Just Her

7A65C10A-761D-4661-84A0-2E9EAD37C988I can remember reading Sally Donovan’s blog ‘Fake mummy’ and loving it.

I totally identified with it and it reminded me of my fortune cookie mantra just fake it till you make it, and that’s exactly what I do. I Force feed myself with trips to soft play hell, and weekends rammed with kids parties.

Kids parties are a breeding ground for insane, extreme and completely crazy behaviours at the best of times – not just from the kids but from anyone within a hundred mile radius – but it was pure embarrassment that drove my wife and I home after the last fiasco.

We were both asked at different points in the evening by the same person how old our daughter is, and we both gave different, inaccurate answers.  Somehow we just couldn’t get it together and she probably thought we stole her.

In retrospect we realised that we were remembering her at the age she was when we were introduced to her, but 5 months have  flown by since then and we hadn’t added this on.

To complete the scenario, the same lady had also asked us when her birthday was and when I gave her the month, I saw her mentally calculate the age, realise we had given it wrong the first time, then choose not to correct us. She was simply too polite to tell us that we the parents were half a year out. What parent makes these mistakes? It’s embarrassing, and from now on, we plan to arm ourselves with relevant facts and figures before leaving the house in the hope we can quell any suspicion that she is in fact stolen.

So here we are, 2nd child adopted and well into the initial settling in period.

I had thought it was just about safe to venture out to some groups and join the rest of the community, but I had completely forgotten what it feels like to be the new kid/Mum on the block.

The dry mouth. The stumbling over the birth date, and the histrionics that fly so effortlessly from other mums mouths but not mine.

I managed 6 groups in total then gave up.

The last one we went to completely threw me. My daughter and I had arrived in the middle of winter, wrapped up in a cazillion layers, and overheating as soon as we entered the threshold of the venue.

A dozen NCTers in full throttle greeted us. Breast feeding, cooing and swaddling new borns with near perfect post pregnancy weight loss.

Then there was me.

I looked like the Michelin mum carrying a screaming, overheated baby. A baby who on paper is in my care, but from whom there is no invisible strand of golden bond linking up to me the mother. No bond. No relationship. No eye contact.

There is nothing visible to demonstrate we are mother and daughter and it feels like a tragic comedy. If I could have stopped crying internally I would have laughed because to say it out loud it sounds hilarious.

What am I doing?” I silently wonder as I wait for the 45 minutes of the session to slowly tick by.

It does not feel good. It is raw but you know what – it’s real. It’s real life and it’s my life.

Then I realise that this moment is pivotal and my whole head does a u turn.

Parenting adopted children is a completely different kettle of fish and I was unwise to believe otherwise.

I was foolish to dupe myself into believing that I could fit in when actually it’s really like putting a square peg in a round hole. It won’t bloody fit. I don’t fit. We don’t fit. We are not in sync and she doesn’t even look at me when I call her name. Ahhh the agony of it, but then the empowering realisation: I DON’T NEED TO DO THIS ANYMORE! And I made a decision there and then.

I went private and brought the teachers to me and my new daughter.

We now have shiatsu, massage and yoga weekly sessions in our home and it’s a whole lot better. My daughter is relaxed and confident in familiar surroundings and the therapists have built up a fantastic rapport with both of us.

We are still in very early stages but at 5 months in, my girl is definitely my girl. She is smart, sassy and very funny.

I have learnt a very humbling lesson of late, loving her and exactly her in this moment.

Not what we want her to be, not what we expect her to be, not what the red book dictates.

Just her.

I look at her, and I love her in that moment. Now, I can feel the warmth of the invisible strand of golden joy pulling us, binding us together. Fully.


OPen nest

Last Saturday the charity Open Nest held their first conference ‘Taking Care’ in York.  A host of august adoption speakers were there. I am proud that we were invited too. It was a room full mainly of adopters, but also of adoptees, social workers and other professionals.

The short version of this review is that Taking Care was a resounding success.


Amanda Boorman’s vision and the team with her pulled together a tremendous day with profound, practical and real lessons shared. The talks were extraordinary, and varied in their presentation. The most profound voices, however, were no doubt those of the adoptees, Jazz Boorman and Fran Proctor.

Amanda began by welcoming us and gave a short introduction to her charity, The Open Nest. And then… well … then she showed us a short documentary about her life with Jazz, her adopted daughter. It was edited down from hundreds of hours of film made over the course of their journey as a family. It was filled with love and heart ache. It was heart breaking. It contained a vignette of Jazz meeting her birthmother. Her voice trembled loudly with laughter and tears, powerful super sounds to remind us all of a hole in our children that we can mitigate, but never fill. Seeing and hearing this pain was an insight that I think shall never leave me. This film has to be seen. And heard. For obvious reasons it is not on general release, so keep your eyes and ears out for a chance to view it.

Al Coates was possibly the only person who could have followed this film. His delivery was slide less, just a man leaning on the lectern or moving about while he spoke with luring elegance and deceptive humour about his own journey and views. He released the mountains of tension in the room with laughter. He made us roar with his penetrating critique of the system and support services, both of which he deemed no longer fit for purpose. He should know. He is a social worker and, with his wife, the father of six. He delivered reams of one-liners like: ‘Coming home to find that the woman you love has been beaten up by a four year old.’ or ‘Telling a Social worker about attachment. Well… That’s bollocks.’  Who could disagree? Bottlefeeding his four year old turned a corner in their relationship, one that could have been turned much earlier. It happened after attachment had been mentioned only in passing, this is after months Al enduring physical abuse from the same child every. single. day. in the small hours of the day. This is to say nothing of how that child felt during all of this!

Al made the same point that Amanda has made earlier: he is not anti adoption (yes he and The Open Nest has been accused of this), not at all, he is just PRO SUPPORT.

Fran Proctor, mother and adoptee, followed with her story of a broken heart and trust, and how she rebuilt her life. In her soft voice she recalled the support that had been helpful, and that which had not. I will not retell the story here, as it is hers to share, but I will say that I am in awe of how – when she finally met her biological mother, facing her greatest fears – she had the strength to listen to her mother’s version of events, only to finish it with ‘I am nothing like you. And I never will be.’ And she could walk away. That doesn’t mean there aren’t scars, or that she isn’t working on them – she is – this was the first time she ever stood up to tell it. It is a powerful reminder that adoption is lifelong. Sally Donovan introduced Fran by telling us how much she herself had learnt from Fran, about her own children. It was clear to see that Fran has much to share, and we adoptive parents much to learn from her. If ever I had been in doubt about the importance of listening to our children, Fran reaffirmed, while speaking on what can go wrong despite the best of intentions.

Sally Donovan, adopter and author of No Matter What fame, delivered another of her deliciously practical talks on self care and how to speak to the schools and education. Sparks were flying from my pen as they noted useful suggestions that could make a real difference to our children in school. She addressed us parents at eye-height. ‘Just. Say. No.’ She told us. To extra duties, like PTA. ‘If you don’t feel you have the energy, step away from it.’ She taught us about ‘me-holiday’, of lower (i.e. no) household standards, ready made meals, day time TV and so on. ‘It’s ok…. Really.’ Because if you don’t there could be consequences, like what could happen if you have been running on fumes for a while. Burn out. Or Secondary trauma. Which is what brought Sally’s own family to the brink. Take care of yourselves! A friend had ventured that the world consists of two types of people: the radiators and the drains. Stay clear of one, and gravitate to the warmth of the other. And all those things you do for the kids… like letting them have ice cream, watching a film etc, treat yourself in the same way. Because as a parent you are the pillar of the family and if you crumble, so will the family. Self care is family care. Everyone benefits from it.

At this point I will be honest and say I wasn’t quite sure I could deliver my own talk, such was the gravitas of what had been delivered. But I went on and reeled off what I had prepared. The feedback from the talk showed that there are many self-made adopters groups out there, and it is clear from them and us, and from the conference as a whole, that we parents really can support each other in ways no-one else can.

After a break with homemade cookies (!), Ella Harris, an adoptive mum and actor, introduced us to her brain child Open Space and made us all brain storm at our tables of 8, on topics and issues personal to us. The lists were long and inspiring. Sally collected them all, to appear in due course – probably via Twitter.

Sarah and Vicky from The Adoption Social gave a well-pitched talk, a very difficult task to a crowd of people with very different experiences and knowledge of the Ethernet and Tweetland. I think my no. 1 tip for adopters is get an alias account to join Twitter. You’ll soon meet them.  The support community on Twitter were no less welcoming in person. I agree wholeheartedly with Al’s observation that part of the conference was quite disconcerting. Unknowingly I too had assigned voices, fictitious faces even to the adoption tweeters that had turned up is such great numbers.

A common thread throughout the day from all the speakers was the power of being believed and trusted. And just how devastating it can be for a family when that doesn’t happen. All support, and all care, starts right there. In believing adoptive families when they tell their stories and especially when they ask for help.

After the end of an inspiring conference I felt quite physically drained, ready to just go to the hotel to digest and sleep. But once again the organisers were one step ahead of us: The Disco.

Seeing Sally and Sarah shaking it with Jazz and others they were clearly onto something.

May I add that they were rather good too?

Lessons with Sally Donovan

SD Unofficial guideOn September 15th we hosted a workshop with Sally Donovan in collaboration with North London Fostering and Adoption Consortium. It focused on therapeutic parenting as seen through the eyes of an adoptive mother. The workshop was based on Sally’s upcoming book ‘The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Pareting’. These were gentle but penetrating words of experience, of lessons that were hard earned. Of wisdom, in my eyes.

Sally gently criticised much of the adoption training as either setting out the theory and science but not delivering answers or simply setting the bar too high. Her workshop and book come with another label altogether: ‘Warning: contains real life!’

Especially the first half of the day welled up deep emotions in many of the participants. The session focussed on us as parents, on our engrained and often inherited beliefs and values that we are bound to repeat if we remain unreflected about our own childhood. Sally underscored the need to examine them closely. Soul searching is a cornerstone in therapeutic parenting; without self insight there can be little overall progress. And that takes bravery on the part of the parent to realise and pursue.

Closely related to parental self insight is the non-punitive approach. This is a stretch for many, since this is the parenting we know; it is what we were brought up with. But this approach is very likely to feed straight into the hand of their traumas. ‘Trauma is stronger than any of us’, as Sally put it. Our children will always have reasons to behave as they do. And it is our job to try to work out what these are, or – if we can’t – accept them none the less. Sally also stressed the importance of facing our children’s stories – warts and all -, without looking away. Herein lies the root of true empathy for them.

Being more mindful of how our children might see the world was a lesson that many took home. Sally taught us strategic and gave examples of what this might look like in daily life.

It was refreshing beyond words to hear these words spoken so compassionately and softly by an adoptive mother. Sally’s elegant workshop was down to earth and practical. Useful in a world of often useless and superfluous words (quite often my own I might add!). No nonsense kind of stuff. I’ve said it before but I will say it here again: I am tired of before talked down to. As a mother, and as an adopter. Not infrequently by experts who haven’t adopted or who haven’t been adopted. Sally spoke peer-to-peer. Eye height.

There were social workers present too. Some commented how refreshing they too found the workshop. Some found the ratio 3:1 adopters/social workers just right. Whatever the ratio, it showed the powerful beauty of delivering the same message to both groups of people – at the same time.

Today I am still touched by Sally’s musings as they continue to bounce round in my head. There are no quick and easy fixes. But there is an approach and a recognition that will take you further as a parent and as a family. At the core of this is self care and support for all parents, because therapeutic parenting is demanding and hard work. A belief that tallies strongly with that of We are Family. Only when we feel supported can we start to heal our children’s traumas, because only then have we got the patience and stamina to contain them and their emotional lives. We need to look inwards before we can look out. Well before we can listen and attune ourselves to our little ones.

It was a truly excellent workshop. I will be reading the book cover to cover as soon as I can get may hands on it!

I hope Sally will run the workshop again somewhere, and if she does – be sure to go, if you possibly can.

Sally Donovan’s The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishing in November 2014.