We are Family – A Post Adoption Community

This post first appeared on the 1st April on the brilliant The Adoption Social. No, it’s not an April’s Fool.

Today’s post from We Are Family tells us how they are building a post adoption support community and their hopes for the future…

WRF LogoAs any parent will tell you,nothing can prepare you for parenthood. Adoptive or not.

So why are we, as adopters, so alone when it finally happens? Alone in our new role with one, or possibly two, grieving children?

There is no NCT for adopters, no baby massage, no mummy and tummy yoga for adopters. There are places where wide-eyed mums with tiny infants can meet other wide-eyed mums. But by the time we come along with our tots, biological mothers of children the same age as ours have been meeting months, if not years. Many biological mums just aren’t that interested in establishing new friendships at that stage. Particularly while (or because?) we are catching up. And that is to say nothing of the dads out there.

I see the early placement period is particularly fertile ground for creating good, stable, nurturing families, based on mutual love and respect. These are the days when support would be really, really useful.

Centrally to this argument is the word containment. We have it drilled into us that we need to contain all the turbulent emotions of our up-rooted children. That’s our primary job. But who contains us? At the best of times parenthood is the most exhausting and unrelenting 24/7 job you ever had.

Blogging has made it much easier to speak of the difficulties of becoming and being an adoptive parent. At sites like, and connected to, the Adoption Social feelings like anxieties, depression, confusion, being overwhelmed are discussed regularly. These are by no stretch of the imagination unusual feelings. But to many they seem dangerous to acknowledge. Especially at first. No wonder that Post Adoption Depression Syndrome is rife. These feelings are recognisable to biological parents too. My point here is that we are a minority type of family. As newborn families our needs are different from birth families of a newly born child.

Meeting and talking with other adopters can offer respite. The gratification of recognition can feel like opening the curtains on a summer morning, letting the warm sunlight stream in. Letting go to feelings stuck in the system, or identifying the help you might need, may become clearer as you share and listen. Feelings are funny and stubborn like that; they wont let go of their vice-like grip until they have been properly acknowledged.

I don’t think mankind were ever meant to do parenting on our own. Although we all have to find our own way of raising our children.

It’s said that it takes a village to raise a child. But then, that village is no longer there by default. We have to make it for ourselves, with people how are like us, and hopefully also a lot that are very different. And that is what we have done in We are Family.

We dream BIG dreams in We are Family. We dream of a free NCT for adopters, across the UK. We hope we will one day go viral, with or without our nametag. We are working on toolkits and sustainable ways of supporting more local groups. We are enthusiastic and motivated. But we are young. Barely nine months old. It is our hope that our three London networks will be blue print groups to inspire others to do the same. We hope to work out successful formula that can be replicated elsewhere.

We are painfully aware that we need to have good working models before we expand ourselves too far. Having said that support is needed across the country right now. So here are a few ideas for you all, while we get our ducks row.

We have tons of ideas. But they all boil down to the same basics model:

to created informal local networks of adoptive families to meet and connect regularly! With their children and without.

Not once or twice a year. But once or twice, or even three times, a month, if not a week. All for free, with only voluntary donations toward playgroups etc.

We recently coined the term ‘organic buddying’, meaning that once you provide the opportunities for people to meet and make online contact buddying will follow.

‘I have made friendships in this group that I hope and think will last a lifetime.’ Those are the words of one of our members; she voices the sentiment of many others.

In fact we have learned that connecting via email and social media is an important part of the identity of our groups. It helps the sense of a supportive community between meetings at the playgroups or the parent support evening, the two cornerstones. Imagine this: you are home for the 10th day in a row with a sick and contagious child; by now you are going stir crazy and need to connect with someone. You child is reacting to you in ways you don’t understand and don’t recognise. You need to ask some questions about ‘Is this adoption? Or is this ‘normal’?’ So the phone or going online are your options.

With regard to meeting in person the playgroups seem easy to establish – our model is to tag onto a welcoming and well-run existing playgroup. In this way not only do adopters meet other adopters with their young children, a local playgroup will help them meet other local families with children of the same age, thus easing the way in to the community with a child.

It is the adults only support group that appears to be more difficult to set up, but such groups are just as direly needed as the playgroups. These evenings are where the parents can spill all their beans, through all their toys out of their prams, and be heard and feel understood while they do. You could, of course, always just meet in a pub over a pint… But this is very different to the undisturbed and concentrated discussions of the parent support evening.

On top of these two main initiatives, there are now a plethora of other initiatives within our groups such as social events, family parties, clothes swaps, one-to-one play dates, coffee mornings. Much is done via email or text, and it is always informal. Much of it driven by the members themselves (as opposed to the head of the groups).

 So far we have found the following values helpful and essential:

  • If you want to set up a local network, make sure you are not doing it alone. Have at least one sparing partner.
  • Listen. To what the needs are.
  • Be reliably regular – no cancellations, especially early on. Do have your plan Bs ready. Members should know they are never far from meeting with other adopters.
  • Have no expectations of any one turning up – and don’t be disappointed if that is the case. It can take couple of months for a group to get going. It is important that people do not feel pressured to come, but only come of their own account (if they like the playgroup, they may try to change their arrangements so they can come).

However, if no one turns up for a good few times in a row, it could be that the time and day is not good for the people you want to reach. In which case consult with them and your sparing partner.

  • Be inclusive. Open to all faiths, race, shapes and sizes.
  • Keep your initiatives free and open to all. Avoid exclusivity – We all know how we don’t need that!
  • Beware of data protection and safety. So encourage online aliases and be careful about who and how you disclose your group. Consider the security of the chosen venues the initiatives.
  • Work closely with local SW in LAs or charities.

Currently all three groups are working with local Social Workers. In Hackney/Islington we are operating on consortium level with a dedicated working group, and we are moving towards this is the other areas. This is in recognition that we cannot do this work on our own, and that we are stronger if we can collaborate constructively and closely with our local adoption authorities around issues such as post adoption support and life story work. We ask them to steer new adopters our way, so we can welcome them into our midst when their children arrives. That is if they haven’t made contact already.

A crucial part of the network is of course for our children to have the possibility of growing up with other adopted children.

I am not fond of the word, but in want of a better one: A support network like We are Family will help normalise the adopted family, and integrate them into their local environment. We don’t want to create an adoption bubble. We want to support people while they find their feet and we want to continue to be there so throughout their lives as families.

We are not competition to existing group and networks. We just believe that there could be much more post adoption support for all adoptive families, no matter how old their children are or when they moved in.

This may well be premature to promote our community at this early stage. But we are in it for the long haul. And we will keep you posted…

We are Family made our villages in three parts of London. Your village is next.

Connect with We Are Family

Twitter: @wearefamilyadop

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#takingcare

OPen nest

Last Saturday the charity Open Nest held their first conference ‘Taking Care’ in York.  A host of august adoption speakers were there. I am proud that we were invited too. It was a room full mainly of adopters, but also of adoptees, social workers and other professionals.

The short version of this review is that Taking Care was a resounding success.

 

Amanda Boorman’s vision and the team with her pulled together a tremendous day with profound, practical and real lessons shared. The talks were extraordinary, and varied in their presentation. The most profound voices, however, were no doubt those of the adoptees, Jazz Boorman and Fran Proctor.

Amanda began by welcoming us and gave a short introduction to her charity, The Open Nest. And then… well … then she showed us a short documentary about her life with Jazz, her adopted daughter. It was edited down from hundreds of hours of film made over the course of their journey as a family. It was filled with love and heart ache. It was heart breaking. It contained a vignette of Jazz meeting her birthmother. Her voice trembled loudly with laughter and tears, powerful super sounds to remind us all of a hole in our children that we can mitigate, but never fill. Seeing and hearing this pain was an insight that I think shall never leave me. This film has to be seen. And heard. For obvious reasons it is not on general release, so keep your eyes and ears out for a chance to view it.

Al Coates was possibly the only person who could have followed this film. His delivery was slide less, just a man leaning on the lectern or moving about while he spoke with luring elegance and deceptive humour about his own journey and views. He released the mountains of tension in the room with laughter. He made us roar with his penetrating critique of the system and support services, both of which he deemed no longer fit for purpose. He should know. He is a social worker and, with his wife, the father of six. He delivered reams of one-liners like: ‘Coming home to find that the woman you love has been beaten up by a four year old.’ or ‘Telling a Social worker about attachment. Well… That’s bollocks.’  Who could disagree? Bottlefeeding his four year old turned a corner in their relationship, one that could have been turned much earlier. It happened after attachment had been mentioned only in passing, this is after months Al enduring physical abuse from the same child every. single. day. in the small hours of the day. This is to say nothing of how that child felt during all of this!

Al made the same point that Amanda has made earlier: he is not anti adoption (yes he and The Open Nest has been accused of this), not at all, he is just PRO SUPPORT.

Fran Proctor, mother and adoptee, followed with her story of a broken heart and trust, and how she rebuilt her life. In her soft voice she recalled the support that had been helpful, and that which had not. I will not retell the story here, as it is hers to share, but I will say that I am in awe of how – when she finally met her biological mother, facing her greatest fears – she had the strength to listen to her mother’s version of events, only to finish it with ‘I am nothing like you. And I never will be.’ And she could walk away. That doesn’t mean there aren’t scars, or that she isn’t working on them – she is – this was the first time she ever stood up to tell it. It is a powerful reminder that adoption is lifelong. Sally Donovan introduced Fran by telling us how much she herself had learnt from Fran, about her own children. It was clear to see that Fran has much to share, and we adoptive parents much to learn from her. If ever I had been in doubt about the importance of listening to our children, Fran reaffirmed, while speaking on what can go wrong despite the best of intentions.

Sally Donovan, adopter and author of No Matter What fame, delivered another of her deliciously practical talks on self care and how to speak to the schools and education. Sparks were flying from my pen as they noted useful suggestions that could make a real difference to our children in school. She addressed us parents at eye-height. ‘Just. Say. No.’ She told us. To extra duties, like PTA. ‘If you don’t feel you have the energy, step away from it.’ She taught us about ‘me-holiday’, of lower (i.e. no) household standards, ready made meals, day time TV and so on. ‘It’s ok…. Really.’ Because if you don’t there could be consequences, like what could happen if you have been running on fumes for a while. Burn out. Or Secondary trauma. Which is what brought Sally’s own family to the brink. Take care of yourselves! A friend had ventured that the world consists of two types of people: the radiators and the drains. Stay clear of one, and gravitate to the warmth of the other. And all those things you do for the kids… like letting them have ice cream, watching a film etc, treat yourself in the same way. Because as a parent you are the pillar of the family and if you crumble, so will the family. Self care is family care. Everyone benefits from it.

At this point I will be honest and say I wasn’t quite sure I could deliver my own talk, such was the gravitas of what had been delivered. But I went on and reeled off what I had prepared. The feedback from the talk showed that there are many self-made adopters groups out there, and it is clear from them and us, and from the conference as a whole, that we parents really can support each other in ways no-one else can.

After a break with homemade cookies (!), Ella Harris, an adoptive mum and actor, introduced us to her brain child Open Space and made us all brain storm at our tables of 8, on topics and issues personal to us. The lists were long and inspiring. Sally collected them all, to appear in due course – probably via Twitter.

Sarah and Vicky from The Adoption Social gave a well-pitched talk, a very difficult task to a crowd of people with very different experiences and knowledge of the Ethernet and Tweetland. I think my no. 1 tip for adopters is get an alias account to join Twitter. You’ll soon meet them.  The support community on Twitter were no less welcoming in person. I agree wholeheartedly with Al’s observation that part of the conference was quite disconcerting. Unknowingly I too had assigned voices, fictitious faces even to the adoption tweeters that had turned up is such great numbers.

A common thread throughout the day from all the speakers was the power of being believed and trusted. And just how devastating it can be for a family when that doesn’t happen. All support, and all care, starts right there. In believing adoptive families when they tell their stories and especially when they ask for help.

After the end of an inspiring conference I felt quite physically drained, ready to just go to the hotel to digest and sleep. But once again the organisers were one step ahead of us: The Disco.

Seeing Sally and Sarah shaking it with Jazz and others they were clearly onto something.

May I add that they were rather good too?

Introductions: A How To… Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Try not to place expectations on those first vulnerable meetings.

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

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

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

Lucky?

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

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

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

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

Lucky?

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

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

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

So ‘lucky’! Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Resemblance

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

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

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

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