Family Hug

It’s been three years.

Our anniversary was simply acknowledged with a family hug, the four of us embracing – as we have on so many occasions throughout those three years – in a circle with our arms wrapped around each other and squeezing as tight as we can until somebody complains that it’s too tight or that they can’t breath and then (and only then) we loosen our embrace.

It’s a bit of a family ritual that came about from those early days when we were thinking of anything that we could do that incorporated the word family, anything that would help us bond together and get the boys feeling that they belonged and that we were indeed a family.

It’s a simple – but actually quite intimate ritual and on this occasion it certainly belied the true magnitude of what we were celebrating.  We had been a family for three years which meant that both our boys had spent longer with us than with their birth parents or their foster parents .

Three years and we could finally reason with ourselves that they unquestionably saw us as their parents and their only parents, no more sharing with ghosts of the past, no more fearing that although they clearly loved us that they in fact loved other people who have parented them more.

We know that they were probably foolish fears, but we carried them with us regardless and it felt good to finally let them go.

It has been an amazing three years, not easy by any stretch of the imagination (but nobody said it was going to be) and in spite of the tough times what we remember most are three years full of hugs and kisses and of laughter and of love and of learning.

For the boys: learning about us, about who we are, about our rules, and about our expectations.

For us: learning about who they are, what their – very different – needs are and well… just learning how to be parents.

Part of that learning was just how much a hug can mean – especially a family hug.

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A Less Pristine Experience

20130330_111946A Less pristine experience

I was struck by a weekend away with some friends recently when it slowly dawned on me that in their eyes, my status as a mother was way below their own as ‘biological’ parents.
The experience hurt and surprised me. I had expected that there would be lots to catch up on and share between us all about being new parents but it quickly became clear to me that in their eyes I was in a very separate camp to them.
There was an element of pity and fear for the future when the subject of my son came up and an absence of the sheer joy I had expressed out the birth of their daughter.
Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe it was not pity but uneasiness. They simply didn’t know how to talk about and enjoy my adoptive motherhood in the same way that they did their own.

Why I wonder does adoption do this to people?

The birth of a child into a family is generally marked with cards and unfettered celebration from family and friends, but as new adoptive parents we don’t seem to warrant this. Some of our friends and relatives don’t know how to behave around us and it makes me sad. Not just for us as parents but for our children too because surely they will pick up on it in some way.

Letter Box Contact

Photo courtesy photos-public-domain.com.

Photo courtesy photos-public-domain.com.

Yearly letter box contact has been agreed and we diligently get the boys to write Christmas cards for birth Mummy and Daddy – regardless of indifference from our oldest and huge resistance from his younger brother – in addition we put pen to paper and write a letter updating them on the boys past year.

This has taken place three times so far, but sadly the boys have received nothing from either Mum or Dad – who are no longer together.

I understand that the situation must be tough for them both and I appreciate that it could be easier for them to try to erase the past and to get on with their lives. However, we hope that social services have explained the importance of this contact for the boys and for us as a family and that they are constantly encouraging both Mum and Dad to be doing the right thing and put their feelings to one side for the sake of the children. If that is happening then it’s clearly not getting any results, but actually I wonder if it is at all, after all this is the agency who have supplied very little information of ours sons past and have failed to get a photo of either birth parent regardless of many requests from us.

Of course all correspondence must go through social services and it is checked for anything inappropriate or upsetting to any party. Awareness of this ensures that we give extra consideration to what we say and how we express it, consequently we were most surprised to have our most recent letter returned to us.

We had written two things which social services had an issue with. Firstly we wrote that the boys were looking forward to meeting their new baby brother when contact was finalised for the baby to join the twice a year contact that was already set up for various siblings. Apparently the term ‘looking forward’ was deemed to be inappropriate, we have been told that as having the new baby removed from birth Mum would be a traumatic experience anything ‘positive’ in relationship to that would be hurtful and disrespectful.

Secondly, we have been told that our comment that out youngest was ‘still struggling to come to terms with the changes in his life’ and that we were dealing with difficult behaviour as a consequence was insensitive as it could be seen as judging them and commenting negatively on their failures at parenting.

Really?

I responded saying that we have absolutely no animosity toward birth Mum and Dad – in fact maybe surprisingly quite the reverse – and that we would never attack them in any way in what we wrote. I went on to say that being open and honest is an essential part of adoption and that I was confused that we were being asked to edit out truth and to sugar coat reality.

They stood by their original criticism and insisted that the letter was edited at it is not acceptable in its original format.

This has angered me as yet again as an adopter I feel that we are the ones expected to ‘make it work’ for everybody else. I have often felt that social workers expect too much from us and have been frustrated in the past at being judged unfairly and being expected to tow-the-line regardless’ of us clearly disagreeing.

Maybe I’m just being a bit over sensitive and a bit touchy, but you know even if that was the case I think we have a right to be occasionally and wouldn’t it be nice for social services to respect that and acknowledge that?

As an adopter I don’t expect any kind of gratitude – in fact it embarrasses me to even consider that – but I do expect respect. Not for adopting, but for being a parent of a traumatised child or children and everything that comes along with that. In addition most of us have relationships – put under pressure since the children moved in, work to prioritise, homes to run, finances to juggle, we have to deal with schools, child minders, play dates, friends, illnesses… the list is endless. Yet on top of that social services expect US to put the feeling of the birth parents over our own and to pussyfoot around reality – a reality that we have to deal with and live with every minute of every day.

There was a time when I was angry at the birth parents – for the neglect, for the resulting damage and for the lack of any responsibility, but I am long over that and now I am not even angry at the fact that they fail to write or send a card once a year, in fact in a perverse way I am just grateful for them giving the chance for us to be the family that we are – a family that feels like it was meant to be.

Yet I feel that social services are threatening that ‘harmony’, the resentment and anger at the birth parents that I felt Initially could indeed return and not because of anything that they have done (or not done), but because of – what I feel is – a huge injustice and imbalance from social services.

Surely that would be bad for ALL concerned.

P.S. it’s somewhat ironic and very frustrating that the letter to us pointing out our suppose lack of consideration towards the birth parents was sent a month AFTER Christmas, apparently our correspondence which was sent to social services two months early had sat forgotten about on a desk. If only social services could always show the same consideration and respect that they expect of us.

Dancing on a tightrope.

20150502_154014Five years old, the books tell me, is an age when my daughter is not going to be that interested in her life history and experience tells me that’s true. But it is also the age when children start noticing the world around me, hence the various conversations I have had in recent months around the theme of “my child was asking why your daughter doesn’t have a daddy. What should I tell them?”
I know I should have the answer to this ready and waiting but I just don’t seem to get the right words. Firstly, which daddy? Her birth daddy, who as far as I know’s only contribution was biological, or the non existent adopted daddy which I choose not to give her? But even if I can give them the language to explain adoption to their child, is it my place or theirs to do this. I want my daughter to start controlling her story, but 5yrs is such a tricky age. I have shared with her what I know, in terms that she broadly understands, but this doesn’t mean she is ready to answer all the random questions a 5yr old kid can come up with, or to filter what she wants to share and with whom. Plus, 5yrs is also the age of imagination and she is filling the gaps in her understanding with fantasies – one time her father is dead and another time he is looking after another family because “if he isn’t looking after me he must be looking after someone else”. I want to correct her fantasies but I don’t have an alternative story to offer that will make much sense to her, never mind her school friends.
As if that wasn’t enough, her imagination is being supplemented by fiction. I had never realised before how much children’s films deal with issues around abandonment, search for parents, orphanages and adoption in one form or another. I had already mentally reserved any exposure to ‘Oliver’ and ‘Annie’ until she was much older but it is impossible to avoid – from Hercules to Kung Fu Panda to Despicable Me to practically every superhero it is constantly catching me unawares. In some ways it can be helpful to show her ‘good adoption stories’ but so many of these stories aren’t. I don’t know how much my daughter draws comparisons to her own history or whether it goes over her head. So do I raise the parallels and open up things she isn’t ready for (those same books tell me she would start thinking about her ‘alternative family’ much later in her childhood) or say nothing and follow her lead?
As always, I feel that building my daughters understanding of her life history is like dancing on a tightrope, two steps forward, one step back, trying to keep it all in balance.

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.

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

IMG_8128

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.