Birth Siblings

In all my years of blogging, I haven’t really mentioned Little Bear’s birth siblings much (See Re-visiting the CPR for my most recent mention) but they are increasingly on my mind. As difficult as it to share this, I need to be completely honest: when we were going through the Matching process, the fact that Little Bear had several older siblings caused me a lot of worry. I worried that as they remained (and were going to remain) in the Care system that their futures might not be as sunny as one would hope. What if they fell into drugs or crime? What sort of impact might that have on Little Bear, or us? Did I really want to invite these unknown youths into our lives, even if just with letters? It literally kept me awake at night.

I look back and I’m embarrassed that I held those views. I’m choosing to forgive myself because I was very new to adoption at the time and the Matching process is incredibly stressful. It is important, at that stage, that you consider all the whys and what ifs. You do need to go into an adoption open-eyed and aware of potential issues and impacts. You do need to ponder the information you are given and think about whether you really can cope with any possible challenges within the context of your own life. I suppose I was right in some ways to think critically about the other siblings and how we would manage contact with them.

However, what I did not need to do was tar all looked-after children with the same brush. Just because they are going to spend their childhood in Care certainly does not mean that they will come out the other end in trouble with the Police or addicted to class A’s. I didn’t know these young people at all – a much better starting point would have been an open mind and a willingness to get to know them.

I suppose the spectre of them loomed large to me, as a terrified, new, prospective adopter. I can understand how it did and I can understand how other people might feel that way too.

It is strange how my views and feelings have changed in the three years since then. My overarching feeling towards them now is one of wanting to protect them – to extend my parenting arms around them as far as I can feasibly reach. That probably sounds equally as strange as my starting viewpoint, because they are not my children, biological, adopted or otherwise. However, they are Little Bear’s siblings and Little Bear is my son. There is, undeniably, a link between us and them.

I think at the start of this process, we used words like ‘birth siblings’ to keep them at arm’s length. We didn’t use the words ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ unless they had ‘birth’ before them, again making a linguistic distinction, indicating they were somehow different. The truth is that no matter what we call them, they are Little Bear’s brothers and sisters and should be referred to as such.

We recently had an update about them from their Social Worker. They had sent letters and pictures which were spread out on our kitchen table. I was still being ridiculously careful about what I called them. Big Bear walked in and said, “Oh, Little Bear, have you had post from your brothers/sisters? That’s nice.” In so doing, he cut through all my euphemistic crap and just called them what they are. I looked on and learned my lesson.

In this post I’m going to keep calling them “Little Bear’s siblings” to protect their anonymity but now you know that we just call them their names or ‘your brother/sister’ at home.

I think the fact that it was Big Bear who cut the crap (pardon my language) was particularly meaningful. Part of the reason I tiptoe around is for him. I’d be interested to hear from anyone else who has a birth child about how they handle this. I find it difficult that Little Bear has several other full siblings as well as Big Bear, who is very definitely his brother. What relationship, exactly, does Big Bear have with the others? Technically, none. But it must be so weird for him that his brother has other brothers/sisters who he hasn’t met and who are a bit mystical in their absence. Little Bear figured it out for himself straight away – they are all his brothers and sisters, no quibbling. He doesn’t seem to struggle with the idea at all and I love it that he has taken Big Bear into that fold. In his mind, Big Bear has gained several more siblings.

I don’t think Big Bear feels the same though. It’s easy, with there being so many of them, for him to end up feeling the odd one out, something which I desperately don’t want him to feel in his own family.

I also don’t know whether he can feel part of them when I don’t really know whether the other siblings know he exists. I feel for them because it is already extremely hard for them to come to terms with the fact that they are all going to be in Care for their entire childhoods while just one of their brothers has been adopted. They must wonder why him? Why not them? They must also be really sad that they can still see each other fairly regularly (they are not all together) but can’t see Little Bear at all. It feels like an additional blow for them to learn that Little Bear not only has a new home and new parents but a new brother too. How come a stranger gets to be his brother and play with him and have fun with him when all they get is a measly letter?

I don’t know if they do feel that way – I’m projecting – but it would be understandable if they did.

My loyalties are divided because I want to protect them all. However, I rarely believe lying or lying by omission is the solution to anything, so as hard as it might be, I do think they should know about Big Bear. It isn’t fair to him to deny his existence and it isn’t fair for them to keep it a big secret that they might find out about when they are adults.

This feels like marshy ground and all I have to guide me are my instincts. When I write Letterbox I have made occasional mention of ‘our other son’ so they know there is a someone else. This time I have tentatively included Big Bear’s name. I haven’t made a big deal about it – just a little mention to (hopefully) help them get used to the idea little by little.

Previously when post has arrived from Little Bear’s siblings, we have ummed and erred over what to do with it – mainly because Little Bear hasn’t had much (if any) understanding of who they are and we knew it made Big Bear uncomfortable. We are thankfully now at a point of being able to announce the post’s arrival and leave it out for anyone who wants to look at it. I’m pretty relieved about this; it all feels a lot more normal. However, I do still feel that it is quite excluding for Big Bear and have been mulling over the best way forward. We have decided, rightly or wrongly and I’ve no idea if this is within Letterbox protocol, to give Big Bear the option of joining in if he wants to. I haven’t put any pressure on him to do so because I totally understand that it might feel uncomfortable for him but I have told him when I need to post the letters and invited him to write one if he wants. If anyone else out there has done this, please let me know.

A tiny part of me is anxious about drawing Big Bear in and exposing him to the unknowns of where these relationships might take us. However, when I’m unsure, I generally ask myself whether it is better to do something or to do nothing. Doing nothing keeps things the same but doesn’t allow for progress. Doing something is riskier but by reaching out, things could move on/improve/take us to amazing places. For the possibility of improving these children’s lives, the risks feel worth taking.

This is probably going to sound overstated but recently I have spent a lot of time wondering what our role is in the other sibling’s lives. Instead of us passively waiting to be impacted or not by how the siblings turn out in later life, what if we did our bit to support and influence them now? After all, we could be a constant in their lives, when so many other things change. I am unsure as to how much influence it is possible to have through a couple of letters. However, I have had really positive feedback about the letters we sent last year and the perceived therapeutic benefits of them for the children. So much so, that I recently had a phone call from the Letterbox co-ordinator asking whether we would consider increasing the frequency of our contact. It was a no-brainer and immediate ‘yes’. As they were asking something of me, I felt it ok to ask something of them: would they send me an update about the children before letterbox time so that I could write them a tailored letter, answering their questions or tackling their specific worries directly. This was agreed and we have received it in the last few days.

In my eyes, the update is essential for me to be able to write them the best, most useful letter I can – without knowing what they need, it just feels like empty words on a page. We are also concerned about them and genuinely want to know how they are doing. The news about one child in particular was not good this time and it was upsetting to read. I am particularly concerned about getting their letter right and wonder whether we can impact how they feel, even in the smallest way.

It is a tricky line to walk, balancing the needs of all, their feelings, my perception of how they might feel, taking a positive tone and trying to therapeutically parent them from afar. It doesn’t feel like ‘just a letter’ this time. It feels like doing something. It feels like the beginning of a relationship; a relationship I’m keen to cultivate because if the writing goes well, maybe meeting up is not such a crazy thought.

 

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Birth Siblings

TP, or not TP, that is the question

We’re having a bit of a weird week of it here at Adoption: The Bear Facts. Little Bear is not feeling good. It could be the hot weather but we rather suspect it is more than that. We think it is likely to be the anticipation of moving classes at the end of next week and with it, more of the Fear of Loss that I talked about last week. This time he is fearing the loss of his teacher, whom he has had for two years and who is really the only teacher he has ever known at big school. He is very, very fond of her and they have a lovely relationship. I know she is very fond of him too. I suspect she doesn’t often get the opportunity to make such a difference and see such an unprecedented level of progress in one of her pupils. This transition is a Big Deal all round.

The magnitude of the deal is being expressed through the medium of Little Bear’s behaviour. It is a little shocking after several months of relative calm and my parenting has certainly been tested. As such, I have been pondering on Therapeutic Parenting and how TP I really am.

Here’s a confession: I talk about being a therapeutic parent now and again but when I’m saying it, I’m often wondering if I actually am a bone fide therapeutic parent or, in fact, just a parent. That probably sounds a little ridiculous but I often feel that TP is a Holy Grail of adoptive parenting that can rarely be reached and can also be used as a larch branch with which to beat ourselves. I am certainly not somebody who often refers to ‘how to guides’ on TP, preferring to make things up as I go along. I’m not sure whether I mean ‘wing it’ or ‘follow my well-informed instincts’ but either way, my process of (therapeutic) parenting is fairly organic.

It is also fair to say that some days feel more therapeutic than others. Sometimes being therapeutic is a little less practical than other methods, which can lead to less of it being done. For example, the school morning routine has taken something of a dip here recently. In the dim, distant past, Little Bear used to need a lot of help with getting ready. All the demands were too much so I used to need to help him with dressing, teeth-brushing etc. However, he has made lots of progress and for quite some time now he has been able to complete the whole morning routine himself, with just a few prompts or reminders from me. That was, until Wednesday.

Wednesday’s routine did not go well. Little Bear was completely uncooperative, growly and intent on doing everything other than getting ready. I could see, after a quick thought or two, that there had been signs of decline earlier in the week. It was evident Little Bear wasn’t coping and I knew that the solution was to reduce the demands on him. However, that is not as easy or practical as it sounds when you have a finely timed routine, need to make two packed lunches because you weren’t organised the night before, haven’t eaten your own breakfast or got dressed yet and barely have time for those things, let alone any other things. As it is not socially acceptable to do the school run in your nightie, I made a quick decision that I didn’t have time to do it the therapeutic way. That sounds pretty bad in black and white but part of me thinks such is life. We do have deadlines and timeframes and sometimes Mums have to nag.

On Thursday I was a little more organised and Grizzly was working at home and I was more prepared for the possibility that extra help might be needed. However, I find having to do TP the very first second I wake up pretty challenging. I am not a morning person. Little Bear woke up in a foul mood. This is rare and doesn’t bode well. Little Bear got his I pad, got back into his bed and wouldn’t get out. Having dragged myself out of bed despite my internal protestations, I gave him lots of chances; pleasantly then more sternly. I was further irked by him shushing me every time I spoke. I did not react therapeutically. I expressed my crossness, though I managed not to shout and I banned his I Pad because without the bloody thing he would actually have got up. Little Bear continued not complying and I asked Grizzly to take over while muttering something about throttling him.

This is why I cannot possibly write a guide to therapeutic parenting.

However, after a moment’s peace and a few bites of breakfast, I was able to take some deep breaths and get a bit more TP. I observed out loud that he didn’t seem to be feeling too good today and wondered what that might be about. I don’t think I got my wonderings right and he was still grumpy. He demanded I feed him. It was not a particularly polite request but after modelling a nicer version just for him to hear, I did feed him. I also dressed him and put his sun cream on for him, all the while ignoring anything rude and trying to soothe him with my tone, pace and words. He went to see Ronaldo, his hen, who flapped her wings in his face and hurt him. I cuddled him, wiped his tears and made him laugh saying she thought his toes were worms.

I think my conclusion from that is sometimes the best way of being therapeutic is knowing when to step away and let someone else handle it. The bit when I kept my temper went pretty well as Little Bear got ready for school with very little demand on him and we successfully dropped him off without issue. Was I TP though? Or just parenting patiently?

I braced myself for school pick-up, rather suspecting the day wouldn’t have gone well. It hadn’t. Apparently Little Bear had thrown another child’s water bottle and smashed it and got into trouble for giving a different child a shove. I didn’t raise any of this with him, just telling him I had chatted with his teacher to see if he was ok because I was a bit worried about him. Little Bear asked me to watch him on the climbing wall and I did. Then I said it was time to go home. Little Bear wanted to do the climbing wall again. I re-iterated that it was home time and began to walk across the playground. Little Bear scream-growled and called me a name. I chose to ignore that and continued walking, knowing he would follow.

The first part of the walk home was fine. Little Bear announced we were going to play football when we got home. Big Bear said he wasn’t playing. I said I didn’t think any of us should as it was far too hot and a cold drink and a little rest would be a better plan. Little Bear began shushing me. By far the hardest part of trying to be therapeutic is overcoming your instincts to go mad when directly provoked. It took some effort but I ignored the shushing and tried the empathising route. Little Bear stuck his fingers in his ears and walked ahead. Whilst this pushed my buttons, I made myself take a deep breath and not get sucked in.

At home, Little Bear was still cross. He announced that if I spoke to him he would tell me to ‘shut up’. Usually, if he tries to threaten me like this, I call him out on it and explain about why threatening people isn’t nice. However, this evening I was just able to stop myself. This behaviour wasn’t really about being coercive; I think it was about needing some peace and his rather rudimentary way of asking me to be quiet. It can be so hard in the heat of the moment to look beyond the behaviour at what might be causing it but that is something that I seem to be getting a little better at with time.

I decided to go for the killing it with kindness approach; rallying around with a cold drink and snack. I suppose once-upon-a-lack-of-TP-knowledge I might have thought this was rewarding bad behaviour.

I left Little Bear with the TV and sat outside with Big Bear for a few minutes. “He isn’t having a good day is he Mum?” Big Bear asked. No, I agreed, he isn’t. I explained I thought it was because he was worried about the transition to the next class.

Later, at tea time, I tried to find out a bit more from Little Bear about what had happened in his day. As usual it was high tales, plot-twists and publishable fiction. Trying a different tack, I asked him how his friends were feeling about going to year 2. “They’re upset about it,” he said, “They really love Mrs Current Teacher and don’t want to leave her”. Aha. We explored the situation a little more, through the feelings of his ‘friends’. I have no idea if this is a known TP technique but it was up the sleeve and seemed to work.

At this point, Big Bear joined in and I was struck by the fact it shouldn’t be called Therapeutic Parenting because the whole family do it. Maybe it should be Therapeutic Family-ing. I sat back in admiration as Big Bear reassured him how close current teacher’s classroom would still be; how cool future teacher is; how Little Bear (or his friends) could still go and visit current teacher if they wanted to and how current teacher would miss him too. He told him it would all be ok and cuddled him.

Big Bear has never read a book on TP, he probably hasn’t even heard of it, yet sometimes he is more instinctively therapeutic than Grizzly and I stuck together.

It felt like a good time to talk to Little Bear about giving his teacher a present. I have been agonising over what to get as I really want to get it right for them both. I am extremely grateful to her for her pivotal role in his learning so far so want to give her a token of our appreciation that feels right for what she has done. I also want Little Bear to have some involvement and ownership in at least part of the gift. Whilst it certainly seems possible to overthink a present, I have finally decided that Little Bear should draw a picture of him and his teacher and we will get crafty with a mount and frame it. I put this idea to Little Bear over tea. He was pretty bought in and wanted to get started immediately. After tea, he sat and concentrated hard and put lots of effort into his drawing. The idea that his teacher will have something he has done to keep and will think of him every time she looks at it seems to be helping him.

I have to admit that by the end of the day I felt like I might have done some therapeutic stuff. We certainly managed to end on a better note than we had started with.

Days like yesterday can be challenging. There are extra things to think about; you need to be on your toes; you need to override your natural reactions. You need to have your wits about you and you need to try as best you can to get into your child’s mind. Usually, when I’m not rushing around in my nightie, I try to do these things. However, I struggle to do them well first thing in the morning, when I have PMS and at other random points when my resilience dips. I occasionally mutter under my breath, give rash consequences and sometimes raise my voice. Is that TP? Or not TP?

I genuinely don’t know. I just know that I’m trying my best and to be TP 24/7 would take a Herculean effort. Can we change the acronym to Trying-your-best Parenting? Cos I think I’ve got that sewn up at least.

 

 

TP, or not TP, that is the question

Guilt

The Bear’s had a bit of an incident with one another during the holidays. It wasn’t anything major, probably an everyday occurrence in most households. Play had got a bit over-excitable resulting in Big Bear accidentally hitting his brother instead of the ball he was aiming for. Big Bear immediately felt guilty which makes him uncomfortable. I think he did apologise though (I was upstairs letting Grizzly handle it). Little Bear, stinging from the blow and also because his favourite person in the whole world had delivered it to him, was upset.

Upset is easily confused with anger by Little Bear so instead of crying or moving away, he gave his brother a sharp kick (no doubt he had flown straight into Fight or Flight territory). Now both Bears were upset and a little enraged. Grizzly attempted to referee but at that point neither was ready to see sense.

I could hear Grizzly explaining that Big Bear had hurt Little Bear accidentally. He had not meant to. He had said sorry. The incident should have ended there. He explained that Little Bear should not have kicked him back. He suggested he too say sorry and then the whole thing could be forgotten.

Little Bear was not ready to apologise though. He wasn’t calm. He was very annoyed. I suspect by this point he was starting to see the error of his ways and the anger was beginning to turn inwards. He was feeling guilty.

A big difficulty, when you are someone who feels bad about yourself already, is that this type of normal self-condemnation is difficult to deal with. I suspect that when your heart is already filled with self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness, an additional feeling of guilt can be too big an emotion to squeeze in. What often happens here, and has been happening for the past year or so (previous to that Little Bear didn’t really experience guilt I don’t think), is that because the guilt cannot be contained and dealt with inside, it tends to spill outwards.

“Big Bear is an idiot!” I can hear him shouting. “He’s stupid. You stupid Big Bear!” and so followed a tirade of further insults.

Big Bear, already upset from hurting his brother and having had his apology thrown back in his face, could not deal with the name calling and marched off to his bedroom, slamming the door for good measure.

Little Bear, aware he had further upset his brother, no doubt felt even worse about his own actions and also marched off to his bedroom, also slamming the door for good measure.

“Well that went well,” remarked Grizzly sarcastically, coming to find me upstairs. As we started to chat about whether I should get involved or not and who Grizzly should go to first, we heard movement on the landing. There was a knock on a door then a little voice. “I’m sorry Big Bear” we heard. “I’m sorry I hurted you. You are very strong. I love you”.

It was unfortunate because Big Bear was still upset and not really ready to accept the apology in a gracious way. However, it did mean that Grizzly could go to Little Bear and make a big deal out of him being so mature and sensible and apologising by himself without any help from us. Because it really was a big step forwards and we were both very proud of him for how he dealt with it.

During similar previous incidents one or other of us has had to sit with him for a long time, trying to explain that he isn’t actually annoyed at the person he has hurt, even though he is shouting at them and insulting them. We have tried to explain that it is because he feels bad about what he has done. That he feels guilty. We have tried to explain that you don’t need to keep feeling bad about it. You can say sorry and maybe have a cuddle and then it is finished. You need to forgive yourself. Sometimes, if Little Bear has purposefully hurt himself and had similar feelings of guilt, we have encouraged him to afford himself the same respect. You ‘apologise’ to yourself, square the incident off and move on.

Obviously all that is pretty complex for a 5 year old, especially one with language difficulties, but it really seems that he is starting to take it on board. Understandably, in the heat of the moment, he still becomes upset/angry but he is certainly able to calm more quickly and is getting much better at identifying his own emotions and making more positive choices about how to react. Previously guilt would have led to a downward spiral and all sorts of other behaviours would have appeared. A small incident like the one I have described could easily have ruined a whole day.

The concepts of ‘forgiving’ and ‘guilt’ have been useful in other situations too and Little Bear is beginning to use the words himself.

This holiday we have also spent time with my brother, girlfriend and their dog. The dog is still young and can be pretty boisterous herself. Little Bear LOVES the dog (I suspect he over-loves her if that is even a thing). We took her for a walk. Little Bear had a great time throwing the ball and playing fetch. On the way home, he got tangled in the lead and fell over. It hurt his knee, as well as his feelings. “I don’t forgive you” he kept saying to the dog. No, we reassured, you don’t yet. You are still upset with her because she hurt you. She didn’t mean to though, look, she feels bad about it. She’s sorry. When you’re ready, you can forgive her and be friends again.

On that occasion Little Bear was able to verbalise that he wanted to hurt her back, because she had hurt him, but he did manage not to follow through physically. After a bath, he was ready to move forwards and announced that she was forgiven!

There is clearly still some way to go but I’m pleased we have made a start at unpicking some of these more complex emotions and that Little Bear is able to reflect on them.

Although Big Bear was not ready to move on as quickly as Little Bear after the hitting/kicking incident, there was a difference in his reaction too. Previously this type of altercation with his brother would have led to catastrophizing. It would have dredged up all the old feelings of whether he really wants a brother at all. This used to lead to him being generally unhappy and us needing to rally round and involve the grandparents to make sure he got some extra special time (and a break).

This time, though he needed a bit more time on his own, he did still say, “I love you too” back through his closed door. There were no fallout chats later on.

Less than an hour later, having allowed both boys to eat their tea separately and on the sofa (I find it’s always wise to eliminate any blood sugar issues), they were friends again. They snuggled up together watching a programme like Ninja Warrior and laughed a lot. All was forgiven.

If anything I think they were extra nice to each other because a little bit of guilt was still lingering.

Guilt

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

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

Life Story Work: Not Your Average Boob Chat

This is how I wanted to start this post: Little Bear is obsessed with my boobs. But you can’t really write that without inviting some very shocked reactions. I need to preface my starting statement by saying that Little Bear is intrigued by anything that looks like it might feel interesting, even keener to touch things I’ve told him not to touch and, well, little boys do seem kind of fascinated by boobs from a young age. I also need to clarify that I don’t actually let him honk them (despite regular attempts) and have a stock phrase of “we don’t touch people’s boobs, they are a private place” that I trot out every time because whilst I’m not keen on him going for mine, I certainly don’t want him grabbing anyone else’s.

So, now you know all that, you won’t need to freak out when I start the post proper.

Little Bear is obsessed with my boobs. I have generally been dismissing it as a sensory/ boy/ developmental thing but while we were on holiday I began to see there could be more to it than that.

One morning Little Bear and I were sat beside one another on the kitchen bench attempting to read his school book when he purposely face planted into my cleavage. Used as I am to these things, I didn’t bat an eyelid, extricated him and repeated my usual refrain.

“But I want some milk from your boobs Mum” he said. I explained there is only milk when you have a baby so I don’t have any now. “Did you have some for Big Bear?” he asked. “Yes, when he was a baby I did”.

Little Bear thought for a second. “Did my lady have some for me?” came the next question.

Aha. This was not your average random boob chat: this was Life Story Work. We haven’t had any chats of this nature since I wrote this post back in January: Beginnings of Life Story Work

We’ve decided to follow Little Bear’s lead in these matters, figuring that given his difficulties with language it is much better to give him information as and when he shows he wants it, rather than thrusting it upon him to fit our own agenda. As it had been so long since our last chat I wasn’t too sure how much he might have taken on board or remembered.

Evidently by asking “did my lady have some for me?” he did know that he had come out of someone else’s tummy at least. “Yes” I replied “Sian did have milk for you”. That’s not her real name and thank goodness it told me she had breastfed in the red book.

“Did she have some for the other boys too?” Little Bear asked next.

Ah, so he has taken on board the bit about having birth siblings too.

“Yes, I think she did” I tell him, “but not at the same time as you as they were bigger”.

“I wish Big Bear was my brother” comes the next nugget.

Big Bear IS your brother I reassure. I tell him how much Big Bear loves him and how much he loves Big Bear. “Do you wish you had come out of my tummy too?” I venture. “Yes” he says and throws himself onto my lap.

What can you say to this? I hold him tight and explain that I love him just the same as if he had been in my tummy. I tell him that there were lots and lots of boys and girls who needed to be adopted but that we chose him. “Why?” he enquired. “Because we love you and we wanted you” I say.

We have a huge cuddle.

This chat seems to satisfy the little dude for now and no further questions erupt from him, though he does proceed to suck my fingers as I won’t let him near the boobs.

I’m pleased he has shown such a good understanding of his life story so far. He definitely has the basics sewn up.

At the moment Sian seems to have taken on fictional character status for Little Bear. He doesn’t seem to remember her and I’m not sure he considers her to be particularly real or relevant at this stage, though this will surely change over time? I can foresee a point when he gets more intrigued by her and starts to wonder about why they were separated. Surely no adopter survives the journey without a “you aren’t my real mummy” thrown at them at some stage?

However, for now, Little Bear’s mind seems to be on belonging and checking that he is just as much mine as Big Bear.

Alongside this there has possibly been an increase in affection-seeking and clinginess though it is hard to tell as Little Bear is very cuddly in general. He is getting all the cuddles, carries, strokes and time on our knees as you could shake a stick at. As always we are trying to be scrupulous in making sure things are equal for the boys in all regards – physical, financial, material, time. Little Bear needs to know through our actions, not just our words, that he is loved just the same as Big Bear.

Little Bear has been telling each of us that he loves us frequently and perhaps this is an unconscious way of checking that we love him. We do tell him all the time (and I’m quite prone to randomly picking him up or smothering him with kisses while making a strange ooh noise and saying I just love you so much I could eat you!), so hopefully he knows we really do, but it is easy to see how the doubts could creep in for him.

It is the 2 year anniversary of Little Bear moving in for good this weekend and we aren’t too sure whether to make a fuss about it or not. On the one hand it is positive to celebrate it and to show him that his arrival and permanence has made us really happy. On the other, we are wondering whether too much fuss just serves to mark him out as different when, at the moment, he really just wants to be the same.

As is often the way, writing this blog has helped me to unravel things a bit and I think I’m drawing the conclusion that we might need a new tradition for coming home day. I have a kernel of an idea about a scrap book with a photo of us all and our handprints and maybe the height of the boys, which we could re-visit and update on that day each year. That way hopefully we are nodding to the significance of the day while focussing on our similarities and our identity as a family. I also think I will put the boys in matching t-shirts. Hmm, the cogs are still turning. I’d love to hear what anybody else does.

I’ll keep you updated about any further Life Story chats. No doubt they will take place completely at random and when I am least expecting it. I just hope the next one doesn’t feature my cleavage quite so heavily!

 

Life Story Work: Not Your Average Boob Chat

First and Lasts

Just to be contradictory I will talk about the Lasts first.

This week has been Little Bear’s last in Reception class. As of Monday he will be taking part in two transition weeks in his new Year 1 class (and ditto Big Bear in his new Year 4 class). I think many children who are Care-experienced find goodbyes difficult: they tend to stir up lots of emotions about loss, lost relationships and missing people. Goodbyes can be pretty anxiety provoking and hard to find a way through. Little Bear has been lucky this year in that the goodbye is really only to his classroom as his teacher is moving up with him. We are very relieved about this as it should definitely ease the anxiety and I’m hoping it will mean a smooth run into Year 1 without any need to play catch up while a new teacher figures out all his quirks. Likewise all the same children will be in his class.

However, there is still the finality of last shared reading sessions, last days in Reception and on Friday a last day afternoon tea for parents. We nearly didn’t make the last shared reading session as I had caught a bug and had succumbed to sleep on the bathroom floor (yes, grim indeed). Thankfully Grizzly was working at home and reshuffled everything to make it. He was really glad that he had as Little Bear was over the moon to see him and had been anxiously waiting for one of us to appear. He was well aware that it was the last time we would have the opportunity to go to it.

Although still a little green around the gills I made sure I was there for the afternoon tea on Friday (I just pretended that the children hadn’t really made the scones and that they wouldn’t be at all contaminated by sticky fingers and that mine didn’t really have a hair on it!!). Little Bear was so happy to see me and was more clingy than usual. We spent a lovely 20 minutes or so building a Duplo house. Little Bear was not keen on sharing the Duplo or me with any of his peers. He didn’t really want to come away from me to join his class in singing to us, even though I was right there watching.

The parents all went outside for a few minutes whilst the children did final registration. I must have been slightly out of Little Bear’s eye line while I ferreted around in the ‘jumper dumper’ (a depressing wasteland of sloughed off sweatshirts) and he must have panicked that I had left him, though I never have disappeared before. He tried to distract himself with another scone but the TA said he couldn’t have one. This was the final straw in what was evidently a simmering pressure cooker of emotions. Little Bear made his last exit from Reception class by pelting his toy at the waiting parents and screaming.

Thank goodness for the emergency KitKat in my handbag.

The emotions continued to be untameable on the walk home when Little Bear insisted upon balancing alongside the roadside curb edge despite me telling him several times to walk on the path part as it would be further from the cars and much safer. Little Bear was unable to heed my instructions and I eventually had to move him to the safe part of the pavement. This resulted in a hit and a scratch which I chose to ignore.

A few seconds later Little Bear said “I just scratched your hand” in a small sad voice. “Yes, you did” I replied “but I’m ignoring it because I think you’re feeling a bit sad”. I suggested that when we got home it might be a good idea to have a rest in front of the TV. When we got in Little Bear wasn’t particularly up for that plan. Nor was he keen to go to the toilet when I asked him to and was starting to get offensive.

Usually at these times you can talk, reason, cajole, shout, fully lose it to your hearts content and Little Bear will not heed your words. However, somehow he got onto my knee and must have listened to what I was saying (though it didn’t look or sound like he was listening at all). I did some wondering about how he might be feeling and maybe it had something to do with it being the last day in Reception class. I gave reassurance about his teacher going up with him and Big Bear chimed in, in that instinctive way that he has, about how Year 1 is not scary and will be fun. I suggested that Little Bear was likely to head towards getting himself into trouble if he continued as he was and that I was trying to help him not to do that by giving him a rest. By some miracle something resonated and he asked if I would sit with him on the sofa.

We spent the next hour or so with Little Bear wedged between my thighs, his legs atop mine, the back of his head pressed into my chest watching Paw Patrol. I didn’t think it was a coincidence that the programme he chose to watch was one he used to choose when he was a bit younger.

Lasts are so hard for our children. Evidently the last day had brought all sorts of other things into question for him, most basically, was he still safe with us or were we leaving him too? I wonder how long he will need to be here before he can stop asking that question.

 

The First that I wanted to talk about is much more positive, though it has been hanging in the balance for most of the week. Little Bear was meant to be going to stay at my parent’s house this weekend. It would be the first time he had slept out since being with us (23 months now) and when I thought about it, I realised it was a pretty big deal.

Big Bear has slept out quite a few times now (sometimes because he needs a break) and on the last few occasions Little Bear has felt quite left out. Up until recently we would not have considered it all, being as though it would only have been fair to the grandparents if we could have sent Little Bear with some Valium and a flak jacket for them. As that wasn’t possible, we really couldn’t have inflicted the task on them.

However, apart from one fairly bad occasion, my parents have put Little Bear to sleep at our house successfully several times and sometimes he can be angelic at bedtime these days. The problem is that bedtimes are still very variable and we couldn’t guarantee what kind of night he might have if he went there. Irrespective of all that, my parents were feeling brave and we had pencilled in this weekend to have a try.

Bedtimes throughout this week have not been good. Things have been thrown, pulled, poked and spat on. Grizzly and I decided that if Little Bear could not show us that he could be sensible at bedtime, at least on Friday we couldn’t allow him to go. It just wouldn’t be fair and could go really badly. Of course we wanted the first attempt to be successful. However, we were pretty keen on it going ahead because Big Bear was super excited about getting some Mum and Dad time and as always we would have to balance both of their needs. Little Bear really wanted to go and has been excited about it for ages and my parents really wanted him to go.

I was very clear with Little Bear last night that he needed to get into bed and try to sleep. He shouldn’t be standing on the other end of his bed or pulling his door or shouting or throwing things. I was clear that if he couldn’t be sensible he couldn’t go to his grandparents. I know he understood this because he explained it back to me.

Bedtime did not go particularly well. It wasn’t horrendous but he certainly wasn’t trying to sleep and I did get called an idiot. It took quite a long time.

This is where adoption gets complicated. Although I know that Little Bear understood the rules I don’t honestly think that he can control himself enough yet to stick to them (not all the time anyway). This is where giving a consequence is unfair – is it really right to punish something he cannot control? Well, no. However, I could not have re-iterated and reinforced the rules more and as I had been clear about the consequence in advance, would I now be undermining myself and the rules if I didn’t follow through? How would Big Bear feel if his plans were scuppered by his brother’s behaviour? How would Little Bear feel in the morning when he found out that the consequence was really happening? Would it damage his self-esteem that I didn’t trust him to try the sleepover? Another day a fresh start and all that…

It is very easy to tie your brain in a knot of over analysis.

In the end Grizzly and I reached a compromise we were both happy with and I ran it by my parents to check they were on board too. Little Bear did get a consequence for his bedtime behaviour: he was not allowed his I Pad today (we are consistent in our use of this rule and feel it does have a useful impact and has helped with sorting the bedtime behaviours in general). However, we agreed to let him try the sleepover. If things went awry and he did not co-operate my parents would bring him home. Big Bear would get his evening out and I would keep everything crossed that Little Bear could manage.

This morning Little Bear woke me before 6:30, already half- dressed and asking me for a “packing bag”. I was pleased that I wouldn’t be dampening his enthusiasm. He was fully dressed and packed by 7am.

Although Little Bear was excited, he seemed a little nervous too. He wondered if my parents would come if he shouted them. He was upset Big Bear wasn’t going too. He would miss him. He needed reassurance that it was just one night and he would be back tomorrow.

It is not just Lasts that are complicated – Firsts have their fair share of issues too.

I have purposefully waited until this evening to blog because I really didn’t know which way things would go but I’m very happy to say that Little Bear has managed to get to sleep at my parent’s house and though I’m sure there will have been some shenanigans they were not sufficient to end the mission. I’m so pleased that we will be able to tell him how proud we are of him tomorrow and that we have missed him (the house is strangely quiet) and that he can sleep over again another time if he wants to because he behaved himself and my parents enjoyed him being there. Well done Little Bear, another fabulous first to celebrate.

Also well done and thank you to my parents as the three of us have had a lovely time going out for a grown up tea and seeing Despicable Me 3 and Big Bear is very happy.

Phew. I wonder what next week’s first days of Year 1 will bring?

 

 

First and Lasts