The Great National Adoption Week Debate

When I was a fairly new adoptive parent, I remember being aware that Adoption Week was taking place, bringing with it a certain discord within the community when it did so. I wasn’t, at the time, too sure why this was.

Year on year since then, my understanding of the complexities of the week have continued to grow until I now find myself hugely conflicted about the rights and wrongs of it all.

So, what is National Adoption Week all about? Is it about adoptees sharing stories and celebrating their adopted status? Err, not really. And the fact of whether they would want to do that at all is a debate within itself. No, Adoption Week is essentially a mass recruitment drive – a way of raising the profile of adoption so as to encourage more prospective parents to come forward. On face value that seems like a sensible enough plan – especially as there are currently over 4100 children waiting for permanence in the UK.

And yet…

Of course adoptees should be central to adoption week. I think those 4100 potential adoptees are, but not the thousands who have been adopted in the past and are now adults. They are conspicuous by their absence. Currently, adoption week is not about them or for them and I can fully understand their feelings of being cast aside.

Cynically, the real reason behind this is that many adult adoptees are not exponents of adoption. Sure, there are many who are happily adopted; some who have even gone on to adopt children themselves. But there are many who, if given a platform during adoption week, would use it to warn about the dangers of adoption; as an opportunity to press for change; who, if asked, would say, ‘do not adopt’. Clearly, speaking the truth of their lived experience would absolutely be their prerogative. And perhaps some would argue that those voices should be heard loud and clear in order to make necessary change happen in the sector.

Yet I can also see that were the majority of voices saying don’t adopt, this would surely have a significant knock-on to the number of people who would then consider becoming parents via adoption. Some would argue this would be for the better – after all if a person’s experience of adoption has been negative, why would they want it to keep happening to others? They wouldn’t.

Conversely, I can see why adoption agencies try to control this. While some would suggest this makes agencies corrupt, for me, it comes back to the 4100 children waiting. If numbers of prospective adopters dwindle, what happens to those children?

I suppose the majority (if not all) would spend their entire childhood within The Care System. Some might argue that this would be alright – they would be cared for, have stability and still maintain links with their birth families. However, unfortunately, not all foster placements are created equal. And behind the scenes there is the sometimes unfathomable workings of stretched social services teams, which end up moving children multiple times from placement to placement, deeming some children ‘unfoster-able’ and moving them into residential care homes. Like foster carers, some homes are brilliant but others are certainly not. And then there are the issues of permanence post 18 or 21 (depending on the placement type). There are many foster carers who informally offer young people support and family throughout their adult lives but this is not a requirement and by no means a given. A read of Lemn Sissay’s best-selling memoir, My Name is Why, tells you everything you need to know about how the ‘care system’ all too frequently does the opposite of care.

Is this what we want for those 4100 children? An unpredictable childhood? Which may see them thrive, but equally, for others, barely survive?

I have heard arguments for Special Guardianship Orders (SGOs) as a more stable alternative to ‘care’ but a less permanent severing of biological ties than adoption. But is it really a viable alternative when there is no SGO version of adoption/maternity leave and no such thing as post-SGO support? Those who currently care for children under SGOs (often grandparents or aunties/uncles) do so in the most challenging of circumstances with little to no support or understanding of the challenges they face. Until the inequalities in support provided for SGOs and adoption are more fairly balanced, I don’t see how SGOs can be a truly viable alternative to use on a wide scale.

So we are left with adoption. It is not a panacea, it is a last resort.

Or is it? Within this great big debate, one also has to consider how children get to be waiting for adoption in the first place. Adoption should be the last resort, to be used in circumstances when every other possible route to permanence has been explored and ruled out, but is it always used that way? We have to think about why children are removed from birth families in the first place. Has it been for a reason that could have been resolved had the birth family been offered more or better support? If so, that family has been dealt a great disservice. It is hard to justify a permanent legal severance in a situation where a struggling mum really just needed more help.

Or what about situations where there has been domestic violence or coercive control? Once the perpetrator is removed from the situation, is the remaining parent (usually the mother) really an unfit parent? Or a victim who should not have to pay twice for her wounds with the subsequent loss of her children?

There are so many huge questions which have to be considered at all stages of the child protection process which ultimately leads to adoption. None of this is easy or clear. For every parent who was given chance after chance and adequate support to parent but didn’t take it, there will be another who was a victim of their circumstances. There will be those children who find themselves waiting for adoption who were removed from their mothers on the ‘risk of future harm’ premise and those who were systematically and horrifically abused. There will be those children who go on to be adopted whose birth parents would not harm them were they to see them every week and there are those children who should never, ever see their parents again after the irreparable harm they caused them. Individual circumstances are so different and so nuanced that it’s impossible to take one story and extrapolate it into a solution for all.

I suppose this is why adoption, as a concept, is so divisive. Where it has been the right solution for one, it has been extremely traumatic for another.

So, if I’m not sure about ‘care’ or SGO’s for the 4100, do I think adoption is the right solution? Well, it’s pretty obvious that I think it can be, because I am an adoptive parent and I wouldn’t have chosen to do something I didn’t believe could be right. I say ‘could be’ because it isn’t a given. It does depend on things such as recruiting the right kind of people to be adopters – those who are resilient and able to appropriately support a traumatised child; who can be there for them through life story work and contact and reuniting with their birth family if/when the young person wants that and, importantly, are motivated to adopt for all the right reasons. It depends on appropriate training of prospective adopters – being truthful with them about the challenges they’ll likely face and not perpetuating the happy ever after myth. It depends on robust post-adoption support.

If all that is in place, can adoption be the right thing for a child? I believe so. I believe it can give them a stability and permanence that cannot currently be achieved any other way. And if we need adoption, we do need to find adopters.

We have to be honest though, and we have to say that adoption does not work out as you would hope in all situations, usually because one of the criteria I described above hasn’t been met.

I think there is a general consensus now, within many corners of the adoption community, that adoption as it stands needs to change. From the few adoptee voices that are being heard, we know that having all ties to biological roots or heritage or culture legally severed is incredibly detrimental and has life-long impacts. Being removed from the parents who conceived and carried and birthed you is not something one ‘just gets over’ as many were told in the past. So it seems increasingly important that where links can safely be maintained with members of children’s birth families, they should be. If we think of the mother who was a victim of domestic abuse or the one who needed more support, we can see that an adopted child still being able to spend time with them could be of great benefit to all.

Again, I don’t think we can start saying that all adoptions should be open because what of the paedophiles and abusers? I am certain there are situations where it is in the child’s best interests to never see their parents again. But should they have as much information as possible about them at their fingertips? Of course. They will still need to know where they got their eyebrows from even if it is too damaging to have those relatives in their lives.

I think what I’m saying is that behind the billboards and newspaper adverts of bonny-looking children, there is a huge swampy, divisive, polarising debate going on. It’s a debate that needs to be had to move adoption forwards and to ensure that we do it better. It’s a debate that involves difficult questions and unpalatable facts and no easy answers. It’s a debate with no single solution.

The pity of it is that it’s a debate which currently divides. It is a shame because the posters and the agencies and the adult adoptees and the more experienced adopters and the grandparents with SGOs and the birth parents who desperately fought to keep their children really all want the same thing: the best for their children and for future children like them. We all want the best for the 4100. It’s just that we all have a different viewpoint of what that best is.

At the moment The Great Adoption Week debate mainly goes on in muttered huddles behind billboards, with many pretending the campaign isn’t happening, yet feeling irked it is. The recruitment aspect still tends to dominate. Wouldn’t it be great if, somehow, the debate in all its meaty complexity could step forward? Punch through the posters? Wouldn’t it be even better if all the groups with vested interests could pull together, with adoptees at their centre, and sort this shit out?

If everyone worked together, perhaps better support for SGO’s could be secured? Perhaps policy around risk-assessing maintaining maximum links with birth relatives could be written and put into practise, instead of every child with a permanency plan just having annual Letterbox automatically added to it? Perhaps more creative solutions could be found. Perhaps plans would be more personalised to individual circumstances and also flexible enough to reflect changes to circumstances. Perhaps every adoption panel and advisory do-dah would have adoptees on it.

I suspect there would still be adoption but it might work differently to how it does now. I suspect it will become more open and get used more carefully as we move forwards. I just hope that together, we can push the debate onward.

In the meantime, 4100 children wait. And aside from the rights or wrongs of the methods employed, National Adoption Week at least endeavours to find them a solution.

 

 

 

The Great National Adoption Week Debate

The National Adoption Awards

When I found out that my blog had been nominated and then shortlisted for an award at The National Adoption Awards, I knew I was supposed to play it cool and act nonchalant about the whole thing. However, as truth-telling is my M.O. I can’t lie to you now: I was totally, child-level, excited. I have never been to an awards ceremony in my life (I’m pretty sure school prize night doesn’t count) and may never again so really wanted, as uncool as it may have been, to make the most of this one. Cue a lot of time thinking about dresses/shoes/make up and some accompanying squealing.

Not only that, but in my new portfolio career, I spend a lot of time on my own, writing, and I don’t really have a boss. I don’t have an annual PDR or get any kind of feedback, frequently sending my work off into the ether and either hearing nothing or ‘no thanks’ so to be nominated for an award, especially for my writing, genuinely meant a lot to me. It gave me a lot of encouragement and some much needed positivity.

There was one problem though – the awards were being held in London. I have a very good friend, of over 28 years now, who lives in London and is all too aware of my London-phobia as I have hitherto completely refused to visit her. As anyone who knows me or has been reading for a while will know, I’m a little unhinged when it comes to our glorious capital. In my morbid and fearful brain, there is a direct connection between the metropolis and terrorism and going there has always felt akin to risking my life. And yes, I can hear how crazy this sounds. Anyhow, I was so excited that I decided I would need to overcome my notably irrational fears in order to go (but only if Grizzly would go with me).

Like any parent, going away is not without its organisational/logistical/emotional challenges, especially when it’s the first time you have both left them on a school night. With the help of lists/timetables/grandparents and a bit of military-level planning, we were on our way.

My first priority was seeing my much-loved and neglected friend, who had recently had a baby who I hadn’t yet met. We spent a lovely afternoon, in unseasonably warm conditions, sitting outside a fancy brasserie near Kings Cross, chatting, cuddling the baby and catching up. I realised how infrequently Grizzly and I are in relaxing situations, without the boys or without wondering what the boys are up to or checking the time because we need to get back to the boys. I suppose due to us being too far away to do anything useful, we felt a little more relaxed than at other times when we have been out on dates. A little distance can be a good thing for getting some perspective on your day to day life and making that time to have fun as a couple is essential, especially when real life is so busy.

Soon, I was stepping into my first Uber (I live up North in the countryside, don’t judge me) and we were off to The Foundling Museum.

IMG_0712

Part of the reason I was excited about going to the awards was because I would get to meet some adoption glitterati. Grizzly isn’t on Twitter so I tried to fill him in on who was who. It’s quite a bizarre situation knowing someone’s Twitter handle but not their actual name or what they look like, yet still considering them a friend. It’s certainly not a situation I’ve been in before and it did take a few minutes to work out who was who and to find people I knew (in a virtual sense at least). It was great to meet @imperfectlyblog and @adoptionof2 whose blogs had also been nominated. It was strange to share photos of our children and use their real names when we are all so cautious about doing so in the virtual world we usually meet in.

There were canapes and bubbly and we tried not to make a mess on the surfaces that had signs saying “nothing on here”. We debated the seating arrangements for the ceremony itself – would it be theatre-style or round tables? It turned out, to our surprise, to be a standing event; a bit of a challenge while hot/nervous/wearing heels but soon the speakers began and we were distracted by their words.

Carrie and David Grant, of Fame Academy and also-being-adopters-fame, opened and hosted the ceremony. They were funny and set things off in a relaxed and friendly style. Nadhim Zahawi, Minister for Children and Families was also there and delivered a speech, as well as giving an award. It was lovely hearing about good practise and social workers getting things right for families. It was great to see people being awarded for their efforts and hearing their teams/families cheering for them. Unfortunately I ended up being out of the room for much of The Adoptables’ speech which I was gutted about because everyone said they spoke really well and were the highlight of the evening. There was also an adoptive family there who had been voted ‘adopter champion of the year’ – their children stole the show, especially their 2.5 year old.

 

All too soon it was over and those who had won awards were ushered into another room to have photos and video taken.

After the ceremony, Grizzly and I and a group I refer affectionately to as The Twitter Strangers all went to a bar. I drank a pina colada and was thrust immediately into the most intense and challenging adoption chat I’ve ever had (in the best possible way). We talked about the future of adoption. We talked about contact and how it is mainly agreed on quite an arbitrary basis at the moment and how open adoptions could be more modern and appropriate. We discussed the issues this would raise about safety and how there are probably some children for whom this could never be safe. We talked about how social work would need to mould and change; become more understanding of the need for direct contact, have protocols in place to support it and be more reliable in sharing the requisite information with adopters. We talked about adopter recruitment and how this might/could/should change. We talked about trauma being broader than adoption; much broader.

We talked about National Adoption Week itself and in fact the awards themselves. I realised it was a much more complex and thorny subject than I had previously realised. I have thought lots about adopter recruitment and telling the truth. What I had not previously considered, to my shame, is that National Adoption Week is really only about adopters. It is not really for adoptees or for others who provide permanence such as kinship carers or long term foster carers. I suppose it is something that has been born out of the need for adopter recruitment and has good intentions. However, it does feel uncomfortable to realise that it is quite exclusive and excluding. Whilst I think it is positive to applaud good practice and recognise those who have gone above or beyond in some way, it would be even better to see those accolades shared across a wider population. @MrAlCoates has written about it already here: Al’s blog  I’m not quite sure what I want to add other than having an event which brought together birth families and all forms of carer/parent and had children at its centre would be the ultimate in inclusive, inspiring and uplifting award-giving.

The conversations were Big. I would mull on them and snippets would pop into my head for days afterwards.

It was fun though, we laughed and shared stories. I had to confess to Al and Scott that I have never listened to their Podcast (awkward) though I hope I slightly redeemed that situation with the fact I’ve never listened to any Podcast because I’m a Luddite. I have also since made myself figure it out and am now a proud listener. It’s pretty cool, you can wander around putting the washing on and stuff and still learn things at the same time – so much more practical than reading – who knew?

I was extremely grateful to my lovely husband for taking the time out of his own manic work schedule to be there with me. He wasn’t at all thrown by not knowing anybody and got stuck into the Big conversations too. He’s a good’un.

The whole thing was an adventure and I had a brilliant time. I couldn’t quite believe it when I found myself wandering the streets of London beyond my bedtime or when we made it home without incident or terror. And the boys were absolutely fine.

Thank you to everyone involved at First4Adoption for all your hard work in organising it and of course, for this:

IMG_0783

 

 

The National Adoption Awards

Re-visiting the CPR

Last week Little Bear was really struggling. We’d had a lovely first 4 or 5 weeks of the summer holiday and then suddenly there was a sea-change. Little Bear was just so angry. He could barely contain himself. A request like ‘please tidy the game away’ led to ten minutes of growling, gritted teeth and very elaborate deep breathing. He hated me several times per day and called me an ‘idiot’ countless times. It was obvious something was the matter but it was difficult to say what. With it being a week or so before school starting again I assumed it was anxiety for that.

On the Friday, Big Bear was busy doing something else so Little Bear and I had a day out on our own. It was one of those trips where I wasn’t really feeling it because I knew it could be a really difficult day and sitting around watching TV seemed quite a lot more appealing. However, having now been Little Bear’s mum for three years, I also knew that he needed that day out. He needed me to show him that I still really loved him and wanted to be with him, of my own choosing, despite him having a rotten week and being less than pleasant to me. I took a deep breath, reminded myself there were only a few more days before I got Five Minutes Peace and off we went.

We didn’t get off to a brilliant start because the road we usually use was shut so I had to turn around and go another way. In his fragile state this really bothered Little Bear. He announced the day was ruined and we should just go home. He protested all the way there that we now had to drive on a motorway and he hated motorways. Apparently it was the worst day ever.

However, once we were there, we had fun. We played at the park and because there was only he and I, it was easy to trail him and just follow him wherever he fancied going. We saw animals, went on a little train, had a go on an inflatable slide. We’d brought a picnic and I was surprised that Little Bear wasn’t in a hurry to eat and go. He wanted to hang out on the rug for a while so he played on my phone and we snuggled. It was lovely and I guiltily thought about my feelings from before we came out. We had ice cream and painted some pottery.

When Little Bear got tired we headed for home. Then, boom! In the car: an unexpected life story chat. A big one this time. Could this have been behind his behaviour all week?

Little Bear was thinking in particular about his birth siblings whom we only have annual Letterbox contact with. We have talked about them before and looked at their pictures but then months go by and Little Bear doesn’t say anything and I wonder whether he has remembered any of the chats. Well, he has. He’s remembered everything and I suspect he ruminates on it all a lot more than he lets on.

He told me he had been dreaming about them which is interesting because I recently read that our pre-verbal memories can appear in our dreams. He told me he misses them and got tearful. It was hard trying to explain why he can’t see them. I told him about Letterbox for the first time though and I think this year he will be able to get involved.

I was hit with a realisation: we might need to explore changing our contact agreements going forwards. It isn’t really ok that he can’t see his siblings, is it? To some extent we have been able to pretend they don’t exist – out of sight out of mind. Little Bear has previously not mentioned them or shown any understanding of who they are so that seemed ok. Although, really, it isn’t ok. They are his siblings. They do exist and now he has a sense that they should be together.

I feel it’s imperative that we listen to him and that, if necessary, we are willing to challenge current arrangements. The message from adult adoptees is loud and clear: listen to us, do not deny us our roots. I think for us to be the best parents to Little Bear we can be, we need to be willing to listen to what he wants, even if it is difficult or inconvenient for us.

Grizzly and I had a big chat later on. It would be easy to react immediately and to try to set the ball rolling. However, there are many things that need to be considered. Allowing direct contact with Little Bear’s siblings could risk leading their birth parents right to us. At the moment, being anonymous and in an unknown location feels important. What could be the possible consequences of taking that risk? It’s hard to say and near impossible to predict with the information we have.

Also, it is very difficult to communicate the difference between an idea and the reality of a situation to a 6 year old. Meeting the siblings would be a huge deal. I know he sort of remembers them but they would essentially be strangers and it could be extremely overwhelming for him. At this stage he wouldn’t be able to tell you which name went with which person. Perhaps a bit more of a connection needs to be built first.

For now we are going to hold the nugget of the idea in mind. We’ll involve Little Bear in Letterbox and, happily, we’ll be able to give him the reply this time. I think we’ll see how that goes before we jump in any further.

That was only part of the big conversation though. The enormous question of ‘why did my birth mum want to give me away?’ reared its head for the first time. I explained she hadn’t wanted to and how it all works. I very quickly exhausted the basic narrative that has covered his questions so far: your birth parents weren’t good at looking after children. Then I had another realisation: if he asked me more questions about details of exactly what happened I might not be able to answer them very well. My memory of the details (beyond the content of his Life Story Book) was fuzzy to say the least. If anything, I’m guilty of creating some sort of weird rose-tinted view of his birth parents. I have them painted as a victim of their circumstances and that they hadn’t actively done much wrong. I had even got to the point of wondering why the children had been removed when they were trying their best.

My strange little internal view of them was at odds with what I know about how child protection services work. It didn’t stack up. So I realised I had better go back to the paperwork and refresh my memory of the details of what really happened.

So that’s how Grizzly and I ended up sitting here, in our pyjamas, on a Friday night, when most people are out-out or watching Netflix, pouring over Little Bear’s CPR (Child Permanence Report – the lengthy report you are given about your adoptive child that gives the full history of how they ended up in Care).

It was much worse than I remembered.

I haven’t read it for more than 3 years and when I read it last time, I hadn’t even met Little Bear. I suspect that what I looked for in it was quite different to my current viewpoint. Then, I was alert to how many times he’d moved, what things had specifically happened to him, whether mum used drugs or alcohol. I suppose I was looking for red flags. I probably didn’t pay too much attention to the bits about his siblings because they weren’t going to be adopted. Because Little Bear was the youngest, there wasn’t a lot about him specifically in the report. However, now that I’m reading a report about my youngest son, not a child I haven’t met yet, I’m attuned to other clues. This time, I wanted to get an idea of his birth parents (an accurate one) and what the home environment was really like. I needed to know about the reality of their day to day lives. Who are these people? How do they tick? What were the risks back then? What are the risks likely to be now?

The picture I now have of them is much less rosy, let’s just say that.

This time I paid much more attention to the siblings – what had they been through, how were they likely to be coping now? The thing is that they aren’t just random children who don’t matter to us; they are our son’s siblings. They do matter. In fact, the journey of one in particular is hard to read and it was the bits about them at which I cried, not any of the bits about Little Bear.

I don’t think the birth parents can really change to any dramatic degree. I don’t think they have the capacity to change the things that would make a difference. Things for the siblings though are very much subject to change. A lot is going to depend on the care and guidance they have now. They could be a product of their earlier childhoods or they may have been able to overcome that early adversity. They could gravitate back to birth parents or take their lives on a completely opposing course. We don’t know. I don’t know if we’ll ever know but if we go down the route of increasing contact, we’ll need to ask some questions. There is certainly a fine balance between giving your child access to their past and keeping them safe in the present and future.

For the first time I feel the weight of responsibility of being a custodian of Little Bear’s story. The choices we make now and the things we do or don’t do could have a huge impact on how Little Bear will feel about being adopted in the future. I read so much about adoptees feeling marginalised and misunderstood that obviously I want to avoid the mistakes they feel were made for them. At the same time, I feel the pain of their adopters who no doubt wracked their brains and their hearts, as we do, trying their best to figure out what the right decisions are.

 

*I have absolutely no idea how I managed to create a rose-tinted view of LB’s birth parents. Perhaps it was subconsciously more palatable? Either way, I can highly recommend revisiting the CPR at moments of doubt, even if I was haunted by some of the information for a couple of days afterwards.

 

Re-visiting the CPR

Reflections on Adoption Three Years In

Wow. I honestly don’t know how we’ve got here already. How can it be three whole years since Little Bear whizzed into our lives? The last year has flown quicker than any other but in some ways it feels as though Little Bear has been here forever.

At each of our anniversaries I have written a blog post reflecting on how the year has gone and how my thoughts and feelings on our adoption journey have changed over time. You can read the first two here: Reflections on Adoption One Year In

Reflections on Adoption 2 Years In

For some reason, this year’s feels a bit harder to write. I think it might be because everything is feeling pretty (dare I say it?) normal… I guess that expecting the odd challenge is now woven into our everyday so it is only larger hurdles that feel noteworthy. They come and they go. We can have weeks, months even, of relative peace these days then we hit a rough patch, like we did towards the end of term and things get a bit trickier for a while. I suppose we still have the peaks and troughs pattern that we probably had last year, only now the peaks are bigger and the troughs a little shallower.

With it being our ‘famiversary’ (a term I have shamelessly pilfered from a fellow Tweeter) our minds have naturally turned to reflection. Today I have also been to speak at prep groups for prospective adopters so of course I have once again cast my mind back to the early days of our adoption in order to tell them our story. All this thinking has proved bitter-sweet. The beginning of our adoption story is not a happy one. I would describe the Introductions process onwards, incorporating the first 6 months or so, as one gigantic trough. A crater, if you like, so deep and barren and challenging that we spent quite a lot of time wondering how to get out. The good news is that it has been an upwards trajectory ever since, peaks and troughs notwithstanding. But it is sad for all of us that we had to begin in that place.

The level of challenge at the time was such that I couldn’t always separate my exhaustion and desperation from the little person seemingly causing them. Time, as people so often tell you, has given me distance and clarity and now when I look back, I am so sad for the scared little bundle that arrived on our doorstep, his bag, containing all his life’s belongings, bigger than he was. The bag contained mainly clothes and nice ones at that. It contained some toys, but a smaller range than you might imagine for a child of 3 and a half. There wasn’t a book in sight.

Little Bear himself was tiny, his head fitting in my hand like a baby’s would. When I look back at photos of him he looks much younger than he was. He also looks ridiculously cute to the point where it surprises me. I suspect the reason for that is because his behaviour was anything but cute and my memories of him are of a much bigger, stronger, angrier, harder boy. It’s funny how your memory plays such tricks. It’s funny, but it isn’t amusing. How awful that I couldn’t see that vulnerable tininess at the time.

The other unpalatable fact is that Little Bear was meeting his developmental milestones when he entered foster care yet was more than 2 years behind age expectations when we met him, some 2 and a bit years later. He wasn’t toilet trained, couldn’t walk safely without reins, used a high chair, had a bottle at bed and couldn’t make himself understood to us, his new family. He couldn’t count, didn’t know his colours, his own name or have words for everyday things such as the tele. He was due to start school in one year’s time. I wrote about my feelings on some of this in Developmental Delay

Little Bear’s tongue had a very unusual cracked appearance and he took medication for constipation. He was dehydrated.

Most of the time these days I suppose I don’t think about all of this but when I do, I vacillate between fury and heartbreak. My gorgeous little boy was trapped inside of himself; his potential all but wasted. I’d go back in time if I could, bring him home sooner. Of course that was never a possibility, but you can’t help wondering how things could have been for him; how much farther ahead he would be; how much angst and frustration and rage could have been saved.

As if that wasn’t tricky enough, we were expecting the other boy, the one from the paperwork. He had Little Bear’s name and picture but the description and the behaviour of the fictitious on-paper-child and the realities of the in-the-flesh one were something of a contrast. We were completely unprepared for the prospect of violence and aggression coming into our home, especially as we had specifically stated we couldn’t cope with it. We may not have been quite so over-faced by Little Bear’s behaviour, had we have known about it in advance.

The facts of the start of our adoption are thus: a little boy, who was completely lost and terrified but who had no way of verbalising his scary thoughts landed in our house. He didn’t appear to be anything like the child we had agreed to adopt which was somewhat terrifying for us (understatement of the century). To say things were touch and go for some months would be accurate. Was it ‘love at first sight’ and did he feel like ‘the one’? Well, I think you know the answers.

Yet here we are, three years on and I can tell you, unequivocally, that I love him like I’ve given birth to him. It’s hard to summarise how we got from there to here; you’d have to read my blog in its entirety, but we have. I look at my tall, muscly boy who is so strong but not at all aggressive, and it’s hard for me to compute that he is the same one who came home. He’s loving, can be polite (!), hilariously funny and so sharp. To his credit he has worked his tiny backside off, all the while creeping closer to age-expectations. Not only can he count but he’s learning his times tables. He can read, write and do a whole myriad of other impressive things. He’s an extremely well-behaved and considerate little brother.

It is impossible to imagine that there could have been another child out there who could have been a better match for our family. I questioned the match. Many times. I questioned it most often at 4am when I just got back into bed after 3 hours of providing middle of the night ‘supervision’ and was too exhausted to sleep and couldn’t face the day ahead. For a long time the match seemed questionable. But it isn’t. The match is perfect. Little Bear is The One. He feels like he’s my son, just in the same way that Big Bear feels like he’s my son.

Adoption is such a strange thing. What an abnormal way of gaining a child! Yet, I’ve struggled to pick things apart this year because our life feels so normal. All that stuff at the beginning of our relationship is getting less and less relevant. This is us. A family. Mum, Dad and two boys.

Someone asked me today if Little Bear identifies as being adopted, first and foremost and how you manage to truly integrate a child who isn’t genetically yours. I think they were worried that talking too much about adoption could make their child feel less theirs and were wondering whether just not mentioning it might work better. I’m not sure that I managed to articulate my answer properly because it is a tricky concept to get across. What I tried to say was that Little Bear is very much my son. I don’t think he could feel more like he is. It isn’t physically possible. He is one quarter of this family, just the same as each of us are. He doesn’t get a smaller proportion because he’s adopted. We are each an equal member. We have a strong sense of family unity and I would say he identifies as a Bear. He identifies as mine and Grizzly’s child and as Big Bear’s brother. He identifies as a grandchild to our parents and a nephew to my brother. However, I know that he does also identify as adopted, because he is. There was some sort of incident in school recently where another adoptee in Little Bear’s class got upset about being adopted. Little Bear stood up, in a show of unity and said, “I’m adopted too”. I can totally picture it and it looks like Spartacus every time.

My point is that a child can be fully integrated, a true member of a family and still be adopted. The two are not mutually exclusive. I think to fail to acknowledge his background would be a huge disservice to him. I can see how acknowledging your child had a life before you could be a threatening concept for a new adopter but it needn’t be a threat. I know the concept of a child being yours and someone else’s feels like it could be uncomfortable, like there wouldn’t be enough room for everyone, but there is. Love is a funny thing. It’s pretty stretchy.

Someone else gave birth to my son and he felt like a stranger when I met him. But love came and it grew. It grew so much that parenting him now feels like the most natural thing in the world. He’s my son and while we definitely do acknowledge he came here through adoption, it doesn’t matter. I really do think much more value is placed on genetics than is necessary or relevant. Three years have sealed the bonds, strengthened the attachments and mercifully, made everything feel really normal.

 

 

 

Reflections on Adoption Three Years In

New Teacher

You may have gathered, from my last few posts, that Transition has been the theme of the summer season here. See This Year, Last Year Fear of Loss if you don’t quite know what I mean.

Little Bear’s angst has been building for several months in anticipation of moving to Year 2 and getting a new teacher, reaching its zenith this week when the Big Move actually happened.

The first we knew about Little Bear’s sense of impending doom was in April-time when he announced he was scared of the Year 2 teacher. I’m going to call him Mr Jones for ease because Mr New Teacher is already feeling unwieldy. Mr. Jones seemed, from what little I knew of him, to be perfectly nice. He does, however, cut a substantial figure. I don’t mean he’s overweight but he is certainly taller than average. Grizzly is also a taller man so I wouldn’t have thought it would have been particularly noteworthy for Little Bear but evidently the broader build, deep voice and towering height were creating some level of fear for Little Bear. I suppose he must seem giant-like to a 6 year old.

We tackled this by chatting with Little Bear’s Year 1 teacher (whom I have never gifted with a pseudonym but I am feeling sufficiently guilty as to rectify that right now. She can be Mrs Potter henceforth.) Anyhow, we made the teaching staff aware and they made sure that Little Bear spent more time with Mr Jones in a non-threatening way. Mr Jones is a bit of a joker and told Little Bear that he doesn’t bite; not hard anyway. Little Bear found this pretty funny and it was one of the rare snippets of school he actually shared with me. Over time Little Bear got more used to Mr Jones until one day he announced he wasn’t scared of him anymore.

This was great but such was the state of Little Bear’s anxiety that where one fear was allayed, another immediately crept in. Now that Little Bear had allowed himself to accept he really would be going to Mr Jones’ class, the realisation hit that he would consequently be leaving Mrs Potter behind.

As for any child who has experienced severed relationships and developmental trauma, the loss of another key person is very triggering – it drags up the emotions of previous losses, wobbles the present and makes you question the certainty of the future.

I don’t think I’m over stating the situation when I say that Little Bear loves Mrs Potter. She has played a big role in his life so far. She visited him in pre-school and was a key person in his transition from pre-school to Reception class. She set him on course for his whole formal education. She has been responsible for him learning to read, write, do Maths. She has stayed with him for two full school years and in that time has been a safe, trusted adult who has stuck with him through some pretty testing times and challenging behaviour. Little Bear adores her and Mrs Potter makes it clear to him that the feeling is mutual. No matter what.

It was completely understandable that Little Bear would be bereft to leave her. To be quite honest, I was also a little bereft. It’s no secret that navigating the education system as the parent of an adoptee is tricky. It can be extremely difficult to get the system to understand your child rather than wanting to constantly change them. As a parent of a child with additional needs, it can be hard to get your voice heard and to be recognised as an expert in your child and seen as a valuable member of the team. At times in Little Bear’s education so far, I have struggled with all of these things. I have also had moments of utter panic at the level of Little Bear’s delay and how on earth he will ever manage to catch up (see LINK). Throughout these challenges, Mrs Potter has always been there. We have somehow managed to develop a really honest and mutually respectful relationship, something which I know is difficult to achieve. I also felt the fear of leaving that safety behind and taking a large leap into the unknown. I felt the fear of having to work really hard to create that relationship again, with another teacher, as well as instilling in them the same level of understanding of Little Bear as Mrs Potter now has.

This transition was a Big deal for all of us.

We tried to allay Little Bear’s fears by reassuring him that Mrs Potter was not disappearing from his life. She would just be next door, in her classroom. He could go to see her whenever he needed to. We (Mrs Potter was very involved in this) reassured him that she would not forget him and that she would still love him, even when he was in Mr Jones’ class. Little Bear and I made a present for Mrs Potter. I made a big deal of how she would think about him every time she looked at it and Little Bear really did pour his love and a few of his other feelings into the picture.

Little Bear started to feel better about moving on from Mrs Potters’ class but such was the state of his anxiety that where that fear was allayed, another crept in.

When we were getting organised with teacher gifts, I made sure to get one for Mrs C, Little Bear’s TA. Although she was going with Little Bear to Year 2, I wanted to thank her for everything she had done for him so far. Of all the teachers in Little Bear’s life, Mrs C has been on the biggest journey. I feel okay to say now that when they first met it was something of a personality clash. It was a disaster and I genuinely believed the wrong appointment had been made. I suspect Mrs C was pretty confident in thinking she’d easily sort Little Bear out with a bit of firm discipline. However, it was more like a head to head stand off and the harder she went in, the more he resisted and the more creative he became in testing her boundaries. I’m pretty sure he gave her the full works, including a few kicks and scratches and caused her to go home in despair on a daily basis, wondering why on earth she had taken the job.

However, I have to credit Mrs C with a very important trait: she has been willing to listen and to try something different. She was prepared to persevere and she stuck with Little Bear where others would certainly have thrown in the towel. She changed her approach, she read what we gave her, she listened and she has now become another trusted and consistent adult in Little Bear’s life, who understands him and is able to effectively support his learning. I would now be absolutely gutted if she left and feel as though she is the crutch that will bear the weight of this transition for Little Bear.

As such, I felt it was important I expressed my thanks. When I mentioned I had got her a gift, a flash of panic darkened Little Bear’s face. “Mrs C is going with me to Year 2 isn’t she?” he asked, evidently fearful she wasn’t. Yes, we reassured, she is. However, over the course of a few days, Little Bear made more comments indicating he thought she wasn’t really. I suppose it is hard to fully trust even your trusted adults when you have been so let down before.

On the last day of year 1, I didn’t really know how Little Bear would be but taking his gifts in seemed to be a handy distraction. Mrs Potter cried over him several times and both she and Mrs C gave him a cuddle in exchange for their gift. Little Bear was absolutely made up that they loved their gifts and evidently Mrs Potter let him believe that his gift was her favourite.

Surprisingly, the day ended much more positively than I had anticipated and much more positively than the end of Reception class which had involved a lot of throwing and screaming. I couldn’t even see Little Bear when I went to pick him up and it turned out he was so nonchalant about the whole thing he was busy sharpening his new pencil instead of being upset. Mrs Potter had bought each child a notepad, pen and pencil and Little Bear was so delighted that he came home and immediately started writing?!

Then, that Friday night, at 5pm, Mrs Potter and Mr Jones both came to visit Little Bear at home. This was absolutely above and beyond the call of duty and not something they usually do. However, because they understood Little Bear’s anxieties and are prepared to do things differently to help him, they wanted to. Little Bear loved the visit and I really feel it assuaged his worries. We had the calmest weekend we’d had in several weeks. It felt particularly poignant because it reminded me of when the foster carers came here to visibly give Little Bear their permission to be happy with us. I felt Mrs Potter was visibly saying “Mr Jones is taking over now and he’s a safe person too. I am ok with you being happy in his class” and that was so much more powerful happening in our home.

The preparation had gone as well as possible but we were in no way complacent. We had no idea what Monday morning would bring.

It actually brought a very happy Little Bear who was excited to be in Year 2. He skipped straight in without a backward glance.

My anxieties rose a little after school because Little Bear did his usual trick of not telling us anything that had happened/ telling us a clearly fictitious version. Later in the week I made sure to have a quick catch-up chat with Mr Jones – both to set the expectation that we need to be in regular touch and also to put our minds at rest.

Obviously I am far from having the relationship with him (yet) that I had with Mrs Potter but the chat felt positive. Mr Jones doesn’t feel Little Bear is testing him which is a good indicator that Little Bear feels safe and settled. Mr Jones has been laying out his boundaries but has not removed Little Bear from class or used any cards. He told me that Little Bear had not engaged well with a particular task but he had evidently gone away and pondered why that might have been and then asked Mrs C’s thoughts, knowing she has more expertise when it comes to Little Bear. I feel these are good signs of willingness to listen and look beyond behaviour and hopefully bode well…

I don’t want to count my chickens (especially after our recent fox-induced henmageddon) but at the moment it looks as though the anticipation of the transition was the biggest problem for Little Bear and that the measures everybody put in place to support him helped a lot. I have been really touched by the level of support we have recently received from school – it has come from a place of genuine care. As well as thanking the individual teachers, I have now e-mailed the Head Teacher to make sure he knows how hard members of his staff have worked and what a difference their commitment and support has made to us. I would be quick to speak up if the right support wasn’t in place for Little Bear so I feel it’s imperative that I am also willing to speak up when things are done well.

I am under no illusion that year 2 will be plain-sailing. Mr Jones has already discussed his aim of taking Little Bear from working towards Year 1 levels to achieving expected levels for year 2 in a year’s time. This is no mean feat and I don’t honestly know if it’s achievable. We also have the spectre of SATS on the horizon and a school residential. But for now, on the wind-down to the summer holidays, I am grateful for having got this far. The new teacher, myself and of course Little Bear are all taking our first tentative steps into this new situation. I just hope that we find a way to walk together.

 

New Teacher