Holi-yay or Holi-nay?

I have spent much of the past week wondering whether we were brave or foolhardy when we booked a holiday to the Finnish wilderness. Many adopters have quickly learned that familiar places and familiar routines equate to smoother breaks with their children, so either return to the same tried and tested venue or go away in their caravan (home on wheels). It is quite possible that those people are wiser than us.

However, as with most aspects of life, we are somewhat prone to doing something different to everybody else and wandering off on our own merry path. On this occasion, that wander led us to deepest, snowiest, most remote Finland. We were so deep into Finland, we could have walked to Russia. There is no real relevance to that fact, apart from to illustrate how remote our location was.

It seemed like a good idea when we booked it.

We’d been to Finnish Lapland before and had an amazing time (see A Magical Adventure? ). Of course it had not gone without hitch, but the life-enhancing experience of seeing The Northern Lights whilst husky-sledding in temperatures of minus twenty-something had obliterated any more minor concerns. The boys crave adventure and I am repelled by any water-based activities, so winter adventures suit us well. We saw this trip, advertised through a reputable company, with amazing reviews, and billed as a ‘family adventure’ and thought it seemed perfect.

However, warning bells rang on arrival, when we discovered there had been a stomach bug in our accommodation the previous week and our arrival would now be delayed due to a ‘deep clean’. Hmm.

Trying not to be paranoid, we got on with it.

The first thing we noted about being on holiday with a new group of twenty or so people, was that Little Bear’s behaviour stood out as different. I suspect it always does, but usually we are with familiar people who know and understand him. Usually the difference doesn’t affect us. But there, with strangers, we were more aware of the transparency of people’s thoughts. ‘What is he doing?’ they thought. ‘Why is he rolling around in the snow when everyone else is standing at the coach stop?’ ‘Why has he wandered off when the guide is explaining the intricacies of husky-husbandry in heavily accented English?’

Again I found myself caught between wanting to enlighten them and wanting to protect Little Bear’s privacy. I said nothing. I attempted to parent as usual.

A big problem, with a holiday such as this, is the impossibility of sticking to familiar routines. It wasn’t self-catering as our UK holidays always are: we were trapped by hotel feeding times. As dinner was at 6pm, the time Little Bear usually begins his bedtime routine, things were bound to be harder than usual. Clearly, it is far from ideal to ask a child who struggles with flexibility, to be flexible about his meal and bedtimes when they are usually very strict with good reason. I suspect the reason we have generally faired quite well on UK breaks is that no matter where we are our familiar routines have anchored us. In Finland, however, we had a tired, hungry and understandably dysregulated bear at points during the first days.

We tried to be resourceful – making sandwiches at breakfast time so that we had more flexibility later on and Little Bear could skip the dining hall altogether if needed. It sounds a bit ridiculous but because Little Bear’s behaviour is so inconsistent, it is difficult to predict and I don’t think we were as good at spotting that this was likely to be a problem in advance as we should have been because there are times when Little Bear would be able to cope with more flexibility.

It is ironic really, that I am becoming a person who is better at solving problems after they’ve occurred than predicting them beforehand, given my propensity towards morbid-thinking. I suspect that in an attempt to be easy-going enough to attempt wilderness holidays, I have had to relax the side of me which anticipates myriad problems. There is certainly a freedom in just dealing with things as and when they occur but the downside is I get to berate myself for not being more prepared.

Anyway, after several nights of lengthy and emotionally challenging bedtimes (a child continually moving and wriggling and verbally scribbling to keep themselves stimulated into wakefulness is nothing if not a little insanity-inducing), we changed our approach. I realised that freedom on the outdoor journey from the dining hall to our room was too difficult for Little Bear at that time of night: he couldn’t cope with the demands to bring himself back inside when we asked, triggering escalation. This was akin to our issues on the school run which have been solved with holding hands and keeping Little Bear close – not putting him in a position where there are any demands – and this worked on holiday too. He was also helped by having his pjs and toothbrush etc. all laid out in the right places for him so he could complete his whole routine without any adult prompts (we agreed to do it that way in advance of dinner). These tweaks led to vastly improved bedtimes.

Although the change in routine wasn’t ideal, there were still solutions available to us. It was good to know that. Even when stranded in the Finnish nowhere, difficulties didn’t have to become crises.

The other mistake we made was forgetting (I know, honestly!) about the need to establish clear new rules in any new place. Little Bear’s bed was up on a mezzanine above ours. We could hear him up there but couldn’t easily see him. Evidently, being away from grown-up eyes meant that Little Bear set his own rules of what was permitted on the mezzanine, none of which were conducive to sleeping. Once I’d figured this out, I realised he would need one of us to provide supervision up there, much like we’d had to do when he was small and made no association between bedtime and sleeping. Like then, he did not appreciate my presence (it curbed his fun no end) and I was insulted, threatened and hit. However, I knew it was important to persevere and not be bullied back downstairs by a six year old. It wasn’t any fun and it took ages but the next night, he lay down and got straight to the business of sleeping.

It was reassuring, in a strange kind of way, that we had enough tools in our portable therapeutic toolbox that we could have a good go at resolving these issues wherever we were (even if they could have been avoided by better forward-planning).

As many people will already know, there were further problems with the holiday, though they couldn’t have been reasonably predicted.

On day three, Grizzly and I both woke up with The Bug. Yes, the one they had supposedly deep-cleaned away. It knocked us both off our feet for the whole day. Clearly this was undesirable.

I have always been very anti-cruises because every time I imagine a huge ship with all those people on board, my first thought, like a weirdo, is of Norovirus. I could envisage a nightmare scenario where everybody gets confined to a tiny cabin, shitting and vomiting, for the duration, and that, my friends, does not sound like fun. Yet here I was, in basically the same scenario, in a snowy forest in Finland.

And yet… I didn’t feel the depths of despair I thought I might. I was grateful Gary was with us to look after the boys and she hadn’t been struck down – yet. It was strangely nice to spend some time with my husband, even though we felt rubbish, and, outside, it was snowing. There could certainly have been worse bedside views.

The next day, we were okay and managed to go on our planned excursion. I was grateful we had bounced back quickly.

By now, Gary was ill and couldn’t join us. With the majority of the wider group dropping around us, this seemed inevitable. While I was sad she was missing out, I was grateful she wasn’t actually sick – things could certainly have been worse.

That night, Little Bear settled well for bed. He’d been asleep half an hour when he awoke vomiting all over his bed. Evidently things were going from bad to worse. He was now in my bed and I was relegated to the mezzanine with its broken light to read my book by torchlight. And yet…

Despite having vomited so much the mattress was beyond salvation, Little Bear’s brown eyes peeped from under my duvet, glinting with mischief, and he launched into an hilarious rendition of Baby Shark. Of course I didn’t want any of us to be ill on holiday but when Little Bear is ill, I’m always reminded of his resilience, Marine-like toughness and general gorgeousness.

On this occasion, being poorly had also made him feel emotional and loose-lipped. He instigated an in depth adoption conversation about how scared he felt when he first met us (“because you’re both so tall”), how he really hadn’t wanted a brother (“I wanted to punch him in a private place”) and how angry he was with us for having ‘taken him’ from his foster carers. He has never managed to verbalise any of these things before and they certainly would go some way to explaining some of his behaviour. Although these are difficult things, I would far rather they were expressed than not.

I found myself wondering whether if we had not found ourselves trapped inside a wooden cabin in Finland by a vomiting bug, we would have had this (potentially progressive) conversation at all.

We talked for a long time. It felt like the kind of chat that would open things up and move things on.

All of us did a really good job of maintaining our humour for the first days of The Bug. Considering the circumstances, things really weren’t as bad as they sound because we were together and writing and reading kept me sane. I can’t lie though, by the end of the third day of being stuck inside the cabin, I was done. Beam me up. Take me home.

When we eventually got back, I felt I may have been released from prison which is obviously not the vibe you’d hope for after an amazing holiday. The getting back, with a partially well, partially unwell, highly dysregulated Little Bear in tow was not particularly easy. A big kick off several thousands of feet in the air, in a confined space is not any fun and is one way of calling into sharp focus the level of challenge we seem to be taking for granted.

The Bug was really unfortunate. Bad luck. But aside from that, was it worth it? Did the pros outweigh the cons? Were we brave or were we foolish for attempting such a holiday in the first place?

There were some clear pros: husky-sledding, meeting the reindeer, snow, sledging, snow, beautiful scenery, the Northern Lights, Big Bear discovering a love of cross country skiing and more snow. We couldn’t have got any of that here and the boys certainly gained from those experiences. I think there are even some perverse pros in having survived such an unwelcome scenario and coming home in mostly good humour: there is nothing like overcoming a challenge to make you realise what you can do.

I shall certainly not be booking another holiday abroad any time soon and long-haul is absolutely out of the question for some years yet (unless we wish to cause some sort of emergency diversion situation) but would I do it again? Yeah, probably. Not in the same place, obviously, but I would take Little Bear somewhere new again. I don’t know if that’s sheer bloody-mindedness, a refusal on our part to accept the full extent of Little Bear’s needs or a desire to plough on despite those needs. I don’t know. I think we might stick to self-catering for the foreseeable future though and maybe remember to anticipate some of the possible issues in advance.

But, you know, life is short and the world is wide. And some of us are more foolhardy than others.

Holi-yay or Holi-nay?

Adoption is a dodecahedron

Adoption is like a dodecahedron it has so many sides. Adoption is love: parent to child, brother to brother, grandparent to grandchild. But adoption is also loss: of biological connection, of love, of place.

Adoption is contradictions and opposites.

Adoption is hard and easy. It is easy to love a child you didn’t create; far easier than most would imagine. You might not love straightaway – it does take time – but a little cheek against yours, a hand in your hand, a small arm slung around your shoulder? The love comes and it bowls you down. But it’s hard, because adoption brings trauma and trauma is almost an entity of itself. Trauma needles and furrows and clings. Trauma demands energy and patience and dedication. It begs a resilience you don’t always have.

Adoption is happy and sad. A child filled to the brim with mischief and curiosity and cuddles and laughter is the ultimate in happiness generation. But their tears? And their nightmares and self-loathing? Deeply sad.

Adoption is push and pull. It’s moving towards danger, not running from it. It’s ignoring the push and being resolutely present. It’s standing firm, no matter what. It’s allowing the pull of a cuddle or the pull to play even when you’re busy. It’s prioritising. It’s you, being present.

Adoption is angry and calm. Adoption is fighting for understanding; fighting for support – being your child’s warrior. It’s avoiding fists and teeth and nails and words that sting. It’s curling up on the sofa for a cuddle and a film. It’s playing board games and just being. It’s a smile and a wink.

Adoption is delay and progress. It’s ‘working towards’ and ‘below expectations’. It’s additional support and funding and an intricate knowledge of the education system. It’s learning times tables when you couldn’t count. It’s learning to read when your early years tried to stop you. It’s standing up in assembly and saying all your lines perfectly. It’s surpassing all expectations. Adoption is overcoming. It’s success, despite the odds.

Adoption is yours and someone else’s. It’s a birth mother with empty arms; birth siblings missing a brother. It’s foster carers who remember and a social worker who will never forget. It’s the speech therapist and the nursery and the psychologist and the school.

But at night, when things are escalating? It’s just you.

Adoption is not for the faint of heart.

Adoption is challenge and reward. Adoption is plumbing the depths of your patience and self-control. It’s not reacting. It’s reacting differently. It’s counter-intuitive. Adoption can be desperate. But it’s also amazing, humbling and heart-swellingly proud. It’s unquantifiably special.

Adoption is holidays and new experiences and discovery. It’s transformative. It’s wide-eyed and surprising.

Adoption is getting a new sibling. It’s the hardest thing and the best thing to have happened in your life so far. It’s worrying about your toys and your space and your parents’ love. It’s gaining the funniest playmate you could find. It’s about football and gaming and forming a gang of two. It’s ‘I love you’ and cuddles and someone who wants to be you.

Adoption is acceptance.

Adoption is a new home, a new bedroom, a new family. It’s new pets, a new school, new friends. Adoption is your life turned upside down and inside out. Adoption is safety. Adoption is unlocking your potential. Adoption is scary. Adoption smells different. Adoption is new rules, new expectations, new behaviour from grown-ups. It’s the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Adoption is confusing. Adoption is a muddle of questions.

Adoption is simple and complex. The complexities of behaviour and education and life stories and language development and birth families and continence and sensory needs and, and…are tangled and without end.

But adoption is simple: the unconditional love of family.

Adoption is a dodecahedron.

 

Adoption is a dodecahedron

Promises, Promises

Here’s a little scenario that happened in our house this week:

Me: It’s bedtime, Little Bear

LB: Aw, can’t I have a bath?

Me: I think we’ve left it a bit late for a bath – you’ve been busy eating your pudding, haven’t you?

LB: Yeah, but I reaaallly want a bath (Hangs off me, bats his big brown eyes at me, pulls his best super cute puppy dog face)

Me: I’m just a bit worried that because it’s late, you’ll find it hard to get out the bath when I ask you to…

LB: I won’t! I PROMISE. I’ll get out straightaway, when you ask me.

Me: Are you sure?

LB: Yes, I PROMISE. Straightaway.

Me: Hmm. Ok then, as long as you’re sure you can do that…

Did he get out the bath, folks, when I asked him to? No. No, he did not. He went under the water to pretend he couldn’t hear me. I gave a countdown (‘we’ll need to get out in 5’ etc.), I reminded him of his promise just before the moment it would be needed, just in case he’d conveniently forgotten. So, he could hear me and he hadn’t forgotten, yet neither did he exit the bath. Once I’d let all the water out and he finally decided he was out of options, he did get out and began calling me names/ telling me he hated me and that I was making him annoyed. It was all rather ironic really, given I had stretched his bedtime for him, made a concession for him and he had reneged on his promise. I mean, yeah, he was totally justified in getting annoyed with me (can you hear me rolling my eyes?!).

Anyway, more fool me, because I should know by now that Little Bear can’t keep his promises. I’ve been pondering on this since and have had a few chats on Twitter about it, as I do (it’s such a good barometer of what is adoption shenanigans and what is just plain shenanigans). There are two things in my mind: why can’t he keep promises and why do I keep giving him the chance to make them in the first place?

My immediate thought about why he can’t stick to them is because at the point of making them, he is fully present and intent on doing what he says he will (I don’t believe he ever sets out to purposefully dupe me) but as he struggles with regulation, when it comes to the point of following through, he isn’t able to control himself enough yet to do so. I imagine there are times he knows he’s letting himself down but can’t help but do it anyway.

Then there is the theory that perhaps it’s an act of self-sabotage. Perhaps he doesn’t feel he deserves a nice bath or a peaceful bedtime and kind of deliberately puts a spanner in the works. This is a sad state of affairs if it’s true. I have tried wondering aloud along similar lines but I can’t tell whether it resonates or not – I suspect it doesn’t because he usually gets quite tearful if we get our wondering right and he certainly wasn’t tearful on this occasion – just combative.

I suppose another theory is that it could be an anxiety-based behaviour. Perhaps the end of the bath triggers something in his mind about the beginning of bedtime and the fact that sleep is soon and sometimes he has bad dreams. Perhaps he is attempting to stave that off by causing an escalation.

Another feeling of mine is that sometimes Little Bear remembers a situation similar to the one he is in and recalls a situation or behaviour that has happened before and for whatever reason is moved to recreate it. We’d certainly had a similarly difficult bath time a week or so before and the following evening from the incident described above also featured a sudden switching and similar behaviour. I can’t really explain why this would happen but there are certainly times when I feel it does.

There could also be an argument for saying that because I had voiced my concern about what could happen in the situation (me trying to be open and honest etc.) I had somehow created a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is certainly a truth in the more Little Bear knows you want him to do something, the less able he seems to do it. He’s pretty oppositional like that.

As if I hadn’t already muddied the waters with enough theories, I have more. Could this behaviour be linked to poor situational understanding/ poor cause and effect? I feel as though I don’t have many of these challenges with Big Bear because it is obvious to him that if he messes me around in this way, I won’t give him similar concessions in the future. However, this type of A + B = C thinking seems challenging for many adopted children. Perhaps Little Bear doesn’t realise he is cutting off his nose to spite his face, as it were? I have started asking him what he thinks might happen if he does such and such, at times. The confounding this is that he is often able to tell me what a logical consequence might be. I can’t tell whether he isn’t bothered so just does the thing anyway or whether there is a disconnect between knowing in theory and changing his behaviour in practise.

A final theory is that demands of any kind make him anxious because they feel as though they are clawing at his need for control (see Control where I’ve written all about that). Someone on Twitter mentioned Pathological Demand Avoidance to me (PDA for short, a sub-diagnosis of Autism) and it is something I’ve turned over in my mind before because Little Bear is undeniably demand avoidant. However, whenever I check out the diagnostic criteria I don’t feel he meets them. There are elements that ring true but I don’t believe Little Bear lies anywhere on the Autistic Spectrum. As with any child who has experienced developmental trauma, I always think it’s essential to consider the impact of that first and foremost. I would love to see a document like the Coventry Grid though, which instead of drawing out the similarities and differences between ASD and attachment, drew out the similarities and differences between PDA and demand avoidance within an attachment/trauma presentation. I think I might e-mail Heather Moran and see what she thinks (why not?).

One of the reasons I don’t feel Little Bear has PDA is because his ability to manage demands fluctuates enormously. Sometimes he can do everything you ask without difficulty. At other times every tiny request is difficult for him. I think a child with true PDA would be much more consistent in their demand avoidance. Little Bear’s behaviour tends to be pretty unpredictable. I know there would be other days when we could have had exactly the same bath time scenario and he would have got out of the bath the second I asked him, like an angel. What is difficult is predicting which days would be like that. If Little Bear is having a day where every demand is a battle, I would never have even considered entering into a promise-based scenario. I would have made sure the rules were really firm and clear and it would have been an early bed.

However, on the particular day in question, everything had been going well. Little Bear had done well at school, eaten his tea, come off his I pad and come upstairs as requested. The stars appeared in alignment so I was sucked in by the promise of a promise. The switch from co-operative to oppositional happened in a nano-second. I have to say that I find this type of scenario difficult. Because I don’t see it coming and because I have already given ground, it is extremely difficult not to feel taken advantage of and really rather annoyed. I coped much better the second night when I was able to anticipate the behaviour I might be confronted with in advance.

So why do I do it? Why do I allow him to get into a making promises situation if I know he might not be able to stick to it? I’ve asked myself this question a lot. Part of it is because I find myself keeping the rules much stricter for Little Bear than for Big Bear and that can feel mean. I let Big Bear stay up late sometimes or negotiate on what order he’s going to do certain tasks in because he has proved over and over that I can trust him to do that. I’d be quick to reign things back in again if I thought he was exploiting me but I have very little need to. However, because Little Bear has more difficulty sticking to promises and has reneged on many, I am less inclined in the first place to give him a chance. I suspect that is with good reason and that with firm, immovable boundaries and rules, he feels safer and happier. I also don’t like putting him in situations with a high risk of failure because in general, that doesn’t do anything helpful for his self-esteem.

There is something about me not trusting him to have a go though: I don’t want him to think I don’t trust him and don’t believe he’s capable of keeping promises. I know that he can (given the right set of circumstances) and I would like him to have a go from time to time and feel successful at it because otherwise he will surely grow up thinking he is a person who can’t stick to their word. He certainly finds it harder, given the myriad possible reasons I’ve cited above, but I don’t believe it’s impossible, and like anything else, I’m sure he’ll get there in the end.

 

 

*Also, how complicated is this adoptive parenting lark? One tiny scenario, a gazillion possible explanations. Maybe he just didn’t feel like getting out the bath?

Promises, Promises