Reassurance, reassurance reassurance.

‘That’s the name of the game in the early days. Reassurance.’ said the social worker on the phone. ‘Just reassure him that everything will be ok. As much a you possibly can.’
The nice reassuring lady was the social worker on call. Not our assessing social worker, nor my son’s social worker. Just the one around in the week after our son moved in.
It was August. London was wonderful calm, and the weather was good. A perfect time to start a family. If ever there was one. I was nervous, scared and happy. And many, many other things.
Reassure we did. Him as much as ourselves. Every time he cried. Or even might cry. At the very sight of a lower lip starting to wobble.
‘Oh, darling. It’s ok. It’s ok.’
I’d rush to him and pick him up. Gently bobbing him on my hip. Hushing him, Shsshing him.
‘There, there. It’s ok. Everything is going to be ok.’
In truth I think I was a little scared of his tears.
As the weeks turned into months, I felt reassured myself that I could settle him. That he would let me. That my bosom was a place of safety and comfort. I put pride in being able to stop his tears. Only… he was a quick learner. He read me. I could stop his tears quickly, because that’s what I wanted.
Except that one night…. when three hours after we had successfully put him down for the night, he woke up crying. This time, neither I nor my husband could settle him. He cried for a solid three and a half hours. Solidly. Ebbs and flow but tears throughout. Sometimes sobbing, sometime just silent tears, sometimes loud and angry. Wailing, screaming, sobbing. Snot and tears running into one around his O-shaped mouth.
We call the NHS helpline, and as we could find no outwards sign of illness or pain, we got rushed through the system, and at 2am we drove to the hospital, where they had made us an emergency appoint. We were all in distress.
The tears stopped the moment we activated the entrance doors at the hospital. The glass doors slid to the sides, and we stepped through, holding a silent and mesmerised baby. They gave him a bit of paracetamol and we left. He fell a sleep on the way home and we transferred him to his cot without him waking. For the first time since he moved in six weeks earlier he slept for more than 90mins in one stretch.
I have never been in doubt that this outburst was existential. That was the episode when it finally dawned on him that this was it: he understood he was going to be staying with us. Foster family gone. Replaced by smiling middle-aged amateurs.
I now also believe that’s where the tears that I has so successfully stopped for weeks flooded out. I hadn’t left him much space for waterworks. So he kept it in – most of the time.
Over time I slowly learned to accept his screams and tears. To gently squeeze him like a lemon till he was all cried dry. Letting him how that it is ok to cry and let it all out. Till he was done crying. Not when I was done listening. I brace myself, and stick it out. Because the return is so wonderful. It is like torrential rain followed by sunshine. And the sunshine lasts if he is allowed to let it ALL out. It is simply the most effective, and quickest way for him to shed whatever is really bothering him. All he needs from me is me being there. And staying there till the storm has passed.
I’m no longer so sure that what he needed was reassurance, as much as acknowledgment (something I needed too). Acknowledgment that it was a scary and crazy period for us all. And that there was huge loss involved.
I’m no longer a fan of reassurance. All it is saying is ‘I can’t deal with how you are feeling right now. I want you to go to normal.’
Reassurance is a little like telling someone who has just lost a loved one that it is all going to be ok.
No, it’s not. Everything has changed. And nothing will ever be the same. Ever. Again.

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My mum’s sausage rolls.

I grew up with avid foodie parents who loved nothing more than trying to outdo each other in the kitchen.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times my father demonstrated how to crack open and dress a crab. Seafood was his speciality and our Sunday tea usually consisted of crab, brown shrimps, winkles and cockles, salad and brown bread and butter and was utterly delicious.

My mum was a different story. Much as she tucked into the seafood with us, her heart was elsewhere and her absolute speciality was and still is making the most perfect shortcrust pastry you have ever tasted. It is a simple thing but done correctly is a thing of beauty.

She created numerous pie and tarts but the thing we loved most as a family – particularly my dad – was her sausage rolls. He was crazy about that combination of shortcrust pastry and filling.

It’s more usual to make a sausage roll using flakey or puff pastry but mum always favoured shortcrust and I have to say I still definitely prefer it.

Other essential ingredients are of course a good quality free range pork sausagemeat, pinch of mixed herbs and a grated onion, and a beaten egg for glazing.

Needless to say, this recipe has been passed on to me and my daughter now loves them the same way my father did. If she sees me making them she will let out a squeal of delight and rush over to try and ‘help’ me roll out the pastry (most of this ends up in her mouth). I imagine she’ll be making them herself before too long. Maybe with her own daughter.

Time marches on and my father sadly died this year but at the end of last year when he was getting frail and not eating very much, he and my mother came to stay and he asked if she would make some of her famous sausage rolls. We were both so pleased that he wanted to eat something – and seeing that my mother was tired I immediately jumped in and offered to make them instead.

“Ooh yes please! Can I help?”, came the cry from my daughter peeping round his bedroom door, so off we two went and made mum’s famous sausage rolls.

When they were done and we were all tucking into them around my dad’s bed, he took a bite, turned to my mum and said “Do you know I think this pastry might be even better than yours”…

I’ll never forget the look on her face or the smile on his. Priceless.

Thanks for all the laughs dad.

And Happy Father’s Day.

So Damn Stupid

Photo by Lili Gooch

Up early, well before the alarm. Good, there is never enough time in a day.

Quick shower (it’s so much easier to do this before the boys wake up), dress, make coffee, sort out laundry, put on washing machine, empty… damn, we forgot to put the dishwasher on last night.

Let dog out, wash dog’s bowl, feed her and clean up her mess in the garden.

Second mug of coffee, computer ‘on’. Hopefully a full hour or so of work before the boys wake.

Hear partner getting up, he showers, dresses and comes downstairs. Clanking from the kitchen, too much clanking – the youngest is woken up.

Footsteps as he gets up and leaves his bedroom – they stop at his brother’s door ??? ‘Get out of my room and leave me alone’ I hear screamed moments later. Really? 5.50 am and they are already fighting.

I stop work – nowhere near finished.

Youngest comes downstairs, nothing more than a frown to my ‘good morning’. He has ‘that’ look in his eyes, it’s going to be be of those mornings.

Clearly he has not slept well, he is grumpy, he is defiant and as the morning unfolds he challenges everything and he pushes the boundaries as far as he can.

Partner has prepared breakfast and laid the table, he puts the bins out and sorts out the recycling, he then takes the dog for a walk, checking messages and emails as he goes.

I get the boys school clothes ready and make their beds. I tidy the house from top to bottom as I make my way back to the kitchen. I empty the washing machine, start dryer and unload dishwasher – why use the ‘quick wash’ function when it never does the job, half the items are put back in.

Breakfast is finished and I clean the kitchen and reload the dishwasher.

I set out homework and the boys sit down with me, it becomes clear that the youngest will not engage. He is simply not listening and is continuously distracting and antagonising his brother, the brother is taking the bait and is fighting back. I start to lose my temper and raise my voice – even though I know it will only make things worse.

I’m feeling disrespected and I can feel my anger rising – think therapeutic parenting, think therapeutic parenting I remind myself. It’s not working, I snap and immediately regret it as the youngest visibly closes in on himself. I leave the room before I make the situation worse.

Partner leaves for work after we have discussed what we are doing that evening and what needs picking up for tonight’s dinner. ‘Stay calm’ he says as he walks out the door, which of course just makes me more angry.

My phone bleeps, my first work message of the day. I realise I forgot to plug the phone in last night and I have to search the whole house for the power cable, I discover the oldest has charged MY iPad with it in his room – where screens are not allowed!?!?

I attempt to get back to my work on the computer, but the boys constant bickering makes it impossible.

I let them have screen time (mostly for my sake) and at last there is some calm. I rush through my work to get it finished and prepare what I need for the day.

Teeth cleaned and they are dressed for school. School work collected and bags filled, sports kit cobbled together – where the hell are the big one’s trainers? Shoes on.

The youngest one’s mood is not improving the slightest, everything he says is full of attitude and just on the edge of rudeness (or is it over the edge, but I just don’t have time to admit that?), it is taking every bit of effort from me not to lose it.

At the last minute I realise that I haven’t unloaded the dryer. Damn – not dry, the whole wash is going to be creased to hell by the time I get home tonight unless I take it out and hang it out all over the kitchen. That’s always a good look – and now we are running late and both boys are nagging me about it.

I very briskly walk them to school and the boys fight the entire way. The youngest walks off immediately we reach the play ground and he barely looks back as I shout ‘I love you, have a nice day’, so much for our usual goodbye kiss.

I get my first business call of the day as I am walking away from school, which is actually quite useful as it helps me avoid eye contact with other parents who I don’t have time for. I have to rush to make my first appointment, I am not looking forward to what I am sure will be a hectic day at work.

11am my phone rings, I pick it up and my heart skips a beat – it’s the school. I’m surprised as they haven’t called for well over 5 months now. I answer and I am told that the youngest is ‘not having a good day today’, he has been difficult and disruptive and they are concerned that it seems to be escalating and could get out of hand (as it has many times in the past), they wanted to make me aware of the situation in case I needed to come in. Just what I need today I think, I really thought that they had this under control.

I say that he had been in a difficult mood that morning and that he had been quite challenging. I start to say that he had gone to bed a little late yesterday and was up early, he was probably (not that it excuses his behaviour) a little tired because we had…

and then – and only then – the realisation.

…because we had Contact yesterday.

Contact with his other siblings, the brothers and sisters he doesn’t live with, the brothers and sisters he sees just twice a year, the brothers and sisters he misses so very much.

The ones who remind him of his past life, who highlight the differences between him and his peers. The ones who make him feel vulnerable in his new family – who make him feel like his new life could be temporary after all and that he could be moved on at any moment like each of them have been and just like he was twice before his 5th birthday.

How could I have been SO damn stupid!

Of course he is unsettled, of course he is being difficult and challenging us, challenging the school, challenging the world – of course, of course, of course.

He always is after contact and who can blame him for that? All morning he had been crying out for our love, for our reassurance and for our understanding – in the only way he knows how.

How on earth could I have missed it?

12 Blogs under the Christmas tree #9

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Under the Christmas tree this year is a new family! Let me explain. As a gay man family has always been a challenge. However, I would like to think I navigated it quite well, until I adopted. Forever family is key to who we are as a family and now my extended family are fighting with each other. I’m not even going to give that story space. But what I would put under the Christmas tree this year is a new extended family.

I’m pee’d off and I would happily un-wrap a new extended family who I could present to my boys as their new forever extended family. It’s difficult I know but it’s often heightened because it’s Christmas.

12 Blogs under the Christmas tree #8

20161223_131840If you could put one thing under the Christmas tree this year what would it be?

We are away for Christmas so we’ve brought some of the presents from home and the rest are at home waiting to be opened when we get back. Despite my best efforts for a low key event with few gifts and more family time we’ve still had the usual hoopla. It’s far too easy to get buried under piles of food, seasonal experiences and family days out. It’s the first Christmas we have officially been a family of 4. Last year we had a court date in December that we had hoped would finalise the adoption, but a tiny overlooked detail meant that the judge deferred the decision until January. It wasn’t what we had hoped for, but he was still with us and as far as we were concerned he was one of us. It just wasn’t official yet.

So this year he is spending his first proper Christmas with us. The first time he was only a few days old and his second was with his lovely foster family. They do not celebrate Christmas, but at his birth family’s request they took him to see Father Christmas and put up a tree for him. Then he was with us last year and we kept things simple with a meal at home and visited grandparents and of course spoiled him with presents galore. Now he’s big enough to sit up at the table all by himself. He eats yorkshire puddings, he loves sausages and we hope he will enjoy pulling crackers, wearing a paper hat and telling awful jokes as much as we do.

Since he came to us it’s been testing and trying and with both boys we have been challenged at times to what we felt was beyond our capability. Only other adopters really understand the anguish I feel when I wonder if we’ve done the right thing for both our children. The one who was already in our family who thought he wanted a brother until he turned up and he was walking and shouting and taking his toys and not wanting to be a younger sibling. The one who had already had a big move when he was only a few months old and who for at least a year didn’t trust us to not leave him behind whenever we visited another house.

When anyone asks what he’d like for his birthday or Christmas I struggle to think of anything. He has so many toys and clothes, he loves books, he came with plenty of building blocks. He already has a scooter, a trike and plenty of sports kit to play with. I’ve bought the boys a table football game as they seem to love it and it’s something I hope they will do together – other than fight and annoy each other that is.

Of all the things that I’d like be able to put under the tree for Baby Boy this year it would be his life story book. We have been so patient and are still waiting for anything that might fill in the gaps for us. Seeing the family who cared for him between his birth family and us is the closest we get to this. We meet up with his foster carers in early December and as they don’t celebrate Christmas it’s not as emotionally charged as it could be. It’s a chance to catch up and for them to see how he’s doing and for us to ask them about the things we still don’t know about him.

As time has progressed I feel I can ask more about how he was when he came to them. More than I could have coped with when he first came to us. That early period when he couldn’t settle at night and he would cry and miss them terribly. I felt as though they didn’t trust us to care for him and they didn’t want to let him go. In fact I’ve realised that because of his early experiences of neglect they wanted to be sure he was in a caring and loving family who would be able to support and nurture him.

If it weren’t for their kindness and devotion to caring for our little boy he wouldn’t have joined our family. Maybe we have to accept that the only life story we will have for now is the one that they are able to share with us.

All the while we are making our own life story with him. One in which he is very important.

12 blogs under the Christmas tree #1

20161223_131517If you could put one thing under the Christmas tree this year, what would it be?

Easy – the whole of my New Zealand family. My big brother, my lovely sister in law, their three children, and their dog.

My parents are old and frail. they can no longer travel on long haul flights to visit the other half of our clan and miss them dearly. Trouble is that 5 return fares from Auckland to London cost a lot of money so when we do see them it’s usually in dribs and drabs as they can never all afford to come at the same time. So the thought of waking up on Christmas day and drifting sleepily downstairs to find a room full of excited Kiwis dressed in shorts, T shirts and flip flops (They always do this, despite the English winter temperatures) would be quite simply brilliant.

My nephews would be raiding the kitchen cupboards for exotic English snacks like Quavers and mini rolls. My niece would once again be confused and bemused by the fact that my mum’s kitchen has a washing machine in it… (back home in Auckland they have a separate washroom and the cooking area is no place for the laundry!)

I’d take my brother (Still dressed in shorts but this time probably with boots and a sweat shirt as well) to our favourite local pub down by the waterside in Milford where he’d drink quite a few local ales and make me laugh a lot.

My mum would thrive on all the busyness of having extra people to cater for at dinner time and enjoy stressing over what to feed 5 vegetarians for Christmas dinner before rustling up something magnificent and feeling quite pleased with herself.

My sister in law and I would spend several enjoyable hours sipping wine and catching up on all of the news. – She would also want a full run down of what is and has been happening in Coronation street as they are several seasons behind back home. – This is not something I could help her with but luckily my mum could win Mastermind with this topic.

My mother would also get to fuss over her son, and all of her grandchildren,

My brother would get to lie on the bed next to my dad who can barely get up now and tell him about what’s been happening in his life, or if he’s too tired to talk, to just be with him.

My daughter would get to meet the remaining Aunty and cousin she has never seen, and also get to know the others she has met, a little better.

And I would get to step back and watch them all; and quite simply It would be the best Christmas ever.

 

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.