Dear Grandparents.

Dear Grandparents.

Being the birth mum it seems that people simply put all the blame on your daughter, even the birth dad gets overlooked by most – regardless of the obvious fact that he failed our sons just as much as a parent.

Somehow it seems that it is always the mothers inadequacies that are ultimately brought into question and she who has the finger pointed at her for her failings, regardless of the fact that in this case mum and dad were still together up until the children were removed and indeed beyond.

As unjust as it is I do get it, dads can have a horrible habit of sitting back and leaving it all up to the mother or worse still just walking away from their children, their responsibility. It’s then when the – often very capable and to be admired – mothers have to stand up to the plate and keep returning those balls no matter how fast and relentlessly they keep coming.

But not all mothers can manage and can you not see that your daughter was possibly set up to fail from way back, maybe even from the very start.

And fail she did – horribly, yet does the responsibility for the children being taken into Care really fall on her shoulders alone?

I read her report, I know that she didn’t have the best start to life herself. It seems that you failed her – failed to teach her what a parental role fully is, failed to instil the virtues and the sense of responsibility required. Maybe even failed to teach her love.

You failed her and in turn did you not then fail our sons and their siblings too?

Where were you when she was clearly struggling? Where were you when your grand children were hungry, dirty or left alone?

Where were you when social services stepped in?

She was little more than a child when she first became a mother, even if you had experienced similar failings in your upbringing, you would have had maturity and one would hope wisdom – surely you knew better.

I know that you lived locally, I’m pretty sure that you must have been aware of how bad things were getting and how your grandchildren were suffering.

Am I now fully pointing the finger of blame at you?

No and I apologise if it feels like that is so. Your daughter was an adult, she was married and had 5 children – she was responsible for herself and her family.

And maybe you did try, maybe you did step in and got pushed away, but nothing I have seen or heard suggests that was so.

So this is not about blame – after all what can blame possibly achieve? It’s just about recognition.

Recognition that the picture is in fact a much bigger one than many people see and recognition for your daughter who is simply not the ‘demon’ mother many now make her out to be and that maybe it is convenient for even you to buy into.

It may all have been beyond her ability, beyond her comprehension, and I guess she has paid the ultimate price for that and I’m sure she suffers every day.

However, I do wonder if you do too?

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Good Grief

‘Bereavement is the price of love. Because love will end with death.’

I’ve been listening to a whole day – yes a whole day – about loss and grief on Danish national radio. In late November Danish Radio chose to focus on loss and grief across all their platforms. Amazing project. Moving project. Heart breaking programmes.

During the day, I listened to stories of people who have lost a loved one. Researchers, experts in all sorts of fields, priests, friend and those left behind. I listened to literature and music. All of which focussed on loss, grief and sorrow. I have since been revisiting some of the programmes on playback.

A couple of months later I am still struck by just how much the emotional landscape of loss and grief resembles some of the strong emotions associated with adoption. I have lost friends and family members. Just yesterday I lost a childhood friend to breast cancer. A beautiful bubbly warm woman, who leaves behind two daughters and her husband. As well as her family. And her friends. She took a part of my teens with her. Secrets only she and I knew. And now I can’t share them with anyone. It reminds me how lonely and private loss is. There’s isn’t much you can do with it, except acknowledge it. It can’t really be shared. But you can be there. I like the English phrase ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’

In our western world we are appallingly bad in dealing and talking about death, loss and grief. In any form, but death in particular. It’s nothing to do with us. Until it is. And it will happen to us all. That much is certain.

Many people who have lost a loved one say that those who have not, do not have the imagination to understand what such a loss might mean. It is simply impossible. That rings true to me. It is not the loss of a job or a divorce. Those pale in comparison to true bereavement. This was a point made again and again on the day on the ether in Danish. I understand that. And yet, it grates with me, because grief in all its shades is real. I don’t like to diminish that.

Loss has hit me. It is hitting me. Sometimes it hits very hard. But it is true I have never lost a really close loved one. Losing my child is simply unthinkable. Or my husband.

The loss(es) of adoption has been compared with the death of a loved one. I know I’m not the first to make that comparison. The same has been said of adoption breakdown. It’s the irrevocability of the situation that calls for the comparison. As in you will never see your loved one again. All ties to the original family severed. This fact is at the heart of the criticism of adoption. Reasonably so. In my opinion.

Our children have experienced loss that for most of us I think is beyond our capacity to understand. ‘Bereavement is the price of love.’ Love in adoption is a complex concept. Despite everything, there is love between the children and their first parents. However complex, tainted and contradictionary. However hard adopters may find it to feel any warmth towards the birth parents, the love is there in some form for our children. In bereavement there is no place for that love to go, the object is gone. So we suffer alone. Bereavement is love without a home.

The deep sense of sorrow that comes with bereavement is life long. If we have not experienced it ourselves we will still need to relate to the fact that our children have. They won’t just get over it. Or snap out of it. And love won’t just heal that wound. It will go a long way, but this is different. Fundamentally.

A few years ago I saw the extraordinary film made by Amanda Boorman of the Open Nest. About her daugther. In it there is a scene where her daughter meets her first mother again. After years of separation. On seeing her the daughter lets out a sound that still rings in my ears when I think about it. A cry, a scream, of joy, and lot of visceral pain.

Bereavement is in all its simplicity life-changing. It will follow you your whole life long. It can destroy you, or it can be the making of you. Or both.

Current grief research speaks about grief as waves, as water. Like you’re standing on a beach, at the edge of the water. The soles of your feet indenting the sand. Some waves will come in and nibble at your feet before they retreat. Others may unsteady you and then retreat. And some may sweep you off your feet. You will literally need to find you feet again.

Many speak of grief as a transformative force of nature. And how healing it can be to accept and integrate loss. Many take lost ones along with them – or rather us – for the rest of our lives. We internalising the person(s). Many speak of how the dead or gone become a muse. I have two such muses. I speak with them often. And I hear adoptive parents talking about how their children talk to their families.
Again the role of a muse rings true to me.

Grief is not an illness although it is often treated as such. As something to be endured until you come out on the other side. Healthy and strong, as you were before you lost. But it will not be as it was before.

Because: No…. sorrow wont leave you. Sorrow will catch you up if you try to outrun it.

Grief needs space when it rears it’s ugly powerful head with regular interval. Space and acceptance are the saving graces when it comes to periods of intensive grief. Feed and nurture it like a plant. So it will take up the space that it should. Not too much and not too little. But just the right amount. The respectful amount.

I love the notion of the presence of the dead. Or those who are no more. They won’t leave. And they are welcome. They are here.

Espen Kjær, the journalist and bereft dad who was a driving force behind this day on the Danish Radio, relayed something a wise man told him after he tried to make sense of the loss of his son: The impression he left in you is like hand print on your heart. It will be as fresh now as it was the first time you laid eyes on him.How is that any different from the imprint our children’s parents and perhaps siblings left on their children?

It is a HUGE problem when the world around don’t acknowledge grief. People now are scared of it. Grief could be contagious you know. Many (most?) shy away from the bereaved because we in our culture have lost our way of connecting with it. Oddly enough the Victorians seem to have gotten one or two things right about bereavement. The black clothing for full mourning, and mauve for half mourning. Locket with hair of the deceased. Beautifully ornately arranged. Works of art. The Victorians had strict codex for when to wear what, for all the world to see. I wish we had something similar. A uniform of loss. And many more rituals stretching out from the life lived into a life with those who live no more.

We the adoptive parents are the squeezed generation. Often older parents ourselves our own parents are ailing. I know many adoptive parents who have lost their own parents. Even just in the last 12 months. I know many bereft adoptive parents.

When we do not speak of the dead and gone, when we gloss over it or remark that surely it must be over by now. Or how well someone is handling their grief – i.e. how little they bother us with it- it feels like silencing their presence, and it is like losing them all over again, as Kjær put it.

Two out of three bereaved feel let down by those around. People are scared of grief. And of people who are bereft. Perhaps because it touches on our own mortality. And grief. And pain.

As adoptive families we live with bereavement whether we like to admit it or not. Our children live it every day. So how can we as parent support them? Can we recognise it from another angle? From their height?
The words from the day on Danish Radio for the bereaved still sit with me. It asks questions of me.

How well do you understand your child’s loss?

This question humbles me.

Finding Me a Family.

Not me; I have one. Rather some reflections on the series on Channel 4 that ran before Christmas and on a recent blog in the context of us receiving our first contact letter from one of our child’s siblings, because ultimately it might turn out to be “Finding My Family” for them, in the fullness of time.
Firstly, how utterly heartbreaking it all was. Even though there was little exposure of the circumstances under which the children came to be looked-after, why they were removed from their birth-parents, we who have adopted and therefore have had access to case files know how much more heart-break there is above and beyond children being in foster care and looking for a forever family.
When we read our child’s case file, since they were removed from their birth mother the moment they were born, most of the file was a harrowing account of birth mother’s life from early childhood and how, to all intents and purposes, she never really had a chance from the get-go. That was hard to read; it truly personalised the context in which our child came to be with us and made me angry in many ways that the vulnerable child that was our child’s birth mother wasn’t protected and supported – we felt that if that had happened, she would not have gone on to have had five children removed from her care. And that the utterly gorgeous person who is our child would not have the heartbreak in her life that will now inevitably come when she is older and able to fully understand why she was removed from her birth-mother’s care. How much better for her never to have known us and therefore never to have that in her future? That’s an actual question, not a statement.
Secondly, the siblings bit. There was a little family of four siblings in the programme, looking for a forever family. The programme told us that if no adoptive family were forthcoming in the immediate future, the four would be split into two or even adopted separately. How utterly heart-breaking was that thought? Of course what we did not see or have explained in the programme is that sometimes the eldest of the siblings do not experience a childhood at all in those situations being instead the surrogate parents, even at that young age, and the ramifications that might have for their development. But it seems counter-intuitive to split up siblings.
In our child’s case, the siblings (some full, some half – that’s a genetic and somewhat cold view of the world in my view, but that’s another story) were all born before and removed from their birth-mother’s care. Our child is the youngest of the group (as far as we know at the time of writing) and therefore never knew them, even intuitively or unconsciously. For five years we battled to find out where they were, to get contact in place – and it was a battle, believe me, one that we almost relished fighting on behalf of our child – and for five years we heard nothing from any of their families, despite sending letter and photos and saying how much we were longing to hear from them on behalf of our child. We were upset and disappointed and sometimes furious, to be honest.
And then wholly unexpectedly, a letter and some photographs landed on our mat this week. Be careful what you wish, or battle, for. Because unexpectedly for me at least, it triggered highly conflicting emotions. I thought I would feel joy that finally it had happened, that we had been answered after all that time, happy that our stories, photos and pleas had not just disappeared unresolved into the ether.
But would it have been easier to explain years later how hard we tried, unsuccessfully, we tried sweetheart we really did – look at all the letters we wrote for you; now let’s just carry on being us three, shall we? Now that’s not even a rose-tinted, unrealistic and frankly stupid option. Now there’s a sister out there, who looks a bit like you, see, an older sister that you’ve often said you wanted. I’m full of fear for our child and for our cosy family. But also full of hope. But also full of anxiety. And joy. And panic. And happiness. And trepidation. And optimism. And dread.
But I look at what might happen to those 4 children from the programme and how indescribably painful the separation would be. And how they might grow up with a longing the source of which especially the smallest ones may not even understand or be able to articulate. And with a guilt for the eldest that she couldn’t keep her brothers and sisters together, even though it was never in her power. And I think we’re lucky in many ways; we only have to try to explain and manage the getting to know you process and hopefully an introduction to perhaps a life-long bond. It may not go the way we would like, we may bodge the explanation, they may not bond at all, they may never want to meet. All sorts of things could go wrong and we will feel responsible if they do, no doubt. But also we could be responsible for facilitating a wonderful new relationship for our child, one that will outlast us. Here’s hoping.
And here’s hoping those 4 lovely children find each other together for the rest of their lives.

12 Blogs 5: When was your best Christmas ever?

When was your best Christmas ever and why?

Easy – The one when my dad came back.

It was 1976 and my parents had recently separated.

As a small child I must have missed the more obvious signs of what was to come but i do remember being woken up in the night by sound of my mother crying and when morning came my dad was gone. It was a strange feeling.

It followed close on the heels of the hottest summer imaginable. My dad and I seemed to practically live up at the outdoor swimming pool and I can remember laughing my head off with him over and over again in the water, as well as brilliant family BBQ’s where we were allowed to stay up late in the heat. I thought everything was perfect.

Then Autumn came and he was gone and the atmosphere in our house became confusing- and sombre.

Memories of this tine are like snapshots…

Day Trips out with my dad – when it slowly dawned on me that he was willing to buy me whatever I wanted! Brilliant! That had never happened before…

Catching my mum crying when she didn’t know I was watching…

Teachers suddenly paying me much closer attention and asking if I was ok.. apparently I didn’t have to stay at school all day if I didn’t feel I could manage it.. Again – brilliant! That had never happened before! – I thought I was OK.

Then Christmas was on it’s way and my Grandparents arrived much earlier than usual. That’s when it hit me. It suddenly dawned on me that my dad was not going to be there on the big day and I can remember an unleashing of sadness and fear that I had somehow managed to suppress up until that point.

Christmas without my dad seemed awful. Wrong. Unthinkable.

Nonetheless festive preparations carried on and as the tree went up and presents appeared underneath it, there was an inescapeable atmosphere of something being missing, and as a child I felt the overwhelming need to try and fix it. It felt like my life depended on it but I didn’t have the tools to do so.
So instead I just worried and worried and watched.

Then Christmas Eve came and there was a knock at the door. My mum said “why don’t you get it?”

It was my dad! He was back! They’d sorted things out.

What I remember most of that night is him lying on the floor laughing while me and my brother crawled all over him in a marathon wrestling session because we couldn’t get enough.

It was the best Christmas ever because my family got back together but it has also stayed with me for another reason.

I soaked up everything that was going on in that house in the lead up to the best Christmas ever and it has been with with me ever since.
And I have come to realise that this is what children do. we cannot protect them by telling them what’s going on is not their fault, it doesn’t go in. Doesn’t compute because it is not a conscious decision to worry. It just happens…

I remember this Christmas more clearly than any of the others and I’m sure a big part of that is because of the fear and worry that things were not right. I was vigilante the entire time and it imprinted on my memory.

Whatever we’re going through, it seeps into the very being of our children and leaves a mark.

If I hear songs that were popular around that time, I still get taken back to the time my dad left and the feeling of deep uncertainly I learned to live with.

Memories are physical as well as mental and we carry them around good and bad. As do our own children on daily basis.

10 Missed Calls

Like many today I am somewhat attached to my smart phone and I have it within reach pretty much constantly. However I was recently away on holiday and just decided that I wanted a day without it so left it behind on a trip to the beach. I didn’t miss it at all and in fact I barely gave it a thought throughout the day.

Arriving back at the accommodation it wasn’t sitting out anywhere obvious and I was still happy to be without it, some time later we were leaving to meet friends for dinner so I searched out my phone. I discovered that my brother had called, in fact I could see that he had called 10 times throughout the day as my phone was displaying 10 missed calls. There was also an SMS – ‘Call me bro’. That all seemed a bit keen – in fact it seemed a bit desperate.

Our 79 year old father had recently spent 3 1/2 months in hospital, finally recovered and well he had been moved into a care home just three weeks earlier – so of course I assumed this was about him:

– Had he had another fall and broken another bone or two?
– Had he caught yet another nasty, dangerous infection?
– Had he organised a alcohol fuelled party against the home rules?
– Had he insulted a resident or carer in the home and was getting his marching orders?
– Had he done a runner in his wheelchair?

These and other thoughts ran through my mind as I made the call to my brother. He answered and after asking how the holiday was going, he said ‘Sorry bro, there is no easy way to say this – Dad has died’.

It was a total shock, I had left my father less than a week earlier and although very unhappy to be in the home, he was physically well.

We had already set off for the restaurant and I was walking a little ahead of my family and friends, how to handle this information – most significantly for our two adopted sons – suddenly became the most relevant issue at hand and from necessity it had to take priority over my own emotions. Our sons have suffered so much loss in their short lives and it has clearly impacted our youngest quite severely and I had no idea how this further loss would affect him or his brother and of course being on holiday added an additional dimension and difficulty to breaking such shocking news.

Telling children of the loss of anybody close to them is difficult, however with the extra level of loss an adopted child has experienced it possibly makes it even more of a concern. Our sons knew that their grandfather had been very poorly in hospital, but they also knew that he had recovered and was well and they had visited him a few times over the past few weeks.

As I finished the conversation with my brother I was already aware that I needed to contain myself and to not give any indication of how I was feeling as I knew immediately that I would need to prepare the boys for the news over a period of time. Also, as we were leaving the next day we would soon be home, which I figured would be a much more secure environment for then to deal with the information.

So I said nothing, which of course made for a rather difficult meal and end to the day for me. However, I actually started to realise that I was also allowing myself to process the loss and deal with the shock privately, which I appreciated. I shared the news with my partner and friends after the boys were tucked up in bed and then the following morning I simply said to the boys that I had spoken with their uncle who had said that Granddad had become quite ill again and that we were quite worried, then again the following day when we were back home I brought it up and said that Granddad had sadly got even worse and as he was an old man we were very concerned that he was so weak. On the third day I said that there was no improvement and that things looked very bad – then that evening we told them that Granddad had sadly died.

They were clearly a little upset, but both of them appeared to take the news well. They had immediately started to ask if he was going to die when I first said that he was unwell again and I had answered that it was possible and having a couple of days to process the possibility I think at least helped remove the shock. We have spoken about Granddad almost everyday since and both boys wanted to come to the funeral, where they were very well behaved and respectful of the occasion, which we feel was evidence of them dealing with their emotions.

I am sure they will be processing the loss for sometime now, but it does however seem that they are coping with it. We of course will not take that for granted and will keep an eye on them and hopefully will be able to recognise any difficulties if they arise.

Meanwhile we will continue to talk about Granddad as still being very much part of our lives and we will share the many happy memories we have, hopefully the loss is then wrapped in warmth and love and positivity. I have learnt for myself that the best way for me to cope with loss is to always think of something happy, wonderful and positive about the loved ones who are no longer with us in a way that warms my heart and with each of those thoughts comes a smile – a genuine smile from deep down – and it’s very hard to be sad when you are smiling. This I am trying to pass on to my sons, for the loss they are suffering now and indeed for the loss they have suffered in the past.

Yearning for secure attachment

I assume that most adopters feel that the most crucial aspect of our relationship with our child/children initially is getting them to attach. I think it’s fair to say that we feel that attachment proves that we are doing a good job, that we are creating real security and that we are ‘getting it right’, in fact that we are unquestionably becoming a ‘complete’ family – and the sooner that it is achieved the better.

It’s only natural that we all yearn for that child/parent bond to be significant as quickly as possible, the bond that we are enviously aware is no doubt automatically there with birth children, yet is one that we have to work hard to achieve as adopters – after all we are competing with the ghosts of birth parents, foster parents and other parental figures that have been in their life prior to us, maybe even a teacher or a grandparent, aunt/uncle or older sibling.

Our children arrive as strangers and although they reassuringly turn to us right from the start we know that it is as their care givers and that it is led by circumstance and need – not emotion. We take what is on offer and as time goes by maybe even start to kid ourselves that it is real even though we know that it is too soon and more than we should be expecting, regardless we know that we have to keep trying, keep doing the best that we can to win our way into their hearts.

And gradually we see change, we see a increasing level of closeness, an intimacy that is new and of course so very rewarding. We feel that all our hard work is paying off and we allow ourselves to assume that all those fears of damaged attachment that the social workers planted in our minds throughout the preparation course and beyond are indeed unfounded – even for those of us who may have children who have been diagnosed with attachment disorder. We feel fortunate to have escaped the issues we were told could so clearly be a part of our life – forever.

Or maybe not! Maybe our child/children are not as settled as we hope for and maybe we are dealing with difficulties, with challenging behaviour, behaviour that we are truly struggling with, maybe there are clear signs that the attachment is questionable, signs that I think many of us chose to disregard or play down in attempts to convince ourselves that they have indeed attached, or at least started to attach.

My partner and I certainly did, we saw clear signs that our sons had attached from quite early on in the placement, or more to the point – we felt it. We felt the love, the bond, we felt the attachment and it seemed so real – and in the case of our oldest son amazingly it seems that it was.

However for our younger son, it is now evident that we really have been fooling ourselves. We certainly knew he had issues, which we always put down to the trauma he suffered. We knew that he was diagnosed with attachment disorder and that he displayed behaviour reflecting this, yet we still believed that there was true attachment. We feel his love, we see his joy when he interacts with us, we see his need for us and the unquestionable security that we bring.

Yet now we know that it is just not enough and that we still have a way to go regardless of the more than 5 years we have been together and we also know – and now accept – that there may never be full secure attachment.

Because of behaviour problems (mostly at school) he recently underwent a phycological assessment in view to undertake ‘theraplay’ and we have been truly shocked by one set of results in particular.

The therapist had asked our son to draw a circle and then a larger circle around this and the same again and again. She then asked him to think of all the relationships he has had and currently has in his life and starting in the centre circle write the names of the people that are most important to him and then work his way out as the relationships feel less important.

Our son wrote just 5 names, 4 in the centre and one in the second circle. These names include the one constant in his life – his brother – as well as his one and only friend and the family dog. Shockingly these 5 names did not include either myself or my partner.

They also did not include birth parents, long term foster parents (of almost 3 years), other siblings (who we are still in contact with regularly), a new aunt who he was especially close to until her death 3 years ago or any other of his new extended family – other than Granddad (my father), who we have not witnessed a particularly close bond to and who sadly has just died – adding to our son’s loss.

The therapist gave us time to digest the information and then said that she realised that it must be difficult to hear, but in fact was not too surprising. She pointed out that he had left off all the people he has got close to who have in some way deserted him – undermining his attachment. She said that our absence was evidence that he was still not able to fully attach to us because of the fear (probably subconscious fear) that we too would ultimately let him down and leave him – as all these people in his life before us have and as indeed Granddad has now done too.

We know the loss he has suffered has severely affected him, but I guess we hoped that we had broken through that and that the close, loving relationship that we have is proof of secure attachment and that we really had reassured him that we are not just here for him now, but that we always will be.

We just hope more than anything in the world that we will eventually get there. The positive is that we are optimistic and even if full secure attachment never happens, we feel confident that he will always know how much we love him and that we will always be here for him, no matter what.

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME.

Just to set out credentials here, I’m not an academic, I’m not a behavioural psychologist, I’m not an expert in genetics, I’m not an etymologist (however, I do however know the real meaning of the word semantics, as opposed to its common use meaning. Good for me).

So, I’m a Dad. I’m a Parent. I’m a Father. I’m a Guardian. I’m a Carer. I’m an Educator. I’m a Counsellor. I’m a Philosopher. I’m a Taxi-Driver. I’m a Nurse. I’m a Playmate. I’m a Guide, literally a Girl Guide. I’m any number of words that describe taking care of someone unable to take care of themselves (for the time being), nourishing someone in body and mind and helping them grow, emotionally, spiritually, physically.

Is there a word that sums up all of these roles? I’m sticking with what she calls me, because to her, that’s what Da-Da means.

Now, we are told there are any number of ways someone in my situation becomes a Da-Da. And all of these ways have equal merit. Except they don’t, no matter what our social workers told us to tell our daughter. Previous blog authors and commentators are right; let’s face facts – there’s something diminishing in being an adopter, whether it’s not being the “real” father – not having become a Da-Da directly through sexual congress with my wife – or whether it’s having to spend a lot of time writing dutifully on behalf of my daughter to her “real” mother, who hasn’t written back to her “real” daughter in three years.

Right? Wrong; there’s nothing diminishing about it at all in my eyes and in the eyes of almost everyone I know who has become a Da-Da through adoption.

I’m truly weary of being preached at by people who in theory should know better, of adoption apologists, of adoption guilt-vendors. I already know somewhat intuitively and also from practical experience that denying a part of someone’s history or genetic make-up is not a positive-impact exercise on any time- or development-spectrum, thanks.

I also know about nuance – I know what it means and I know what it actually means. Maybe my daughter doesn’t right now – she’s getting there, slowly but surely under our Guidance, Parenting, Taxi-Driving, Teaching, Caring – but adults ought to know, to varying degrees possibly, but at least get the gist.

Who’s the Daddy? I am. And so is someone else. So what.