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

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.

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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:

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The National Adoption Awards

National Adoption Week 2018

Next week is National Adoption Week – a big push from the industry to raise awareness of adoption and to encourage would-be adopters to pursue it. This year the theme is ‘the adopter’ – who makes a good adopter and, from my perspective, what support do people need to succeed as adopters?

This is the third National Adoption Week since I’ve been blogging and it’s tricky to have a fresh perspective each time (the first year I blogged every day and last year I wrote The Little Things ) so this time I’ve asked the boys for some help.

Me: What should I say to people who might want to adopt a child?

Little Bear: Do it!

Big Bear: Do it because you’ll help save lives of children. You might regret it for a bit but it gets better and better and better.

Me: Is it something everyone should do?

Little Bear: Yes, because if they’ve not got good parents, they have to send them to good parents.

Big Bear: No, because you might be too busy or dangerous people shouldn’t be allowed. Parents need to be approved as good. It depends on their environment and home. They need to respect the child’s values.

Me: Is there anybody who shouldn’t be allowed to adopt?

Little Bear: Named a lot of people we know! I think this question was too abstract.

Big Bear: They can’t judge a child on colour or how they look. You need training. It doesn’t matter about shape or size. You really just need to be able to protect a child.

I think you can tell Big Bear has been learning about values and diversity at school. Or perhaps he has a future in politics.

Me: Have you got any advice for people who adopt children?

Little Bear: You should be nice and take care of them.

Me: Was there anything we did that you didn’t like? That we should have done differently?

Little Bear: You guys were really bossy but now you’re just perfect.

I suspended the interview at this point to smother him in kisses and tell him he is perfect too.

Big Bear: You can’t give children everything they want, just what they need. Help them. Support them. Ask if there is anything wrong. Don’t be violent to your child. Take it easy to start with. Don’t talk about horrible stuff.

Little Bear: Yeah, don’t let them see scary things.

*

Between them, I think the Bears have raised some salient points. Firstly, adoption is not for everybody, they’re right about that. Adoption is life-changing. I don’t see the point of lying to people in an attempt to snare them, only for them to find out the realities when it is too late. Adoption is challenging in all regards – emotionally, practically, financially. It is rarely a fairy tale. Adoption requires you to open your lives, not just to a traumatised child, but to the wider birth family who inevitably come with them. If you think they don’t come with them or that a child can just forget their past once they’re with you, adoption is not for you. If you do not believe in attachment theory or the impact of developmental trauma on the infant brain, adoption is not for you. If you believe that a child’s needs can be resolved by love alone, adoption is probably not for you.

However, if you are prepared to educate yourself in ACEs, trauma and therapeutic parenting, and you are willing to put yourself in the shoes of your child and are prepared to try your best to look at the world from their point of view, you might find out how amazing adoption can be. Adopters need resilience, a willingness to learn, a preparedness to fight for their child if circumstances require it, an open mind and an open heart. An ability to persevere helps and so does keeping going, no matter what. If you have not yet turned away or come out in a cold sweat, maybe you could do it?

I think there are some members of the adoption industry who are unwilling to tell this truth through fear of the damage it will do to recruitment of adopters. My view is increasingly that if people are put off by a few truths, they are unlikely to be cut out for adopting. We need people to go in with their eyes open, because discovering you can’t do it or it isn’t quite what you thought it would be once you’re already in, causes irreparable damage to all parties.

I don’t mean to point fingers – to some extent there will always be unknowns. There is the unavoidable disparity between understanding something in theory and experiencing it in practise. There is the unpredictable impact of moving a child from foster care to their forever home and all the additional losses that come with that. There is the unavoidable risk of relying solely on the information that is provided to you.

Risk cannot be fully mitigated in adoption.

However, I truly believe there will always be people who are willing to take these risks; people who won’t see the risks but the possibilities. Those people, they are the ones who are needed.

Everything in life is a risk isn’t it? Conceiving and given birth is riddled with risk but we tend to err on the positive when we talk about those. Riding motorbikes is risky. Buying shares is risky. Extreme sports are risky. Debts are risky. Crossing the road is not without risk.

We decide where to put our risk; when to roll our dice. We choose which risks are the ones we want to take. Which ones feel like calculated risks and which are a risk too far. I am one of the most risk-averse people you could meet. I wouldn’t roll my dice on debt or drugs or bungee-jumping or extreme-anything. In truth I’m hyper-aware of risk, worrying far too much about terrorism, planes falling out of the sky or getting squished on the motorway. But I took the risk of adoption. I informed myself so it was a calculated risk. I embraced everything about the idea of it, risks and all, because, for me, I believed it would be worth it. I believed it would be more than its risk. And it has been. So much more.

Adoption has been life-changing for us, in every way. Big Bear has become a brother through adoption. He has grown stronger and more self-assured because of adoption. He was always going to be a kind and empathetic young man but adoption has made him even more aware of others – the ways in which they might struggle, the ways in which he has the power to change outcomes for them through his words and actions and the ways other people’s lives might differ from ours. He’s very emotionally astute for a nine year old and I think adoption has played its role in that.

For Grizzly and I there is the obvious impact: we have gained another son. A son who drives us up the wall at times, who has found buttons we didn’t even know we had and pushed them, then pushed them again. A son whom we love entirely, just as he is. A son who we are immensely proud of and who brings each one of us joy, every single day. A son who is the funniest, kindest, most determined young man you could wish for.

Adoption has completed our family. It has brought our parents another grandchild; my brother another nephew.

For me, adoption has taken my career in new directions. It has led me to writing.

And as for Little Bear himself, it’s kind of hard to quantify. I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that adopters are like superheroes, saving children from a lesser life. There are no capes or bulging thigh muscles here and we don’t wear our pants on top of our clothes too often. There is no heroism in losing your temper or the natural mess of our daily lives. But it is possible to think about Little Bear’s starting point and the ways in which being adopted have undeniably changed his trajectory. He has gone from being a three and a half year old functioning at a 16 month level to a keen, enquiring and capable 6 year old. He has gone from attending a special educational needs nursery to literacy, passing through and leaving behind the lowest group in his mainstream class. Expectations for his future have gone from zero/ worrying to certainty he will succeed in a field of his choosing.

Adoption means Little Bear aches for his birth siblings. It means he has a lot of questions and we don’t always have the answers. It means he sometimes feels different and wonders where he belongs.

Adoption has given Little Bear stability, safety, self-belief and certainty. It’s given him a forever home and a family who will fight wolves empty-handed for him, if necessary.

Adoption has been life-changing for us all.

I can’t tell you to do it and I can’t tell you not to do it. It’s your risk.

If you think you can do it, do your research. Know the type of risk you are considering; arm yourself with knowledge.

I can tell you this: you cannot do it alone. You can be a single adopter, of course, but you need your people for the days when you don’t feel well or when your little darling has driven you three times around the bend. You need an adoption agency with proper, robust, actual post-adoption support for the times when only a reassuring, experienced professional will cut it. You need to acquaint yourself with self-care; what works for you, how much and how you will know when you need it, because adoption relies fully on you being okay.

Adoption is not the right route to parenthood for everybody. But if you like your risks with a high likelihood of progress, satisfaction and pride, it could well be the route for you.

National Adoption Week 2018

Adopted Children & Eating Issues

A really interesting chat broke out on Twitter earlier this week between several adopters. It was one of those chats where you realise that all your children do something that hitherto you didn’t really identify as being an ‘adoption thing’ but actually, now everyone is doing it, it must be. The thing we were talking about was eating. We have quite a few behavioural issues around food here but this chat was more about the mechanical side of things: disruptions to the process of taking a bite of food, chewing it and swallowing it. The chat really began around children holding food in their mouths for much longer than average, something which seems to be common in many adoptive households. We also noticed that many of our children overstuff their mouths and choke more often than you’d expect.

The big question was why? We had a healthy debate and several of us stuck our oar in. As with most complex issues my first reaction was to blog it out so here is my summary of the main factors:

The reason for holding food in their mouth could be a sensory one. It could be that a child is under-sensitive to sensory information in their mouth and can’t ‘feel’ the food there very easily. If this is the case it is likely they would be better at eating/chewing/swallowing food which has a more extreme taste or texture or temperature. Spicy foods or those with a lot of crunch or those which are sharp or bitter will provide the mouth with more sensory information than bland foods, helping a child to ‘know’ it’s in their mouth. The difficulty here of course, is that you child will have their own taste preferences and these will influence the range of food they will eat. I think this category could apply to Little Bear but he really doesn’t like spicy foods. He does like a good crunch though, especially from a crisp, but won’t tolerate it from a raw carrot. He has no difficulty dispensing with cold ice cream!

The converse of this point could also be true: some children are over-sensitive to sensory information in their mouth. These children are often sensitive to different textures finding some pretty disgusting. It’s possible that these children hold food in their mouths because it is preferable to them than swallowing it. Other signs of this could be spitting food out or an active gag reflex.

Often children need to get used to a bigger range of textures before being asked to eat the consistencies of food that bother them. Because of how the sensory system is wired, the next best place after the mouth to explore texture is with the hands (and if they can’t manage this, then with the feet). In typical development, young infants naturally put their hands in their food and explore it. This is an essential developmental step and some older children need support to revisit it to help with eating issues. Sometimes the foods they struggle to tolerate can be played with and explored manually before them being brought close to the lips then perhaps just touching them with their tongue tip. This should be a gradual process (weeks not hours) and needs to be managed sensitively. It should be done with a child, not to them. You can also lessen sensitivity through general tactile work – exploring different materials etc. It doesn’t necessarily have to be done with food though that does work well.

I suspect there is a third sensory category when it comes to eating which would be ‘sensory seeking’. I don’t think you would see food being held in the mouth with this aetiology but you might see over-stuffing as a child tries to get the most sensory input they can. I think you would see a constant need to eat and perhaps wanting to eat stronger flavours/ more extreme textures/ more extreme temperatures. It wouldn’t be a huge leap to think that children who seek oral sensory input would also chew/suck non-food items, though I think it is possible to seek oral stimulation without the food side of things.

However, there are other possible issues at play. What about experience? As most of our children were not with us when they were babies, we have very little information about their weaning. We don’t know if they were allowed to experience the getting messy-putting-their-hands-in-their-food stage. We don’t know what range of tastes they were given or even if the types of food they were weaned on were appropriate for an infant. We don’t know whether that may have led to sensitivities and a greater likelihood of gagging. We don’t know whether they went hungry or whether they were force-fed. All these options could cause potential eating issues now.

We do know though that tastes develop based on experience – the more times you try a food, the more likely you are to like it. We also know that there are ‘windows of opportunity’ within the weaning phase and if children are not exposed to tastes at these points, the window can close.

I strongly suspect that Little Bear hadn’t tried a wide range of foods before he came home. He certainly wasn’t too familiar with vegetables. If children haven’t been exposed to many different tastes and textures, they won’t eat a wide range. Things that are new to them will seem alien and it is likely their first reaction will be of dislike. They are likely to pass these foods around their mouth/ spit them out etc.

Research suggests that rather than assuming they definitely don’t like that food, we should keep offering it to them. Obviously you have to be extremely careful with making children eat foods they don’t want so this is pretty tricky. We used to do a lot of hiding vegetables – in sauces or soups and Little Bear happily took them that way. I also used a bit of good old bribery (some of you won’t like this) e.g. you can have pudding when you’ve tried one bite of x/y/z vegetable. We’ve had good success with this and I’m really proud of the range of vegetables Little Bear will choose to eat now.

The other aspect of experience that is important is that our muscles develop alongside the foods we eat. If we just eat sloppy or dissolvable textures all the time, our chewing muscles won’t develop. Many children who have experienced neglect have low muscle tone in general. Some have such low tone that their face can appear droopy and they need specific stimulation of those muscles to improve the tone, often completely altering their appearance.

I suspect that Little Bear was mainly given a mushy diet in foster care and didn’t experience a range of textures like fish or meat. I have noticed that he is more likely to hold chewier items in his mouth and this could be because his muscles are underdeveloped and chewing is actually really hard work for him. I chatted this through with a friend who is experienced in children’s eating and drinking difficulties a while ago and she suggested building texture up gradually. You can’t expect a child to go from eating Weetabix one week to steak the next. There needs to be a gradual build-up of chewiness. I think this has led to an improvement here. Little Bear will now happily polish off a range of fish, sausages, bacon or chicken (if it’s soft enough). He will eat beef but it is still noticeably effortful for him, it stays in his mouth a long time and can result in it being spat out.

My friend also pointed out that if you aren’t experienced in chewing (or sometimes this just happens randomly) you don’t develop the side to side movements of your tongue that you need to push food from one side to the other as part of the chewing process. She said you can develop this outside of eating by playing games that involve trying to touch a specific item in a specific place with your tongue or just the teeth on one side. I used to add a little game onto the end of tooth-brushing involving Little Bear playing ‘tag’ with his tongue and the brush.

Although I don’t want to get into the behavioural side of things too much, it is also pertinent to consider a child’s general presentation. Do they have difficulties with attention control and concentration in general? Little Bear does. Could it be that he gets distracted mid-chew and forgets he has food in his mouth? I do tend to give him frequent prompts and reminders to keep chewing. I also need to remind him that his mouth is full so he shouldn’t put the next mouthful in yet.

So far, that is quite a lot of possible factors that could be affecting our children’s eating. However, I haven’t really mentioned swallowing/choking and the factors above don’t really explain why some children who were removed from neglectful situations very early or even at birth still go on to have these types of difficulties. Could something be going on in utero?

It’s certainly possible because the bit of the brain that is most developed when a baby is born is the brainstem. This is also the bit that controls basic functions such as eating and drinking. The cortex and higher brain regions mostly develop after birth and are consequently very susceptible to environmental damage such as lack of stimulation. Because the brainstem develops during pregnancy, one assumes it is more susceptible to damage from things that happen in utero than any other bit of the brain. We know that recreational drugs, including nicotine and caffeine, as well as alcohol and stress hormones such as cortisol cross the placenta and impact an un-born baby. I have struggled to find specific research about particular pollutants affecting the eating and drinking areas of the brain but it isn’t a huge leap to imagine it’s possible. Is there something different about the structure or connections in our children’s brains that lead to the types of mechanical eating difficulties we are seeing? Perhaps.

At these points I like to reassure myself with the concept of brain plasticity – the ability the brain has to build new connections and new pathways; to learn to do things it couldn’t do before. I read that the brainstem is less plastic than the cortex but it is still capable of plasticity. Maybe change in the areas it controls is more difficult to achieve and may take longer but I like to think it’s possible.

It seems our random Twitter chat has led us unwittingly into a fairly complex area. My feeling is that this little corner of behaviour is under-researched and I suspect I have raised more questions than answers. If anybody knows of any articles that could tell us more, please send them my way. In the meantime this one was sent to me and I think it’s well worth a read: Article about the impact of trauma on the developing brain

 

 

 

*I probably need to point out that all children are different and will all have been impacted in different ways and to greater or lesser extents by their experiences to date. The reasons given here are just some of the possible reasons and may or may not apply to your child. They are also my personal thoughts and based on my reading only.

 

 

Adopted Children & Eating Issues

Five Minutes Peace

I think I might need to preface this blog by saying that I really love my bears. You know I do. It’s just that I might well have reached the point in the holidays where I’m kind of ready for them to go back to school…

I started off, pre-holidays, super-keen and excited to have some quality time with them. The first two weeks were far easier than I could have asked for and we had fun doing all our craft projects, chilling at home, going out for ice cream etc. Grizzly was off for the second two weeks and we went away for one of them. We had some lovely family time and both boys have spent days with just me and just Grizzly. Mummy Days and Daddy Days. All good.

I wasn’t even too worried about weeks five and six because I still had some activities up my sleeve, some days out planned and we were feeling all loved up. How hard could it be?

Err…

I think it’s the noise more than anything.

Mum! Mum! Mum! MUM! MUUUUMMMM!!!

Mum!

Dad?

Thump, thump, thump from the foot against the floor/ the sofa/ the wall. Ting, ting, ting, ting, ting on the bell from the Pit game that we’ve become obsessed with. Bang, crash, wallop from the bowl falling out the cupboard and the thing being launched across the room.

Penis. Penis face. Willy. Boobs. Boooooobies! Because, err, boys?!

The sound of my voice for the gazillionth time saying, “I don’t want to hear any rude words. Please stop saying ‘penis’.”

A barking noise. A horse noise. A wolf noise. A zombie noise.

A really loud, indescribable, vowel hooty type of thing.

The very worst: Little Bear has found a whistle.

Mum!!!! Mum? MUUUUMMM!!!

Growling (so pleased that one has re-appeared) and screaming. Muttering (and sometimes yelling) ‘imbecile’, ‘idiot’ and ‘I hate you mum, you’re really annoying me!’

As one assumes that countering with, “For the love of God, put a sock in it” is not good parenting, I am finding that I’m spending more and more time hiding in the bathroom and thinking up trips out that allow me to engineer five minutes peace. It’s like the book of that name and I’m really feeling for Mrs Large right now. And just like in the book, when you hide in the toilet, they find you and sit directly outside, incessantly talking. That’s if you’re lucky. If not, the smallest one barges right in and hops on your knee. The noise is inescapable.

I think now, towards the end of week 6, my brain is starting to protest. Its saying, ‘this assault on your auditory sense is too much. It’s a bombardment. Move away. Seek shelter’. Yesterday and today I have taken them to park-type places where they have begged and nagged and attempted to bully me into playing with them. Part of me has felt bad (because at the start of the holidays I was so well-intentioned I said yes to everything) but now I’m getting a little claustrophobic and just need them to leave me alone for half an hour. Most other parents I see are sitting on benches while their children run around; why can’t I? There is a long answer to that question involving attachment-needing behaviour and yada-yada but I’m asking rhetorically. Nay, I’m begging, for just five minutes peace.

In my meanness over the past two days I have ushered them off to play, amidst a few protestations (Big Bear thinks he’s too cool for parks and Little Bear can’t possibly play without me) which I have ignored for my own sanity. I have noticed that when I’ve sat back, it has taken them maybe 10 minutes to settle into the play and then they’ve inevitably made a friend or agreed to play together and actually they are having a perfectly lovely time. Today I should have been enjoying my cup of tea while they tried to build a den out of those polystyrene sheets that are meant to fit together but they couldn’t figure it out and I kept getting the guilts that I wasn’t jumping up to help them. I had a stern word with myself that this was a good chance for them to do some problem-solving and if I didn’t just sit there quietly staring into space for a while, it would not be cheerful mummy who would be looking after them for the rest of the day. It would rageful mummy who cannot deal with all the noise and who has got quite overstimulated and just needs FIVE MINUTES PEACE!

So sit back I did and eventually Big Bear built a pyramid den encasing his brother inside which seemed to suit everybody.

Phew. The holidays are quite intense. I’ve said it before but I have no idea how people manage to home-school their children. It would be like this all the time. All. The. Time. I don’t think my brain could take it.

It is probably a good job that there are only 4 more days to go. No doubt they’ll go back to school and I’ll fill my poor brain with worry over how Little Bear is coping in the next class and also with the fact that I’m missing them and don’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ll probably think it’s too quiet and turn the radio on.

I have to admit that I’m looking forward to some alone time. Some walks and some writing. Some time when I can hear my thoughts. No cacophony. No obscenities being chanted. Five minutes peace.

Five Minutes Peace

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

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