they can dart back to what ever they had dragged themselves away from.

Consequently in the rush, lifting the seat or wiping away the evidence is just too trivial a matter to hold them back – even for the briefest of moments,

In the grand scheme of things Is that such a big deal?

I can see that we used to think so, but as time has gone on we have stopped nagging them and getting cross at them and now just gently – but constantly remind them – which is clearly better for all of us.

And of course, we ALWAYS remember to wipe the seat first.

Denial

2015-12-13 17.21.56Due to increasingly difficult behaviour in school – which is now very much spilling over into our home life – my partner and I have been reassessing our son and the behaviour we are facing and we have concluded that he does indeed suffer from Reactive attachment disorder (RAD). This has resulted in me thinking back over our adoption process and how we dealt with the information being presented to us, information which is now evidently appropriate and true. Yet information that at the time we could be somewhat dissmissive of – even after further research on the topics being raised.
On reflection I think it’s fair to say that we were quite simply in denial and it is a denial that has continued well into placement.
Athough we could very quickly see that our son was troubled and that we were dealing with some very challenging behaviour, we put it down to anger brought about from the trauma he had suffered or from being removed from a secure, long term foster placement and it has taken us a good while to open ourselves up and to stop denying the full reality of our family,
And I am wondering if that denial is typical of many adopters? I think it is often a very difficult path that leads to adoption and for some adopters it is a last opportunity to become a parent. Consequently that desire to parent possibly overrides all else and whilst being processed I feel we could be subconsciously denyng anything which could get in the way of us becoming the family we so desperately want to be.
All new adopters are repeatedly and relentlessly warned by social services of the issues that the children in their care could have – or indeed are likely to have – and in many cases when it gets to the matching process there can be clear information about our potential children presented to us that I guess we allow ourselves to doubt. In theory there are no secrets and all the known facts are laid out before us – and indeed information about what could be unknown. This is all information that could possibly have most of us running for the hills, yet we don’t run, we hold fast.
I remember clearly thinking ‘but they are just kids and kids are kids’, ‘The social workers are making too much of this’, ‘they need to exaggerate, to present the worse case scenario’, and more incredibly ‘we can handle it’ without truly knowing what it would be that we would need to handle.
In our case there was in fact a professional diagnoses (RAD for both our sons) that we were very willing to question because of factors that we felt discredited it – in our defence this did include our sons family finder and social worker saying that they felt the diagnoses to be ‘surprising’ and to be fair to them we do still feel that the diagnoses for our older son to be totally wrong.
I am not saying that we ignorantly blanked out the information put before us, I think we were just somewhat selective in how we allowed it to impact on us and our decision making. I think we were in denial.
I think it is fair to say that it is a rare adopter who can knowingly and willingly take on a physically disabled or a severely disturbed child, most of the rest of us may not be looking for ‘perfection’ when it comes to the children we chose, but in fact I am pretty sure we are hopeful of a child who will be physically and mentally healthy – and this is regardless of being told that it may be a rarity amongst adopted children nowadays.

As was the case for us, I think possibly those adopters who feel that they are willing to take on children with (what we see as manageable) issues, do so with a belief that the impact will be minimal and that all will be OK.
Not blindly – but hopefully.

More denial.

On reflection I tthink that all of this denial is a wonderful thing, because without it I fear that so many of us would not be the families that we are.

Our children move in, we become a family and the love and the bond develops and grows. They become part of us They are our children and then whatever reality we are faced with, we deal with – as any parent would.

Just as the vast majority of birth parents would never turn away from their child if the child became ill or disabled or very challenging – neither do the vast majority of adopters.

We are there for our children, we learn to understand their problems, to understand their needs, we learn to be the parent we need to be.
We learn that it doesn’t matter that they are not ‘perfect’ , they are ours and they come as they are and we are a family that is meant to be.

Don’t get me wrong, we did not deny our son had issues, there was just an instinctive desire to ‘play them down’, regardless we still had to learn to parent therapeutically and to give him the special care he requires. The only difference now is that we have to acknowledge that it is likely to be a much longer road ahead of us than we thought we were on – and that is perfectly OK.

P.S. I am very aware that many reading this will not relate on any level and I stress that the blog is about my experience as an adopter and my assumption that it could also be true for many, many others.