The Diagnosis

It’s been one week since my son was diagnosed at St Thomas’ with ASD (Autism), ADHD, ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) and major emotional regulation difficulties.  He was diagnosed by a panel consisting of a Paediatrician, Psychologist, Psychiatrist, Speech and Language Therapist and Occupational Therapist who spent 3 hours assessing him.  They were thorough, professional and understanding.  

I came out of the feedback in shock, it was not what I was expecting to hear from them, though of course I suspected it all.  Four years of having been continuously told it was our parenting and attachment that were really the issues doesn’t give you a lot of hope in being understood.  They did understand.  Engaging him with the assessments was a challenge they told me, the motivators changed from moment to moment.  Not only is he easily distracted, he is very interested in what he is distracted by.  And of course he just does not understand people and how they communicate.  They could see how on the edge he was at any given moment, a coke bottle on the brink of fizzing over.

I had to get my son home.  We surprisingly managed without incident considering what he’d just been put through. We walked through the door and I cried.  For the first couple of days they were tears of devastation.  It’s a paradox but although I know we’ve done everything we could have I did really want someone to say, ‘just try this new thing and it will all be ok’ (a magic cure), ‘give him some Ritalin and he’ll cope’ (I would try it!), ‘turn your parenting around and he’ll be better’ (we have, things got a little better), ‘try some therapy, he’ll engage’ (we have, he hasn’t).  What they actually said was ‘you have turned your world upside down for this child, but you can’t do that for him forever.’  They think his problems will be lifelong and are mostly influenced by his genetics.  So that’s Developmental Trauma out of the window, at least partially.

Others’ reactions to the diagnosis have also been difficult.  People immediately questioning it’s accuracy, whether we’re convinced, ‘was it really that thorough?’  The people who’ve been the most supportive and helpful on our journey have effectively been congratulating us on finally achieving some recognition of our difficulties as a family.  They mean well but they have missed the pain that comes with the confirmation.

Some have pointed out that he is still the same child as before.  Well of course he is but we must now shift our expectations and rethink everything.  We are worried for his future, and ours.  I have hope, mostly based on the relationship my husband and I have managed to build with him through sheer perseverance despite his difficulties and the lack of support.  I do believe that with the right support (that we will continue to fight so hard for) our love for him will mean that he finds his way.  That love now has to guide us through some difficult choices.

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The smell of Digger.

​The first time I met Digger, I thought his smell was strange, and truth be told, unpleasant, vaguely off-putting. It made me very worried. How could I bond with him if I didn’t like the way he smelt? Was it a fundamental dislike I had sensed? Was adopting him going to unravel because of it?

I love the way my husband smells, and have always done so. I fell in love with it and him at the same time. But with Digger was different. It felt like a barrier I had to break through, and I didn’t know how.

Few months later, the perfume of Digger was as intoxicating and wonderful to me as that of my husband. After a good work out in the park or the playground, it is always that little bit stronger. Especially if the sun is out. I can bury my nose in his soft, wild curls and inhale him. It has become familiar, and completely connected to this little person who I love.

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when it all changed. I guess I was too busy to dwell it. But by October I found myself in love – he had moved in in August. I imagine I started to like the scent of him sometime in that two-three month window.

Perhaps it was the diet then that initially made him smell so peculiar to me – along the lines of Europeans smelling a lot like old cheese to the Japanese, because of our diary intake as opposed to theirs. And I wonder whether he now smells like us. I guess we smell like a family, The Norwoods. Or perhaps it is simply the love I feel for him. But one thing is certain: It is.

Our Norwood smell would have been an omnipresent signifier of how things had changed. I imagine he must have felt something similar to what I was going through, only he had landed in our world.

No doubt Digger thought we smelt odd at first. As did our house and everything in it. He couldn’t turn away from it.

Digger has a keen sense of smell. Nowhere is it more obvious than when he is trying new food. He is very confident in declaring likes and dislikes. I think smell is at the heart of this. He doesn’t need to taste it to know.

I guess, after a while you grow used to a scent. Or it could continue to grate. Or you begin to love it.

Now when he turns towards me as he falls asleep at night, it is not only the closeness he wants. I sense he wants my smell too. And that it adds to his sense of safety.

In preparation for transition we were told to copy and transfer as much as possible from his foster homes into our house, his new forever home. We were told to begin using the same washing powder and softener as his foster mum, and we did so as soon as we had met her, and continued to do so for months after wards. I still like the particular transition-softener smell very much, and sometimes use it for our towels even now – for sentimental reasons.

I can’t help but to think that it is actually impossible to transfer very much from the foster homes. Bringing the physical things from one home to the new is the easy bit. It is whole context that is difficult to translate and is mostly lost. Because the overwhelming sense and reality of the situation will be changed, forever. This is not to undermine the sound and obvious advice in being very sensitive and in trying. It is to remind myself of just how much these children lose through adoption. As good as everything vanishes overnight. Expect for their little bodies and some physical memories. Smells and scents are but one aspect of it.

We were conscientious to bring some the smell of his foster home with us. And we expected not to wash his bedding for a long while. On Placement Day, the foster mum wasn’t going to let Digger go with dirty laundry, so everything was spinky spam and smelt of her clean home.  We left the bedding on for two weeks. Then he peed on it, which neatly ended the discussion of when to wash it.

Whenever we travel we make sure to bring along something with Digger’s distinct smell on it – his pillow, for instance, or better still duvet. And one (or two) of his beloved soft transition bunnies without which he will not leave the house and cannot sleep (we haven’t really tested this – we trust his judgement on the subject). Bringing these items helps him sleep in a new environment.

The only malodour around Digger’s two-year-old self (well… expect an obvious one) is that occasional pungent waft of a too well-loved soft bunny, when he sweetly offered it to our cheeks for comfort. That can be really hard on the old nostrils – stale regurgitated milk and sleep dripple, and whatever else it has been in contact with over the last few days.

I am grateful to Digger’s foster mum that she always kept everything so very clean, that it is easy for me too to stick everything – bar Digger himself, or my husband for that matter – in the washing machine when it needs it, without fear of losing too much redolence.

My heart swells.

photo-1470394056006-130bc90c012bMy heart breaks when I think of their past, when I think of them suffering, of them left uncared for, for every day that they went hungry and for each cry that went unanswered.

It breaks for the unfair start that they had in life and for the fact that I was not there for them – to care for MY sons and to protect them as a parent should.

Do those feelings ever go, do they – can they – ever leave an adoptive parent?

Will I one day be able to let go of their past and focus only on the positive that is their life today and on what the future has to offer?

They now have the unconditional love and care that they should have always had, they have protection, they have security and they have hope. They have come a long way and are different little boys to the ones who first joined us, but they are still the same children, they still carry their past within them and they always will.

And it feels like I will too.

However, it most certainly doesn’t dominate, as mostly my heart now swells.

It swells with pride for the amazing little boys who call me Daddy. It swells with each smile and with each achievement – no matter how small – and most of all it swells with love: pure, unadulterated and total love.

My heart swells for my sons and the joy that it brings is what I focus on and what I now live for.

A Birthday Wish

IMG_4105It’s your birthday, it’s your birthday.
Last year we didn’t see you.
But we thought of you so much.
All day, every hour.
Wishing you fun and laughter and cake with a candle.
We took ourselves to the beach and played in the sand, amused ourselves on the penny slots and ate lots of ice cream.
We wondered exactly what you were doing. We tried to see into the future.
To see if we could connect with you, almost transcend time.
I sat in your newly painted room, I rocked myself and pretended you were here with me on my knee.
I willed you in my life. I desperately imagined what life might be like with you.
I felt I couldn’t bear to be without you for a single day, even though I had not even met you yet.
But dear daughter, it really didn’t matter, as soon as we glimpsed you from behind the door, all those anxious moments, melted away. Our hearts were open and you jumped straight into it.
So my dear, on your birthday our wishes have all been answered as we have you in our lives forever and you darling can wish for the stars.

Things I want you to know dear daughter.

20160618_154814Dear daughter,

I’m writing a letter to you to be read when you’re a little older.

I’m writing it now before I forget all of the emotions and events that whirl past me at a hundred miles an hour as I attempt to mother you to the best of my abilities.

Hopefully writing will become  regular thing from me to you but for now, this is what I want you to know.

First and foremost, I love you. I will love you forever. You are the light of my life and the reason I get up in the morning. You are literally the sun and the moon and the stars to me. My world. Corny as it sounds, I still get a shiver of unbelievable joy when I am away from you and remember I will be returning to you soon; The realisation that you are my daughter is like Christmas  come early every single time. Imagine having joy like that on tap! – This is your gift to me.

You came to us as a baby and were so uniquely yourself – even then. You didn’t even cry as we took you on the five hour journey away from the only person you’d ever known and loved. You simply sat in the back of the car, twiddling the same piece of hair you’ve always twiddled and singing along to your teddy bear’s songs. Your expression was open and curious and I wondered what was going on deep inside of you where I couldn’t see.

It’s important to me that you understand we did not go into the adoption process needing to fill a void left by childlessness.

No.

Your father and I simply (and naively at the time) thought that because we got along well together and seemed to have a lot of joy in our lives, that it would be a good thing to share that joy, and this led us naturally to look into adoption. The assessment process was lengthy and somewhat odd. Sadly some of it taught us that when we were truthful about various things – i.e. not feeling a need to grieve not having our own biological children – we were not believed.

But it was true.

We truly just wanted to explore sharing our fun and joy, but could have quite easily gone on living the life we had… taking lots of grown up holidays, drinking a bit too much, going out a bit too much and generally enjoying a fulfilled childless adult life. You’ll understand this bit a bit more when you’re older.

Then we were matched with you, a cheeky 8 month old baby smiling out of a coloured A4 printout in a pair of checked dungarees and we said ‘YES’! …and you blew that old life out to of the water… In a good way.

I’ve still got that original print out with the social worker’s scribbled “Yes” and the date across it – bizarrely my birthday.

In my humble opinion, it’s virtually impossible to describe an experience fully to someone who has never had that experience themselves; so we are all in the dark to a certain extent about things until we experience them first hand for ourselves; and that was what it was like for me becoming  your parent. People tried to tell me how it would be, but I hadnt experienced it for myself so was blissfully unaware.  I didn’t even know I had it in me to feel the way you made me feel… it was like being electrocuted with love and I’ve been plugged in ever since. Seriously, that’s what it’s like!

I know you will have questions and that there will be things you need to explore around your history; I’ll support you as much as I can as and when that happens, but please try not to let it wholly define who you are.

Yes – I know it’s important, and a really big part of who you are, but you are also so much more than just your history. You are also your present and will be your future, and are growing into such an amazing little person.

I want to warn you that people will all react differently and sometimes nosily to the fact that you’re adopted, and that you’ll have to try and develop a thick skin to deal with some of it. You might also have to fight hard to hold on to your own version of things because society will have all sorts of ideas about you.

Yes, I know there is trauma lurking around the details of your birth – and you have every right to explore this and what it means – but that is not the whole story of you. We have always celebrated how our family came together. To us it is wonderful, a miracle even that we found each other and that we now get to love each other every single day. This is a triumph, despite everything that went before. A triumph for all of us.

Sadly not everyone will see it this way. Some people will insist on only seeing the tragedy in it and I wish I could save you from these views but I can’t. Even now at 4 years old a friend has already freaked you by informing you that adoption is ‘a very sad thing because it means being taken away from your home and your mummy and daddy’, leading you to worry you might be taken away from me; something that had never crossed your mind before.

But my darling daughter, I want to tell you that adoption is not a ‘sad thing’ it is a wonderful thingBecause without it we would not be together, and we would not be filled up with the love we share for one another. We would not have our morning times when you climb into my bed and slip your little legs over mine, your hand winding up through my hair as you whisper ‘It’s morning time, get up Mummy!’ or the swimming pool sessions when we race up and down the pool, you riding me around the shallows with your feet stuck through the arms of my costume saying ‘faster faster!’. Or the bicycle rides where I go full throttle over the grassy bits in the park so that you get bounced around in the trailer laughing your head off. We have a brilliant time and truly there is no one I would rather spend time with. No one.

We are so proud of you and who you are becoming. My parents used to say this to me too when I was growing up and I didn’t really understand what they meant until you came into my life, but it is truly wonderful and an absolute privilege getting to watch you grow from a little bundle into a bright, beautiful articulate person. Maybe you’ll get to experience this joy for yourself one day – the wonder of parenthood, but if you don’t – and this is important  – if that doesn’t happen, it also doesn’t matter; because just as our lives were rich and glorious before you came along, there are just as many joys and discoveries out there waiting to be experienced by you. And here we come to the cliche – but it’s true – please understand that you can be anything you want in this world.

I wish you as much joy, love and happiness as you have brought to me throughout your life.

You are simply, truly amazing, and I will love you with all of my heart forever.

Your Mummy xxxxxxx

Wonderful Reassurance

IMG_4583I think we are possibly in a very rare and what feels like quite a privileged position to be able to watch the first children our agency presented as a possible match for us growing up with their new family. At the time there was no guarantee that the new baby brother would be taken from the mother and as we were determined to adopt two siblings, the uncertainty was enough for us not to take it any further. However, as with the other children we went on to consider – even briefly – before we found our sons, the memory of the two brothers who could have become our children stayed with us.

A year or so after our boys joined us and we became a family we had a call from the agency to say that another couple were in the process of adopting siblings and would we mind being put in touch with them to discuss our experience and how things were working out.

We met and were surprised and delighted to discover that they were in fact adopting the siblings that had been discussed with us – the baby having since been taken into Care. We got on well and stayed in touch and after their sons had been placed and settled we met again and have become good friends. Our children now know each other and play together and we parents have much to discuss, compare and indeed complain about our experiences as new parents.

The first time we met their new sons did seem significant and we were curious to see how we would feel meeting these two little boys who we felt a certain affinity for. We were by then over a year into being a family and we had felt like such from the very first moment we met our boys, consequently we didn’t feel that we would be ‘comparing’ the children or even considering ‘what could have been’, because that was now quite irrelevant, our sons are our sons in every way possible and any kind of alternative is simply unthinkable.

I think the most important thing about that meeting was just seeing the children that – for no reason to do with them – we felt we were unable to move forward with, now adopted. To see them happy and settled in a loving and secure family, which thankfully they most certainly are.

Choosing children is one of the hardest parts of the adoption process we faced, every child deserves a loving a home and every photo that we looked at had a face pleading to be chosen, but some just spoke to us in a way others did not. We have considered and discussed this and I do think it boils down to the vanity of recognising yourself (or indeed your partner) in the face of a child, it was certainly never our intention to adopt ‘mini me’s’ as my partner and I had put no real restrictions on the children we would consider and we were certainly open to children of different race and ethnicity, but in fact we have two sons who are surprisingly similar to both of us – in appearance and more amazingly in character too.

There are of course lots of children who you simply skip passed and others who you may consider even briefly, however they all touch your heart and many leave a memory that I guess will stay with us always. Wondering what became of them is hard and I guess unsurprisingly it has left us with a degree of guilt.

Having contact with these two lovely little boys and seeing them loved and cared for in a beautiful family is wonderfully reassuring in every way and we are truly grateful to have that in our lives.

You don’t love me anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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