Sad Eyes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI previously wrote a blog about being at a party and meeting a number of people who knew our sons from their time in foster care. we had been confused that nobody recognised them and surprised by everybody saying just how much the boys had changed.

We could not see such a huge difference and even when told that it was more than them just looking older, and that it was a ‘fundamental’ change, that they looked healthier and happier – as much as we understood it and accepted it, we failed to see it to the extent that was clearly evident to others.

That is until now.

This week we stumbled upon a DVD that the boys brought with them when then first arrived that was filmed at a children’s play centre. It showed the pair of them sitting in a car seat ‘driving’ in front of a screen projecting moving cartoon images. We had watched it soon after they first arrived and it is sweet and charming and we thought it a lovely little peep at the younger – yet to be part of our world – them.

However, watching it again now is very different indeed, and what we see are two almost unrecognisable little boys. They are smiling and laughing and there is no doubt that they are enjoying themselves, but their smiles are not the smiles that we know, the smiles that we see every day, the smiles that light our lives and that we love so very much.

It takes me a while to understand. I study the faces in the DVD and I realise that the smiles are ‘limited. They are quite brief and  contained around their mouths and only around their mouths. It is suddenly very apparent that the rest of the face and particularly their eyes are not smiling or sharing in their happiness at all.

In fact it’s very clear to see a sadness in their eyes, a sadness that the laughter simply fails to erase. It is a look that wonderfully is no longer there, making the two little boys in the DVD quite different little boys to the ones we see before us today.

Terms such as ‘smiling, but with sad eyes’ are used a lot and I have always considered them a bit of a literary tool for lazier writers – especially in the music industry – and also a bit of a cliche. In fact if I gave it more thought and consideration I guess I found it to be a bit nonsensical, people smile because they are happy or amused or content and it lights up their face, when they are not truly happy the smile is very obviously insincere and not a true smile at all.

However what we are watching in our sons’ faces in the DVD is indeed happiness, they are having a lovely time and there are spontaneous bursts of laughter and genuinely happy smiles, but regardless of them both so clearly enjoying themselves and being happy with what the moment brings, their smiles are concealing a sadness.

It is heartbreaking to watch – both my partner and I are emotionally affected – but just how deeply we did not realise until the following day.

I was with a close friend and telling her about the DVD and how the change in the boys is SO evident and explaining about the sad eyes. She said ‘it must make you so happy and proud that you have erased that sadness’, at which point the always positive, glass-half-full me started to say ‘No. In fact I feel the exact opposite. It makes me hugely sad for how they suffered before we were there to protect them’… but the sentence was never completed as I felt myself choke up and immediately start to shed tears. Real tears. Proper heart felt tears.

I was embarrassed and also shocked. Shocked at the level of emotion I was feeling but most of all by the tears which had literally sprung from nowhere.

Tears had been a pretty regular event in the first few months of becoming a father – surprisingly more for me than for my partner, and dealing with the overwhelming emotions of it all had knocked me for six. I had got used to uncharacteristically shedding a tear or two in the early days but things had slowly calmed down; and although I often have a lump in my throat when talking about the first moment we laid eyes on ours sons, or about something they have said or done that has touched us, on the whole tears are nowadays thankfully under control.

Or apparently not.

It pains me hugely to think of my sons suffering and me not being there to prevent that and as much as I know it is illogical and I guess even foolish, the feelings are real and they are clearly beyond my control. As a parent whose place it is to always protect my sons, knowing it was an impossibility doesn’t stop it from feeling like a failing on my part.

What’s coming next?

2011-07-12 17.27.34Am I the only one feeling slightly overwhelmed by all the information we are confronted with  about our kids and their pasts and potential futures?

At the moment I feel like everywhere I look I’m reminded that life is going to be difficult. – Not that it’s perfect for everyone else, but apparently it’s going to be much harder for our children.

I’m told I must let go of the picture perfect image of a happy family cycling merrily along a river towpath together, splashing through all the puddles, and replace it with something a lot darker, something unknown that perhaps I won’t be able to cope with. All in all it’s supposedly going to be to be tough and sometimes I feel overwhelmed by what’s potentially coming (it’s not ‘if’..-but ‘when’… apparently). All the anxiety inducing rhetoric and reading I’ve done has suddenly got to me. Is there a word for it? A phrase? Adoption anxiety fatigue perhaps?

What of we can’t cope? What if we mess it up?

I’m fully aware of how controversial it is to be saying all this because in many ways, it’s such progress for us as parents and for society in general  to be made aware of all the potential damage caused by early trauma and what we can do to overcome it. I get it. I just feel a little weary from it. I know it’s not helpful but sometimes I do.
My son is beautiful, funny, clever, obstinate, demanding, loving and fascinating and a million other adjectives too. Sometimes I’d rather just see him as this instead of a ticking time bomb.

Mum

fillipo lippi V&CBoth our boys on occasions have called my partner and I ‘Mum’, as we are both men it has surprised us and we have considered it long and hard.

They have done it to me only a couple of times and in fact I’m pretty sure it has stopped completely now, but although it has lessened for my partner it will very occasionally and apparently quite randomly still pop up. He is the stay at home parent and consequently takes on the more ‘motherly’ role, but trust me he is every inch a man and a father.

The obvious question is – why?

The obvious answer to many – because they wish they had a Mother.

Yet we are sure that is not so at all, we regularly discuss being a family and them having two dads and we have directly asked them on a number of occasions if they wish they had a mum. In the beginning they would sometimes say yes – and we were pleased that they were being honest and felt able to be so – yet that stopped some time back and now they simply say ‘no, we love having two dads’. They usually go on and point out that they do have a mum anyway – referring to birth mum.

As I am sure is the case with other families that do not fit the stereotype, we have became acutely aware of how the ‘nuclear family’ of Mum, Dad and usually two children (mostly a boy and a girl) is an image that is constantly and relentlessly fed to our children.

The good news is that the awareness does make us address the issue and we spend some time seeking out books, films, TV programmes etc that have less obvious family set ups and it’s great to discover that they are out there nowadays.

The bad news is that trying to normalise our family is a tough battle to fight and we are now realising that it is one that can never actually be won. No matter how many alternatives we find these are so greatly outnumbered that the ‘normal’ image of the nuclear family will always win through, I guess the most that we can hope for is to soften the blow of that as much as possible.

I have to say that it has filled me with a whole new found respect for single parents, divorced parents, large families, stay at home dad families (where mum works) or any family that does not fit into the stereotype our children are taught to see as ‘normal’ and as a consequence are facing the same issues that we are.

Our sons are clearly proud of their two dads and they tell everybody we are a family – which occasionally freaks out the odd stranger or two on the 38 bus. They are clearly happy with us and not on any level embarrassed or ashamed of having gay dads which is wonderfully reassuring – although as with any parent/child relationship we are pretty sure that being ashamed of their parents will rightly develop with age and will be ever present throughout their teenage years.

The great positive in our sons calling us ‘Mum’ is that we now clearly see it as a sign that we are in fact meeting all of their ‘motherly’ needs and that they are in fact just reassuring us of that fact. It seems to satisfy them and consequently that certainly satisfies us too.

ACE scores in the family

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I’ve been listening to some ultra interesting interviews recently:

Full Potential Parenting ‘s Healing Our Children – 2016 World Summit. Alison Morris of Full Potential Parenting has gathered up some amazing speakers for her interviews this year and I have been listening as much as I could.

One of these interviewees was Donna Jackson Nazakawa, who spoke about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE): Their Impact on Health and How to Heal After They Happen. She mused over the ACEs survey and it’s far-reaching implications, including the surprising benefits of going through the healing process. You can take the ACE test yourself here.

I did. I did it twice. No; three times. In two different languages. On two different sites; it made no difference! It is still 5/6 depending on how literally you take things. I’ve also done the test before. That answer then was also the same.

I then glanced over the questionnaire with my son in mind and … His ACE score is 1.

S***

My ACE score is higher than his.

Surely his single point trumps mine. Surely it does. But …

Childhood trauma is common. The majority of the population has an ACE score of 1.

But the higher your ACE score the higher the chance of health, social and emotional problems. I read that with a score of 4+ things get more serious. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increases 390 percent; hepatitis 240 percent; depression 460 percent; suicide, 1,220 percent. (See link)

Oh dear. I know I shouldn’t surf for this kind of information because it scares me. I know I should be hypercritical. Yet… I guess I will have to look under that rock.

I’ll freely admit that my darling son has triggered me in many ways, most of it very good. But not all of it. Some of it seemed unreflective regurgitated childhood hurt of my own.

So … I’ve gone and got some personal therapy. Some of this stuff was so not anything to do with my son. It was purely. Squarely. My own. S***.

His arrival triggered strong reactions and re-evaluations of my own childhood. Which was privileged in many ways. White. Middleclass. Liberal. Educated. Sprawling.

The more I look at my parenting, the more I, and the way I was parented, stand in the way. Looking at the screen and my ACE score there is no other way of looking at it either. I have to look at my own roots. And deep down this really isn’t about me. It is about being and becoming a better parent for him. I’m chipping away at trying to make sense of my own history, and first and foremost being honest about it. How I felt about various stuff. Some of it is easy to access – like remembering being belittled, overruled, not being believed or trusted. Basically not being taken seriously and respected. I remember that vividly. It still happens. When I tap into that understanding, it is easy to take a deep breath and try to do it differently. I am hoping it is from a place of greater respect and understanding. But there are so many blind alleys and stuff I myself am unaware of.

Just today another blip came up, that hinted at a huge blind angle.

I often apologise when I don’t need to. I really try so very hard to please. And although I know I can be assertive, often I don’t really say what I really mean. Not because I don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. No it’s not always that. It’s because being honest can be difficult. I was trained so well early on in life to keep the peace no matter what, that I am not actually sure how I feel.

The trigger today was life story work. My son’s story isn’t full of gore and drug and abuse and neglect. He was a baby when he moved in with us. I often apologise for this fact. Other people have it worse. Other kids have suffered way more. But my son’s loss is his loss. It isn’t about comparison. So why this drive to apologise and thereby diminish it??

This ACE score stuff tells me the same story about my own life.

All my life I’ve been telling myself that my story isn’t so bad and my life has been and still is privileged. That my siblings had it worse. Only, it was bad for me. I just developed a very good coping mechanism not to get hurt, and to go undetected. I became a big time pleaser. And in that I forgot how I felt about things. It is still difficult to know how I feel about certain things. I don’t necessarily know when I have to stop, when I am tired and need a break. Because I can power on for a long long long time. Until I SNAP! Which is a family speciality. And it is not pretty when it happens.

Now I am doing the same to my son: trying to please, teaching him what he feels doesn’t really matter. Worse still I am showing him (teaching him really) that you can overrule how you feel in order to fit in, to be seen as more acceptable and accepting. And that it is not proper manners or socially acceptable to do otherwise. That’s just crap. And ultimately disrespectful. To us both.

The link between how I was parented and what I am passing to my son in terms of self-respect, because this is essentially what this is about, is so simple to understand, once I saw it. I feel embarrassed to admit that I never really saw the link til today. Not as clearly anyway. And now I feel ashamed that I didn’t. Which also doesn’t help. I fear there is a long way to become a better parent.

It is hard to explain, just how difficult I am finding it to write this, to own up to the fact that it is me more than him that needs work, if I am to be as good and respectful a parent as he deserves.

You don’t love me anymore.

20160214_153718Social workers are just people doing a job and of course like all of us they are sometimes less than perfect; however they are dealing with people’s lives so even simple mistakes can be emotionally wounding. We became very aware of this through our own experience and also that of friends who have also been through the adoption process. It can be as simple as failing to immediately tell you of a change in the panel date – which of course means a huge amount to you, but is just a correction in a diary to them – to fundamentally not “getting it”.

There was one incident by our sons’ social worker in particular that resulted in upset to us and great distress to our eldest very early on in the placement.

He and his brother had been with us for just a few weeks. It had been weeks full of every effort from us to build a bond and to get the boys to attach, every effort to prove our love to them and to convince them of the fact that we were now a forever family.

Things were going well; they are warm and loving little boys and from the very beginning they were open to our relentless hugs and kisses and really seemed to accept us and indeed start to attach very quickly.

We had lots of fun and we were making the most of the time together as a family while I was off work. They seemed happy – on the surface anyway – and they both seemed to like the fact that we were their new parents and that this was their new life.

We used the term ‘forever’ as much as possible and would break into the 1970’s disco classic ‘We are family’ at every opportunity – it’s amusing to see that our support group was equally inspired by that track.

It was early days and I don’t for one moment think they were fully bonded or attached, but they certainly seemed to like the idea that this was forever.

Their social worker was new and quite inexperienced and on her first post-placement visit we remembered the advice from prep group that it can be a difficult and confusing time for the children and we thought we had prepared the boys well in advance and that they understood that she was coming to see them and to see how they were doing. She arrived and the boys greeted her with smiles and hugs and kisses and after 20 or so minutes they were sent upstairs leaving us adults to talk through our first few weeks as parents.

At that stage – still well in the honeymoon period – things were good and we had few issues to bring up, and looking back we realise that the social worker’s inexperience meant that she asked very little and offered very little, consequently she was soon ready to leave.

We called the boys down to say goodbye and only the youngest came. My partner went to find his brother and returned saying that he was acting very strangely, hiding under the sofa and refusing to come out. As he tried to coax him out he was told, “Go away; I know you don’t love us anymore.” My partner said it was clear that he was very upset.

At this point the story of a close friend who had also adopted came flashing into my mind. It was the first visit of her daughter’s foster parents whom the child loved dearly and as my friend opened the door with her new daughter in her arms, the child took one look at who was on the doorstep and turned with a look of total bewilderment and grabbed my friend with all her might. Clearly the presence of the foster parents from her old life was threatening and in her little mind could mean only one thing; that they were there to take her away from the security of this new forever family.

Which is exactly what our son was thinking, upstairs, alone, hiding under the sofa. Then – and only then – I recalled being told to look out for exactly this situation during our preparation.

Suddenly it was all very obvious to me and I immediately took control of the situation. With my partner left to say goodbye to the oblivious social worker, I went to sit with our son and reassured him that he was safe and secure with us and that she had not come to take him back. He was not immediately convinced and stayed in his hiding place until I went to the window and told him that she was now in her car and he could came and wave goodbye from the safe distance of a first floor window.

It was all so very obvious; both my partner and I were truly ashamed that we had not anticipated the inevitable and saved the anguish that the situation had so clearly caused our son.

Yet our prep group had been nearly two years before this and dealing with two children coming into our lives and turning everything upside down meant that nothing was as obvious to us as it should have been.

However, the meeting was organised by the social worker and although new, surely she had a responsibility to be prepared, to make sure we were prepared and, more importantly, to make sure that the children were too?

She didn’t and as a result our son was deeply upset, which of course hurt both of us too.

I guess it could be considered a small oversight on her part, but it is exactly situations such as these where their professionalism is essential and – novice or not – some things are just too important not to get right. The incident has stayed with us and it has made us extra-cautious of anything from their past coming back into their lives.

It also made us very aware that social workers, like all of us, are fallible and not the perfect professionals we sometimes need and perhaps unrealistically expect them to be.