Being an Expert Parent

Recently, I keep having flashbacks of being a community speech and language therapist. The memories are of some very specific parents: those whom we feared a little bit. I think every caseload has them – the parents whose children you resort to drawing straws for and whom everybody avoids ringing. More often than not it would be me ending up with them on my caseload. That was a little bit because I’m a glutton for punishment, a little bit because I’m magnetised towards a challenge and quite a lot because I admired them and even then knew that I shouldn’t avoid them because in another world, I would be them. Not all of my colleagues were so keen though and there were certainly parents who gained notoriety within the department for being demanding or difficult to please.

I knew, even then, before I’d had my children and before I had become one myself, that nobody becomes an Expert Parent for the pure fun of it. Nobody sets out to rattle people’s cages and make demands and make themselves heard and fight for stuff just for kicks. People are forced into these positions by services which don’t meet the needs of their children and by having children who are different and need different things. That in itself is a tricky and unenviable position, before you find yourself pushed to the bottom of clinician’s to do lists.

I suppose I felt I owed it to these parents to shake myself off, put my big girl knickers on and bring them my A game. Yes, sometimes they were difficult. Sometimes they asked me hard questions or tried to pin me down to providing things the NHS couldn’t really justify. Sometimes I needed a little lie down after I’d seen them or an extra chocolate biscuit but generally, I didn’t regret taking on those cases. If anything, those parents made me a better therapist. They made me think harder and consider more angles and give even more than usual. I would far rather work with a keen parent, who would support care plans etc., than with an apathetic parent who didn’t really want to be there and hadn’t really bought in to the whole speech and language therapy thing.

However, I am not an angel and I’m sure there were times I went back to the office and had a little rant about what Mrs Whatever Her Name had done or said now. I know my colleagues did that too and no matter what anybody says in public, I think it’s natural that that kind of letting off of steam happens and I’m certain it does happen in clinical and educational and medical teams up and down the country.

I suspect the reason I keep thinking of these parents at the moment is because the realisation is dawning that I have become one of them and there are probably people discussing what a nightmare I am in an office nearby as we speak.

I think it hit me last week, during our horrendous meeting with the Educational Psychologist (see Conversations ). I realised that in a competition of who knows most about the needs of adopted children (well, my adopted child anyway) I could have left him for dead. It was a hands down defeat. Not that I wanted it to be a competition or to have to assert my knowledge in any way but the more defensive and wild he became with his points, the more I found myself standing my ground and refusing to accept his ignorance. I could see the fear in his eyes and him shrivelling away into his shell in front of me.

Having been on the other side of the fence, I do fully understand how it feels to receive that type of onslaught. I have been grilled in tribunals and sat in meetings where I’ve said the opposite of what people want to hear. I have stood in front of a room of experienced adopters and wondered what on earth I could possibly teach them that they didn’t already know. None of us have all the answers and it can be uncomfortable to be faced with someone more knowledgeable than ourselves, especially when we are in the position of ‘expert’.

It’s never fun to be in that situation but the crucial thing is our handling of it. I’m finding that professionals tend to fall into one of two camps when faced with an Expert Parent – those who are comfortable with admitting they don’t know things and are prepared to go away and find out, and those who grow defensive. The ones who grow defensive are no help whatsoever. I find they tend to want to discredit you and give opposing views just to save face.

Although I have to accept that as a parent I do come with quite a bit of knowledge now, I certainly don’t want to come across as conceited or combative or difficult. Most of the time, I think I conceal the majority of my knowledge and try to allow professionals we meet to do their job without interruption. Our experiences with the Speech and Language Therapy Service were reassuring in that way – I was a pain in the backside and I did complain but as soon as we had a therapist who wasn’t frightened or defensive, things went fabulously. I knew she knew her stuff and that if she didn’t, she would admit it before going away to find out, so I felt completely reassured. I didn’t need to come over all Expert Parent with her. Equally, I have rarely, if ever, shown school the full extent of my knowledge or readiness to fight.

However, our experiences with the EP last week would suggest that when faced with a professional who talks bollocks I can no longer rein myself in. I am careful not to be rude or aggressive but I did ask hard questions and I didn’t accept his answers and I did make the poor man sweat.

I couldn’t help myself. It seems there is a certain standard that I expect (as Expert Parents in the past have rightly expected of me) and I can’t tolerate a standard that isn’t good enough. There are many reasons for it – my oft spoken line ‘if I don’t stand up for my child, who will?’ Also, if I, as a professional person with a brilliant support network don’t have the balls to call out professionals who aren’t good enough, who will? As I said last week, our children deserve the best services, not the worst. I didn’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘I know what would be fun today, lets antagonise an EP’, because no one does and in reality it isn’t an enjoyable experience. I was furious for most of the afternoon afterwards and only relaxed when the SENCO caught me at home time to say they wouldn’t accept the inappropriate standard of the EP either and would pay for a private assessment for us. I was really touched and reassured that they cared enough to do that.

The following day I had a migraine because I had become so tense during and after the meeting. There isn’t anything enjoyable about being an Expert Parent. It is a compulsion based on having a child who needs you to be one.

As much as I have purposefully armed myself with knowledge and am prepared to fight if necessary, I do worry about how I’m perceived when I unleash my inner Expert Parent. I have the same insecurities and basic desire to be liked as anybody else. I do worry that people will think I’m a knob. I worry that the teachers sit in the staffroom discussing what a pain I am and how much they hope Little Bear doesn’t end up in their class, like we used to when Expert Parents got referred for Speech and Language Therapy. I worry they see me as overly outspoken, too big for my boots or just plain annoying.

This morning I had to check some SEN paperwork for Little Bear’s teacher. I queried one part because I was worried how it would appear to a funding panel. “I knew you would,” the teacher said. He was laughing but my reputation already comes before me.

Part of me genuinely worries about how I’m perceived because having good relationships with people is important to me. I want to get on well with teachers and other professionals. I am not someone who has ever been a fan of having enemies. However, another part of me tries to listen to my husband, whose attitude is ‘who cares?’ We do what we do because we have to and because our children are our priority. If people can’t handle it, that’s their problem.

There is a certain kinship about being an Expert Parent – we understand the routes that have been taken, the difficult meetings, the dredging up of energy we don’t have to face another battle. We understand so many things about each other without even having to explain it. It’s so important we stick together. It should never be a competition about whose life is hardest – it should be a network of mutual admiration and understanding.

I have a close friend who is just making the first difficult steps into seeking a diagnosis for her son. She is encountering professionals who won’t listen to her, despite her having turned this situation over every which way in her mind for several years and her being an Occupational Therapist. She’s struggling with having her worries aired for other professionals to hear and with fearing people won’t see what she sees. It can feel very vulnerable being an Expert Parent, especially as there is so much scepticism from teachers and other professionals over whether you really do have the knowledge you’re pretty sure you have. It is unfortunately through these vulnerable moments and the judgement we face that we become even more confident as Expert Parents.

I know that we are feared up and down the land by professionals of every type because we make working days harder and take up more time. It is the system that has bred us this way; the services that have nurtured us; the unprofessional comments and decisions that have fuelled us. We don’t want to be Expert Parents any more than you want us to be. If you work hard, do your job properly and are prepared to meet children’s needs adequately, you have nothing to fear. We’re lovely, actually. But woe betide he or she who stands between us and our children’s needs being met. They will experience the full force of our Expert Parent fury, knowledge and willingness to call you out.

And the ground shalt quake.

Being an Expert Parent

The National Adoption Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0712

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0783

 

 

The National Adoption Awards