Alone Parenting

I’ve written plenty before about the challenges of adoptive parenting or parenting a child with SEMH needs (Social, Emotional or Mental Health needs) and the different ways it can impact you. I’ve written about the need we have, as parents, for affirmation – for someone to tell us now and again that we’re doing a good job. I’ve written about CCVAB (Childhood challenging, violent or aggressive behaviour) – the taboos around this, the terror of it, the ways it can keep you awake at night. I’ve written about external factors like the impact of school and professionals who come on the journey with you, and even how you can feel judged by random members of the public. There are times when I have written pretty frankly about the hard bits of our parenting journey, my anxieties, our messier moments.

This morning I have been reminded that I have revealed and discussed all of this from within the comfort of my supportive marriage. My marriage in which I can be brutally honest with my husband, and him with me. My marriage in which I have a place to off load, to discuss, to compare notes, to problem-solve, to rant, to moan, to cry, to celebrate the tiniest success, to despair, to have a hug. In my marriage, I have a co-pilot who I can switch with and who helps me navigate and make this journey.

Outside of my marriage, I have parents and a parent-in-law and a brother and soon to be sister-in-law who are all there, supporting our journey.

Outside of that, I have good friends who I can talk freely to, who bring their own knowledge to the table, who listen, counsel, support.

I’m very lucky.

This morning, I realised that even cocooned within all those layers of support, there have been times when I have felt desperate and despairing. I don’t think I’ve experienced those things too much on a prolonged basis but there have been times that I’ve felt them. I think all parents do, sometimes.

Then, I thought, what if all those cocooning layers were stripped away? What if a person didn’t have friends who understood their challenges or their child’s challenges? What if their family – their parents, their siblings, their cousins – whoever they have – didn’t understand their challenges? What if – even worse – their partner wasn’t supportive? How desperate and despairing would that be?

What if their partner not only wouldn’t work in partnership but actively avoided things that might help (such as engaging with any external support offered or reading helpful books)? What if their partner were critical or didn’t offer affirmation or a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear? What if their partner refused to co-parent or use therapeutic strategies or just didn’t bother to get their hands dirty with the business of parenting at all?

What if a person had to walk this journey truly alone?

I suspect many of us are guilty of seeing that a person has a partner or spouse and assuming they provide them with the support I talked about above. But what if they don’t? What if their relationship is a lonely place? What if they have polarising view points on parenting or discipline or how to manage CCVAB? What if they can’t even talk about how to parent anymore? What if every chat ends in an argument? What if one of them mentally (or even physically) checks out, leaving the other to deal with everything alone? What if their differences lead to inconsistencies and unpredictable boundaries? What if the children feel this and it further discombobulates them? What if the CCVAB becomes directed to one parent only? What if the other turns a blind eye? What if one is made to feel it’s their fault? That it’s their bad parenting doing it. What if that person’s confidence has become so eroded they think it’s their fault too?

I know you can adopt as a single person. I think the hope would be that the next layers of support – the wider family, the close friends – would step closer, ensuring you are still well cocooned. And this can work as beautifully as a good partnership. But what if it doesn’t? What if they don’t step forward? What if a parent is left with an empty moat where the support should be? What if they experience external judgement and criticism to such a level their confidence is eroded to nothing?

How desperate and despairing would they be then?

I guess it’s hard to speak out about it if you’re trapped in it. You think it’s your fault or just what you deserve anyway. You fear what the speaking out or the being honest could do.

This post is for you. I see you. I see how hard you’re trying. How you’re giving parenting everything but you’re exhausted. And worn down. How you think everyone must be doing it better than you are. How scary the future is. How alone you feel. How difficult it must be to have the courage of your convictions or to make choices about which way to manage challenging situations for the best. Alone.

You do deserve to be heard. You do deserve support. This parenting alone thing – its fucking rock solid, not just hard. It’s hard enough with the support but without it? I don’t know, but I’m upsetting myself imagining it. Please believe that what you are doing is a great achievement, in the most trying of circumstances. You’re doing it. You’re persevering. You’re getting up every day and doing it again and again and again.

Don’t look at the rest of us and imagine we have everything sewn up and tickety-boo. We don’t. We lose our shit, our houses are messy, we cut parenting corners. I mean it’s winter – if you can’t be bothered to iron a school shirt, it’ll hide very nicely under a sweatshirt. Not managed to bath them today? So what? Give them a quick wet wipe.

Sometimes survival is enough, for all of us. It has to be.

I could have a separate rant about the standards we set ourselves and the random demands we think society expects of us, especially in the run up to Christmas – the mountains of presents, the outfits, the bloody elves on the shelves – but I’ll try to resist. Ignore it, if you can. Set your standards, stick to those. You’re doing your level best and at the end of the day, it’s all you can do and it’s all that matters.

I think what I’m trying to say is, if you are truly alone in this, I am truly sorry. Please look after yourself. It shouldn’t be this way, but if it is, be your own warrior. Don’t stop fighting to be heard. Don’t stop standing up for what you believe in. Don’t stop trying.

Twitter used to be an amazing place to connect and get virtual support but it is sadly not as safe as it once was. However, there are still those of us whose direct messages are always open and are more than happy to talk without judgment (@adoptionblogfox). We are all in this together, cocooned or not.

 

 

If you’re a person who sits in judgement, thinking how well you are doing and how good your parenting is and how lacking others’ is in comparison – stop it. Most of the time we have not a clue what does or does not go on behind people’s doors. Until you’ve walked a mile and all that…

 

If you’re the partner who has mentally checked out or withdrawn because it’s easier or because you don’t know what else to do, please talk to your co-parent. This sort of parenting isn’t easy for anybody. But it so much easier if you can find a way to do it together.

 

Apologies for my slightly bossy tone but I’m reaching the end of my third decade, my hormones are pretty fierce and I just cannot be doing with people being shit to one another. Life is hard enough, parenting is hard enough. SEMH parenting or adoptive parenting is next level hard. Doing that alone? Hideously difficult. Let’s have some compassion and look after each other.

Please reach out to someone if you can.

Virtual hugs,

xx

 

Alone Parenting

Prep Groups

Our lovely voluntary adoption agency has now asked me several times to come along to prep groups to speak to prospective adopters. I like doing it and I went again last week. I have since been reflecting on the role of visiting adopters in prep groups and the things which are said and unsaid.

I think my appearances at such things total 5 or 6 now, over a 3 year period. Each time I’ve been I think I’ve probably told a slightly different story. I haven’t changed any facts but I’ve naturally talked about different things depending on the point we were at in our journey, things that were happening around the time of my visit or how I was feeling on the given day. I’m not quite sure how I managed to speak at them at all, the first time I did it, as it was only a couple of months into our adoption and certainly during the bit I now refer back to as ‘The Bad Bit’. I can see myself in my mind’s eye, sitting in front of those strangers, trying to be strong, for them as well as me, and I’d like to go back and give myself a hug. It was hard to do but I felt it was important.

I don’t find it hard now really. I tend to get emotional when I talk about Little Bear’s progress and how far things have come, rather than when I talk about the hard bits. Because I do talk about the hard bits. I have worried that my Agency will add me to some sort of black list after one of my visits as I’m so graphic with the truth. However, as I’ve got braver and more knowledgeable, I now feel that if a group of prospective adopters can’t handle our story in all its murky glory, they are perhaps not cut out for adoption. Our story is by no means the scariest you will hear but I have certainly seen fear in people’s eyes when I’ve been telling it. Obviously I don’t set out to instil fear; I would never purposefully scare anyone. However, I don’t see my role as treating people with kid-gloves either. Prospective adopters need to know the truth. They need to know what real adoptive families are like and that includes hearing the less palatable details of some of the challenges we face.

I try to give a balanced narrative. After all, I think our adoptive family is pretty awesome and the highs have been more than we could have asked for. In the most part we are very happy. But we have had some really hard times, we have been challenged to our core and felt a desperation you would never associate with parenthood. Prospective adopters need to know that this ain’t no fairy tale. I can’t have them going home thinking you pick the perfect child, they move in, no one looks back and you all skip away into the sunset. That would be doing a great injustice to them and their future children.

I know that listening to one adopter probably won’t make great shifts in a person’s thinking and people will hear what they want to hear to some extent anyway but I hand them my truth, because I think I have a responsibility to do so, and it is up to them how they use it.

There are a few key points that I would want to make to any prospective adopter and I suppose I may not have been consistent in doing so when I’ve popped up at the groups because of how the questioning has gone or what has been on my mind at the time. These are things that are not necessarily covered as a matter of course in the groups but I think are important for people to hear:

Firstly, you might not love your child straight away. I think it can be easy to assume you will, because the stars have brought you together in the matching process and you suspect everything happens for a reason. You may well be meant for each other but, honestly, it can take time to feel that. When you have been through a lengthy matching process and you are nervous and excited about finally meeting your child, not feeling that love can really throw you off course emotionally. Guilt, doubt, it all creeps in. I always try to remember to say to prospective adopters that it doesn’t matter if that love isn’t there at the start, or even after a few days or weeks. I think it took months for us. It is normal not to fall in love with a child you’ve just met. They are a stranger and it is ok if it feels that way for a while. Don’t beat yourselves up about it, love will come.

The second thing I try to tell people is difficult to discuss in a different way. It’s about money. Our experience was that adoption is costly. We were extremely fortunate that it wasn’t a precluding factor but at the time, we kept thinking about people on low-incomes and certainly felt it would have been unaffordable for some. I’m aware that people’s experiences are very different depending on where they adopt or where their children are in foster care and some areas seem more able/ willing to reimburse costs than others. Our experience was of clocking up hundreds of miles in the car driving back and to meetings, panels etc. including crossing a toll bridge. We did get those costs reimbursed in the end but we were out of pocket for a good 6 months. We also paid for our own accommodation as introductions were several hours from home. Whilst away, we obviously had to eat and go on days out etc. to keep two small children busy (all a little more difficult when you don’t have your own home to use) which added up cost-wise. We weren’t offered any sort of living allowance (I know some places do offer it) and we didn’t get a settling-in grant for car seats/ bed/any essential equipment we needed for Little Bear. The total costs were greater than you might anticipate and the LA wouldn’t cover anything more than petrol. There isn’t much that can be done about this (despite the rights or wrongs) but I think prospective adopters should be aware so they can ask the relevant questions and consider the practicalities.

I guess the third thing I try to get across is that in adoption, nothing is solved quickly. I am a great believer that children can and do recover from trauma but that recovery doesn’t happen the moment a child steps over the threshold. It doesn’t happen if you deny the trauma exists or if you attempt to forget the past. Helping a child to recover from trauma is a lengthy, challenging process, which requires a high level of perseverance. It takes years, not days or weeks. Adoption is a long game and you need to go into it prepared to work really, really hard.

If I haven’t made people run screaming from the room with all that, plus tales of violence and developmental delay, I feel they deserve the reward of hearing some positivity. That’s the point at which I get a bit choked up and oogey-gooey. I know that one of these times, the dam will break and I will weep in a room full of increasingly terrified people but none of us wants that.

My final point is around questions. When I’ve finished talking in a slightly uncomfortable monologue, people really need to ask some questions. Not just because it’s pretty awkward for me if I bare my soul and the entire group reacts with silence but because if you are going through adoption assessment, you should have at least one question. In my opinion, you should have a gazillion and one questions. Adoption is a huge, life-altering decision. I have no idea how you could be faced with all that reality and not be able to form one question. When I go along to the groups, it is with the intention of answering any question as honestly as I can. I don’t mind at all if people ask me so many questions I have to stay longer than planned. Questions are good. Some people may never have met another adopter before; they should bleed me dry of information. They should ask any obscure or difficult or mundane questions they might have. I honestly think that any adopter who has agreed to go along to prep groups would be ok with being asked all the questions.

Last week was a brilliant group. They were really engaged and asked many, many questions and it felt like it boded well for their future. Once, a while ago, I finished my awkward monologue and nobody spoke. Not one person. I invited questions, made a joke of the silence but not. One. Person. Spoke. The Social Workers did, obviously, but none of the prospective adopters. I thought it was me and my story and to be honest, I didn’t agree to do prep groups again for a while after that. There was no satisfaction in it at all and I went home feeling worse than when I’d gone, which is not something you hope for in a voluntary role. So, please, if you are a prospective adopter and an experienced adopter comes to speak to you at prep groups, please speak with them. Drum up at least one question. Do it out of courtesy for them but do it for yourself too. Prep groups are part of the assessment process and the Social Workers will be observing. Plus, surely there is just loads of stuff you want to know?

The funny thing is, is that despite all my honesty and re-living all our dramas for the prospective adopters, I still get really excited for them too. All the hopes and dreams of their future lives with their future children are infectious. I remember it so well and despite everything, I’d do it all again to get my Little Bear.

 

Prep Groups

A Confession

Readers, I have a confession to make. It is something I expect Society will disapprove of. It will certainly be frowned upon, if not judged very negatively, by most. I’m just going to spit it out: Little Bear still has a dummy.

I suspect this is controversial for two reasons. Firstly because Little Bear is 5, on the nearer to six side of things, and typically children give up their dummies whilst still pre-schoolers. Secondly, because I, his mother, am a Speech and Language Therapist (SaLT) who not only should know better but should be militantly opposed to dummies full stop.

It may make me a rubbish SaLT (I’ll take the chance) but I am not opposed to dummies. I certainly think they have their uses. Big Bear had one (ok, about nine) and was particularly attached to them, often sleeping with one in his mouth and one in his hand.

Initially, I tried extremely hard not to give him one, thinking it would make me a bad parent (as well as a bad therapist) if I did. However, after about 7 weeks of following the NHS guidance to demand feed, I had been feeding Big Bear around the clock and when I wasn’t doing that he was latching on to anything and everything (my arm, Grizzly’s nose etc.). I had to acquiesce to save my sanity, as well as my nipples.

Looking back, there are so many things to beat yourself up about as a new parent that I genuinely don’t think a dummy should be one of them. There are two main risks with dummy use: the impact on the infant’s teeth and the impact on their speech. Unless a child is plugged in constantly (wrong on many levels), an average amount of dummy-use is really only damaging to speech if a child speaks with the dummy in their mouth*. I have found that fairly easily solved with a ‘no talking with your dummy in’ rule, which I do stick to religiously. It hasn’t hampered either Bear from being a chatterbox. The dummy hasn’t stopped them talking, they have just got used to taking it out of their mouths to do so.

As Big Bear approached three years of age, his speech was developing well but I began to notice a change in his teeth. They were starting to angle outwards a little. It was obvious it was the dummy and it had to go. Although I knew he didn’t need it, I did know that he liked it A LOT and I was pretty trepidatious about the big withdrawal. Exactly how many nights would he scream for?!

I knew cold-turkey was really the only way but I wanted him to be as prepared as possible. We talked about dummy fairies and invented some sort of fable about what good purpose they put discarded dummies to (I can’t quite remember the details). I’m not ashamed to say we also used a good portion of bribery – those dummy fairies give a good reward! We left all the dummies outside on a plate on the allocated day (because clearly the fairies live outdoors) and the next morning a Lego truck had magically appeared in their place. The deed was done.

In reality we had one or two nights of Big Bear struggling to get to sleep but there was none of the fuss and palaver I had imagined. The big dummy withdrawal was, dare I say, pretty easy.

Several years later when we were in the process of Matching with Little Bear, it transpired that at the age of three and a half, he still had a dummy. Tut, tut, we said. How awful! He really should be rid of it by now! Just give it to the dummy fairies: how hard could it be?!

In our naivety I think we even suggested the Foster Carer’s should do the deed before he came to us.

The outrage! A three and a half year old with a dummy!

Yet, here we are, over two years later, the three and a half year old is now nearly six and he still has the dummy. So what has gone wrong?

Have I been too chicken this time?

No. Not too chicken. A little older, a little wiser and a LOT more tuned in. I haven’t taken Little Bear’s dummy away because he still needs it. Along with his blanket, it is the only thing that is guaranteed to calm him.

Usually the dummy and blanket live in his bedroom and Little Bear only has them after his bedtime stories when the light is going off. Most of the time he half forgets about them and can fall asleep without them. However, there are still days when he pads sheepishly downstairs with them, lays curled in the foetal position on the sofa and disappears off into his calm place for a couple of hours. If I didn’t let Little Bear have his dummy on that sort of day, he would prowl about, itchy, discontented and ill at ease. He would seek trouble, struggle with instruction and generally have a very difficult day. The relief and release when he gets the dummy is almost palpable.

When Little Bear was younger/ newer to our family we daren’t go on any car journey without the dummy and blanket secreted in my handbag “just in case”. There were months when they were literally the only way to calm him (though there was also a risk he’d lob it at your head).

We have many more available and effective calming strategies now and don’t take the dummy anywhere any more (apart from on holiday). However, when Little Bear starts wandering around the house with it, it is the equivalent of a red warning light. It means that Little Bear is not feeling good. We might not know why and neither may he, but it alerts us that he needs something different today. It generally means he needs few demands, lots of TV, cheesy pasta for tea, somebody to feed it to him and an early night. As yet, Little Bear can’t communicate this to us any other way so we have to rely on the medium of dummy interpretation. He has a wide enough vocabulary now but I don’t think he can pinpoint how he feels, let alone interpret the feeling enough to be able to voice it.

Although these are all valid points, there is something else, more fundamental, that is holding me back.

The dummy and blanket are the only things I can think of that Little Bear has always had. They have travelled with him (one assumes) from his birth family to foster care and from there to us, providing him with a reliable and consistent source of comfort along the way. Perhaps I should say that they are the only reliable and consistent source of comfort he has ever had. You would usually anticipate that the reliable and consistent source of comfort would be your Mum or Dad but as Little Bear has had three different ones of each and not one of them has accompanied him on his whole journey, he has had no choice but to seek an alternative source.

How can I, hand on heart, take away that consistent and reliable source of comfort? I genuinely don’t think that I can or, more importantly, that I should. Having had so little control over what has happened in his life I think I can hand over the reins of this one to Little Bear himself.

I know that Society will stand in judgement, as I too probably would have done a few years ago. I know Society will consider him too old and my behaviour in allowing it to be atypical. I have decided that I care not one jot. Sometimes I make that type of decision quietly. What wider Society doesn’t know about won’t bother them. However, if I really don’t care what anyone thinks and I genuinely believe I am acting with the best of intentions, why should I hide it? Society needs to become accepting of the fact that not all children follow a typical pattern of development and therefore will not adhere to the rigid expectations we set out, whether anybody likes it or not.

Last week I read a blog on a similar theme, though it was about using a baby carrier with a three year old, and I realised this type of age-related pigeonholing is happening left, right and Chelsea (It was written by @LivingtheTheory and you can read it here: http://living-the-theory.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/thats-no-no-now-hes-getting-bigger.html ) Can we please quit it with the chronological age expectations and think developmental needs? So what if a toddler still needs to be close to his Mum when they are out and about? So what if my 5 year old still needs me to feed him sometimes? So what if a sixteen year old with severe learning difficulties still wants to carry a teddy around? So what if a ten year old still needs a pull-up at night? So what? All children have different needs. I’m not sure we need to get our knickers in a twist about it.

I have no idea how long Little Bear is going to need his dummy and blanket. I don’t think it is something I can set an age-related target for. Will he still have it when he’s a grown man? Somehow I doubt it.

 

*The main impact on speech of having a dummy is that children talk around it and inevitably start to form some of their speech sounds incorrectly. It is usually the tongue-tip sounds that are affected the most as the dummy prevents the tongue tip from reaching the alveolar ridge (the flat hard ridge behind your top teeth) , a place it needs to be in order to make accurate t, s, l, n, d, z sounds. A tell-tale sign of too much dummy use is the presence of a process called ‘backing’ in a child’s speech. The front sound ‘t’ is made at the back instead, so it sounds like ‘k’. Everywhere a child should use a ‘t’, they will use a ‘k’, so ‘tea’ sounds like ‘key’ etc.
Dummy use isn’t the sole cause of this process, it could just happen anyway, but it is not a process usually seen in typical development so can be a red flag.
As Little Bear has Developmental Language Disorder, with accompanying speech disorder, I would be stupid to allow him to speak around his dummy. Interestingly, although he has had many atypical processes in his speech, backing has not been one of them.
However long a child needs their dummy, I do believe that speaking with it in is a massive no-no at any stage.

For the record I do care about Little Bear’s teeth too. He has regular checks at the dentist and so far they are lovely and straight (as are Big Bear’s adult teeth).

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A Confession