Self-Care

For some reason I have been a bit reluctant to write about self-care, perhaps because it is well-documented already? I don’t know. Maybe because I haven’t always been brilliant at it and I have had to work at seeing the importance of it (for me). I suppose it can seem like quite an abstract, self-indulgent concept.

More recently the penny has finally dropped. Self-care is essential. It is not a pleasant add-on or luxury. It is crucial to our good mental health and to us being able to manage the myriad demands thrown at us in our day to day lives. I think when I spotted ‘Looking after yourself’ as one of the blocks in Kim Golding’s House Model of Parenting (an essential block, without which the house would fall down and upon which many other vital blocks sit) I got the message.

Self-care is a subject fairly widely bandied around by adopters (with good reason) but I truly believe it is a necessity for everyone. We are all busy, under pressure and juggling many-a-ball. If we are not mentally and emotionally well, we can’t function to the best of our abilities. We can’t support those around us who need us and we leave ourselves open to illness.

With my professional hat on I have been working with a young person who is currently under a lot of exam stress. A diligent and bright pupil, they are working extremely hard, leaving little to no time for rest and relaxation. As a consequence their stammer has worsened significantly. My main therapy has been around teaching the need for self-care, much to their surprise.

We are not designed to be under permanent stress, though modern life does tend to lead to it. We know, because of our children and how they have been impacted by their adverse starts in life that Cortisol (the stress hormone) wreaks havoc. A quick Google indicates it can impact on blood sugar levels, cause weight gain, suppress the immune system, affect the gut, damage the heart and even impact on fertility. Cortisol is meant for special occasions when we really need it, it is not something our bodies should be flooded with all the time.

We can juggle all the balls, work hard, play hard, look after others and achieve all we want to but, crucially, only if we look after ourselves. If we don’t make time for self-care activities, take the breaks, listen to our inner wellbeing voice, the consequences can be dire. A close friend experienced just what can happen when you forget yourself. I’ll let her tell you, in her own words:

“Self-care is life-saving. I do not say this lightly. Around ten years ago I had a very severe mental health crisis, resulting in me being in hospital for 7 weeks. It was horrible. It was caused by depression and exacerbated by me not taking care of myself. Forgetting myself. Putting everyone above myself. I worked solidly, because I felt so sad. If I was at work I was busy, if I was busy I wasn’t thinking. There is only so long you can do that, and then you crash. I crashed. When I was well again I had to make dramatic changes to my life, and the major one was how to actually look after myself.

The most life changing aspect of self-care for me has been learning to say no. Knowing my own limitations and not being afraid to voice them. You are not a bad person because you put yourself first. If you cannot take care of you, you can’t take care of anyone else.

Also, keeping lines of communication open. Keep talking to those around you, even when it’s a difficult conversation. Silence is a killer. When I was ill I was the most scared I have ever been, and had to have hideous conversations with people, which ultimately led to me getting the help I needed. It’s ok not to be ok. There is something incredibly freeing about being so open and honest. It was so hard to talk, but ultimately has only improved my relationships with everyone around me.

Baby steps. Find what makes you happy. Do it a lot. It sounds simple but life is hectic. Work, family, kids, school runs. But you know what, that ironing pile will still be there tomorrow. The house looks like a bomb hit it but you’ve kept your kids alive and fed and so now you are going to watch strictly come dancing and admire the, erm, dancing skills of Gorka, and just relax. There will be time for the ironing. It is not tonight. Equally, if ironing is your happy place, then good luck to you!”

I’m very proud of my friend for being brave enough to write this for me and letting me share it. Having visited her on the mental health ward, hidden away down the interminably long corridor, I can vouch that it is not a place you would want to end up (though my friend did feel safe there for which I am grateful).

Self-care is life-saving. It is essential. But how the bloody hell do you do it? If it was that easy and straightforward, people up and down the country wouldn’t be ending up in crisis. I suspect the first challenge of self-care is knowing what you need. After that, you need to value yourself enough to allow yourself to have it and then actively make it happen.

Grizzly has recently moved to a more senior post which is highly stressful with long hours and quite a bit of travel. He shoulders a lot of responsibility at work. Thankfully, this was acknowledged during his induction and he was warned of the need to manage his timetable proactively to ensure it contains time for self-care. It is an ongoing challenge for him, as there are only so many hours in the day, but he is good at knowing what he needs at least (half the battle) and as long as he can run several times per week all is well. Running is not a negotiable activity: it is an essential part of his week.

Whilst running works its magic for Grizzly, I personally can’t think of a less desirable way to spend my down time.

Thinking about what works for me has been enlightening. I think it has taken me quite a long time to figure it out. However, it turns out that I’m a right unsociable so and so and find nothing more restorative than a day alone. Interestingly I don’t tend to stay at home for a self-care day (probably because it is good to escape the washing pile). I tend to find a coffee shop, sit with my back to the other customers (I know, miserable!) and read, write or draw, while consuming a massive cup of tea. I’ll generally write a blog post – in itself an act of self-care it turns out. Sometimes it isn’t just that I want to write but that I need to, just as Grizzly physically needs to run.

Blogging has certainly helped with keeping my adopter/ parenting worries in check – it gets them out of my head but doesn’t involve the discomfort of having to actually explain them to someone face to face (though I do a bit of that too).

The main self-care challenge for me has been identifying when I need it. Sometimes I can do a million and one things at the same time and be fine. At other times, one small thing can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I have had to listen harder to the little voice inside that tells you when everything is getting a bit much. It turns out it is much better to heed the whisper than to allow things to get on top of you, as you will undoubtedly snap and lose your temper with the children. I don’t like to shout at them so I have had to get better at identifying the times I might (otherwise you get the joy of dealing with the guilt afterwards). I have to be particularly mindful of my hormonal state (see PMS and Adoption) and be a little kinder to myself at those points.

I think Mum’s in particular (sorry Dad’s and everyone else, I’m allowed a sweeping statement once in a while) are adept at ‘getting on with it’ – pushing through the home and childcare duties, work and the never-ending to-do list whether they feel like it or not. Things would quite possibly collapse around you if you didn’t. However, there is a skill in knowing when pushing through is ok and when you are rapidly closing in on your limit. I’m still working on it but after a busy few weeks of going from work to sorting out the builders who have been re-doing our bathroom to the children (especially Little Bear’s growing Christmas-related mania) to making Christmas decorations and selling them at craft fayres to Christmas shopping to planning & liaising over our next project (a pod in the garden since you ask) as well as a few other things, today’s yoga class felt like one ask too many. I usually love yoga but after a lot of rushing about and being in specific places at specific times, my little inner voice was asking in a stage whisper for a day off. There are times when I would have just made myself go anyway, ignoring that little voice, but I feel so much better for having listened. A whole day off, being unsociable, having some peace. Just what my inner wellbeing guru ordered.

As well as the crucial self-care we all need, there are also acts of self-kindness: finding ways to spoil yourself a little; ways to make life easier; adding things in just because you like them or they make you happy. Here are some of the things that work for me:

  • Wandering around my garden. It is not a big garden but I love looking at how my plants are growing, watering them in the summer and generally enjoying my little bit of outside.
  • I also like going to look at the fish in our tiny pond. I have no idea why that is so relaxing but it is.
  • I seem to be getting quite into the indoor gardening too. I also wander about the house tending my indoor charges.
  • I feel particularly happy when the sun shines in on the melon seedlings and I think they might just grow some melons.
  • Shopping. Sometimes you just need to buy yourself a little gift. I have to be careful though, shopping can lead to guilt.
  • A little taste of something carbohydrate-y as I’m not really eating them at the moment but a girl needs a treat every now and again.
  • All snuggles with my boys are lovely. Giving up on all jobs and lying on the sofa for a whole afternoon of snuggly TV can be just what the doctor ordered.
  • Any sort of gift that arrives in subscription form. My friend got me a Papergang subscription from @Ohhdeer so beautiful stationery landed on the mat every month. It was amazing.
  • A good book on the rare occasions I manage to read one. The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan is a very wholesome and uplifting read.
  • A good rummage in a charity shop, especially if there are retro coffee pots to be found.
  • Low-maintenance hosting. I rarely bother killing myself preparing a fancy meal to impress people with. You are just as likely to get a takeaway here but I will sit and chat and pay you my full attention. I’d rather give my energy to you than to the cooking.
  • Ditto children’s lunches. No slaving over packed lunches every night – school dinners all the way.
  • A cheeky lunch out with Grizzly when he is working from home – dating without the need for babysitting.
  • When all else fails, putting on my fluffy onesie, lying on the sofa and watching an episode of First Dates.

 

I wonder what other people do to be kind to themselves? Feel free to share.

 

 

 

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Self-Care

Pretend I’m In Your Tummy, Mummy

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.

 

 

Pretend I’m In Your Tummy, Mummy

Credit Where Credit Is Due

When Little Bear’s Speech and Language Therapist and I met one another things could have gone either way. There was certainly a high risk of a strained relationship. As I had already made two formal complaints about the Service and she knew I was a Speech and Language Therapist too, she probably came to the first session with some pre-conceived ideas of how I might be. I imagine she thought I would be hard work, difficult to please and all-round a bit of a nightmare parent to have on your caseload.

I also came to that first session with some concerns. Our experience of the Service so far had been appalling (hence the complaints) and I was feeling embarrassed by association. I was worried that Little Bear wouldn’t get his needs recognised or met and that every session would be cringe-inducingly awkward.

Fast-forward seven months and I’m pleased to report that we have weathered the storm. Just as I felt it was important to speak-up when the treatment we received was poor, I also feel you should give credit where credit is due.

Things did go fairly well from the beginning because she (let’s call her Helen) listened to me and tried to anticipate what I needed from the sessions, as well as being lovely with Little Bear. We have now been working together (and I truly believe that is how we have done it) for some time and Little Bear has made a lot of progress. We have targeted three different vowel sounds in turn which he has learned to articulate and has successfully generalised into his everyday speech. Helen has also set language targets and provided materials for school to work on.

Helen has recently re-assessed Little Bear to decide on next steps. Her assessment showed that Little Bear has moved from the 5th and 16th percentile on two comprehension subtests to the 16th and 63rd respectively, both scores now within the expected range for his age. He has also acquired a 4th vowel sound which we haven’t targeted in therapy. He has made incredible progress.

At the session before last Helen wondered aloud whether Little Bear might be ready to switch to the school part of their service now. As he has top-up funding he is eligible (in our area) for speech and language therapy visits to school. As he had made so much progress she wondered whether the time might be right.

I didn’t say much as I knew we still had further assessment to complete but when I left the session I had some nagging doubts. If he got seen in school, who would the therapist be? I’d have to get to know them from scratch and crucially so would Little Bear. How much involvement would I be able to have? Would the session take place without me being there? Although Little Bear has done really well with therapy, his speech continues to be peppered with errors and he is by no means ‘cured’ yet. I’d have to voice my thoughts next time.

However, when it came to the next time, I didn’t have to voice anything. Helen was one step ahead.

She had gone away and spoken with the school therapy lead and almost had a supervision session about Little Bear. I think it’s a sign of a good therapist when you can go away and reflect and ask other’s opinions. She is a very experienced therapist but knows that another perspective and some time to think can be really useful.

She happened to have some students with her during our session and took advantage of having someone to entertain Little Bear, allowing us the chance to talk. She suggested we had an honest discussion about how we both feel Little Bear is getting on and what should happen next. We went through each area of Little Bear’s communication and I told her how he’s doing with it, in real life, outside of clinic.

She told me that on reflection, she has some concerns about Little Bear moving to the other part of the service. She is worried about how he will cope, given his background, with getting to know another new person. She feels that both she and he, and she and I, have developed a good, effective therapeutic relationship. She is wondering about the benefits of trying to switch this relationship to somebody else. I wholeheartedly agreed with both of these things. I think it made it easier for me to be honest as she was so direct.

We agreed that although it is not ideal bringing Little Bear out of school to go to a clinic environment it is working well for him, he is used to it and it is manageable. We agreed we would continue in this way as it is better for Little Bear. It is not the usual protocol but Helen sees the need to be flexible to best meet his needs, as good therapy should.

As Little Bear is entitled to school input, Helen and her Manager have agreed to some flexibility about school visiting and Helen can do a classroom observation if I think that would be useful (she is usually clinic based only). I definitely think it would be useful to have another pair of eyes in the classroom. I have been desperate at points to go and observe myself but obviously as a parent it wouldn’t be appropriate. However, I value Helen’s opinion and it would be useful to know what is going on communication-wise in school, especially with Little Bear’s TA.

We then completed the prioritisation system particular to our local Trust. Helen allowed me to be a partner in this. We were mostly in agreement anyway but where we weren’t we went for the middle of our scores. I think it must be extremely difficult for her having another SaLT in all of her sessions and I find it hard knowing what involvement I should/shouldn’t have. I’m so grateful that she has acknowledged my background and we don’t have to pretend I’m not a SaLT. Ideal or not I am one and I can’t pretend that I don’t have knowledge that I do (although initially that was my intention).

I did acknowledge this with Helen and she said she is very mindful that Little Bear gets what everyone gets and they don’t just rely on him getting what he needs through me. She also said that if a parent had learning needs, they would adapt their approach accordingly. I happen to have a little more knowledge about communication than the average parent but this needn’t be a problem, they can adapt their approach for that too.

I know that not every therapist would have been able to take my profession quite as in their stride as Helen has. It is because she is confident and experienced that she knows it needn’t bother her. I have also been very careful not to comment unless invited and have acknowledged things like how difficult it is to transcribe vowels and that I would have found this challenging. Helen is the therapist and I am the parent and generally we stick to those roles. However, we do seem to have found a comfortable place in the middle where we discuss Little Bear’s needs on a level and plan jointly, as two co-professionals would. I suppose she has allowed me the role of professional parent, the specialist in my child, in a way that many parents, particularly adopters, are often denied.

We went on to co-write aims for the upcoming sessions of therapy.

Helen was clear that she will not be keeping Little Bear on the caseload forever. I know this and I don’t want her to but I do hope we are in agreement about when the time is right to stop. The prioritisation score we agreed on indicated that direct therapy is still needed so we are in agreement at the moment that the sessions should continue. We have two more vowels in our sights as well as some updated language targets.

I came away from the session extremely grateful at the way things have turned out. It shows that you can stand up for your child, make complaints and still go on to have a great relationship with a professional. As a parent you can get your views heard and you can get your child’s needs met if you persevere. I think Helen has been surprised that I’m not the nightmare I seemed on paper, I am just a parent who wants the best for their child and I am fully prepared to work together to achieve that. I will say what I think and I will point out bad practise but if things are going well, I will acknowledge that and praise it. We have a good working relationship and despite the odds I would even go so far as to say we that we really quite like one-another.

When we have finished therapy I will be writing to Helen’s manager to thank her for the service we have received and to recognise the great job Helen has done.

 

I have written a lot about Speech and Language Therapy and our experiences. You can read more here if you are interested: Developmental Language Disorder, Communication Difficulties: Update, SaLT, EP & an Assembly, Another try at SaLT, A bit of a rant, Living with Speech and Language Difficulties

 

 

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Affirmation in Parenting

As usual I have a complex knot of thoughts in my brain that I am going to attempt to commit to my keyboard. My thoughts have come from a range of sources including a film, a meeting we had in school and some clumsy comments. It has taken me a while to figure it out but the theme running through them all is affirmation – the act of getting emotional support or encouragement.

More specifically, as parents, do we ever get any affirmation? What happens if we don’t and what difference does it make if we do?

I have written before about my lack of parenting confidence when I had Big Bear (see Goodbye Adoption Leave  ). I can remember those times well. Other parents can be very competitive and instead of taking a ‘we are all in it together’ attitude, they can make you wonder whether you really have made the right decision to feed your baby from a jar (from the shocked look on their face perhaps you really might be setting them on a straight course for Scurvy) or co-sleep with them (you might still be doing it when they are 18). Deciding not to use Controlled Crying caused many a shockwave and invited comments that suggested I was bringing my baby’s sleep problems on myself. Finding my own way was difficult. Whatever I did felt wrong and I rather suspected that every parent out there was doing the parenting thing better than I was (with the involvement of more organic butternut squash, more sleep, a tidier home and a brain that could actually think in a straight line).

Those suspicions continued into preschool and even the first years of school. Thankfully I have now stopped dragged around a heavy load of parenting doubt. I am by no means cocky or complacent about my parenting but I feel quietly comfortable with the way I’m going about things. I have Little Bear to thank for that. His constant development and flourishing have undeniably taken place since his arrival, not prior, so we must be doing something right somewhere.

Whilst I am no longer constantly self-flagellating for my inadequacies, I am not immune to self-doubt or being wounded by a careless comment. Neither, I suspect, is any parent. The thing is we are all just doing our best. We make the parenting decisions we think are right at the time. Crucially, we make the parenting decisions that feel right for our individual children. My own two children have very different needs and sometimes I make different decisions for each of them, because that is what I think will work best for them.

Most of the time I go about my day to day life, analysing, thinking and making decisions about how to parent my children without too much fuss. Grizzly and I might have a chat to decide whether x or y is better. We spend more time analysing and wondering over Little Bear because being adopted does add another layer of complexity. I suppose if I think hard about it we do put a lot of time and energy into trying our best for them but it is not onerous and I don’t think either of us feels we require praise for it. We just do what parents do, like everybody else.

However, there have been occasions recently when I have felt that my parenting is being judged and that the person doing the judging feels that Little Bear’s behaviour might be better were I to parent him differently. The examples I’m going to share are only little things, unfortunate comments, but they bother me, usually by implication.

One such comment was, “Are you going to send Little Bear to Beavers? You should get his name down!” (Made in the context of perhaps if Little Bear had something more exciting to look forward to, he would eat his dinner). It sounds innocuous enough but the implication that came with the comment was “I cannot believe you don’t send Little Bear to Beavers. EVERYONE who is ANYONE sends their child to Beavers. If you do not send him, he will have absolutely no future.” Clearly I exaggerate a little but this is exactly the kind of comment that really irks me because it is so passive aggressive and such a thinly veiled attempt at hiding the speaker’s real view that they are in fact a super-parent and if you don’t do what they think you should do, you are a rubbish parent.

No. Why does she think it is ok to do that? She doesn’t know my reasons for not sending him. She might want that for her children but why do I have to do it for mine? Little Bear is blooming exhausted after trying so hard at school all day and goes up to bed at 6pm. I can’t contemplate sending him to a club after tea yet. Also, I don’t know any of the staff at Beavers and I don’t feel comfortable sending him somewhere he doesn’t know anyone yet and where no one knows him and what he needs from them. I know that I don’t actually have to explain myself, what with my parenting being my business, but comments like that make you start to question yourself.

The same person has also made comments about the snacks I give the boys when I pick them up from school (it’s chocolate, shoot me), why I didn’t send Little Bear to football club earlier and how Little Bear always chooses a baked potato for lunch.

Grizzly says I should just ignore it but I can’t. I think what really pushes my buttons about it is the judgement and inference that I ought to listen to her because her parenting is in some way superior. It’s so unhelpful and a good job I am no longer lugging about my parenting doubts because I would now be feeling very bad about myself. I’m sure she does it to other people who are currently feeling like failures.

No. We are all parenting and doing our best. We should be supporting and affirming one another. People do things differently and that’s ok. Perhaps I should write her a Social Story!

I don’t think loads of gushing compliments are needed but certainly less of the judgment. I think you just need to know from time to time that you’ve got this. You’re doing ok. You are not breaking your children. People can see you are trying your best.

When we have meetings about Little Bear at school, I sometimes feel that there is a suggestion that it is something we are doing that makes him behave as he does in the classroom. There have been comments about him “coming in not ready to work” as though I’ve spun him around 50 times on the way in or laced his breakfast with sugar. As lovely as school are (and they genuinely are mostly lovely) I think there is something in the culture that leans towards blaming parents.

This week, someone from our post-adoption support service came to one of the meetings. It was surprising how good it was to have somebody there who not only values our opinions but made some positive affirmations about our parenting. She made sure school knew that adoptive parenting is hard and that we are putting a lot of effort into this. She made it clear that what will change things (and already has been changing things) for Little Bear is our therapeutic parenting (as well as a therapeutic approach from school). She affirmed our approach, our strategies and that these match Little Bear’s needs.

I think having those things affirmed by somebody who is so knowledgeable was really powerful for me and was something I didn’t know I needed until I got it. It made me feel more confident to fess up to some things I didn’t feel so sure about and to ask for help with them. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable to ask for help if I had felt judged. I came away from the meeting feeling a little lighter and with a little spring in my step.

I suspect the reason so many of us adopters like Twitter is because there is a very safe and supportive community of other adopters on there who don’t judge and are quick to give positive re-enforcement and affirmation. We are probably all very aware of how great a need our children have for affirmation and are therefore fairly natural at dishing it out in general.

During today’s chats I came across a blog by @mumdrah about the difficulties in getting affirmation as a single adopter and the impact this has on how your child views you. As well as making an eloquent point, it includes some pointers about how you can make positive statements to support your partner/ others in their parenting. You can read it here: http://www.mumdrah.co.uk/ducks-in-a-row/

The film that got me thinking (and laughing) was Bad Moms. It’s very far-fetched but illustrates perfectly how negative and harmful a lack of affirmation mixed with competitive parenting and one-up-man-ship can be.

We are all in this together. Let’s stop with the judgement and pat each other on the back now and again. We’re doing our best but the doubt can creep in. Sometimes it’s hard and a little positive comment on those days can go a long way.

 

 

 

Cuddle Fairy
Affirmation in Parenting

The Bears Talk Adoption

In November of last year I asked Big Bear if he would mind writing his thoughts on adoption down for me. He knew about my blog and was very excited about the idea of his words being published on the web. This was the result: Adoption by Big Bear

At the time he was 7. I have been wondering, now that another year has passed and he is a year older and we are that bit further into the adoption, how his views have changed. He was excited at the prospect of being famous (!) again so we agreed to try an interview this time. Here it is:

Me: What do you think adoption means?

Big Bear: Adoption’s like when um, when a family, a normal family, have loads of children who they can’t handle. They’re like naughty and stuff and they can’t handle them so they go to live with foster parents who try to look after them for a period of time so then, erm, so some very kind people who want to adopt the children, they go to visit the foster parents and have a little talk with them, like how well behaved the child is and gossip like that. Then they start having little time with the child, you know like to settle them in? They have a little journey to the adopter’s house then they, erm, they like settle down, look at their bedroom and see what toys they’ve got and then they think ‘I like it here, it’s not bad’. When that happens, it’s really like very kind to the foster family and the other family.

Me: Ok. Do you think there are any good things about adoption?

Big Bear: Yeah. Adoptions like thinking you’ll have a family forever and you’re not gonna move. It’s like staying in the same place.

Me: Do you think there are any bad things about adoption?

Big Bear: Well yes I do because the children that have been adopted will probably miss their foster parents and just say that they want to go and see their foster parents.

Me: If there are any people reading my blog, like another child who might be getting an adopted sibling, do you have any advice for them?

Big Bear: I’ve got a lot of advice. So just if you don’t wanna see them to start with you can just stay in your room for a bit but like then you need to start playing with them and they’ll start liking you more and they’ll just think you are a superhero to them. They’ll think you’re amazing if you start playing with them. You don’t really have to let them do anything with your stuff. You don’t have to let them in your room. You just have to make them happy. If you don’t want to play with them sometimes it’s absolutely fine but you’ve got to play with them sometimes because you might actually think it’s fun.

Me: So now you’ve had an adopted brother for 2 years, how are you finding that?

Big Bear: I’m finding it fine. But when we started having him it was a nightmare but now I think he’s quite good. I play with him a lot and it’s quite amazing really because his behaviour has come on a lot. He used to be a nightmare when he came but now he’s good as gold. Like really, just get playing with them and they’ll get better.

Me: So are you having fun with him now?

Big Bear: Yeah I have a lot of fun. They start doing sports that you like and yeah, you have a lot of fun.

Me: Does it make any difference that he is adopted?

Big Bear: No. It’s not an excuse for anything. No, he’s just a normal person.

Me: Is there anything I have missed? Is there anything else you would like to tell people?

Big Bear: Really, if you want to adopt somebody, you need to be kind people. If you are not kind people, don’t bother. Just settle them in.

Me: Do you have any advice for helping children settle better?

Big Bear: Yeah. Just get them stuff they can squeeze or punch. It calms them down. They can always like bring them into class if they’re struggling at school because it could just calm them down. It helps them a lot. Like a squeezy thing or a fidget spinner.

Grizzly (not wanting to be left out): How do you think it feels for a child to come to a new family?

Big Bear: Well, um, I think it’s pretty scary at the start. They have to get used to the house. When they’ve got used to their environment they’ll get used to their parents and when they’ve got used to them they’ll get used to their brothers or sisters and then they’ll get used to their friends and then to their school. Then they’ll get used to sports and doing spelling.

 

Bless him! This is the edited version as Big Bear was in his element and chatted for a good ten minutes. My initial thought is that I probably need to do more work with him about why children end up in Care in the first place! I certainly haven’t told him it is because they are naughty. It is a little scary how I can hear some of my own words coming out of his mouth though – like ‘just try playing with him you might actually think it’s fun’.

Overall I think it does reflect his chatty, thoughtful nature and the relationship he has with his brother. He is certainly less in denial about liking him now which I’m pleased about. I’m glad he can be honest though, we have worked hard at making sure his views are listened to and ensuring that he is comfortable to say how he really feels, whether positive or negative.

 

I have been really mindful this year that I would love to let Little Bear have a voice on my blog too. It is trickier with him because it is hard to make sure that he fully understands what I’m asking of him and what I’m going to do with the information. I explained that I write about adoption and that I’d like to interview him too. He was up for it and co-operated for a short time. Here are his thoughts:

 

Me: What do you think being adopted means?

Little Bear: You live in a different house and you come here.

Everybody in my class is adopted but not in Big Bears class.

It’s really nice.

Me: Being adopted is nice?

Little Bear: Yeah

Me: Why is it nice?

Little Bear: Because I just like it.

Me: Do you think there are any good things about being adopted?

Little Bear: Being good and being protected.

Me: Do you think there are any bad things?

Little Bear: No. (Gets distracted thinking up all the bad things he can like getting shot or murdered. I felt he’d had enough of my questions).

 

 I have to say I was pretty surprised by what Little Bear had to say. I’m amazed he said “being good and being protected”. It is typical of him though to be a man of few words, but to hit the nail squarely on the head. It was also one of those brief glimpses into his complex internal world: there is so much going on in there.

I was most surprised that he was so unswervingly positive about it. I genuinely thought he would have talked about missing his foster carers and perhaps he would on a different day. I’m not naïve enough to think he will always be this positive as there is still so much Life Story work to come but for now, what he has said has been lovely to hear.

The point he makes about everyone in his class being adopted is because he knows that there are 4 others in his class who are and that nobody in Big Bear’s class is adopted. This came about because recently he started listing people we know to find out if ‘they came out of their Mum’s tummies or not?’

 Hopefully, if both Bears are ok with it, we’ll have a similar chat in a year’s time and see how things have changed.

 As always, I’m extremely proud of them both and grateful that they humoured their Mum and answered my questions.

 

 

 

The Bears Talk Adoption

Alleviating School Worries

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about how Little Bear was doing at school (School Worries), the apparent desire to keep us at arm’s length and my concerns about the school’s ability to support and educate him. Little Bear’s behaviour was spiralling and his teacher was tearing her hair out. It was going badly and I was very worried. Since then I have had several conversations with his teacher, parent’s evening and we finally had the big meeting we had been asking for.

The landscape now is very different. I think they are getting more right than they are getting wrong and Little Bear is starting to thrive. I thought it might be helpful to share some of the things we/they have done that have made the difference:

A Timetable

Don’t ask me why but when Little Bear started Year 1 there was no set timetable of what he would be doing each day; sometimes it could be Maths then literacy, at other times Phonics then Maths etc. His teacher realised after a few weeks that he might cope better if the expectations were clearer and his day was more predictable. They created a timetable for him but things were still going awry. I wondered aloud one day whether Little Bear was able to see the timetable himself. It turned out they were showing him the black and white typed adult version which was of course entirely meaningless to him.

Little Bear now has a timetable made up of digital photos of him doing all the different tasks. This is working fabulously

He knows the routine and seems much happier to get on with what he is meant to be doing. Plus he actually likes the timetable because he is in it and is therefore much more motivated to engage with it

Choose time

As Little Bear finds it difficult to concentrate for any length of time we agreed that he would do a short work task and then a fun task then a work task, then a fun task to keep him on track. The fun task would be used as a carrot in a NOW work, THEN fun task kind of way. The fun task might also involve moving about to give him a physical/sensory break from sitting still. The fun tasks have been chosen carefully so they are still educational (they might involve developing his play skills or turn-taking or creativity etc.) and are actually motivating to Little Bear, not just perceived to be motivating by an adult.

The choices are presented to Little Bear in photo form (with him in the pictures) and he picks in advance of each work activity.

This is also working brilliantly to the point where some mornings he is now able to complete all the work tasks on his timetable and doesn’t need any fun tasks at all.

A consistent approach

None of the above would be working if it wasn’t for this. The teacher and TA have now figured out their strategy and are being much clearer with Little Bear. There is no shouting one minute then letting him off with something the next any more. I think they have settled on a calm, firm approach much like we use at home. They have realised that the rules need to be clear and they can’t change from one day to the next.

They have also realised that Little Bear benefits from some extra rules where other children wouldn’t. For example, if he is tired one day and therefore allowed to read just one page, instead of 3, he will expect that he can do the same thing the next day. If he can find a chink in the armour he will exploit it. However, if there is a blanket rule e.g. every day we read 3 pages Little Bear knows where he is at and is much happier to adhere to it.

I think his TA was feeling mean but has found out the hard way that Little Bear actually feels a lot safer when he knows exactly what is expected and adults around him are consistent with their boundaries. If he doesn’t and they are not, his anxiety will spike and his behaviour will become increasingly challenging. Now that he feels safer, he is much more open to learning.

A discipline re-think

I have to say that whatever errors school have made I am extremely grateful for their willingness to listen (in the end) and to try something different. A little willingness goes along way for our children.

The school as a whole were using the Good To Be Green behaviour system, which involves children getting an amber warning card when they do something they shouldn’t and then a red card if they do something else or do something violent. Thankfully they did see early on that this didn’t work for Little Bear. There are the immediate issues with public shaming but for us the main problem was that once you get an amber or red card you can’t work your way back to green that day. Once you’ve got in bother and already had a red card, what is the point of trying to control yourself for the rest of the day? You might as well just go for it and do whatever you like. It is a very negative system.  Also, Little Bear was getting upset by the card changes because he isn’t naughty, he just finds controlling himself really difficult. He was frequently very annoyed with himself for seemingly having failed, which impacted his mood for the rest of the day.

Thankfully school recognised that they couldn’t continue with that system for him so came up with Magic 1,2,3 to use instead. They didn’t want to single Little Bear out with his peers so have changed the system for the whole of his class, a very sensitive gesture I felt.

I’m not sure that I love Magic 1,2,3 per se but it has an accidental benefit which is crucial for Little Bear. Basically the teacher counts each time you do something you shouldn’t so you get 3 chances to make amends or make a different choice. If after 3 chances you still haven’t co-operated or you have had 3 separate misdemeanours, you have to sit on the thinking chair.

Now, I know a lot of parents won’t like it because it is basically sitting in the corner. However, for Little Bear it gives him the calm down time he desperately needs.

I have struggled to get school to understand that when Little Bear is thoroughly pissed off the last thing he needs is someone lecturing him, talking at him and verbally chastising him. He needs to sit somewhere quietly until he is ready to talk. At home, we just ask him to sit wherever he is. He sits on the floor and we stay nearby and usually he’ll say “I’m ready Mummy” after about 3 seconds (a ‘time in’). However, it turns out that school weren’t ever allowing him this time so it wasn’t any wonder he was nearly blowing a gasket sometimes and going straight from one incident to another.

Sitting on the thinking chair gives him just the de-compression he needs. Also, it is in the classroom so he is not isolated or left alone.

I don’t think this would be the right thing for every child but it is suiting Little Bear much better and his behaviour has calmed enormously.

Praise & positive re-enforcement

Little Bear’s behaviour was becoming such an issue in school that I felt all the positives were getting lost. They had pretty much got to the point of thinking there weren’t any.Other than me pointing this out I don’t really know what changed but the teacher and TA have certainly got better at looking for the positives and making a big fuss about them.

Again this wouldn’t work for children who can’t handle praise but Little Bear really thrives off it. School have cottoned on to this and whenever Little Bear tries hard or produces something good, they encourage him to share it with the class. He absolutely loves this and I think it helps his peers to see him as someone who is successful, not just someone they think is naughty.

Working as a Team   

I do feel that school have recognised that they had cut us out of the loop and are now keen to include us more. I think they can see the benefits and that when there are meetings it is not because we want to tell them off or be difficult it is because we genuinely want to work in partnership. We have 2 further meetings arranged before Christmas which has allayed a lot of my concerns.

We have agreed common goals e.g. to extend Little Bear’s reading from 3 pages to 4 in one sitting and to encourage him to work independently for 2 minutes instead of 1. The goals are achievable and measurable which is exactly as they should be and because we are working on them at home and at school I’m sure they will be met more quickly.

A key part of the meeting we had was to share information about Little Bear’s history with his new TA. She didn’t know how long he had been with us, what his developmental starting point was etc. I have pointed out it would have been much more helpful for her to know all this at the start because then she could have adjusted her expectations accordingly from the outset. However, we can’t undo the past and at least she is now armed with all the facts.

Communication

To help school to communicate with us in a way that works for us, they invited us to have a frank discussion and be clear about what we actually want to know. We have agreed that they will comment on Little Bear’s behaviour each day and how he has got on with his independent working, hopefully in a one thing that went well and perhaps a thing that didn’t go so well sort of a way.

I can’t honestly say how well this is working yet but I’m hopeful.

Lateral Thinking  

School have been great about being open to different ideas and ways of doing things. Sometimes they still struggle to get Little Bear to have a go at things; he might flatly refuse or say he hates whatever it is. They have agreed to try things like offering Little Bear the opportunity to go and show his brother his work if he tries hard at it. I think he will be extremely motivated to do that and Big Bear is happy to be involved and relishes the added responsibility.

As the TA directly asked us for some advice on how to manage this, we were also able to talk about wondering and empathising e.g. “It must be hard to get your work done if you hate English. I wonder if that’s because you find it tricky” rather than a dismissive, “You don’t hate it”.

 

It meant more than they probably realised to be asked and to be considered a source of knowledge about our child. The Head teacher also apologised to us and admitted they had got the transition badly wrong. He asked what could be done differently next time.

We left the meeting feeling reassured, listened to and that Little Bear is in safe hands. They might not get it right all the time but at least they know that and are not afraid to admit it and ask for help.

I feel hopeful now.

 

Alleviating School Worries

Contact

The subject of contact has been prominent in our house this week for a few reasons. My involvement in it has got me thinking about the importance of contact in general and how it is of multi-faceted benefit. There are benefits not just to the child in the centre of it all but to those around him and those on the receiving end of the contact too.

The first thing that happened was that we decided that Little Bear had asked us enough times now if he could see his Foster Carers and we needed to listen. It has always been in a casual way – mentioned one day then not for weeks and usually mentioned in passing.

Initially, when Little Bear first moved in, it was an active decision on our part that he wouldn’t speak to them for a while. The transition had been quite rushed and Little Bear hadn’t seemed to miss his Foster Carers Karen and Bob at all. If he did it wasn’t in a way that he could verbalise or even that he shed tears over. It felt odd.

It was only after about 6 months that Little Bear started to mention them and then it was usually when he was displeased with us.

During the first months my own feelings about Karen and Bob were very confused. They had been lovely to us – very friendly and welcoming and they had gone out of their way to include Big Bear and ease his distress when Introductions proved very hard on him. However, I also felt angry about various aspects of Little Bear’s development that clearly hadn’t been nurtured or developed in their care. I was upset that he should have been further ahead than he was after such a long time with them. I knew he had the potential to be further on because he was literally flourishing in front of my eyes. I was upset that his tongue was cracked from dehydration; he didn’t know what fruits or vegetables were and was having to take laxatives for his sluggish digestion. He hadn’t learned to do basic things like walk holding hands and was used to playing in his room with the light on in the middle of the night. I was upset that we had to start parenting from scratch, down to teaching him his own name and getting him to follow even a basic instruction.

We had our work cut out and I honestly didn’t know if I could speak to Karen and Bob or what I would say to them if I did.

I suppose if I’m really honest I was also worried about our attachments at that point. I genuinely think speaking to them or seeing them could have broken the fragile bond that we were gradually forming with Little Bear. I guess some of my motivations for not having contact were selfish.

However, I always intended that in the longer term we would have some sort of contact for Little Bear’s sake. I do think children should be able to stay in touch with their Foster Carers but I also think this should very much be taken on a case by case basis and directed by the child. I sent occasional messages and Christmas cards etc. I thought Karen and Bob might have sent Little Bear a birthday or Christmas card but they didn’t. Perhaps they weren’t bothered about him anymore?

More recently I have known that the time was coming when instead of just allowing Little Bear to talk about Karen and Bob and affirming that it really is ok for him to miss them, I would need to go one step further. I would need to facilitate him speaking with them and possibly seeing them. All of a sudden I felt ok to make this happen. I didn’t think it would threaten our bond at all. And moreover I wanted him to have the opportunity.

So recently I contacted them to see how they felt about it. I was surprised by how keen they were and how happy my text had made them. The phone call took place and I was surprised by how nice it was to hear their voices. An adopters relationship with foster carers is unique I think and can’t really be likened to any other type of relationship. After all, you don’t usually move into a stranger’s house for a week or so and then take away the child they have been caring for. It is a very unusual dynamic.

For us, it turns out, it is a dynamic in which despite not speaking to them for 2 years and having very mixed feelings about the care they provided our son (though I know they didn’t do any of it purposefully) we are still able to have an easy and comfortable conversation. It was lovely to hear how they and their family are doing and also their genuine joy in hearing about Little Bear. It seems as though they do think about him and wonder about him but don’t want to intrude into our lives by getting in touch to ask us about him. I have made it clear that we would not see that type of contact as an intrusion and would welcome it.

I think the phone call was important for them. They needed the contact.

Little Bear needed the contact and wanted it but was quite discombobulated by it. When Grizzly asked him why he wanted to speak to Karen and Bob he said, “Because they used to love me”, which really hit the nail on the head in the brilliantly simple way that Little Bear does. It also meant we were able to explain that they haven’t stopped loving him and I’m sure the phone call helped with proving that.

Little Bear didn’t talk to Karen and Bob for long though he did tell them he would like to see them. Although he was a bit all over the place whilst I was on the phone, the behavioural fall-out that we expected afterwards didn’t materialise. I think for him, the wait was the right thing to do.

I was also surprised that Big Bear was really keen to talk to Karen and Bob and he too got a lot from the conversation. I suppose that Bob and Karen are a part of his brother’s past that he is a part of too, in a way that Little Bear’s birth family are not. He remembers being in their home and the kindness they showed him.

All in all, I think our first foray into making contact with Bob and Karen was really positive and I genuinely hope it will lead to more chats and possibly even a meet up. The whole thing has just served to illustrate that in adoption nothing is black and white; nothing is purely bad or purely good. Most things are a weird swirl of greys – a very complex mix of positives and negatives that cannot be separated into neat piles. Once you embrace the grey swirl, rather than being upset by the negatives or viewing the positives through a rose-tinted lens, things seem much easier to navigate.

And when it comes to complex grey swirls, nothing is more complex or swirly than our relationship with the other people we need to maintain contact with: Little Bear’s Birth Parents. It is Letterbox time so I have been thinking a lot about Sian and Joseph too. When I last wrote about this it was to say that we had requested an update that I didn’t think we would ever get. Miraculously we did get an update (to which Sian and Joseph had to consent) and it gave us the clearest picture we’ve had of them to date. The update also included information about Little Bear’s birth siblings.

What was brilliant about it was the insight it gave us into how they are all coping with Little Bear’s adoption and what some of their worries and preoccupations are. This has made writing Letterbox letters so much easier and has allowed me to tailor the letters to address their anxieties. Last year (our first experience of Letterbox) I think I felt quite vulnerable in my relationship with Little Bear and the thought of Sian and Joseph alone was enough to jiggle my confidence, let alone having to write to them.

This year I feel very different. This time I feel the responsibility of playing my part in helping them to cope with the loss of their son. That is not something I thought I would ever feel or say. I feel the same about supporting Little Bear’s birth siblings. Luckily they have sent us some specific questions and we have answered those. The letter to Sian and Joseph has been harder but I have tried to anticipate their concerns and address them as best I can. I have made sure they know Little Bear knows he is adopted and that we talk about them.

It is suddenly very obvious to me how important the contact is for them. At this stage I would say it is more important for them than it is for Little Bear, though I anticipate his need for it to grow as he does.

I think our role in it all is quite different to how I used to think of it. The contact is not about us. First and foremost it is about Little Bear and trying to future-proof as much as possible. Secondary to that, we might actually be able to make a difference in Sian and Joseph and the siblings’ lives if we can put our own feelings aside and think carefully about what they need from us. This is where good social work is crucial and why I really feel that allowing us updates is so vital. It is a road that has to be walked with caution but one that I am hopeful about travelling.

A crucial part of our update was that it would be okay for us to meet Sian and Joseph (we had previously been told we couldn’t) so now we need to think long and hard about whether to go ahead and do it. I rather suspect we will but therein lays a massive grey swirly mire to wade through.

I would say that adoption has about fifty shades of grey but that would conjure up the wrong image entirely. It’s grey and swirly and the black and white is inextricably tangled. Lets stick with that.

 

Contact