Getting brother or sister

There is a whole dimension to our adoption story that I haven’t really blogged about yet: we already had a birth child.

For quite a few years we thought we would just have Big Bear and that would be grand. I’m not somebody who feels it is absolutely essential to have siblings; that if you have an Only your child will grow up somehow incomplete or un-socialised. I was very much at ease with one and Big Bear was growing up lovely and rounded and sociable. And then he started asking. Those questions that stop you in your tracks and make you wonder if you really are doing the right thing. That make you feel like you are, well, just not fun enough. Yes, he became quite keen on the idea of a sibling.

Of course this alone was not enough to fuel a life-changing decision but it was the first bit of fluff that stuck to a lot more bits of fluff to eventually create a rather large dust ball that could no longer be ignored.

Although having a baby was a biological possibility (as far as we knew), it was not a desirable option for any of us (see my post ‘Love’ for more info about how Grizzly and I were feeling). Big Bear had always had a fairly irrational hatred of babies (too small, too unpredictable, too noisy) and therefore was definitely going to be up for other options.

We floated the adoption idea with him before we met with any social workers and I genuinely don’t think we would have proceeded if he hadn’t been on board. It was a family venture right from the start.

Big Bear was on board though and soon started referring to ‘Brotherorsister’ as if that was a child’s name. He told everyone about what we were doing, including his whole school when he stood up in assembly to share his news. He was 5.

When we had to travel away from home for approval panel, Big Bear was desperate for us to ring with news. His first question was “so will they let us have Brotherorsister?” and when we said they would, he let out a big “YES!” which was clearly accompanied by a large fist pump. So far, so good.

Matching was trickier though. We were in a strange and time-pressured situation (I won’t say too much but it wasn’t our time frames we were working to) and knew that if we were matched, we would be meeting Little Bear very soon afterwards. It didn’t give us much time to prepare Big Bear. By the same token, we didn’t feel we could tell him too much before panel because what if he got really attached to this little person and then panel said no? It was virtually impossible to keep the whole thing a secret though as Big Bear had to come out of school to meet Little Bear’s social workers; Grizzly and I were visibly stressed and Big Bear is one smart cookie who doesn’t miss a trick. In the end I settled on telling him that they had found a boy who might be the right one to be his brother but that there were still lots of checks and panels that had to happen. We didn’t tell him a name or show him a picture.

One day I was feeling particularly overwhelmed and stressed. I worried whether the match was right; whether we were allowing ourselves to be rushed along without sufficient time to think. I worried whether it was right for Big Bear.

At bedtime that night, out of nowhere, Big Bear said “I really want this brother” and I realised we would be ok. Big Bear would make things ok on his part because that’s the kind of guy he is.

Over the next days we involved Big Bear fully in preparations. We had to tell him a name in the end as we needed to make a video and photobook to give to Little Bear’s foster carers at matching panel. We went to the Build a Bear Workshop too and Big Bear chose and built a bear for his brother and even recorded a message to put inside it. We prepared Little Bear’s bedroom and got a few new things for Big Bear too so that he didn’t feel left out.

After panel, Big Bear was the first person to see a photo.

For the first couple of days of introductions, Grizzly and I went alone. On the third day, it was finally time for Big Bear to meet Brotherorsister. He was SUPER excited and brought along a little toy he had chosen for Little Bear a few days before. It was, therefore, like seeing someone kicking a puppy when the day was an unmitigated disaster. Grizzly and I are still a little traumatised.

Little Bear received Big Bear’s gift with disdain and cast it asunder. He was less than friendly, very difficult to manage and very aggressive. Throughout the process we had clearly said that the one thing we did not want was a dominant child. Whilst Big Bear is confident and friendly, he is also very gentle and sensitive and we knew he wouldn’t cope well with a dominant sibling. Yet on that day, the day of our first crisis, Little Bear was nothing but dominant. It was hideous.

We were incredibly proud of Big Bear though, as, instead of giving up and not wanting to go back, he brushed himself off and returned with us later that day to do our first bedtime. Which was, again, a huge disaster.

Cue a very panicked phone call to our lovely social worker (to whom I will dedicate a future post) and an evening of soul-searching, knowing we were on the brink of a disruption.

Thankfully, we did persevere and things improved enough for us to see a light in the future, a possibility of a good brotherly bond.

When Little Bear arrived at our house to stay forever, the thing that was the hardest for Big Bear was worrying about his “stuff”. He coped admirably well with sharing us and his whole life being turned upside down but his anxiety over his possessions went through the roof. When you are 6, your extensive Lego collection is of utmost importance. You don’t want a wild 3 year old throwing it around and breaking it.

We had pre-empted this by re-arranging our storage so that Little Bear had low down space and Big Bear had high up, out of reach to little hands space. We had also moved very precious things to Big Bear’s bedroom. This, however, was not sufficient, as Big Bear could not rest with the possibility that Little Bear could get into his room when he wasn’t looking or when he was asleep. When I say he couldn’t rest, I mean he couldn’t do anything at all apart from worry about this. It was for this reason that on day 2 or 3 we took the unpalatable step of fitting a lock to Big Bear’s bedroom door. Neither of us felt very comfortable with it but it made a huge difference to him. The lock is too high for Little Bear and opens from the inside and out so my fears of fires etc were allayed.

This problem sorted, we needed some bonding to happen. As is the way, this took time and moved with a push/ pull motion so that sometimes we were moving forwards and other times definitely backwards.

Little Bear caved first. He fell in love with Big Bear almost straight away. He worships him and wants to do whatever he does, down to his sitting position. He always thinks of Big Bear and if he has a treat, ensures he gets one for Big Bear too. He has always been keen to come on the school run and every day carries Big Bear a chocolate bar, guarding it ferociously. In fact, prior to all our work on boundaries, Little Bear used to physically barge other children out of the way to get to his brother after school.

Big Bear has always secretly loved this and from day one has entertained his friends with tales of what his brother has been up to now. He has been more reserved at the falling in love part though. I think that first meeting wounded him and it has taken a while for him to lose his wariness.

One problem has been that Big Bear doesn’t cope well with confrontation and is not sure how to defend himself. It is not within his nature to hit back. Little Bear went through a phase of exploiting this (those old issues with Opportunity and Mischief) and whenever we were out of the room, even for a few seconds, he tended to hit Big Bear. We have taken a very dim view of this and in turn, Big Bear is beginning to stand up for himself (a blessing in disguise that is helping him in school too). He still doesn’t hit but uses his considerably greater size and strength to stop Little Bear from doing so.

Little Bear’s willingness to solve problems with his hands has helped a couple of time though. On one occasion we were at a party and Big Bear had got himself entangled in a situation with a girl who wasn’t playing nicely. Instead of moving away to play with someone else, Big Bear didn’t really know what to do and was getting increasingly upset. Sensing an injustice against his big brother, Little Bear strode right over to the girl and punched her squarely in the face! Although I obviously do not condone violence, it was very difficult to have the stern word I probably should have had as Little Bear was so happy to have helped his brother and Big Bear was so proud of him for coming to his defence.

Over time, Big Bear’s confidence in the sibling relationship has grown and quite often these days, the brothers are pretty loved up. They tell each other they love each other all the time (“I wuzh you”, “I love you”, “I wuzh you more”, “I love you most”) and I don’t see many brothers giving each other a big hug and kiss at drop off and pick up.

Big Bear finds Little Bear completely hilarious and I think this is making Little Bear funnier as a result. They are quite the comedy duo, sharing a love of toilet humour and general craziness. Big Bear is very tuned in to Little Bear’s idiosyncratic way of speaking and frequently acts as translator. He has also got very good at finding ways to distract and cheer up Little Bear when he is feeling tired and emotional.

It is not always easy, there are frequently tears, there are sometimes outbursts of violence but both bears have tried really hard to make it work. They are very proud of each other and us of them.

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Getting brother or sister

I’ll stay. No, I’ve changed my mind.

Little Bear is evidently feeling a little conflicted at the moment. He keeps saying “oh what? I stay. Ever”, which, translated, means “you know what? I’m going to stay. Forever.” Which is lovely and we tell him how happy we are. Then, five minutes later, we’ll have a minor disagreement – let’s say about whether he will wear his hat, and Little Bear will say “I change my mind. I not stay now”. At the moment this is happening maybe ten times every day. It consistently happens if we tell him off or something doesn’t go his way and now and again just because the wind has changed direction. It’s kind of tricky to know how to manage it.

If we ask where he is planning to make off to, he always says “I go Karen’s” (foster carer, not her real name). In the true spirit of adoptive parenting I have of course analysed this to death. My thoughts are:

  1. He probably misses his foster carers. He lived with them a long time and you would expect him to miss them.

However, when they dropped him off to live here, he didn’t give them a backward glance. He didn’t ask for them and there weren’t any occasions when he cried for them – not at bedtime, not when he hurt himself. We found this odd and a little disconcerting. We started to think he had more difficulties with building attachments than we had been told.

About 6 months in, he did begin to mention them a little. He has their photo in his bedroom so the opportunity was always there, even if his language was letting him down.

At this stage, he would ask to see them. I would show him a photo or say “you’ll see them again one day” and this seemed to satisfy him. He would then shift his attention to a more interesting activity and say nothing more.

  1. Grizzly has always felt that Little Bear wasn’t really missing the foster carers, that his comments were more about checking the permanency of the placement.

I’ve talked in other blog posts about his progress and how happy and settled he seems. Could it be that he wants to make sure he is staying here? That he isn’t going to be moved again because that is what has happened to him before? Is he looking for reassurance that we won’t let him go back?

  1. Or, is it another in a long line of behaviours designed to attract our attention? Little Bear certainly likes to test boundaries and reactions. There have been several behaviours that he has explored more fully because he has noticed an interesting adult reaction.

Not knowing which of these theories is correct (it could be a bit of all of them) I’m a little at sea as to how best to respond. If it’s 1 then I’m inclined to acknowledge his loss with him. To empathise and help him to see that it is okay to miss them and feel sad about that, whilst also being happy here. However, that is quite a complicated concept and I’m not sure he would fully understand it.

I’m pretty sure he knows that Karen and Bob are ok and it is not something about wanting to check they still exist.

Another option would be to let him speak to them or see them. As a rule, it is not something I am opposed to and I have read the article circulating about the importance of allowing children to maintain contact with foster families.  And yet…

My gut is screaming “no”. It feels too soon and like it would upset what can already be a finely balanced relationship.

If it is more about option 2 and a query over permanency, I am given towards explaining that Karen and Bob couldn’t keep him because they were just looking after him while the social workers were looking for his forever family. That we are his forever family and he isn’t ever moving again. That Karen and Bob are happy that he is living here.

If he says “I not stay. I go Karen’s house now” and I flippantly reply “oh are you?” or “how are you getting there?” (which for some reason is the first thing that wants to come out of my mouth), am I inadvertently suggesting that there IS an option to go somewhere else? Should I say “you aren’t going anywhere”? Or “you’re staying here forever”? In my less than perfect moments (only human), when I have done this, he has responded with a trademark “no, I not”.

Or, if it is option 3 (see, this over analysis thing is tiring) should I just not react at all? Should I just hope that this behaviour will disappear too, as throwing his dummy at me at night completely stopped when I stopped showing I was bothered by it?

If it is this plan, we could still tackle the underlying issues of loss and grief and permanency at other times, separate from his comments about his imminent absconding.

Hmm. Answers on a postcard please.

I don’t think Little Bear is even really aware at this point that he also has a birth family…Now, therein are some conversations to look forward to. It’s a shame I don’t drink. Perhaps I should start?!

I’ll stay. No, I’ve changed my mind.

Happy?

The Little Bear we first met was furious, nearly all the time. He had a permanent scowl on that gorgeous little face and body language to match. His hands were frequently screwed into little fists. Everything was an affront to him and he was only ever a few seconds from meltdown. He could be aggressive and even banged his head against hard objects in temper.

Although the ferocity of his feelings came as quite a shock to us (Big Bear certainly wasn’t ready to see a small angry person smacking his mum around the face), it wasn’t really a surprise. I mean Little Bear had plenty on his plate to feel confused and angry about. After all, he was about to be uprooted from everything he knew and move hundreds of miles away.  He was leaving the people he knew as Mummy and Daddy (the foster carers) and had just had final contact with his other Mummy and Daddy (birth parents) and was getting, well, a new Mummy and Daddy. Pretty confusing as things go.

I don’t think it was all about that though. From the scant information we had, we got the impression he wasn’t exactly filled with the joys of spring before the whole adoption thing happened.

Some of it could have been frustration. Little Bear has significant difficulties with speech and language. Most 3 year olds can speak in full sentences and hold a conversation. Little Bear could talk but he didn’t have enough language to express himself. He couldn’t ask questions about what was happening, he couldn’t tell us he missed somebody or something; he couldn’t tell us what he was angry about. And if I’m being really frank, I don’t think he was used to people talking to him much at all….

Little Bear was used to being alone and doing what he fancied. It was a version of the life of Riley but I believe that no child benefits from a life without limits. Consistent boundaries make children feel safe. Little Bear was in charge of his own survival and it was scary for him.

Although he was used to getting up to all sorts of monkey business and this provided him with entertainment (and would be a difficult habit to break), I’m not sure how much FUN he was having. I don’t know how often he saw something new or interesting. I don’t know how often something made him smile or really laugh until he nearly wet his pants (well, his nappy, but that’s another story). I don’t know how happy he was.

Two things stick in my mind that Professionals have said to me during our adoption journey. Firstly, children’s emotional development tends to halt whilst they are in foster care – nothing to do with the quality of the care but because on some level they know it to be a temporary arrangement (even if they are too young to be cognisant of this). Their development begins again when and if they feel settled somewhere permanent.

Secondly, I remember our social worker saying that you will know when a child is happy and settled because they often grow, look healthier and flourish physically and developmentally. This seemed like made up science at the time but when Little Bear grew 5 half shoe sizes in 4 months and began busting out of all his clothes that had previously drowned him, I began to see the truth in it.

So is he happy now? Well, there are no miracles but he is certainly happIER. The head-banging disappeared after a couple of weeks. The scowl has been put away and only comes out now and again. The fists are still there and as long as they don’t make contact with anybody else, there isn’t a problem. In fact, we have encouraged him to squeeze his fists as a means of self-regulation. This seems to work for him and has reduced hitting incidents significantly.

Although Little Bear does still get angry (don’t we all?), it is far less frequently and much less ferocious. It is now mostly growling and stomping off, with the occasional “shut up” thrown in for good measure. Little Bear’s overall demeanour is very different now – in fact sometimes it’s hard to recognise him as the same child. Previously mostly angry, he is now mostly calm and happy.

He loves to have fun and he loves new places and experiences and throws himself fully into whatever we might be doing.

Certainly to start with he was happiest outside where he was unencumbered by the constraints of all the things you aren’t allowed to do inside. He was at his best somewhere big, open and safe, where he didn’t need to be restrained by handholding and could wander free, touching and exploring until his sensory needs were sated.

He still loves to be outside, preferably knee deep in mud or water but he has learned the joy of toys and can now be equally as happy inside, with an adult or brother by his side, zooming cars around the floor or pretending to be a superhero.

He looks forward to preschool and is generally settled there too (there have been incidents but that’s for another day) and we are always greeted by a big smile when he sees us at pick up time.

For one so small, I actually think Little Bear is very tuned in to happiness – his own and that of others. In a moment of possibly less than therapeutic parenting, Grizzly once said “I’m not too happy with you right now” and this idea seems to have stuck with Little Bear. Following a misdemeanour he will often say “you not happy Mum?”. Conscious of not wanting to parent with shame or make Little Bear feel responsible for our happiness, I now tell him I love him and that I’m really happy he came to live with us. I assure him that just seeing him makes me happy. Which is true.

Lots of things about having Little Bear make me happy: seeing him learn and develop before my very eyes; when he sneaks into bed for a cuddle in the morning – all tousled hair and saggy nappy; when he and Big Bear mess about and make each other hysterical and my very favourite, when he and Big Bear snuggle up together on the sofa and watch You’ve Been Framed and laugh like they are going to wet themselves at people falling over and ferrets jumping into bins.

I’d love to say that some other things, apart from my boys,  that make me happy are going out to a gig of some very en pointe band or dancing at an exclusive club, but the truth is that the things that make me happy these days are very uncool. As well as beautiful stationery and good storage (!), when I look inside my extremely tidy airing cupboard – which I tidied in a mad fit in preparation for a social work visit, because you never know – I am very happy. I am ecstatic if I can see the bottom of either laundry basket as it means my valiant attempts at winning the washing war have finally resulted in victory. The Holy Grail would be to pair up every one of the many, many odd socks that seem to be purposefully ganging up on me. I have never achieved that one. But if only I could…. Happiness Nirvana.

Happy?

Mischief

With eyes like saucers, elfin features and kissable cheeks, Little Bear is gorgeous. You can tell from his pouty lips that he will be handsome when he is a man. Incidentally, Big Bear is gorgeous too and one of my friends says she can envisage our future: two queues of women down our drive and me in the kitchen offering cups of tea, a conciliatory biscuit and a soupcon of counselling to the poor girls whose hearts have been broken by my offspring.

Little Bear’s gorgeousness doesn’t define him of course. When you look into those saucer eyes, you can see that he is filled to the brim with mischief. The composition of that mischief has changed since he arrived though. At the start it was a mischief with hard edges, bordering on delinquency. For example, Dad would say “come here” and Mischief would whisper “why not run the other way as fast as you can?”, or we might say “it’s time to get in your car seat” and Mischief would argue “how about you stay right where you are and press those buttons you aren’t supposed to touch and if they try to move you just hold the steering wheel with a vice like grip?”.

Little Bear’s mischief has also had a long standing friendship with Opportunity. So when Opportunity ventures “I don’t think anybody is watching you with that hose”, Mischief tends to reply “why not squirt the cat?”; or Opportunity might point out that he is holding a toy hammer and Mischief would say “seems daft not to hammer Big Bear’s Ipad with that whilst he’s playing on it”. Of course, Mischief then meets the most unwanted friend, Consequences. Again.

Along with Mischief and Opportunity, Little Bear is also directed by Curiosity and Impulsivity. So when we took him to a pet shop to handle snakes (Big Bear is something of a reptile fan – it wasn’t my choice of activity!), Curiosity evidently said “that looks like it feels interesting” and Impulsivity countered “so lick it”. I kid you not.

A similar dialogue must have taken place when Little Bear tried washing his hands in the toilet; when he threw some freshly laid eggs on the ground and trod on them; when he saw the open car window and was moved to throw his favourite toy out of it whilst we were moving; and on the many occasions when he just couldn’t stop himself from touching the stinging nettle or hot item before him that we have clearly stated will hurt him.

It is not Little Bear’s fault of course that Mischief and his cronies have come to such prominence within his character. It is really born out of too many long hours spent alone, unsupervised and trying to entertain himself. Not entertaining himself with toys or other age-appropriate activities but with switches, taps, hoses, climbing, keys, escaping, wires… all the sorts of things that suddenly weren’t permitted when us meanies arrived on the scene.

That initial mischief could not be left unchecked – it was dangerous and all too frequently rather destructive. In those early days, the mischief meant that Little Bear needed constant supervision.

Over time, Mischief has met Consequences innumerable times and is now somewhat of a reformed character. He’s still here thankfully. We wouldn’t want Mischief to disappear – he’s a big part of Little Bear after all – but he has mellowed. He’s now more likely to make suggestions such as “see those pants? Why not wear them on your head?” or “Mum is starting to look a bit annoyed, why don’t we wink at her?” or “why not try out one of those rude words Big Bear has taught you?”.

We like Mischief. And Curiosity. He’s a fabulous trait when pointed in the right direction. We still have to watch out for Opportunity – he provides a strong temptation and no doubt will for some years yet. Impulsivity has been helped by a bit of Experience – getting stung by that nettle or burned by that hot plate tends to give a stronger and more lasting message than any words of warning. Unfortunately for Little Bear, there are going to be many more lessons he will end up learning the hard way.

Other traits, like Common Sense are creeping in too. Little Bear has quickly learned some basic road sense, is sensible around water and even brought a pair of scissors I had accidentally left out straight to me the other day, instead of experimenting with them on the curtains or his own fingers.

Our level of supervision has reduced from 24/7 prison guarding to maybe a couple of minutes out of direct sight (as long as we can hear him. Silence is never a good sign – Opportunity might have come a-calling).

Well done little mischief maker, you really have made so much progress.

Mischief