Most children go through a phase of imaginative play when they are developing. They pretend, they act and they direct you to take your role in the game. They often play the same game over and over.
I can remember when Big Bear was about 3 or 4 he constantly wanted me to “make the man talk”. It was usually a Lego man and there would be some sort of scenario panning out in which I would be tasked with a specific role. Often he would tell me what words I should say and would be quick to correct me if I was getting it wrong. There was one particular game that involved a Lego man waiting on a platform for a train. Every time the train got to the station I would try to put my man on. “No” Big Bear would say, “Wait for the next one”. The next one would come and the same thing would happen. It was a game that required a lot of patience!
There was also a lot of dressing up pretending to be Batman or a fireman or a doctor. I think sometimes he pretended to be a cat.
This was Big Bear, still living with the family he was born into, following typical patterns of development.
Recently, I have discovered that this type of play with Little Bear is not quite the same. There are similarities but trauma has added an extra layer of complexity. This is a familiar conversation at the moment:
Little Bear: Pretend I’m in your tummy, Mummy
Me: Ok (cuddling him on my knee)
Me: Ooh, I wonder what my baby is going to look like. I can’t wait to meet them.
LB: I’m out now.
Me: Oh look, he’s gorgeous. Look at those eyes! He looks like a …Little Bear. I’ll call him Little Bear (In reality I say his actual name – I don’t really pretend he is a bear!) I’ll look after you and keep you safe forever.
If I don’t do the naming part he whispers to me “tell me I look like a Little Bear”.
LB: Pretend I’m a dog
Me: Have I just given birth to a dog?!
LB: Yes, you are a mummy dog
Me: Oh right
LB: No! You’re a dog! You can’t talk, you have to bark!
And so the confusing tale continues. Little Bear keeps replaying the part where I meet him for the first time. I don’t know if this is because I keep telling him how much I want him and how I’ll keep him safe forever in an attempt to be therapeutic or if in fact he keeps coming back to it because I haven’t yet said what he needs to hear. Your guess is as good as mine.
I think it is fairly obvious that the game has to do with seeking a sense of belonging, of claiming (and being claimed)* and is due to him wishing he had come out of my tummy as his brother did.
Interestingly there is another version of the game that involves me pretending he is a puppy who has got lost. I have to pretend I am following his footprints and discover him buried in a heap of snow. He pretends he is lost from his owner and that I rescue him, taking him home to warm up and have some food. Does this symbolise me back in my role as adoptive parent, I wonder? Coming in where someone else has left off? I’m intrigued that he would see that as a rescue.
Sometimes, once I have rescued him from the snow, he talks about his mum and dad coming in and finding him again. I always wonder if he means his birth parents but when I enquire who he means, he says Grizzly and me. By this stage I’m fully confused as to my role in the whole thing and whether I’m quite possibly just overthinking it.
Little Bear is definitely at the stage where fantasy and reality are fully entwined and he switches from one idea to another moment by moment. One minute I’m rescuing a puppy, the next he is a gorilla. On one occasion the baby I had given birth to was in fact an egg and I was a hen. It’s pretty difficult to keep up. I suspect the games are an amalgam of several ideas floating around his head at any one time.
A couple of times, over recent days, the games have taken a darker turn. I rescue the cold puppy, who initially seems to want some love and cuddles but who then suddenly switches to wanting to bite me. This could just be the new version of the game but as I am permanently in analyse everything and look for hidden meanings mode, I can’t help but wonder if this is like reliving the early days of our adoption. We chose Little Bear, we were excited for our future with him but when he came home he hit, bit, scratched, kicked and threw things and was generally distressed. Little Bear was 3 and a half at the time and likely remembers it. Is he double-checking my response? Do I still want to rescue the puppy if it turns out to be aggressive? Will I still take it home and love it?
I know that I might be over-analysing but I am careful with my response just in case. “Don’t worry little puppy” I reassure, “I think you are a bit frightened at the moment. I think that might be why you tried to bite me. I won’t hurt you. You are safe”.
In the game, this seems to calm the puppy.
Little Bear has instigated similar games before; right from when he arrived he wanted me to pretend he was a baby. I would lay a large blanket out on the floor and he would lie in it and get me to swaddle him. I had to be careful in the early days because it was easy to cross an invisible line into ‘too much to deal with’ territory. He would let me coddle him a bit – stroke him and coo over him like a baby but often I would unwittingly overstep the ever moving mark and be rewarded with a bite or hit. It always felt like it happened when he had allowed himself to let go for a moment and then accidentally let me in a bit too much, so that it had felt emotionally weird or frightening and he needed to back off again.
It has changed over time. I have had to persevere despite the re-buffs and he has evidently slowly become more comfortable to the point where he seeks a lot of physical comfort now. I rarely feel that the line is even there.
I find it interesting that over two years in, these acted games still feature and new ones are still appearing. I wonder if he wanted to play these recent ones before but his language skills wouldn’t allow him. Or whether he is only now reaching the appropriate developmental level. Or whether it is because he has a better understanding of his life story now. Or whether he is still seeking something I am not giving…
When I used to make the man talk for Big Bear I didn’t have all these extra things to think about. It really was about a pretend man getting onto (or at least trying to get on to) a pretend train. No hidden meanings. Little Bear’s play, on the other hand, is laced with them.
I am probably different too though – far more aware that there might be hidden meanings and far more attuned to looking for them.
What I want Little Bear to realise is that it doesn’t matter to me whose tummy he grew in, I love him just the same. But I guess they are only words to him; he needs to truly believe it and feel it within himself.
I guess we will be pretending he is in my tummy for a while longer yet.
*There is definitely a claiming element to it, not just biology, as Little Bear has also pretended to be in Big Bear’s tummy. Big Bear, being Big Bear, took it fully in his stride and ‘gave birth’ to Little Bear on the kitchen bench (!), before rocking him on his knee, cradled like a baby. I have no idea how an 8 year old came to be so instinctively therapeutic but he’s a natural.
** I’m very lucky to have two such lovely boys.