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.
Due to increasingly difficult behaviour in school – which is now very much spilling over into our home life – my partner and I have been reassessing our son and the behaviour we are facing and we have concluded that he does indeed suffer from Reactive attachment disorder (RAD). This has resulted in me thinking back over our adoption process and how we dealt with the information being presented to us, information which is now evidently appropriate and true. Yet information that at the time we could be somewhat dissmissive of – even after further research on the topics being raised.
On reflection I think it’s fair to say that we were quite simply in denial and it is a denial that has continued well into placement.
Athough we could very quickly see that our son was troubled and that we were dealing with some very challenging behaviour, we put it down to anger brought about from the trauma he had suffered or from being removed from a secure, long term foster placement and it has taken us a good while to open ourselves up and to stop denying the full reality of our family,
And I am wondering if that denial is typical of many adopters? I think it is often a very difficult path that leads to adoption and for some adopters it is a last opportunity to become a parent. Consequently that desire to parent possibly overrides all else and whilst being processed I feel we could be subconsciously denyng anything which could get in the way of us becoming the family we so desperately want to be.
All new adopters are repeatedly and relentlessly warned by social services of the issues that the children in their care could have – or indeed are likely to have – and in many cases when it gets to the matching process there can be clear information about our potential children presented to us that I guess we allow ourselves to doubt. In theory there are no secrets and all the known facts are laid out before us – and indeed information about what could be unknown. This is all information that could possibly have most of us running for the hills, yet we don’t run, we hold fast.
I remember clearly thinking ‘but they are just kids and kids are kids’, ‘The social workers are making too much of this’, ‘they need to exaggerate, to present the worse case scenario’, and more incredibly ‘we can handle it’ without truly knowing what it would be that we would need to handle.
In our case there was in fact a professional diagnoses (RAD for both our sons) that we were very willing to question because of factors that we felt discredited it – in our defence this did include our sons family finder and social worker saying that they felt the diagnoses to be ‘surprising’ and to be fair to them we do still feel that the diagnoses for our older son to be totally wrong.
I am not saying that we ignorantly blanked out the information put before us, I think we were just somewhat selective in how we allowed it to impact on us and our decision making. I think we were in denial.
I think it is fair to say that it is a rare adopter who can knowingly and willingly take on a physically disabled or a severely disturbed child, most of the rest of us may not be looking for ‘perfection’ when it comes to the children we chose, but in fact I am pretty sure we are hopeful of a child who will be physically and mentally healthy – and this is regardless of being told that it may be a rarity amongst adopted children nowadays.
As was the case for us, I think possibly those adopters who feel that they are willing to take on children with (what we see as manageable) issues, do so with a belief that the impact will be minimal and that all will be OK.
Not blindly – but hopefully.
On reflection I tthink that all of this denial is a wonderful thing, because without it I fear that so many of us would not be the families that we are.
Our children move in, we become a family and the love and the bond develops and grows. They become part of us They are our children and then whatever reality we are faced with, we deal with – as any parent would.
Just as the vast majority of birth parents would never turn away from their child if the child became ill or disabled or very challenging – neither do the vast majority of adopters.
We are there for our children, we learn to understand their problems, to understand their needs, we learn to be the parent we need to be.
We learn that it doesn’t matter that they are not ‘perfect’ , they are ours and they come as they are and we are a family that is meant to be.
Don’t get me wrong, we did not deny our son had issues, there was just an instinctive desire to ‘play them down’, regardless we still had to learn to parent therapeutically and to give him the special care he requires. The only difference now is that we have to acknowledge that it is likely to be a much longer road ahead of us than we thought we were on – and that is perfectly OK.
P.S. I am very aware that many reading this will not relate on any level and I stress that the blog is about my experience as an adopter and my assumption that it could also be true for many, many others.
To explain, I have found being an adoptive Mum, at times, an extremely difficult and highly charged emotional experience. It is made more difficult by the fact that much of what I am feeling is very difficult to properly break down and understand. For me, your film articulated a lot of these feelings in such simple terms. I found myself in tears from early in the film when the yellow balls (representing happy memories) as core memories for the central character ‘Riley’ throughout her early childhood lead to her being able to build a really strong and positive sense of self-identity. In contrast my girls, without doubt, have early core memories which are blue (representing sadness) and so have had to build their early sense of self upon experiences which are sad and/or frightening. And just like Joy later in the film I can’t change that early sadness for them, I can’t remove it, it is something which is a part of them and which I have to help them to weave positively into their identity.
For one of my girls in particular who is regularly ‘driven’ by Anger, the film has helped her to start understanding that there are in fact a number of different feelings, that she can name them and that we all have them. She seemed genuinely surprised to hear that I have ‘Fear’ in my head and that I get worried about things. I asked her if she ever worries about anything and she said yes, that she worries about her sister going away. My daughter is 3. We have always thought that she was very anxious about transitions having moved carers 3 times by the time she was 18 months old but it had never occurred to us that she thought that her sister, the one constant, could maybe leave as well.
The film also gave us an easy segue into discussing birth Mum and Dad because at the very beginning of the film Riley is born and first sees her parents looking down happily at her. Happily for us we do know that this happened for our girls and were able to say this – so much nicer to have a visual depiction of it than just trying to explain verbally ‘your birth Mum and Dad loved you very much when you were born’.
And happily for me your film provided me personally with one of the best moments of my life. I was talking with the girls about which one of the little ‘people’ they thought was most like each of them and finally which one was most like me. I asked because I feel like I spend much of my time telling them off, being grumpy and tired so from that aspect I fully expected them to choose ‘anger’, or alternatively because I wear glasses and have a bob I thought they may plump for ‘sadness’. They shocked me by choosing Joy.
A grateful, re-motivated parent
And so it begins… This week, this long awaited week was your first at school. I can barely believe it as I type the word- school! the very idea seems quite preposterous for someone as young as you are.
We have had a summer of ice-creams, holidays and adventures. But also of nights with you a wriggly, sleeping starfish in MY bed, me alternating between snatched snippets of sleep when you are at rest, and holding the little hand that migrates frequently into mine. We’ve seen a lot of the moon this summer.
Although outwardly you seemed sanguine about the big move up, and could become quite animated when reeling off the list of “things to look forward to about reception” that your nursery teacher so thoughtfully prepared with you before you left her class, occasionally you’ve let slip little clues about your anxiety.
I find your anxiety painful, and want to make it go away. I am aware though that reassurances aren’t really enough for someone for whom the earliest changes involved suddenly and unexpectedly losing literally everything and everyone you knew. Having gone through this twice, it is unsurprising to me that you are constantly attentive to the slightest ripple in routine, and acutely alert at times of change. So whilst many of those around you, myself included, have been gaily chattering about “big school”, sometimes in an attempt to habituate you to the idea, sometimes to offer reassurance, I know that for you, the undercurrent to this summer has been apprehension that has kept you from sleeping soundly, and peacefully as I know you can.
But you’ve done it, the great unknown has this week begun to become the new normal, and tonight as I tucked you up in bed, you looked so small, but I felt hopeful that as you grow older, and we go through more and more of these big changes, you’ll develop a deeper understanding that you can depend on me being there, and there for you, and that your confidence in the permanence of your place in your world will grow. Oh, and also I hope you’ll spend more time in your own bed.