Why is she in the buggy?

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The first time it happened I really felt her pain.

It was her first play date ever and her new friend ran confidently around picking up toys and evaluating them for fun value. My daughter ran ahead delightedly pointing out her possessions and waiting for approval. Suddenly the friend let out a shriek ; my daughter had proudly held up her tatty old half-perished dummy which she wouldn’t go to sleep without, the one she arrived with that made her feel safe. “Oh no”, said her suddenly much more grown-up friend. “That’s for babies; you shouldn’t have that”. The friend eyed her suspiciously and my daughter flushed with shame. Confused she looked to me and although I made light of it, the rest of the play was not relaxed. After the friend left she kept reliving that moment of shame. When she went to bed I saw her really struggle with her need for the dummy and I told her it was ok to have it if she needed it. “She thinks I’m a baby,” she said through tears.

The second time we were on holiday and I was more prepared.

Having made firm friends with a little girl of a similar age, they were giggling away, thick as thieves until we got up to leave and our daughter climbed into her worn out old buggy. The other girl was speechless and no longer laughing. She turned to us – the adults with whom she now clearly felt more affinity – and enquired, “Why is she in a buggy? She’s not a baby.” Once again our daughter flushed with shame. Quick as a flash I bent down, and in a whisper said, “Well, first of all – between you and me- this isn’t a normal buggy – it’s magic and takes her to special magic places – that’s where we’re off to now actually; and secondly we’re staying a lot further away than you are and it’s very late for little girls to be up now.” I’m not sure she believed me but it stunned her into temporary silence and away we went, but all the way home she kept repeating, “she didn’t like the buggy did she? She didn’t like the buggy? You had to explain”.

It made me sad and then it made me a bit angry. What is the rush anyway?

What if she’s a little slower in shedding some of the comforts of infancy? Why does it matter? Why is society so geared up towards moving on to the next thing as quickly as possible? Couldn’t we all benefit from taking a bit more time over things?

Her childhood already seems to be going by so fast and I for one am in no rush to push her even faster through it. She can take as much time as she wants.

I’m taking you home with me

Photo by Lili Gooch

Photo by Lili Gooch

The mother of a close friend was over from Africa and came to our house to meet our new sons; we had made a lot of how far away she lived and that she had taken a long flight to get here. We spoke about Africa and all the wild animals and the boys were suitably intrigued and excited.

It was still quite early days in the boys’ placement and although we felt they had settled quickly, in retrospect it’s clear to see that they still had a long way to go before they really felt any sense of security or permanence.

Our guest was quite taken with the boys and half way through the evening from the opposite end of the room I heard her declare ‘my goodness what wonderful little boys you are, in fact you are so lovely I’m going to take you home with me’.

Innocent words delivered with warmth and a smile, words that to most children would be seen as a tease and do little more than elicit giggles and smiles. However these words to adopted children still in the first few months of placement mean something quite different indeed.

They mean ‘she IS going to take them home’ and the look on our sons’ faces clearly displayed their confusion at the thought of being taken away from their new Daddies and thrust into yet another home with different parents.

Thankfully the moment I heard the words I realised how they would sound to our sons and immediately started to laugh – to ease their tension – and responded ‘oh no you’re not, nobody is taking our sons away from us’.

Oblivious to the confusion she had created our guest continued to ‘compliment’ the boys by firmly stating ‘ oh yes I am, they will love Africa, won’t you boys?’

Shaking my head and continuing to laugh I approached the boys, knelt down to their level and repeated my reassurance that they were going nowhere, but still she failed to see the negative effect her words were having. Thankfully as she again started to insist that her plans were real, our – clearly more sensitive – friend stepped in with a firm ‘no mother you are not taking them anywhere, they are here with their new dads and that’s where they will always be from now on.’

Finally the penny dropped and she immediately assured the boys that she was just joking and that they would indeed always be with us from now on.

It was a difficult couple of minutes. It would have been inappropriate to make a big fuss and make her feel she had done something wrong because of course there was no ill intent – quite the reverse – and it’s no doubt something she had said many times before with other children. However it had needed dealing with immediately, regardless of it causing her embarrassment.

We knew better – not that that stops us making mistakes – but how on earth could she or would she have realised her error without us there to point it out? It was still early days and it made me realise that everybody around us was learning – just as we were.

Later with the boys tucked up in bed, she apologised and we stressed how it was just a simple mistake and that no harm had been done. She went on to say how the incident had filled her with a sadness for the little soles whose lives to date had seen such turmoil that the idea of simply being passed on to another family was very much a reality.

This took place almost 3 years ago and it was brought to mind yesterday when a friend who babysat our sons last week told me of her horror when she did a very similar thing. After an evening of the boys being on – thankfully and certainly not guaranteed – best behaviour she stated ‘you boys have been so good today, in fact I think I’m going to adopt you’, she said their quizzical expressions made her immediately realise her foolish choice of words and she back-tracked by telling them that she was being silly and of course she wasn’t going to be doing anything of the sort.

She was in fact apologising to me for what she had done and was clearly upset; I of course was not and pointed out that it was an innocent mistake and one she had rectified immediately and no harm had been done.

It did make me realise the difference between the two incidents and it was satisfying to see that just like us the other people around our sons were learning to understand them and their situation and as a consequence they are dealing with them in a much more sensitive manner.

Charity!

new-year-celebrationThis blog is long overdue, all I can say by way of an excuse is it that starting a kid in nursery school is no joke: we have been taking turns in being ill since the beginning of September. Our kids (and their illnesses) trumps all! Anyway, here is what I have been meaning to say since a lovely day late in the summer hols:

On the 26th August 2015 we became a fully fledged charity! With the official number: 1163318. Oh what joy in a short sequence of numbers.

Hurray to us all!

Becoming a charity is a welcome recognition for all that we do, edging our way as we are towards support for all adopters, starting with London. The new status, however, does not change our profound wish to remain a grass roots organisation with a good sprinkling of the grounded and inclusive, hosting regular, informal and largely free or very low cost events for all our families.

Our focus remains stoutly the parents, hoping that supporting them will help support all our children as well.

It fills me with great joy and pride to see how far we have come in just two short years.

We now count no less than seven groups across London and beyond (East London, Enfield, Hackney/Islington, Richmond, Shepherd’s Bush, Southwark and North Buckinghamshire). In addition, we have three groups lined up, with a view to launch these in the New Year. These are Croydon, Havering and South Buckinghamshire.

Our core activities remain:

· Parent Support, which is run by all but one local group
· Playgroups for under-fives, which is run in five out of seven
· Family days

Furthermore, our groups are able to access pan-London subgroups, that is, our Prospective Adopters group and our Single Adopters Group. Both these groups popped up as it became clear they needed different kinds of activities and meetings than we were then offering; both groups are thriving.

We are also proudly working with four out of the six London Adoption consortia, in the acknowledgement that the dialogue with the professionals is key to being a successful organisation.

But fundamentally, there is no denying that our main asset is our volunteers and members: our fantastic parents and our parents in waiting. You know who you are. Without you, there would be no WAF. Your dedication is what keeps it alive, and as it happens, keeps it growing.

In building WAF we have been able to draw on the vast resources of our members and their skills (the range of professions in our midst never ceases to amaze me). Adoptive parents tend to be older parents, often professionals with a well-established career, and often ready for a new challenge, perhaps even a new career. WAF benefits enormously from this pool of extraordinary people and their warm energy.

To date we have been operating with practically no money. It’s a new world, we are in a recession, and frankly an awful lot can be done with very little. But there is no denying that we have been extremely fortunate in finding much support from a number of local authorities, adoption agencies and other professionals. Without them we would not be where we are today. Full stop.

The relative success of WAF may also be seen as a part of a new trend in self-organised volunteering. A move away from established charities that are often seen as corporate, whether or not that is a fair perception. Whatever the reason, we are part of a larger trend of people across the country are getting involved locally; they want to make, and feel that they are making, a difference – here and now. Thus adopter-led groups are springing up across the country.

The core of emphatic parent enthusiasm is a strong motivator and definitely our driving force. This fact makes the learning curve no less steep. We are certainly skipping along a tight rope. We are trying our hardest to strike a good and sustainable balance between the intimacy of grass root ideals – including the autonomy of our local groups and establishing replicable and reliable events and groups – with safe working parameters for some of our society’s most vulnerable people. Not an easy thing to do.

Thus, at a central level (yes, we now do have a central level!) we are working apace to develop necessary policies, establish procedures and digest it all to produce easy to follow guidelines. Some of this is simply necessary to protect our members and those who take a more official role. But we are adamant to try to keep these policies and procedures to a minimum, so our members can continue to dip in and dip out as they see fit. It is the hope to make all this (dare I say boring) work an open and free resource in order to inspire and support others considering setting up similar groups.

Perhaps the mission closest to my own heart, as the interim chair, is for WAF to be anti-isolation by nature. Isolation is a major factor in all kinds of depression (PADS included), as it is in all families in crisis and in adoption breakdowns. So if you are reading this is in crisis, the number one thing you can do is to draw on your network. Ask for help. But even if you seem to be bumbling along nicely, build on your network, and listen to those who need to talk. It is our hope in WAF to help building such supportive networks, face-to-face. To break down towers of isolation. We just provide the platforms.

I would like to end this brief look at the two-year-old WAF with some thanks, that cannot be overstated or repeated often enough.

If you are a WAF’er: Thank you for your particular part in this, for taking a chance on us. You are the reason we are here.

If you are one of our lovely supporters: thank you for believing in us and for giving us the help you have! There is no way we could have gotten this far without your help and trust in us. No way.

[Opens champagne: POP! Spills it every where, OOUHhhh, oh dear…, oh well…]:

Here’s to the future! THANK YOU EVERY ONE!

Why Doesn’t Daddy Smile?

946840079623I’ve always thought of myself as a happy-go-lucky type and the first two words that sprang to my friends’ lips when asked to describe me today were “funny” and “laid back”. Of course like everyone I am prone to be unfunny and not at all laid back at times, but generally I like to think they’re right.

My own memories of looking after my sister’s children are ones purely of skipping and singing silly songs and laughing a lot.

So when our daughter turned to my wife last week and asked her, “why doesn’t Daddy smile?”, at first it made me laugh and raise my eyes skyward, shaking my head in the manner of “oh, the things that children say”, but after a while it shocked me and has given me real pause since.

In all our family pictures, there I am mucking about, pulling funny faces, laughing and smiling. But pictures capture a single moment and do not tell the story or indeed paint a thousand words. The camera can and does, maybe not lie in that moment, but perhaps cast a concealing sheen over the truth.

And so I have revisited my role as an Uncle and dredged up other not so glorious moments where I was impatient, grumpy, angry even; a lot of them. And revisited, taking off my rose-tinted Daddy specs, how I have been of late as a father. Impatient, grumpy, angry even. It’s trying dealing with a small person developing a will of their own, stepping out of the era of complete malleability and obedience and into the “No!” era. I’m not coping well with that. The first “No!” was funny; the ten thousand following, not so much.

I am ok with being a good-enough parent, but “Why doesn’t Daddy smile?” isn’t good enough. Not by a long way.

I’m in danger of being remembered as the Dad that never smiled, the grumpy one, the frustrated one, the no-fun one, the one that shouted, the one that had lines etched deep into their ageing face that in others were laughter lines but in him ones of fatigue and misery.

And so I resolved to make a conscious change. I came home from work today and instead of flopping down exhausted onto the sofa, instead of nodding absently, not really listening to the chattering child, instead of saying “Bed. Now.” in a raised voice, I spent 30 minutes playing hide and seek. My hiding places were ingenious and she just hid in the same place each time, so I won hands down, in case you were wondering.; she might be only 3 but she’s just rubbish at this game. But we laughed when we found each other, we laughed when I caught her peeking while she was counting to ten, we laughed when she found me trying unsuccessfully to fold my six foot frame into her minute play tent. We laughed a lot. We tired each other out. And when I said “time for bed”, we stopped our game and we smiled at each other. For a long time. Nobody captured that moment, but it will be etched in my brain for the rest of my life. And I hope that image of my smiling, loving face might, just might, stay with her too.

As camp as a row of tents

DSC02043It was some time ago when I decided that camping was not for me.

I was very aware that I will never climb mountains or set off to reach a pole – north or south – or any other truly remote locale and as such I figured that I was unlikely to actually be any place where a tent would be essential, certainly not anywhere beyond striking distance of an establishment that had a bed to rent. It wouldn’t have to be a fancy bed or come with any luxuries, it would just need to be a step up from sleeping on the floor beneath canvas to reassure me that my decision is a sound one.

I am not anti camping and I certainly have nothing against others doing it, in fact I guess I somewhat admire their vigour and enthusiasm for something that I now find so unappealing. I am aware that to some it gives a real sense of freedom and is a great adventure and to others it offers spontaneity or an inexpensive way to take long holidays that could otherwise be out of their reach.

I get it, I just don’t enjoy it. Hence I had avoided it for many years.

When I camped in the past I guess it’s fair to say that I found the experience less than wondrous. At the time I remember it was all laughed off with youthful exuberance, but as I have matured and as my body has aged and started to demand more of the basic home comforts – you know, like a bed, a loo and running hot water – it has left me somewhat reluctant to embrace it – even for the comedy factor.

However, I now have children and as we all know – children LOVE to camp. They love the thrill of something different, of the adventure and I guess the parent/child bonding that doing it as a family offers. Consequently I find myself in my early 50’s not only agreeing to go camping, but once a year perversely looking forward to it.

Not looking forward to the lack of comfort, lack of decent showering facilities, of the nights of poor sleep, or to the aches and pains I suffer for sleeping ‘sans’ a mattress, but looking forward to a very special long bank holiday weekend, a weekend that I have recently returned from, the weekend that is the New Family Social (NFS) LGBT family camp.

What is so special about this weekend that it gets me enthused for something I would ordinarily be refusing to do? Well pretty much everything actually.

Firstly the setting, it’s held in a very nice part of the country in lots of woodland allowing for intimate camps within a camp. It is calm, peaceful, beautiful and quite simply a great place to be.

On top of its desirable setting the camp has lots of activities for the kids – archery, wall climbing, zip wire, crate stacking, pond dipping, grass sledging and more – most of which is anything but peaceful or relaxing, which is of course exactly how the children want it. In addition NFS lay on creative and thoughtful activities throughout the day and the evening for each of the 4-5 days, so there is always something for the children – and also the parents – to take part in. Most notably there is the very entertaining ‘We’ve got talent’ show and new for this year the amazing ‘Village fete’, with its Dog show and many stalls offering various table top games, face painting, nail painting and such.

Secondly there are the volunteers – LGBT people considering adoption\fostering or already on the path to adoption\fostering – who are enthusiastic, ever helpful and well… pretty amazing. They are there for NFS who need their time, effort and energy to make the weekend go smoothly and professionally – which it does. They are there for us campers, to help us, to guide us – and wonderfully to keep a watchful eye or two on our children. Lastly they are there for themselves, to find out what NFS can offer them and to discover what we the members are all about – they get to see first hand some of what being a LBGT parent and an adoptive\foster parent means, to hear our stories of who, what, why led us to be the families that we are and to learn of our often very differing experiences.

Then there are us campers, every family brings along their own unique story, and we are all there to listen and to share and maybe most importantly to learn from each other. We are families from all over the country (in fact sometimes even further afield), from all social groups and backgrounds, parents of varying intellect/ income/ political persuasion and religion yet we all have two huge things in common – that we are LBGT and that we have children. Camaraderie is in abundance and friendships are made which go well beyond the weekend.

However, what really makes the experience so very special is what it means to the children.

Apart from the great fun that can be had and the chance to meet up with friends from previous years and to make new friends there is a wonderful freedom on offer that is unlike almost anything most of the children would have experienced – especially those growing up in cities where their every move is organised and controlled and where every minute of their day there is a need for them to be monitored. From the moment the children arrive they are off socialising and playing and certainly for our 7 and 8 year old we only see them when THEY want us and return to find us.

This freedom is something I remember SO strongly from my childhood growing up in the 60’s/70’s, I look back on it as being very special and it saddens me that childhood for my sons is so much more restricted. The many adult eyes of the parents and the volunteers which are all looking out for every child reassures us of a high degree of security – but the children are running wild in the woods so it’s certainly not 100% safe and knowing that they can escape adult eyes, be a little naughty and take a minor risk here or there I guess makes the freedom real and even more significant to them, and every child just seems to lap it up and to relish every moment.

In addition it is a weekend when they are literally surrounded by mostly adopted peers all living in LBGT families, where for a change their kind of family is in the majority. I’m pretty sure none of the children have any kind of issue with having LGBT parents however for a few days, for a change it’s quite simply the norm – not the exception.

Apart from being wonderfully reassuring and normalising I am sure that this environment helps to instil a sense of pride for who they are and what their family is, in a way which I think would be impossible to achieve elsewhere.

I am still not a camper – however I am a gay dad who willingly goes camping once a year and loves it.