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.