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.

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.

We Are Family Blog 2015 in review!

Here it is! Everything you ever wanted to know about the blog in 2015!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 32,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 12 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Fostering issues

Picture 033I found the prep’ course that adopters go through to be quite comprehensive and of great value, it’s hard to imagine that in the past adopters were offered none of this information to prepare them for what in some cases are huge challenges, but for everybody is something new and unknown.

However, in our case something I think that it lacked was more information about the importance and affect of Foster Parents on our children.

Our boys spent almost three years in one foster placement meaning that our youngest actually spent longer with the foster parents than with his birth parents and at a very crucial age – from 2 to almost 5.

They are an older couple with grown up children and grandchildren of their own, as a result they have all the children in their care call them Nanny and Grandad. Actually I think this can be very helpful as I know that many children in foster placement refer to the carers as Mummy and Daddy and can grow to see them as exactly that, making the eventual split from them all the more confusing and difficult for them to deal with.

It is especially good in our case as my mother and my partners father are both dead and ‘Nanny and Grandad’ slot quite nicely into those empty positions in our family.

Because of the time spent with them and the long term relationship they had, It was recognised by all that an ongoing relationship with the foster parents would be healthy for our sons, especially as their older sister was staying with them in long term fostering. Twice yearly contact has been agreed, along with a younger sister and her adoptive family.

It was clear that along with the foster parents maturity – she is 60, he a very sprightly 70 – came a certain type of parenting that is best described as ‘old school’. They are strict – very strict – and run a very tight household, which I can see is essential as they not only had our boys and their sister, but also a fourth child in care as well as their 14 year old granddaughter. In addition two older children who at 17 and 18 had left their care, came almost nightly for dinner.

Our boys – at not yet 5 and 6 – tidied behind themselves, made their beds (to a fashion), bathed themselves, dressed themselves and even took their dirty laundry to the utility room… and separated whites from coloureds.

In addition the children were separated from the adults at meal times and sat at a ‘child’s’ table and not allowed to utter a word.

Although we can see the huge benefits for the household, we can also see that it somewhat defies social services guidelines or expectations on parenting looked-after children and is somewhat out of skew with what would be consider more up to date parenting or pastoral care.

Their parenting style has gone on to create issues for us, the adoptive parent. We are taught to maintain as much familiarity to the life that the child would be leaving to help with transitioning into their new life and indeed time is spent with the foster carers in their home watching and learning the parenting we are suppose to emulate.

In prep’ group we were told to expect to have to deal with the issues of bad parenting, neglectful parenting, lazy parenting – the parenting that resulted in the children being removed from their parents and not the parenting of their foster parents. However in our case all of this had been dealt with by the foster parents, we had to handle quite different challenges.

Introducing discipline and order into a chaotic life must be tough, however it’s starting at a point and heading in one direction – towards instilling good behaviour and values where there has been none.

We actually had to head ‘backwards’ as we were/are so against much of what the foster parents instilled into the boys, which has caused them – and by default us – quite a few issues.

The best example are mealtimes, they are important family times for us and of course the boys sit up at the table and of course we converse. It’s a time to talk about their day, their thoughts and about issues they may have. A time to share and a time to really be a family. Introducing this to our boys was very unsettling for them, without the strict regime they were used to they just didn’t know how to behave.

They found our relaxing of rules to be an invitation for a ‘free for all’ and suddenly we found ourselves with children who need constantly reprimanding at the table, constantly reminded of the manners that they came to us so adept in.

There are other lesser examples, but this has been the one area that has really impacted on us adversely and 2 1/2 years on we are still battling with the fall out.

Something else that we are not taught and is worth mentioning is the difficulty that foster parents sometimes have at letting go. It was not an issue for us, but I have head of many examples where they have bonded very strongly with the child and consequently have a degree of resentment towards the adoptive parents. Considering we spend a chunk of transition in their house it can make for a great deal of discomfort. I have even heard of situations where the foster parents have even negative about the adoptive parents in front of the children.

As it takes about 9 months for a child to be removed from its parents legally and before it can be put up for adoption, I guess ALL adopted children have spent at least this time within a foster placement, as is the case with our sons it can be years. They are an important part of their lives and it surprises me that they get a little over looked by social services, for us adoptive parents it would be very useful indeed to be better prepared from the impact they can have on our children and indeed on us.

I’m your baby, mummy

fillipo lippi V&CRecently, our son’s foster mum was visiting with her son. A much-loved, plum and delicious boy of six months. We all hunched over the little miracle, admiring his being. I thought it a lovely moment and added: ‘When you were this little you lived with Rosa, my friend.’ My 3 year-old looked me in the eye and corrected me:

‘I am your baby, mummy. I was with you.’

‘Yes, my darling, you are my baby. And when you were very little you lived with Rosa.’

But he would not hear it. ‘No, mummy. No, mummy, I am your baby.’

He maintained shaking his head. He stood up and repeated the words. ‘I am your baby!!’

Rosa turned to me, speaking softly she said: ‘This is all so complicated. Perhaps we better leave it for now.’

We did. But his stance stayed with me.

A few days later, I brought the subject up again. I took out a book of photos from his life with Rosa and her family, and we sat down on the floor of his room. We flicked through the pictures, something he normally loves. But this time he got angry with me.

‘No!, Mummy. I am your baby!’

‘Yes, my darling, you are my baby. And I love you very much. This is just pictures of the time when you lived with Rosa.’

He stood up and put both his hands over my mouth shouting: ‘I AM YOUR BABY!’

I closed the book, and hugged him close.

‘Of course you are.’ I whispered into his neck and kissed him. ‘You will always be my baby.’

I left it at that. I felt him relaxed in my arms.

Hmmm.

My husband and I discussed these incidents at length and agreed we both needed to throw a few more pebbles in this little pond of his. So far he has shown no interest what so ever in his life story book. So we haven’t forced it. That said we have never shied away from his background either. We are quite open about the fact he is adopted. To him and to the world at large. But perhaps we hadn’t spoken with him about his early life lately, we wondered, in a way that made it accessible to him.

There have been other times when I’ve been surprised at his urge to be born by me. From very early on in his life with us. At no more than 18 months, he wanted to come out of my tummy. We played it over and over. Him hiding under my nightie and popping out into his bed. But the time with Rosa and her little boy was the first time he had voiced the need to be my baby so strongly. Of course it is a great sign of his attachment to me, and I guess to my husband and our little family unit of three. ‘Mummy, Daddy, Digger. Mummy, Daddy, Digger.’ as he likes to chant endlessly. But I was taken aback by the strength of his feeling. And perhaps a little fear of denial.

We left the subject for a while. Placed the book of baby photos within reach so he could look at them if he felt like it. He didn’t.

A couple of weeks later we happened to be in an area I know his birth mother used to live and work. We were walking down the street hand in hand.

‘When I come to this area I often think of your birth mother. She used to live here, you know.’

Long silence. He didn’t look up, but his attention to my words was clear.

‘Would you like me to say you her name out loud?’

He nodded without looking at me. I said her name aloud. Our eyes met and we smiled.

‘This can be our little secret: we both think of her when we come here.’ I suggested.

He nodded again and smiled.

Not long after his foster mum came round again, and somehow we’ve managed to wiggle his early life with her into the fabric of the day. Just little things like: ‘When you used to live with me, you looooved ice cream too. You’ve always loved ice cream. Especially chocolate! You got so messy! You got it all over your face! And your clothes!’

I feel we are back on track. Integrating the stories and details of his first year into the every growing tapestry that is his life.

Until the next time we need to do some adjusting.

Flowers

photo by Lili Gooch

Photo by Lili Gooch

I previously wrote a blog about the break down of the long term foster placement and guardianship of our sons older sister, I ended by saying that we hoped that the the new placement the sister had been moved to was a good one and would offer her the security she so deserves.

Thankfully that appears to be so, it does seem like a good placement and the new foster carers are committed and seem to be giving her the family life she needs and indeed some of the security that has been lacking in her life recently.

Most importantly she just seems happy.

She is a sweet child who has spent much of her life caring for others and as a result is thoughtful and selfless. She has had it tough all her life and being 4 years older than our oldest was more aware of the neglect and the consequences of that while in the birth family. At the age of 5/6 she was attempting to ‘mother’ our boys, stepping in where birth mum was failing.

What we have now discovered is that the almost 5 years she spent with the previous foster carers were not as positive as we had thought and in fact we have really had to reevaluate our reaction to the break down of that placement.

We were aware that the carers were very strict and lacked pastoral parenting skills, but it seems that the situation for the sister was anything but ideal, we have been told that she was made to do most of the housework and ironing as well as various other chores, apparently time was dedicated for this before and after school everyday and most of Saturday and if this is true it strikes us as being quite inappropriate.

Again we question where social services were throughout this, but now she has moved from that placement and seems happy I feel we should all be looking to the future.

So things are good – or certainly looking so. However we are concerned about the effect the break down of the placement has had on the sister. Yet again she has had parents who have failed here, yet again the family she thought was for life has proven not to be so, yet again she has been thrown into the unknown.

She is aware that – all going well – the new placement will only be until she is 18 as the new carers are not offering guardianship and as yet we do not see any suggestion that they will remain ‘family’ beyond that.

We have been really concerned for her and when we finally met for contact – after a year of not being able to – we asked how she was doing and if she felt settled and happy, she was her usual cheery self and said that she was pleased to be where she was and that life was OK, we asked if there was anything that bothers her or that she had concerns about and her response shocked and saddened us as she opened up and expressed her concerns for being alone after she turns 18.

We assured her that her fears were unfounded and that she was loved by all of us and that we would always be there for her as she was our family. We hope that we offered some kind of reassurance, but somehow we are not convinced as it was evident just how alone she felt.

Her exact words will always stay with us:
‘I don’t mind never being adopted I know it’s difficult for somebody to take a child of my age and that’s OK, the only thing that really bothers me is when I think of the future and not being in a family it upsets me to think that if I was to die there would be nobody to bring flowers to my grave.

She is 12.

We’ll take that

WAF LOGO DEC 14We were recently invited to a party by our sons Foster Mother of almost three years, for her husbands birthday. It was a surprise party with family and friends and a good opportunity for the boys to see – who they call – ‘Nanny and Grandad’ outside the twice yearly contact that is arranged through social services.

We arrived suitably early for the surprise and not knowing anybody we sat and awaited their arrival.

We were aware that the boys had met some of the extended family during their time in the foster placement so we were surprised that nobody seemed to know them, also that the boys didn’t seem to recognise anybody in the room. Having said that they were both being quite coy and uncharacteristically shy and did not want to leave our laps, which we put down to the emotion and maybe confusion of mixing their old lives with their new.

Just a couple of weeks prior, we had reason to be deeply upset with the foster parents – that’s a whole other blog – and had seriously been considering our ongoing relationship and indeed not attending the party at all. However, we had previously accepted the invitation, the boys knew it was planned and it was very obvious that they were both terribly excited.

The big moment came and Nanny and Grandad arrived. It was clear how thrilled both boys were to see them, even more so than at regular Contact which tends to be all about the four children. Our youngest seemed especially happy and his little face lit up the moment they walked into the room, in fact he didn’t want to leave Nanny’s side for most of the night.

The boys had a lovely evening and it was blindingly obvious that they got so much from being in contact with these people who were once the only parents they had. It was clear how wrong of us it would have been not to have gone to the party and to have denied them something so special.

Indeed we can see how important it is that ongoing we must put aside our ill feelings and maintain a good relationship with these people who are clearly very important to our sons. It will be tough as the issues are quite significant, but we realise that first and foremost this has to be about the boys and what is right for them, regardless of the difficulties that represents to us.

We were introduced to various members of the family throughout the night and a number of people realising who the boys were declared how they had not recognised them and how much the boys had changed in the two plus years since they had last seen them.

Mid way through the evening a woman approached us and introduced herself as another Foster Parent and explained that she had on a number of occasions looked after our sons for respite care while Nanny and Grandad were busy with other children placed with them, or when they just needed a break.

She too said how they had changed and that she had not realised they were the same children she once looked after, she added how well, how healthy and most importantly how happy they looked.

We said that we were aware how much they had grown and compared to photo’s taken after they first came to us, clearly looked so much more mature. She said ‘No, I don’t mean older, I mean fundamentally changed. They look wonderful and are a credit to you. You are clearly doing a great job and it’s a joy to see’. She went on to say that she had been fostering for ‘decades’ and knew what she was talking about as she had experience of hundreds of looked after children.

A little embarrassed we politely brushed off the compliment in that very British way and got on with the party.

However, her comments stayed with us. She was clearly being sincere and it felt very genuine.

On the way home, with the boys having immediately fallen asleep in the back of the car my partner and I discussed it and – with the embarrassment out of the way – we recognised that it was a very significant thing to have been told.

We know we are not bad parents on any level, but we do – daily – question our parenting and often feel inadequate and well… somewhat at a loss. We know we make mistakes and we know that we all too frequently get things wrong.

We of course focus on all these negatives – which make us try harder. Yet we suddenly realised that in doing so we had been failing to allow ourselves to look for and to acknowledge the positives. To allow ourselves to feel that we are doing a good job too – possibly a damn good job.

Not only that, but to see that the good job is getting clear and apparently obvious results.

So we will, we’ll take that compliment and wholeheartedly allow ourselves to feel that we deserve it.

In addition I will share it (or maybe it’s brag about – if so, sorry) in a Blog, for others who in the turmoil of day to day parenting also forget to give themselves an occasional, very well deserved pat on the back.

Then of course, I will immediately go back to worrying about our bad parenting.