The Great National Adoption Week Debate

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

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

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Great National Adoption Week Debate

Boys Don’t Cry

This morning, I have spent a bit of time reviewing the various bits of writing I have created over the last six months or so. A couple of pieces have found a home but I was sorting through the homeless ones, deciding what was going to be entered in upcoming competitions etc. There is one piece which I really want to have a home because the content of the story is extremely important and, I suspect, would be enlightening to many. I have been pondering where it should go and think I have concluded that I will really struggle to sell it to most (all?) mainstream short story publishers. Why? Well, it’s pretty gritty, northern, and I suppose, angry. It is also extremely sweary.

Anyhoo, to cut a long monologue short, I think I’m going to publish it here. It’s risky because it isn’t my usually content and there is a risk of offending you, my lovely readers. However, it is essentially a fictional account which passes comment on the state of our Care and Education systems and raises important issues which I feel should be heard and should be thought about by a wider audience.

TRIGGER WARNING: If reference to self-harm/ being in Care/ frequent moves/ domestic violence/obscenities might upset you, please don’t read on.

If you’re cool with all that, feel free to share with those who might like it/ be enlightened by it.

For all the Vinnie’s out there:

Boys Don’t Cry

Vinnie slouched along Penn Lane, his rucksack hanging languidly over his shoulder. Every now and again he saw a piece of litter or a stone in his path and booted them. Last night’s ‘chat’ with Barbara ran on a loop in his head. She was his Social Worker, his fourth to be exact.

“Vincent, I’m sorry love, but Marianne just isn’t coping with you. It’s the swearing, Hun. The coming in after curfew and she says what finally did it, was you stealing from the kitchen again. She’s tried her best, she has, but she can’t cope any more. So, I’m really sorry, but we’ve had to find you a new place…. I’m, err, I’m sure you’ll like this one Vinnie…. It’s a couple, Les and Maureen. They’re going to come and get your stuff tomorrow while you’re at school and they’ll meet you in the car park afterwards. Ok, love? Now, Vincent, try your best this time eh?”

Home. That’s what they call it. They’re not your parents like, but they’re gonna look after you as if they were. That’s what they say. ‘Make yourself at home Vinnie’; ‘This is your home now Vinnie’. But they don’t mean it. Cos if you eat food from your own fridge, in your own home, they say you’ve been fucking stealing.

Six weeks he’d been there now, at Marianne’s. It was just starting to feel normal, like maybe it could be home but turns out she’s just like all the others. Two-faced bitch. Vinnie felt tears prick at his eyes and that familiar ache in his stomach. All he wanted was a home. A place. His place. With people who gave a shit. He was so jealous of his mates with parents. Why couldn’t they have just let him stay with his Mum? She was a total smack ‘ed, he got that, but any shitty excuse for a human would be better than this – getting wafted about like a piece of dirt. The tears were filling his lower lids, threatening to overspill. “Man up,” Vinnie told himself, scrubbing at his eyes with his blazer sleeve, “Boys don’t cry, you pansy.”

He turned the corner onto the high street. So he was moving then? This would be the twelfth time in five years. Twelve ‘homes’. He should start one of those tallies prisoners etch on the wall in their cells to count down the days. He didn’t know where he’d put it though, seeing as he didn’t even have a wall. He had less than a prisoner which was fucking sad. Maybe he should etch the tally on his body instead cos that was the only thing that went everywhere with him. Yeah, he might do that later, with his pen knife.

Vinnie stopped outside of the newsagent, waiting for someone who looked likely. Kath from the bungalows shuffled up so he asked her. “Get us some fags will ya?” he said, pressing a note into her hand.

“Ooh love, haven’t you given that up yet? Filthy habit it is.”

“Kath, you smoke forty a day!”

“Well, yes love, but I’m old, my lungs are screwed aren’t they? But you’re young. You’ve got your whole life ahead of ya. Well, go on then, but make this the last time eh?”

The vapours calmed him a bit. He concentrated on the in, the choke-inducing hold then the out. Long, slow, deliberate.

He had Maths first thing with Mr ‘knob-ed’ Charles. He hated it. Maths made him feel proper thick. The numbers moved about sometimes, twisting and bending and making his brain throb. He could do it, if he had enough time but Mr. Charles seemed to go too fast on purpose, like getting kids brains tangled up was a sport for him. Sick, he was.

Vinnie pushed open the door and lumbered over to his desk, vaguely aware the lesson had started already.

“Vincent Capoletti!” boomed Mr Charles, “How dare you disrespect me and my Maths class by wandering in late! What time do you call this? It is Monday morning and this is your first lesson. What excuse could you possibly have for this level of tardiness? Hmm?”

“You don’t wanna know Sir”

“Well, actually young man, I do want to know, that is why I have interrupted my teaching to ask you. So?”

“So, what?”

“So, Capoletti, why are you late?”

“I’m just late Sir. Sorry. Can we drop it?”

“No, Capoletti, we cannot drop it. Not only are you late but you are rude. Stay behind at the end. And tuck your shirt in!”

Vinnie wasn’t in the mood for this. He rarely was but today school was making him feel more claustrophobic than ever. Trapped. I’m really sorry, but we’ve had to find you a new place… I’m sure you’ll like this one Vinnie…. It’s a couple, Les and Maureen.

Les and Maureen. Vinnie wondered what they were like. Maybe they collected those shit pottery dogs that all old people have. Maybe they were into really kinky stuff like swinging and that. Oh God, he hoped they didn’t have other Care kids there. He couldn’t bear it. Another life ruined by social-fucking-services. Another screwed-up brat who he wouldn’t be able to get on with cos he was scared of ever becoming them. Even though he was them already. One of those kids that literally nobody wants.

“…Capoletti! The square root of 25? It isn’t even hard and I’ve asked you twice already!” “Erm, I dunno Sir, 3?” Vinnie could hear the cool group who sat nearer the front sniggering at his ineptitude. It was alright for them and their detached houses and parents with professional jobs. They had time to care about this shit.

Vinnie was feeling edgier by the minute. He tried jiggling his leg to release some energy. It was like Krakatoa inside of him. He’d learned about it in Geography, one of the only lessons he’d ever enjoyed. It was like Krakatoa, the volcano, was inside of him, simmering and hissing and getting close to a catastrophic eruption. He tried to dampen it down, distract himself with his thoughts. All thoughts led back to that chat with Barbara though or to his sad excuse of a mother or to Marianne. He didn’t want to think about her. He could really do with a fag.

Mr Charles made him stay behind at the end for one his righteous teacher monologues. Apparently Vinnie didn’t actually need to answer any of the questions. They were ‘rhetorical’. Mr Charles took great pleasure in telling him so. He was on Report now which was just effing-fabulous.

He’d missed five minutes of break already but was so desperate for a smoke that he took himself to the far edge of the field, where the big tree was, and smoked three fags one after the other even though there wasn’t enough time. He gave himself a liberal spray of Lynx before rushing, of a manner, to French.

“Miss, can you sign my report card?” he said, wafting it in front of Madame Trudeau.

“You want me to sign your card? To say you are on time for my lesson?” she enquired in her fake-sounding French accent.

“Yes miss”

“But you are not on time for my lesson Vincent. Sit down.”

Seriously! Why would no-one just give him a break? Why did teachers have to be so up their own arses? Two tiny minutes late, that was all. Vinnie threw his bag onto the floor and scraped the chair noisily back. He put his elbows on the desk, jabbing his fists into his eye sockets. Krakatoa grumbled and threatened.

“Vincent, I will not ‘av this lack of respect in my classroom. Sit up and take your arms off the desk!”

With great effort, Vinnie did as she bid.

“Where is your homework Vincent? You owe me two pieces now.”

“I, err….”

“Well, do you ‘av it or not?”

“No, I fucking-well haven’t!”

Oh shit. He didn’t mean to say that. The words had just come out of their own accord. His tongue had run away with him as his Nan used to say. It’s the swearing, Hun. Vinnie’s heart pounded and adrenaline coursed through his veins. His body pushed him up to standing. His arms thrust forward and he shoved the table. Hard. He upended his chair, grabbed his bag and slammed the door with such force a glass panel fell out. The noise on impact with the polished floor was ear shattering; the moments afterwards foreboding in their silence. Dagger shaped shards scattered like sinister marbles and crunched under his shoes.

For a second, Vinnie felt compelled to reach for a sliver to slice his flesh with. To bleed the pain away. He’d have done it too but Mr McDermott appeared ghost-like from nowhere and dragged him off to Isolation.

“I don’t know what’s got into you Capoletti! It’s only 10:30am on Monday and somehow, somehow, you’ve already got yourself on Report, annoyed Mr Charles, annoyed Madame Trudeau and destroyed school property! That’s good going even for the likes of you. Now, you’re in here for the rest of the day. Miss. Rivers is supervising. No talking. If I were you lad, I’d get my head together.”

Why do teachers always stink of stale fucking coffee, Vinnie wondered. It was disgusting. Someone should have a word with Mr McDermott about his oral hygiene.

Vinnie chose the booth in the corner and sat himself down. He allowed his head to fall onto his folded arms and closed his eyes. They’re going to come and get your stuff tomorrow while you’re at school and they’ll meet you in the car park afterwards. He wondered what they’d put his stuff in this time. A black bin bag again? Not that he had anything much. Just a couple of trackies and his memory box. He’d have packed himself but Marianne disappeared last night so he couldn’t ask her for a bag. Locked in her room she was. She hadn’t come out this morning either so he hadn’t even got to say goodbye. She must really hate him. Maybe she was scared of what he’d do now she was turfing him out? Did she think he was a fucking thug? That he’d knock her about or summat? Treat her like his Dad treated women?

A yoghurt. That was all he’d had. He was starving and he hadn’t wanted to disturb her.

Anyway, what did it matter? He’d never see her again. He’d add her to the list later, with the other eleven, then he’d forget about her, like the others.

The tears threatened again. Vinnie squeezed his fists hard, so his ragged nails jabbed his skin. What he wouldn’t give for a hug. He couldn’t remember the last time anybody had touched him. A squeeze on the shoulder or a friendly pat, even. Nothing. They don’t touch you in case you accuse of them of rape and that. He wouldn’t do that though, he wasn’t a knob, he just wanted someone to hold him. Just for a few minutes. A memory floated into Vinnie’s mind of him as a little lad, lying with his head on his Nan’s lap, her gently stroking his hair over and over. The old feelings of safety and love pricked at him, cruel reminders of what he no longer had.

Vinnie started to panic again, a heady cocktail of cortisol and adrenaline thrumming through him. He lifted his head to look for a distraction. The booth had three walls, hemming him in. Everything was white. It was like a fucking padded cell. Vinnie was struggling to stay still. His muscles were twitching and flexing. He jiggled one leg then the other. He jiggled faster but the feelings wouldn’t stop. Krakatoa was really threatening now. Vinnie was terrified of the eruption. Catastrophic they said. No coming back from that. Part of him wanted it though. The obliteration.

His thoughts raced. His mum. In a dirty dressing gown, half her teeth missing. One of the houses. Another. Marianne. Barbara. The glass smashing. His blood.

Vinnie drove his head into the surface of the table to make it stop.

“Oi! Mr. Capoletti! How dare you disrupt Isolation! SILENCE!”

Shouting. His Dad. His mum’s black eye. A police car. That noise, of the siren. Terror. Piss soaking into his back in the bed.

Images kept coming. Ones he’d shut away ages ago. He didn’t want to see them. He was hearing the siren like it was there and he just needed it to fucking stop. He was on his feet. His leg kicked the chair over; his hand drove itself into the wall. It was happening. The magma was hurtling upwards.

He was vaguely aware of Miss Rivers radioing for the senior leadership team. Fuck ‘em. Fuck the lot of them. No one gave a shit about him anyway. No one, in the whole fucking world. The desk was upturned now. The paper contents of his bag shredded, creating an eerie juxtaposition of snow against bloodshed.

Mr McDermott was there and some of the others, handling him.

“Don’t fucking touch me!” Vinnie screamed, flailing. “Get the fuck away from me.”

“Vincent, you need to calm down son. You can’t behave like this in school. Do what you like on the streets but its zero tolerance in here. Calm it or we’ll have to involve the Police.”

The Pigs. No, he couldn’t see them. He had to get out. Away. He couldn’t breathe. He needed air. “I’m fucking going you cunts. Chill out,” he spat, grabbing his bag and pushing to the door.

“Vincent, you can’t just leave school. You have to be here. We’ll be calling your fost…” But he was gone, sprinting, his legs driving him forward. Pumped. Lava spewing out, excoriating his thoughts.

*

Later, Vinnie couldn’t remember it too well. He didn’t know how long he ran for or where he’d even gone. He had no fucking idea where he was now. He sat on a wall and looked at his phone. Ten missed calls and several messages from Barbara. He didn’t bother reading them. He was suddenly very tired. Exhausted. It was like there was nothing left of him, a gaping caldera where he should have been. Vinnie tried to think but his brain didn’t work. He couldn’t make a plan. His thoughts wouldn’t do it. There was nothing. Just emptiness. It should have been better, not having the pictures in his head and the words on loop. But it wasn’t. He was so hollow it was terrifying. If nobody was missing him and he couldn’t even feel himself, was he even real? Would he just float into the air like a spec of dirt? Would be dissipate? Dissolve? Just go?

Vinnie needed to feel something. Anything. The knife was still in his pocket, reassuringly cold and solid. It felt good in his palm; weighty. Then, the satisfying click of the blade.

 

 

 

 

Boys Don’t Cry

The National Adoption Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0712

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The National Adoption Awards

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

Fear of Loss

Little Bear has had an emotional few weeks. It began with the unfortunate death of his pet hen. It was unfortunate because he hadn’t had her that long and she was originally called Curious George (before he re-named her Izzy, that is) and curiosity really did kill the hen. She was a serial escaper, the true Houdini of hens, scaling the 6 foot fence on innumerable occasions and outwitting all our attempts to contain her. Alas one night she must have taken one chance too many and been met by an errant fox.

When Grizzly, Big Bear and I discovered the loss, we could already foresee the problem: this would hit Little Bear hard. We did the usual thing; Grizzly and Big Bear went to the farm to get another hen that we planned to pop into the hen run without Little Bear being any the wiser. However, Izzy was a beautiful black hen, with shiny iridescent feathers and when the boys arrived at the farm, there were no black hens left. Eek. We were left with no choice but to tell him the truth and replace Izzy with a different coloured hen.

Little Bear initially took the news quite well. The distraction of a new hen waiting outside for him in a box was helpful, especially when she turned out to be the friendliest hen we’ve ever had and allowed Little Bear to pick her up and cuddle her straight away. She was immediately christened Ronaldo and apart from the poor thing’s gender confusion, all was well with the world.

However, as the day wore on, there were several occasions when Little Bear’s eyes filled with tears and he said how sad he was about Izzy. This alone was probably quite triggering but to add insult to injury, Grizzly had to go away that evening to Germany. Grizzly travels a fair bit with work, he is generally away overnight most weeks but it is usually in the UK and evidently the idea of him going away for 3 sleeps and in a plane felt quite different to Little Bear. We could tell something was bothering him from his behaviour. Over the morning, Little Bear found it harder and harder to listen, becoming rude and a little verbally aggressive. Much of this was targeted at Grizzly.

After lunch we decided to go to the park for a few hours to have some quality family time before Grizzly went. When Little Bear and I were in the downstairs loo, him stood on the loo seat looking into the mirror while I applied his sun cream, he took me by surprise with a throwaway comment. “I don’t remember being in that girl’s tummy,” he said out of nowhere. “Your birth mum?” I asked and said her name. “Yeah,” “Well, most people don’t remember being inside someone’s tummy either,” I reassured. “Ok,” he replied, hopped down and wandered off.

Sometimes these life story chats are so random and out of the blue that you are left wondering if they really happened. I made a mental note to fill Grizzly in when we got to the park, as evidently Little Bear had a busy mind that day.

In the car, the situation between Little Bear and Grizzly was deteriorating further. I don’t think Little Bear had followed some instruction or other and appeared to be being purposefully combative. Grizzly was rapidly running out of patience. Things were heading towards explosion territory. Without wanting to replay the conversation we’d had in the toilet in front of Little Bear, I suggested to Grizzly that Little Bear might have a lot on his mind and that might be why he was behaving as he was. Grizzly managed to wind himself back, which is so hard when you are already at the getting mad stage and wondered aloud to Little Bear whether he might be getting annoyed with him because he was really sad about him going to Germany. It’s so obvious now when we’ve got the wondering right because Little Bear crumbles in front of your eyes and can turn in a split second from furious rage to heartbreak. Sure enough, he just dissolved. Yes, he didn’t want Grizzly to go and he was sad his hen had died. We did the usual reassurances but on this occasion Little Bear was so upset that we only got a few metres down the road before we had to pull the car over. He climbed into the front, into Grizzly’s knee and wept.

It was such a shame. Its times like this when being adopted is different. For children who have not lost an entire previous life, losing a pet does not spiral into wondering whether daddy really will come back. It doesn’t trigger all those feelings of having lost precious people before. It doesn’t make them think about the mysterious woman who gave birth to them or the family they never see. It doesn’t make them fearful of losing everything all over again.

Little Bear’s hen loss was a real loss. His dad going to Germany for three days and coming back again was not. However, having the background that Little Bear has causes him to perceive a small or temporary separation as a potential loss. The threat of real loss is never too far away when you’re adopted. He has been with us more than 2 and a half years now. That time has been really stable. Nobody has left him. However, the significant losses of his birth family and then his foster carers in his formative years have left an indelible stain on his memory. I wonder whether that will fade over time or whether the threat of loss will always haunt him like this.

I spoke with school on the Monday morning, to make them aware of Little Bear’s fragile emotional state. It was a good job because that day, for the first time ever, he talked to Mrs C, his TA, about some of his life story. I have spoken to her since and she said that Grizzly being away really impacted on Little Bear. He had struggled more in school; regressed in his attitude to learning and even sabotaged his work, something he had completely stopped doing.

Unfortunately, shortly after Grizzly got back, it became obvious he had caught some lurgy from the plane and was unwell. He wasn’t at death’s door ill, just man flu ill, but Little Bear was worried in a death’s door kind of way, I suppose because his threat of loss censors where still on high alert. It’s so hard for him, having to carry around the weight of worry that something bad might happen to someone he loves all the time.

Thankfully, Mrs C seemed to get it and made the link with Little Bear’s earlier life without me needing to point it out. I really feel as though she has been listening to us rabbiting on all year and she is pretty tuned into the little dude now, thank goodness. Having an understanding approach at school and some extra cuddles will no doubt have helped Little Bear to get back on track a little quicker.

 

*In looking for a medical term for ‘fear of loss’, I stumbled upon this list of fears: 

Phobias list

Check it out, it’s pretty entertaining. Obviously I don’t find people having fears funny but I’m hard pushed to believe some of them are real… Fear of sitting down, Tuberculosis or being infested by worms anyone?

 

Fear of Loss

Books

With it being World Book Day this week, I thought it might be a good time to share some of our favourite children’s books and the reasons they have become important to us.

First Books

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The board book pictured was Little Bear’s first book. I know this because we gave it to him during introductions when he was 3 and a half years old. The average 3 and a half year old is likely to have progressed beyond board books quite some time ago and is most likely enjoying a range of picture books with maybe a couple of sentences on each page. I’m going to assume that Little Bear had seen a book somewhere and on occasions someone had read one to him. However, he certainly didn’t own any books and a bedtime story was not part of his bedtime routine, which appeared to involve wrestling him into his pyjamas and beating a hasty retreat, shutting the double height stairgate behind you.

There has been some recent Twitter chat which would suggest that Little Bear was not alone in not having a bedtime story during foster care. This makes me incredibly sad. I know the majority of foster carers work extremely hard and give the children in their care everything they could possible need but evidence suggests they don’t all. For me, a bedtime story (or a story at some other part of the day) is not a pleasant add on, it is an essential part of childhood. Books have so much to offer children, not least in terms of their language development, and not having a bedtime story is a huge opportunity missed, particularly if the child in question has Developmental Language Disorder

The lack of books felt like such a fundamental omission to me that I couldn’t wait until we got home to introduce them. Thankfully I had popped this one into our packing and read it to Little Bear the very first time I put him to bed (after the wrestling into pyjamas part). I was surprised by how quiet he was and how much it held his attention, considering his behaviour the rest of the time. He LOVED it and asked for it repeatedly in the days and weeks afterwards. From there on in he has had a bedtime story. In fact, I feel as though so much time has been wasted for him, he actually has three bedtime stories every night.

Transition Books

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We read Little Bear board books for as long as he needed us to and he still has them on his shelf in case he fancies one now. However, when I felt the time was right to move him on, I needed something that bridged the gap between board books which usually have few words on a page and proper picture books which have quite a lot more. The books pictured here and others like them are the ones that bridged the gap nicely. They held Little Bear’s attention well and were good for extending his vocabulary with words that would be within his grasp.

The length of these books was just right at the time, helping to stretch Little Bear’s attention span little by little.

I especially love the bright pictures in the Meg and Mog books and they contain a good level of drama too!

First Picture Book

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We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is an important book to us because it was the first book from which Little Bear started to learn parts of the text. The repetition really helped him and he loved anticipating seeing the bear (he has always enjoyed an element of peril!). I remember being so chuffed that he could recite parts of it and fill in blanks when I paused because it was such a leap in language skills. It’s always a pleasure to see a child enjoying a book but especially so when they have been denied the opportunity sooner. It has been an honour really, to be able to take Little Bear by the hand and gently guide him into the world of literature. It’s been an exciting and lovely expedition for both of us.

This is a book that has spilled into our play too and we have been on many walks and adventures looking for bears and chanting “we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we have to go through it” and getting very muddy.

Books about Lions and Tigers

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The thing about books is that you can get them about anything. ANYTHING. The infinite possibilities are brilliant for a child with a wild imagination (see Fantasy versus Reality) and I love the way you can use a child’s interests to engage them with learning without them really knowing it’s educational. Little Bear is partial to a book with a lion or tiger in it (the element of danger again) and we have built up a bit of a collection. In fact on World Book Day, he will be dressing as a lion and taking The Lion Inside by Rachel Bright as his favourite book.

Never Tickle a Tiger is a relatively new one but it’s a good one as the main character can’t help but fiddle with everything and she really does remind me a lot of Little Bear! He did notice the similarity too.

This collection also shows that Little Bear has progressed with his attention span and can now listen to three of this type of book at bedtime without difficulty. Moreover, he can follow the more complex texts and vocabulary in them which he previously would not have been able to. Books have certainly played their part in his progress.

Books that Rhyme

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I think the go-to rhyming books are usually those by Julia Donaldson. We do like those and several feature in our book collection but they generally have quite a lot of text and it has only been more recently that Little Bear has been able to engage with them. For maximum exposure to rhyme and lots of repetition in a short space of time, I don’t think you can beat the Oi Frog books. They are just a little bit naughty too which appeals to boisterous boys. We have read these a lot and they have definitely resulted in laughing out loud. They have also been great for helping Little Bear learn to rhyme (a fairly recent development) which has helped him with his vowel work and with beginning to spell at school.

The Cat in The Hat has been a surprise contender for favourite book. Big Bear never really engaged with it when he was younger but something about it has really grabbed Little Bear. It is also a long story but for some reason he manages it (if he chooses it, it’s the only time we don’t have three stories because we’d be there all night). I suspect he likes it so much because the cat is so naughty. It is a good book for phonic development though and sometimes Little Bear has read some of it to me, helping to build his confidence that he can read other things, not just his school book.

Books that Have Issues

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These are books that tackle big emotions and might help with adoption-related things. I Will Love You Anyway is a really lovely book that I struggle to read without a lump in my throat. It is about a dog that keeps running away and is difficult to look after. He hears his humans saying that they can’t cope with him and he’ll have to go. He runs away at night and gets lost and scared until the boy comes and finds him. The message is that no matter what the dog does his humans love him anyway and want to keep him. I suppose its art reflecting life and it really does talk to a child’s insecurities. We like this one.

Where the Wild Things Are is quite an out-there, random book. I’m not really sure how much it speaks to me but it does speak to Little Bear. He seems to really understand the analogy of the boy becoming angry and going off somewhere in his head and I think it makes him feel better that he is not the only one it happens to.

There are quite a few other books like this available. All the ones by Sarah Naish and things like The Big Bag of Worries. We just haven’t dabbled much yet and where we have dabbled, these two are clear favourites.

Books that Get Us Talking

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These You Choose books are a recent addition after a teacher friend got Little Bear one for Christmas. They’re absolutely brilliant for language development and I’m going to invest in at least one more for Little Bear’s birthday. On each page there are lots of choices like which job you want to do on the rocket, what you’re going to wear and where you’re going to go. It means that each time you read the book you can make different choices and have a different adventure. They are great for vocabulary development, generating narratives, developing imagination and formulating questions. You could also work on turn-taking, listening and following instructions if you wanted to.

We have been known to use the book to generate verbal sentences which we have then written down for writing practise. I really think they are a fabulous resource and can’t believe I’ve only just found them. They would also be good in a work capacity for building relationships with children you don’t yet know well – it would give you a shared context to begin chatting.

More to the point, Little Bear loves this book and chooses it frequently.

Books for Big Bear

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Big Bear is an independent reader now. He’s a good reader but rarely reads for pleasure. We have tried all sorts of different books to engage him but to my surprise it has been The Goosebumps Horrorland series that have really grabbed him. He discovered them at school and has taken to disappearing to his room to read one which is pleasantly surprising. He also enjoys Michael Morpurgo books and we went through a phase of devouring all things Roald Dahl.

He has always enjoyed non-fiction, leaving picture books behind at quite an early stage and still does to some extent. We got him a subscription to The Week Junior for his birthday which has encouraged him to read more (though it’s a newspaper not a book) and has led to some interesting conversations. Just tonight he was getting hot under the collar about Donald Trump (he has a point).

His football information books have really held his attention too, though he likes me to read them to him. I’m secretly very pleased that my big boy isn’t too old for a bedtime story yet.

 

These are just some of the books we have enjoyed together and some of the benefits we have gained from them. I haven’t even mentioned that reading together is great bonding time – Little Bear likes a good snuggle-in at story time and it has been a way for other family members like grandparents and aunties and uncles to spend some quality time with him. It is also a predictable and familiar part of his routine now, which may well have contributed to his sleep settling down.

I wonder what books are popular in other people’s houses. Do you have any recommendations for us?

Happy World Book Day everyone,

The Bears xx

 

 

 

Books

A Confession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have I been too chicken this time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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A Confession