They f*** you up

lili gooch 1It’s said that once you become a parent you will get to know someone who you have known all your life but never really known. Your own parents. Usually this is said with tenderness and often forgiveness.

Since I became a mum I have got to know mine better too. Only they don’t come out the better for it. It has stirred up a lot of deep seated resentment and anger.

You see … I was the compliant one. I did well in school and at after school activities. I never caused much trouble. I had self-obsessed parents, who lived knee deep in their own problems. They simply had little time for me. I definitely got more attention from them if I did well and was helpful.

Our home was a good middle class academic home. Liberal, tolerant and forward thinking. Members of the chitteraty. You can tell them by their unfailing and superior persuasion. My parents imparted a lot of knowledge. Mainly about astrology, politics, STD and contraception.

My parents got drunk at parties and it being the seventies had multiple partners. Before I turned 14, I had had 3 stepdads, 3 stepmums, not counting the lovers. I could tell these lovers by their unnerving, disproportional interest in me, and then they’d suddenly be out of our lives again. I also had 6 stepsiblings, some of whom I never saw again after our parents split up. This did not faze me too much. This was normal.

One day a week I would cook for the family. Thursdays. I started aged six and stopped when I moved out aged 18. There was a purse to go shopping for ingredients. If mum forgot to put it out I would cook from whatever I could find in cupboards and the fridge. I painted my first wall in our new house aged 8. From aged 10 I cleaned the house every week. I babysat for people in the neighbourhood and my younger siblings from aged 12. And so on… None of this ever seemed unusual to me. Until I became a mum. Now I think blimey, I was a kid. I also think it strange that my siblings and I spent so much time home alone.

My siblings never really learned to cook or clean. They spent their time getting angry and shouting at the grown ups a lot. They wanted to be seen. I reasoned with them, telling them our parents loved us but agreed they could be silly. That they – my siblings – should grow up, stop shouting and stop expecting things of my parents that they would never get. But they just kept on slamming doors and moved out as soon as they could. I now cringe at what I said to them.

As a good adoptive parent I read a lot about parenting and trauma. But I’ve been surprised at how much I seem to be reading about my own family rather than about my daughter. I understand that my parents had awful upbringings. I see their pain. That they did try to do their best. But at the moment this knowledge does nothing but anger me. For crying out loud they had four kids with ten fingers and ten toes. Who have all done reasonably well in life.

My parents were well educated and affluent. I flirt with the idea that they had a moral obligation to get themselves sorted. Instead they indulged in decades of extended adolescence. Once they became parents why did it not dawn on them to try?? My mum did. But in effect this meant that she spent my adolescence in therapy. Emotionally unavailable. She was licking her own wounds. I get that. But I’ll be damned if she didn’t inflict a few new ones.

I could tell my mother’s mood from the way she turned the key in the door when she got home. And usually it meant I would get out and stay out of her way. Turn off the music, gather my things and go to my room if I had been daring enough to spread out and enjoy the living room.

It seems more customary to get angry at your parents in your teens and twenties. Not in your forties. I admit these thoughts and feelings of mine are puerile. I’m having my teenage go at my parents in my late forties.

But that’s where I am.

Really really f***ed up at my parents.

I’ll be damned if I want to repeat those mistakes.

I’m working so hard at understanding my past. I am especially trying to turn certain knee jerk reactions around. Like the short sneer at my daughter or a quick scolding of her when I can’t contain her needs and demands. Those moments strike me with pure fear. Because I remember how it felt on the receiving end. So I work at our relationship. Moment by moment. Event by event. And I apologise to her when I mess up.

Being an older parent and having waited for so long to become a mum, I used to think it was a weakness, but now it seems it is a strength. I’ve done career, I’ve proven myself – of sorts – to others, I have a mortgage, a car, I can decide my own bedtime and what is in my fridge. By all accounts I’m a grown up. My parents were children when they had me. They only just finished school. I was a whoops. Born just before free abortion…

My daughter is the focus of my life.

I am very happily resigned to being second forever more. I want to be a mum till I leave this mortal coil. As a child, I often felt we were in the way of our parents’ happiness. Their sighs were a give away. I know they loved us, but did they like us? Do they?

I am determined to do it differently, better preferably.

Playing has been an excellent place to start. Enjoying each other.

Getting to know my daughter.

Reasons to be Cheerful: (Whose Tummy?)

photo-3Apart from the beautiful early blooming daffodils, I have another big reason to be cheerful this week – the confirmation that our son has just been accepted into the school of our choice. A school where I am pretty certain he is going to be happy, inspired, challenged, educated and stimulated, and which he is certainly ready for.

How do I know this? Let me rewind to an earlier visit to said school where my wife is complaining about the possibility of maybe having to join in with the activities and would prefer to be in an artisan coffee shop, and I am just praying he likes the look of it… We go into his new classroom and he immediately picks up a Gruffalo book and wants to take his shoes off.

I feel this is going well.

Later on he discovers the home corner and we don’t read anything into him putting the baby in the microwave repeatedly. He is happy – the classroom is divided into different play zones and our boy discovered that there is a shop, with all the pretend grocery paraphernalia you can throw a stick at. He is in make believe Narnia.

We sit at the little table all together making biscuits with play dough and are joined by 2 existing children who are 4 years old and who seem confident, happy, self assured and content in their endeavours. We start making chit chat and then one of the boys unexpectedly asks – “so which of your tummies did he come out of?” Both of us look at each other and mouth ‘Oh’ We are not sure if our son heard the question, so I redirect it to him, with which he was able to reply that he came out of his birth mum’s tummy and gave her name. We were joyous that the first direct question about where our son started his life seemed to be resolved quite happily and he took it all in his stride.

We spoke with the teacher and commented on what happened and we also congratulated the staff on their teaching prowess. The kids were creative, polite and continually able to find stimulus, comfort and a friendly smile. We were encouraged by our son’s behaviour and really hope he enjoys this new chapter when he starts later in the year.

Later on, we joked about it. Never in a million years were we expecting questions from the kids! But it makes sense and I guess that old addage about whatever you need to learn, you lean at kindergarten is true!

Tiara

Wearefamily logoIt’s early and as usual I am up first and I’m watching the news on TV. Our 6 year old comes downstairs and after the briefest of ‘good morning’ hugs and kisses goes into the play room and busies himself.

His brother is up minutes later and comes and joins me on the sofa and starts asking questions about the news, I would love to think that at 7 he has discovered a real interest in current affairs, but in fact I have worked out that it is his way of getting me to give up on the news – which I am now missing big chunks of – and agree to switch to CBBC.

I do and we are watching something together when the younger brother walks back into the room, I look up as he enters and immediately notice his posture and his slow, determined walk – it’s positively regal – and then I see that he is wearing one of his favourite possessions – his Tiara.

It is not one of any value – well monetary value anyway – just a cheap plastic affair with brightly coloured plastic ‘jewels’, but he loves it with a passion and keeps it safely stored away for special occasions – and apparently he has decided that this is exactly that.

He takes a seat beside us, he is sitting very upright and has just a touch of a smile and is radiating a look of total contentment.

Not a word is said by any of us. I was somehow touched by the moment and I take the opportunity to snap a photo and post it on Facebook. The boys watch their 30 minutes quota of morning TV and joined by my partner we go for breakfast.

My partner’s question of ‘it’s a Tiara kind of morning this morning is it?’ was simply answered with a huge beaming smile.

He decides to remove his Tiara and return it to it’s special place on the way to breakfast and it doesn’t reappear for a couple of weeks or so.

Although the Tiara is his pride and joy he has a fascination for all jewellery and has amassed quite a collection of cheap and cheerful bits – which he calls his treasure – given to him by various family and friends who have been so touched by his interest in it. He plays with his treasure and wears certain pieces as he pleases.

We are gay parents and having our son show such an interest in what others may call ‘girly’ things is of little significance to us and in fact barely registers most of the time – he clearly knows what he likes and neither of us would consider for one moment trying to stop something that obviously brings him so much pleasure.

In our 2 years as a family we have never questioned his choices and never pointed out that some things that he enjoys so very much are ‘meant for girls’, We have a general attitude of ‘people are people and that’s cool’ and it’s expressed whenever we see the boys notice somebody ‘less normal’, which in London is wonderfully frequent. In the early days it was with some regularity, but now I am proud to say that it is hardly at all. They just don’t notice ‘different’ or ‘unusual’ the way they used to.

We have never said ‘we shouldn’t judge others’ because somehow in stating that you seem to be setting yourself apart as somebody who has the right to judge, we just want them to feel that everybody is equal – no matter how they come or what choices they make. We want them to feel that they can indeed follow paths that they feel are right for them – no matter how ‘non normal ‘ they may be.

Do we feel our son’s interest in girly things is a sign of him being gay? Not for one second.

It’s true that many gay men had an interest in girly things as children, but many – like myself – didn’t. Equally many boys who enjoyed playing with their sister’s dolls and the like when young turned out straight, so it’s certainly not an indicator of sexuality.

Do we think we could be turning him gay by allowing this behaviour?

I think we are maybe the exception to the rule in embracing the behaviour so freely and those parents that don’t, who force their children into ‘appropriate’ gender roles don’t manage to stop their gay offspring being gay by making them play with cars – so no we do not, not all all.

I would also like to say that regardless of how comfortable we are as gay men we wouldn’t choose it for our sons. It’s a misconception to think that prejudice against gay people is a thing of the past – I would argue that in some respects it’s getting worse – and of course we want to protect our children from anything and everything negative – however, not by trying to make them into something they are not.

Do we consider that it could be a sign of ‘sexual identity disorder’? Again no, he has as many ‘boy’ interests as ‘girly’ ones and there is nothing at all suggesting to us that there is a stifled little girl inside our son trying to break out. However, we are aware that he had almost five years before we became his parents of being conditioned by others and may already feel a need to hide or pretend in order to suit the values of those around him, so we will always be observing him and will keep an open mind.

If there is something that he needs to come to terms with then we need him to know that we are not questioning that or judging him and certainly not putting up any barriers. We need him – and indeed his brother – to know and to be sure that we will support them no matter what. Literally – no matter what.

I guess it’s obvious that we are trying to do what our parents – as most parents of gay children back then – sadly failed to do, to prevent the pain caused when they fail to understand and accept their offspring for who and what they are. Even worse when they try to change and shape them into something they are not, just to suit their own bigoted or ignorant view of the world.

We know what that pain is like and how tough it was for us and there is of course no question that we would want to be responsible for that in a child of ours.

Something amazingly positive we have learnt from the above Tiara episode is just how wonderful the people around us are. We both have great families and have clearly chosen our friends well, the Facebook post got nothing but positive comments and more ‘likes’ than anything else I have posted. It’s heartwarming to see that those close to him embrace our son for exactly who he is and not what they want him to be or indeed need him to be.

Bad Advice

WearefamilylogoMost of us new parents came to adoption later than many of our peer group came to parenting, often it is after many years of trying for a birth child and many more attempting to ‘put right’ whatever issues were preventing that from happening naturally. For many same sex couples it can be after a life of assuming it would never be an option at all and embracing a child free existence, only to be confronted with the possibility of parenthood later in our lives which can require a long period of adjustment to the idea of being a family.

This can put us at a bit of a disadvantage as our friends and family are often a big step ahead of us, they have experience, they have knowledge and as we soon discover – they have advice. For most of them ‘children are children’, what they learnt raising their family will of course work for us and the experience and knowledge is passed on with the best of intentions and most of it of great value.

Of course when we run into problems or have doubts we turn to those around us who have been through it already, those we feel can help us and and naturally they have good advice, useful advice, much needed advice, but sometimes its well intended but totally misguided advice.

Our children come with ‘instructions’ and that’s something the established parents around us don’t realise and often can’t appreciate even when explained to them. Of course there is not a full manual to guide us every step of the way – if only – but there are strong guidelines for us to acknowledge and to adhere to.

Our children are different. As we are repeatedly told during the assessment process our children are damaged and as we soon discover they do indeed need to be parented in specific ways, ways that can make the advice we are being offered quite simply wrong.

I guess every parent dreams of a ‘perfect’ child and I think maybe there can be a degree of denial from adopters early in placement as we seek to see the perfectly normal in the child that has become our son or daughter, but gradually as the ‘honeymoon’ period gives way to our regular day to day life we start to see signs that makes sense of all that we have been told during the adoption process.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule, in fact one of our two sons has been amazingly resilient to the trauma he has suffered and the huge changes he has endured in his short life. He seems to cope astonishingly well – so far anyway – and we are hopeful that the toughness is not just skin deep, however we are under no illusion that all is OK and understand that he could just be bottling it all up and that we may well be dealing with it later on – bring on the teenage years.

Meanwhile his younger brother is a sensitive little chap and he wears everything on the outside. There is only 11 months between them and they have a wonderfully close bond which no doubt comes from the fact that the only constant in their chaotic lives has been each other, regardless of that they could not be less alike emotionally.

From very early on in the placement we had clear signs of how difficult our youngest was finding the transition into his ‘forever family’ and nearly two years on those signs are still there and the behaviour can be just as challenging. We have got better at understanding it and dealing with it, but he is still upset and angry and clearly affected by the lack of consistency and security he has endured.

You can make a child happy, give them lots of attention, lots of praise and of course limitless love and you may well get immediate results. Make them feel wanted and work at building the security they so need and the attachment that WE of course need too and you will see the results, hopefully lots of smiles and wonderful laughter and maybe even definite signs of contentment at the new life they have been introduced to. However, we can never forget that they are carrying their past with them every step of the way and those words that we heard in prep group and read about in all those books were probably true no matter how much we hoped otherwise.

And that’s the bit those around us tend not to understand. They see a happy child and they assume all is OK, they even tell us what a wonderful job we are doing, how great it is that we have become what is clearly a ‘tight’ and loving family, but they are usually not there to see the other side – the screaming, the shouting, the tears, the full tantrums ( and that’s just us parents) – they are not there to grow an understanding of what it all is and where it comes from. Then they witness a touch of ‘naughtiness’ and immediately judge us, even we aren’t sure the behaviour has anything to do with the child’s history and their emotional state, but we know it could be and we know it needs to be handled in the way that we have learnt from our – albeit limited -hands on experience.

However, we are given advice. Advice from somebody who obviously feels they have the experience and that they know so much better, somebody who has raised their children ‘successfully’ and maybe even with grandchildren they have advised on, somebody who has watched bloody Super Nanny and the like on TV, but regardless it is somebody who does not really know OUR child, our life, and it is somebody who does not have our understanding of the situation.

My partner and I are NOW not afraid to ignore the advice, but in the early days that was not so, we didn’t know what we were doing, we didn’t know what was right or wrong, We assumed those with the parenting experience where exactly the people we should be listening to – for goodness sake we watched Super Nanny too. We are now of course judged for not taking heed and no doubt blamed for the behaviour they feel that we have brought about from our parenting choices. We are told that we are indulging our son when we choose ‘time in ‘ over ‘time out’ or spoiling him for giving him attention when in their eyes he is clearly just ‘attention seeking’ we are told that we are making a rod for our own backs – but we have learnt for ourselves and we know that is not the case and we know that we are getting long term results handling things the way we are, in fact the way we were told we would need to, even before our boys arrived.

Of course there are so very many things we turn to our family and friends for to help us along the way, advice about day to day practicalities, about illness, about schooling etc and its wonderful they are there for us – but we have learnt what not to ask advice on and what not to listen to.

We get it wrong – of course we do – we know that sometimes we even make things worse, however, we learn from that and we get better. We are on the ‘front line’ 24/7 and every day with our sons teaches us something new and we know that things are improving, learning when not to listen has helped us with that.

Tomorrow and Forever.

IMG_8668My parents were pretty dysfunctional as I remember and I had a chaotic life. But my wife says I married ‘up’ and with a whole load of therapy, many geographicals and a hefty swig of courage I got over my past and stepped into the shoes of the person I am today.

My parents didn’t come to our wedding, they didn’t even want an invite being sent to the house and believe our son will turn against us later in life. They think it’s unfair of us to adopt a child, hiding behind religion and think we can not adequately parent a family of our own, in our same sex household. Suffice to say we don’t have my parents in our lives and they have never met our son.

But even still, I love them. I have been trying to reconcile these feelings so I can sit with them comfortably. I guess I am in training for when our boy faces his life story and confronts his feelings for his birth mother. I can tell him first hand it’s possible to love your birth parents but there is room to love also the people who make up your family, even if you not connected by blood. The 2 closest people in my life are my wife and son. We have no blood tie but we are connected by an invisible thread that helps us have these super human powers. Like, mind reading, eyes in back of your head and of course being able to read in the dark the same story night after night with zeal. Our boy catches our hearts with a simple smile or gesture. Today he stole my heart, by simply wrapping his fingers around my arm and kissing my hand ( I had knocked it on the table and said ‘ouch’ that sensitivity was his awesome reply.

My son makes me a better human being. He centres me. Through our painting and colouring sessions I can engage in the raw material of life, be it with stick people and lopsided cats and snowmen depictions.  I feel the world is a better place, my son is part of the next generation and we are proud as punch of him. To open your heart, to be vulnerable is a courageous thing and completely worth its weight in gold. My parents can’t accept me for who I love today but I know my wife and son will love me tomorrow and forever.