Always be by your side.

Photo by Lili Gooch

Photo by Lili Gooch

A few months back my 4 year old daughter astonished me by suddenly opening her eyes as she was drifting off to sleep and whispering “I’ll always be by your side Mama.” She gave me a sweet little smile afterwards and I was so taken aback that it brought tears to my eyes.

It’s not something I had heard from her before, nor is it a phrase I use so it was surprising and delightful to me. I will never forget it and for a time, it became a bit of a theme for us. We would say it to each other when perhaps previously we would have said “I love you”. It also became something of a weapon in times of conflict… “I don’t love you, and I’m not going to always be by your side” she would emphatically inform me, incandescent with rage over something I had done. My usual response would be “That’s a shame but I still love you and will still always want to to be by your side” But there were no concessions from her at times such as these.

Eventually we forgot about our little phrase and went back to the normal “I love you mama, up to the moon and back” that we had used for years.

And then something happened.

Her grandfather (my father) died and we were all thrown into the chaos of profound grief and bereavement while also attempting the day to day stuff of normal family life. Somehow I was supposed to carry on parenting when I felt like a child myself.
I did try to explain to her that there would times when mummy and daddy got a bit sad over this event and that it was ok if she did too; but this only served to make her feel guilty that she wasn’t as sad as us so I backed off it a bit. I was also worried about the funeral and the carnival of grief that would surround it, but she was surprisingly fine. She admired the flowers, took out her little box of crayons and colouring book, a few My little Ponies and grinned at everyone. She even said “Ooh I like your dress!” to one of my aunties.
For me, it was a day of joyous celebration of everything my father was and in the main I was pretty upbeat and happy to remember him… except for one tiny moment when I wasn’t and I faltered. Quick as a flash a little hand slid into mine and pulled me round to face her. She was smiling so broadly that I couldn’t help but smile back. It totally lifted me and after a second, a little voice rang out “Don’t worry Mama, I’ll always be by your side.”

Ask the Kids #3

boy-1298788_1280So I thought I’d try the questions WAF suggested for National Adoption Week on my five year old son. I felt a little uneasy with the questions, as some could be seen as loaded. It is like asking children with long antennae what other people think; they are bound to have a view. I was just worried he may be searching for what he thought I might like to hear, rather than what he thinks. What I really want for my son is for him learn to check in with himself and to trust himself and his feelings, what ever they may be. I wondered which route these questions would led us down.

What happened next I didn’t expect.

The first question was lost in conversation.

To the second, ‘What is the colour of my eyes?’, he answered ‘Blue. … Mine are brown.’ We looked into each others eyes as if to check, and smiled. ‘Yep.’

The next two questions about what makes me happy and sad, I thought potentially loaded, for the same reasons as already mentioned. So, I breathed in and asked

‘What makes me happy? Or what do you think makes me happy?’

‘Me.’ (We both laughed.) ‘Yup. You certainly do.’

‘What do you think makes me sad.’ Another loaded question, potentially.

‘Martin.’ 

‘… You’re right. … yes….’ He went straight to where it hurt.

At this point my son turned the tables on me and started to ask a host of questions. We never did finish the questions. This was an important pressing subject and we are still discussing it. Days later. It has taken many twists and turns since the other day at the lunch table.

Martin is a childhood, or youthhood friend of mine, who died after a short and aggressive illness. I didn’t make it back to say goodbye in person. He died only a week ago. And I cried. No, I sobbed. In front of my son, after reading a particularly beautiful tribute to him.

Why did he make you cry, mummy? Because he died?’

‘Yes, it makes me sad that Martin died.’

Why did he die?’

‘Because he got very ill.’

‘But didn’t he go to hospital to get better? Couldn’t the doctors fix him?’

‘He did go to hospital. A lot… But the doctors couldn’t fix him. He died of a very rare illness.’

We talked and talked and talked. He asked and asked and asked. About death, about all of Martin’s family and how they might feel now that he is no longer there. He was particularly sad to learn that his mum and dad were still alive. ‘They must feel very sad that Martin died.’ ‘Yes darling. I am sure they miss him very much.’

He asked what sort of a person Martin was. There a literally hundreds of wonderful stories about him I could pick from, so that part was easy. He was a silly and very very funny person, so it did good remembering. It also did good also to tell my son about some things from my youth.

And then…

We talked some more about death. About us parents. Especially daddy. And when he might die. And my son told me we are all going to die. But not for a long long time. That we would go to the sun to get energy and come back to earth to give it to the doctors so they can give it to their old patients. ‘The morning that daddy turns 100 he is going to hospital so they can fix him.’

We sometimes talk about death. I know he knows loss. And so talking about death and other difficult things is a part of our lives. It is more a matter of how than if.

When I cried, I could have answered ‘Oh, sweetheart, it’s nothing. Mummy just got something in her eye…’ But we would both know that wasn’t true. In effect I would have been lying. Straight to his face. Over time I might even teach him to lie to himself, and negate his feelings.

If there is one thing I wish for my son it is for him to be true to his own self. And that he can hear and express his inner voice as freely and respectfully as possible.

He reminds me daily that it is possible, necessary even, to speak of difficult subjects. Such as death and loss. Two very intertwined issues.

In his little body he knows what loss is. There is no shielding him from it. It has happened. More than once. Losing everything he knew overnight. Not talking about loss and death is like pretending it didn’t happen to him. It’s like not discussing the fact that he is not our flesh and blood, even if he is our son. Discussion on the other hand feels like acknowledgning that life is complicated. And for him more than most. It is certainly not all children that you can have these discussions with.

We are often told to shield our children from bad news and feelings. Our society are so quick with the fixes. ‘Have you tried …? It works a treat.’ Anything from insomnia to broken cups or relationships. Sometimes it sits better with me just to let the bad and uncomfortable feeling be. Not to quash it in fixing. Acknowledge it. Squarely. Show that we can contain it. Especially as parents. Modelling what we do with those feelings. Because none of us are shielded, and the kids watch our every step anyway.

My son has recently been voicing a lot of things about his own history. For the first time he has initiated talks about this birth mum, and to me more significantly, used her name. He has long remained silent or refused to speak of his background. Well that has all changed over the past month or so.

Very sweetly when I mentioned to him that a friend of his was adopted too, he asked if she too had lived with his own fostermum? He was very excited about this prospect of sharing history. Clearly, she is the place all adopted kids go to before they land with their adoptive families.

So the discussion around Martin, and death and loss are continuning. Several times every day. Now they have morphed in to musings and pondering about being adopted. I feel for the first time that my son is verbalising something very deep and painful in him. Like a prism he is looking, thinking, wondering, pondering and feeling around it.

Asking so directly what made me, his mum, sad, somehow opened lines of communication about what makes him sad. I feel he knows from the strength of my own feelings that I would understand his strength of feeling, or at the very least contain difficult issues and feelings, such as grief which of course is at the very heart of this.

Flowers

photo by Lili Gooch

Photo by Lili Gooch

I previously wrote a blog about the break down of the long term foster placement and guardianship of our sons older sister, I ended by saying that we hoped that the the new placement the sister had been moved to was a good one and would offer her the security she so deserves.

Thankfully that appears to be so, it does seem like a good placement and the new foster carers are committed and seem to be giving her the family life she needs and indeed some of the security that has been lacking in her life recently.

Most importantly she just seems happy.

She is a sweet child who has spent much of her life caring for others and as a result is thoughtful and selfless. She has had it tough all her life and being 4 years older than our oldest was more aware of the neglect and the consequences of that while in the birth family. At the age of 5/6 she was attempting to ‘mother’ our boys, stepping in where birth mum was failing.

What we have now discovered is that the almost 5 years she spent with the previous foster carers were not as positive as we had thought and in fact we have really had to reevaluate our reaction to the break down of that placement.

We were aware that the carers were very strict and lacked pastoral parenting skills, but it seems that the situation for the sister was anything but ideal, we have been told that she was made to do most of the housework and ironing as well as various other chores, apparently time was dedicated for this before and after school everyday and most of Saturday and if this is true it strikes us as being quite inappropriate.

Again we question where social services were throughout this, but now she has moved from that placement and seems happy I feel we should all be looking to the future.

So things are good – or certainly looking so. However we are concerned about the effect the break down of the placement has had on the sister. Yet again she has had parents who have failed here, yet again the family she thought was for life has proven not to be so, yet again she has been thrown into the unknown.

She is aware that – all going well – the new placement will only be until she is 18 as the new carers are not offering guardianship and as yet we do not see any suggestion that they will remain ‘family’ beyond that.

We have been really concerned for her and when we finally met for contact – after a year of not being able to – we asked how she was doing and if she felt settled and happy, she was her usual cheery self and said that she was pleased to be where she was and that life was OK, we asked if there was anything that bothers her or that she had concerns about and her response shocked and saddened us as she opened up and expressed her concerns for being alone after she turns 18.

We assured her that her fears were unfounded and that she was loved by all of us and that we would always be there for her as she was our family. We hope that we offered some kind of reassurance, but somehow we are not convinced as it was evident just how alone she felt.

Her exact words will always stay with us:
‘I don’t mind never being adopted I know it’s difficult for somebody to take a child of my age and that’s OK, the only thing that really bothers me is when I think of the future and not being in a family it upsets me to think that if I was to die there would be nobody to bring flowers to my grave.

She is 12.

You Won’t Ever Leave Me Will You?

20130511_114156As much as we know that the right thing is to insist that the boys stay in their own beds, we find nothing more lovely than a warm body crawling in between us as we wake in the morning. If either of them do wander into our bedroom in the middle of the night we take them back to bed immediately, but on the occasional morning that it happens we are more relaxed and are delighted to share in the huge comfort that it clearly brings to us all.
It’s a special time full of tight hugs, morning breath kisses and whispered conversation. There is an intimacy in these moments that is difficult to achieve as you rush about your day to day lives and it feels special and rewarding. It’s a time for reassuring them of your love, for forgiving the mis behaviour of the previous day or for preparing them for the day ahead, but most of all, for us it’s a time to relish the sheer wonder of being a parent.
It is one of those mornings and our youngest is snuggled between us with his arms around my partner, I’m listening to the whispers and as usual there is a smile on my face at the sweet things he is saying and the pure innocence of his conversation.
Then I hear ‘you will never leave me will you? Promise me that you and Daddy will never give us away?’
The heartbreak of these words – that could surely only come from an adopted child – touches my heart and erases my smile in an instant. We know he struggles with his past, we know he is confused and angry at the changes he has endured so far in his short life, but we really thought that he was now – after more than two years with us – sure of our love, sure of our role in his life – and we assumed – sure that he was totally secure in his forever family.
Clearly that it not the case and it’s a painful realisation.
We feel confident that we couldn’t give any more love than we do, that we couldn’t repeat more frequently how important they are to us, how we are the best family in the world and indeed that this family is forever. It feels that barely a day goes by when one of us isn’t reassuring them in every way possible.
We know they are happy, we know they have attached, we know they feel like we are a family. Yet regardless of all that we also know that our son’s lives to date have taught them that nothing is for sure and that families are not permanent.
They have lived through being removed from their birth family and then after almost three years from their foster family. Their various siblings and half siblings are scattered and are living in a number of different families, some permanent and sadly some not. In addition our life is full of other adoptive families, all of whom – of course – have children no longer with their birth parents.
How to un-teach what life has taught them? In fact, is it even possible?
What more could we do to convince them? To really make them understand that this is a forever family and that we will always be their parents.
Can our love and verbal assurance truly impact on their inner feelings and fears and can we override all that they have learnt and what has been the reality of their lives to date?
We have had our doubts and after our son’s early morning plea we are less sure than ever.
All we can do is to continue to do as we have been doing and just hope that little by little we chip away at those doubts that they are clearly harbouring.

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: 2014

Image 52014 has been tough.

2014 was the year we lost three houses we tried to buy – including a ‘dream home’. It was the year we had to put our home life on hold after making an offer in January – not to complete a purchase until the end of November.

2014 was the year stamp duty changed and we completed on our new home just before the new rate. It was the year we paid £10,000 more because we missed the change by a week and a half.

2014 was the year the banks changed their lending criteria making it almost impossible for me to run my company through absolutely no fault of my own. It is the year when I have been forced to reconsider my future.

2014 was the year our son’s older sister’s placement broke down and we had to turn down taking on a third child as we felt it could destabilise the boys and threaten the family we feel we are still building. It was the year we had to make a decision that we know our sons could resent us for in the future.

2014 was the year that our cat died, it was the year that we lost our beloved pet of almost 14 years.

2014 was the year my brother went into hospital and stayed for over 8 months. It was the year he was diagnosed with a very rare blood disorder – complicated by an even rarer secondary disorder – and had treatment that 1 in 5 simply don’t survive.

2014 was the year that mid way through his treatment my brother picked up an extremely rare infection that attacked his spine and resulted in total paralyses from the waist down. it was the year that we thought he would never walk again.

2014 was the year our sister died, it was the year the cancer really took hold and we had to watch it eating away at her until her untimely end.

2014 was the year I had to collect my paralysed brother from his hospital bed and drive him over 2 hrs to say goodbye to our dying sister who he had been unable to see for months. It was also the year when it was impossible to have my brother with me at our sisters funeral.

2014 was the year my widowed father lost his daughter and almost lost his son. It took the wind out of his sails, and has taken away a big chunk of the reason he has to get up in the morning and has left him a broken man. It was the year he has became more reliant on me.

Putting it bluntly – 2014 has been the worse year of my life.

However – 2014 started 1 year and 3 months into us being a family.

2014 had –

365 days that started and ended with kisses and cuddles from our 2 amazing sons.

365 days when our sons have given us the need and indeed the reason to smile.

365 days when we had to put them first regardless.

365 days when we had to put on a brave face and to protect them from the difficulties and the sadness around them.

365 days of our sons giving us perspective.

365 days of our sons making it ‘all alright’.

365 days of us loving the wonder of being parents.

365 days of love – So very much love.

Maybe 2014 wasn’t so bad after all.

However –

Here’s to 2015.

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Grandad’s garden.

Image 10I used to adore Christmas. Then last year, a week before the festivities kicked in proper, my Dad died. His funeral was on the 23rd of December. I gave the eulogy; I have no idea how I managed it. So, then and now, Christmas is a tough time.

Recently, I drove down to the coast with our daughter to visit his grave. I told her we were going to visit Grandad; my Mum came up with the phrase Grandad’s Garden as a better way to explain the trip.

En route, we all went to the shops to pick up a Xmas wreath and some white roses to take to his grave. In the shop, the daughter spotted some marshmallow biscuits shaped like a snowman; she wouldn’t leave the shop until we had put them in our basket.

When we arrived at the graveside, she took five white roses and planted them in Grandad’s Garden. As we stood there, my Mum and I lost in private memories, while it seemed the daughter got bored. Eventually she shouted, demanding “I want to go back to the car, Daddy” and no amount of gentle (or otherwise) persuasion would placate her. I was annoyed but also sad that my daughter had no real understanding of what it meant to us to be there. We got to the car and as I opened the door, she said, “Get the snowman biscuits, Daddy”. I told her she would have to wait until we got home to have one.

She looked at me and said “But Daddy, get them. I want to leave one for Grandad to have with his Christmas cup of tea.”

I’m finding it easier to begin adoring Christmas again.

Lucky?

Wearefamily logoFrom the moment we started introducing our new sons to friends and family, something bothered me greatly and over time my initial frustration has grown.

We are not wealthy, but being older more financially secure parents we have stability and a lifestyle that we have had plenty of child free (DINKY) years to work towards.

We are also very child focused and have the luxury of one of us being a stay at home parent and I’m sure like most new adopters make as much time as possible for our new sons.

I think it was seeing us dedicate so much time, effort and energy to the boys and seeing them with an abundance of love, comfort and the security we could afford them that on meeting the boys many around us would declare ‘these boys are so lucky’.

Lucky?

Like all adopted kids our boys have had a very tough start to their lives and I should imagine that in their first 4 and 5 years they experienced more heartache and tragedy than most would suffer throughout their entire life. They were badly neglected in their early years – left unfed, uncleaned and uncared for – they were taken away from their parents who of course they loved regardless, removed from their home and everything that was familiar to them, they were put into a tough (but thankfully loving) foster placement where they stayed ‘in limbo’ for almost three years, they were then removed from the security of that home and were separated from other siblings and thrust into a new life with new parents, new extended family, new home, new school, new friends, new neighbours – well, new EVERYTHING.

Their loss doesn’t stop there as recently my sister – a beloved new aunt who they adored – died from cancer. In addition in the last couple of days the family cat -their first ever pet – also passed away.

They have had it tough and it is clear that it has left it’s scars, some of which will no doubt stay with them forever. As social services always tell us adopters – our children are damaged and may always be so.

So ‘lucky’! Really?

In addition to our day to day lives, in the two years they have been with us we have been able to give our new sons experiences that I guess could seem quite grandiose – holidays abroad visiting the other half of our family, a trip to Lapland to meet Father Christmas before it was too late to be totally convincing, Skiing in France at the invitation of French friends as well as other exciting experiences – all wonderful family times that have already given us great memories. Holidays and breaks for the family to enjoy and the boys to learn from and to grow from.

I am sure they will not be repeated with the same frequency ongoing and we know we are fortunate to have been able to do this so far and we also know that the boys are experiencing more than many and certainly more than they could ever have hoped for with their birth family.

But again, even though I know it’s said with the best of intentions people start to use that word – ‘what Lucky little boys’ we are frequently told. I appreciate that they feel it is a compliment and in stating it they are acknowledging the good job they think we are doing, but in fact it feels anything but a compliment.

To add insult to injury many now go further and declare how spoilt the boys are for getting so much – and I’m pretty sure that one’s not meant as a compliment.

Lucky! Spoilt! – Although I can see where the conclusion has come from, I just could not disagree more. However it feels wrong to correct the statement as I know that no ill intent is ever meant.

No matter how I look at what we give them or consider the good times we have, when I think of their past and the traumatic little lives they have endured I just can’t accept that ‘SPOILT’ or LUCKY’ are appropriate adjectives. In fact I would say the exact opposite – that they are in fact unlucky little souls indeed and that they just happen to be having a much better life now.

No matter what we can do for them, no matter how much love we give and how happy we can make them, we can never erase their past.

Our sons are settled now, we bonded quickly and it’s clear that they are attached and indeed happy with us. They love us, they love the new family that we are and they love their new lives. Of that I am sure, just as I am that they would not NOW choose to change it – not to go back to Mummy and Daddy or even the foster parents who they had grown to love, however that’s got nothing to do with the trips away or any of the other ‘spoiling’ , that’s all to do with the love we have smothered them with and the security we have built for them. Proper life long security – the first they have ever had.

I am sure that any young child – no matter how tough their life may be, given the choice of staying with their birth parents or swapping them for parents who can give what we can give will of course choose their own parents, no matter how bad their life was as a consequence. Had our boys been asked back then of course they would have chosen not to be removed from mummy and daddy regardless of what could have been promised to them.

So what if there was a magic wand, with the wondrous ability to turn back time and to make our children’s lives with their birth parents all OK. Would we use it?

Selfishly I instantly say NO – absolutely no chance, the thought of taking away the opportunity for the family we have been given, to deprive us of our amazing, beautiful, so very special sons – it’s unthinkable.

But then I stop thinking about myself and consider only the boys and in fact the answer is then a very different one. If I had the ability to take away all the bad that they suffered, if I could repair the damage by making it never happen, if I could give them the happy life they so deserved from day one – then how could I not? How could I deprive them for my own selfishness?

So I guess I would wave that magic wand and suffer the unthinkable consequences on my life. Isn’t that what parents do – put our children before ourselves?

However, if that wand is as good as I have presented it to be, it will also give the parents the ability to give the boys everything that we can and they will miss out on nothing. Hey it’s my fairy tale, so I get to make the rules.

There is of course no magic wand and my goodness how we adoptive parents benefit from that. I guess it’s not too selfish to be relieved that we are not in a fairy tale and maybe even to admit to being pleased about it. Regardless of the horrible reality that we have benefitted so greatly from our children’s suffering.