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I love my child dearly and parenting him has turned out to be both more wonderful and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined but also much much harder than I ever thought.
It’s hard, testing work and it’s difficult to navigate.
One of this things I feel most stupid about in retrospect is just how hard it is to put and keep boundaries in place. I always looked at parents who didn’t bother with them and thought they must have a screw loose, because from the outside it looked like much harder work letting their children run rings, demanding whatever they want.
I naively imagined it was a simple as putting a rule/boundary in place and then simply sticking to it so everyone knows where they stand and harmony would abound right?
Turns out they do this stuff anyway! – the demanding, the procrastinating, the “that’s so unfair”.
They have a relentless energy and drive to push and keep pushing for hours on end; and it is our job to either crumble and give in (and in so doing get five minutes peace..) or to hold fast and keep that boundary in place – hopefully from a place of calmness… (yeah right!)
It truly is a test of stamina. Why did nobody tell me?
So it’s actually a lot easier to not do this work and I realise now why some parents do occasionally cave in, because some days we just don’t have the strength in us.
We just do the best we can.
We sense a change.
A small change, but a real change and – fingers crossed – a fundamental change. Although of course we could be wrong – we certainly have been before.
We think we are seeing signs that our younger son’s anger and the screaming and shouting that are a consequence of that anger are being controlled. They are still there, still part of our lives, but it’s somehow feeling different. There now seems to be a desire from him that was clearly not there before, a desire to bring our ‘battles’ to an end. It’s clearly a struggle, but a struggle that maybe he is winning. Slowly, gradually he seems to be taking control.
The anger came as a shock when he first moved in and we were initially quite overwhelmed, but we have got used to it, used to watching it build and watching it take control of him. We could see how he was incapable of dealing with it – of letting it go, but now we feel sure we are seeing a difference. Without doubt we still have a long way to go as the change is small, but it does feel significant, it finally feels that we are heading in the right direction.
Maybe it’s just a little maturity, he is no longer the 4 year old that came to us, but 7 – and a very important 1/2 – and that has to make a difference, no? Things have been improving over the 2 years 8 months he has been with us – gradually – but until now that has been down to the fact that we have slowly learnt how to handle him and his clearly specific needs. We learnt how to stop fighting the anger, how to calm down a situation that initially we were just making worse. I guess we learnt ‘pastoral care’, learnt to do first hand what we were taught at Prep’ course that we would need to do. We learnt how to stop making our reprimanding feel like a threat to him and to the stability we were building, how to reassure him of our love while still making our point that he had done wrong or that his behaviour was unacceptable. It wasn’t / isn’t easy and of course we are sometimes just too angry, tired or frustrated to keep calm and to be the parent he needs, but we immediately pay the price for that and we make a mental note of our failing and the need to be better, stronger and calmer next time.
I guess the small change that we feel we are witnessing feels so significant because we were worried it might never come, we were concerned that the so-very-angry little boy would become a very angry big boy, teenager and ‘out of control’ man and that the anger would always be a part of our lives. Maybe that was somewhat irrational, but in the moment it felt anything but. Now I guess we can hope that it will not be so and we can look to the future as being a little easier, a little brighter. Let’s hope that is the case. We have never allowed the anger to dominate our lives, our family, but the thought of living without is a very promising one. For us, but most of all for him, our little boy.
Celebrating our daughter’s sixth birthday last week, and at nearly four years together as a family, I found myself reflecting on the picture story books that have helped on our journey. A friend gave my daughter Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb as a present, and as I read it to her at bedtime I could feel how deeply the beautifully delicate metaphorical story of loss, love, grief and memory had affected her. She asked me to read it again and before I could even start, she talked about her foster carers and wondered about the feelings of other adopted children she knows. Did they ever “feel funny about their changes” as she does? I’ve seen time and again with my daughter how a story book can offer a way in to sometimes difficult feelings and conversations, and how the characters can normalise feelings of anger, loss and sadness which can so often be brushed under the carpet. And when we are snuggled up cosy at bedtime seems most often to be the time she will open up and want to talk.
So I thought I’d share some of the books that have helped our family along the way as we wrestled with tangled feelings and attachments, not adoption books per se, just beautiful stories. So, this is not exactly a review, not exactly a blog, just some thoughts on the healing power of story.
‘Oh No George’ by Chris Hauton was a Book I bought very early on, drawn to it partly by the beauty of the illustrations. A pet dog struggles to be ‘good’ and finds it hard to resist his impulsive desires. He feels regret but also finds forgiveness and growth. A beautifully simple and funny story which shows how everyone can make mistakes, even with the best intentions, but that relationships stay strong anyway. My daughter loved this and wanted to read it over and over, lingering often on the page where George feels guilty, sad and tearful.
The Feelings Book by Todd Parr. This was one of the first of his we read and we still revisit this along with The Family Book and We belong Together. She gets so excited to see other adopted characters! In the early days my daughter would always want to linger and ask questions about the tummy ache and crying pages – clearly feeling a connection and empathy with their experiences.
I Love Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark is a story about a girl being given multiple new cuddly toys, each of whom is added to her list of love, with her original favourite Blue Kangaroo dropping later down the list and feeling displaced. A sensitive and beautiful story of change and loss, we feel for Blue Kangaroo as he wonders if he has been forgotten and left behind. But we learn he will always be special. As my daughter experienced so much change, in particular her fierce grieving for her foster carers, I could feel how the sadness and worry Blue Kangaroo felt really touched a nerve for her.
Finn Throws a Fit by David Elliott and Timothy Basil Ering deals in beautifully economical text and vivid pictures with a toddler’s overwhelming tantrum. It is shown as a huge and violent storm which surges and then passes. Big feelings are drawn on an epic scale, Finn’s internal turbulence made visual and concrete – he and we don’t know the reason why it comes or why it goes but we see that everyone feels out of control sometimes. It’s so interesting to see when my daughter chooses this story at bedtime.
Mouse Was Mad by Linda Urban and Henry Cole is a wonderfully funny story about an angry mouse trying to find the right way to express his anger and get it out of his system. A tip from the wonderful blog Mighty Girl this is a great tool for normalising angry feelings and giving good choices for how to express them. Mouse eventually finds the right path for him and his animal friends are very impressed. We’ve tried Mouse’s deep breathing and stillness techniques together at bedtime.
Meet The Parents by Peter Bently and Sara Ogilvie is a hugely witty and warm celebration of all that parents do and the wide variety of families you find, with beautiful illustrations. We might be annoying in telling our children to eat their peas but we do have our uses! Every single time my daughter wants to linger on the parents give cuddles page and I can feel the emotion welling in her.
There have been countless other stories we have read and enjoyed over these years, all of which have given us little worlds to experience together and emotions to work through and understand. In film and tv, special mentions would have to go to Frozen for a character living in fear of the dangerous power of her big feelings and also Bing as a exploration of a toddler’s everyday emotional struggles and the ever calm and supportive Flop.
As someone who has worked with stories my whole career it’s been a privilege and joy to experience them anew through the eyes of my daughter – the brightest, funniest, most insightful and wonderfully complex audience a story could ever wish for.
Time and time again we read or watch accounts of young men and woman coming out and saying that their mother or father said that they had realised for a long time.
Realised, but had said nothing.
They had watched their child struggle to accept who they truly are and to find their place in a bigoted society full of negative messages of (at best) tolerance or (at worse) hate for homosexuality, yet still offered no helping hand – no reassurance of the acceptance or understanding they would have for them, which is of course exactly what the child needs to hear.
We help our children with everything as they grow, that is a parents job and our children need us for this. They need our maturity and experience to fill in the limitations of their intelligence or emotional state.
They need our guidance and they need our support or advice – often if only to reject it and throw it back in our face, but regardless of not embracing it they need to hear what we think and they need to know our understanding of what they are dealing with and working out – whatever it is.
It may well be completely unintentional, but the vast majority of parents will use language as a child grows up that suggests an expectation that they will be straight – ‘when you have a husband, ‘when you kiss your first girl’, ‘the boys will love you wearing that’, ‘your wife will never put up with that’ and on and on – even though for many children what is being said is quite simply wrong, so why not at least acknowledge the possibility of them being gay? It makes absolutely no difference to the child if they are not, but it can make the world of difference if they are.
Why is it so difficult to say ‘when you grow up and have a boyfriend or girlfriend?’
I know that more and more parents nowadays will voice and show acceptance of the gay world around their children and maybe even have gay family members or friends as part of their children’s lives – but maybe surprisingly that is not actually saying that they will accept it in their own child.
I know a number of gay children who have grown up in families like this – who still struggled with their own sexuality and in telling their parents.
Surely part of being a good parent is to not try to force our children into being what we expect them to be or want them to be, but I do fear that by not opening up the possibility of our children being gay to them from early on, many of us are inadvertently doing exactly that.
Even if we feel that we have created an accepting environment and that we are actively encouraging our children to be honest and true to themselves, to be truly sure of how their parents feel our children need to be TOLD, clearly and emphatically, just the way we tell them everything else.
They need to be completely sure that they have our full support and acceptance if they are gay. We need to be heard to be undoing the doubt we have probably sown, doubt which in fact our silence is probably confirming to them.
For some that may not be easy, the parent may not be fully comfortable with homosexuality, but that is OUR – the parents – problem, not the children’s and that is something that we have to deal with, while at the same time supporting them.
It is not our child’s place to hold our hands and to educate us through this, it is our duty to be the parent and to learn what we need to learn and to be there for them.
Life is always a bit tougher being gay (as it can be for most minorities) and sometimes it can be very tough, the very last thing a child needs is for it’s parents to be adding to the negativity they will inevitable be facing.
And maybe it’s a little tougher for adopted children than birth children, without being reassured otherwise a child that does not have our genes could well fear that being gay is something that has come from their birth family and because of that it could be even more unwelcome to their adoptive parents.
So to return to my opening question – Why do parents find it difficult to ask their children if they are gay?
Personally I think that it is mostly because we all wish for the very best for our children and socially being gay is sill seen as ‘other’ and understandably ‘other’ is something that is not wished for and regardless of us knowing that we can not determine our child’s sexuality – maybe deep down we think that by not mentioning it, just possibly there is more chance of it not being so.
As an adult and in some adult company, I see no problem with Anglo-Saxon vernacular; to me “swear” words are an expressive aid. I have been told that in my company, some of my friends say they swear more than they ever do outside of it, in some cases not at all except with me, and that I swear a lot. I don’t do it in front of children, nor my mother, nor my mother-in-law and would never have done it in front of my Dad, but all at a subconscious level, as if the deeper recesses of my brain block off access to those expletives automatically in particular company. Although my Mum says “feck” in an Irish accent and claims it’s not the same at all.
But nevertheless I don’t baulk in most instances. What does the F word bring to the table that other f-words don’t? Why is it more expressive in context and accenting than “flipping” or “freaking”? And why therefore is it unacceptable to me to hear a child swearing?
I once told off a Dad at a football match for swearing in front of his 7-year-old son and told them both off even more when his son aimed the swearing at me… And had the audacity to tell the Dad off and to say “Look what you’ve taught your son to do – how proud you must be.” And surprisingly got away without a split lip for my trouble.
And when my child came home from school and told me that one of her friends had said the F-word, not expressed in that way, but spelt out for me, phonetically correct if not actually correct, I was shocked and appalled. But struggled to explain why. What was it about that set of sounds coming from my child’s mouth? And also how did my child know, it seemed instinctively, that word was a no-no? It’s just and F and a U and a C and a K all strung together, just like a C and an A and a K and an E, no? Once I had told her that it’s not “nice” to use that word and we shouldn’t use it, she asked me why and I had nothing.
Of course there are negatives – unexpected worries, stresses and difficulties that we have to deal with everyday, but this blog is just about the positives – which thankfully dominate our lives and put the negatives into perspectives.
The positives –
Our Sons (obviously): Two amazing little boys who have become our world. Two pure soles who have filled up our lives and who’s resilience and joy surprise us everyday.
Love: So very much love. From the moment we met our sons and were overcome by a level of emotion that neither my partner and I had experienced or could have anticipated, to a love today that has flourished and amazingly continues to grow even more intense with each passing day.
Happiness: They have brought a happiness that is beyond anything that we have experienced previously, a happiness that is pure and complete.
Pride: They have filled our hearts with pride. Pride for what they do, pride for what they say and pride for them for being just exactly who they are.
Laughter: Children have a wonderful perspective on life and their innocence and naivety is charming and often very, very funny. We laugh at them, we laugh with them and most importantly we laugh as a family – everyday
Contentment: Being a family has made my life more complete and has filled me with a level of contentment that I could never have imagined.
Perspective: Children help us to see what is truly important in life, they make us realise that ‘they’ are more important than anything! More important than money, more important than ‘stuff’ and most significantly more important than ourselves.
Re evaluation: Adopting our sons has made us stand back and look at the life we were living – the long hours at work, the partying, the constant attempts to please oneself – and it has made us realise that what we have now is more than we ever had or could ever have achieved.
Friends: Adoption has brought us many new friends, friends from inside the warm and welcoming world of adoption as well as friends from the lives of our sons, from school, from clubs, from their friendships.
And quite clearly adoption has brought us a great degree of smugness – for which I make no apologies.
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