Saturday, October 22, 2016

45 Years From Now

In 45 years time, OB will be 50 - the same age as adult adoptee Chris, whose story appeared in the papers this week as part of the National Adoption Week coverage.

Reading his story, I couldn't help looking for information between the lines, and hints at threads woven into the story that might help me to empathise with my own children's experiences. There was mention of a shaky start to life, some turbulence during the teen years, and a search for birth family that culminated in the significant moment when this adoptee finally looked into somebody else's face and saw glimmers of his own features. There was relevance there.

But this was perhaps not a 'modern adoption' story. There was no mention of problems accessing post-placement support, difficulties navigating the education system, the ongoing battle of trying to get various professionals to 'get it', the radically altered expectations of family life, the realisation that everything you thought you understood about parenting is not going to cut it here.

And then I took another look at the list of things not mentioned, and I realised that most of the things on that list are not my children's stories. They are mine. It is me who researches all things attachment, me who works so hard to keep our lives safe and predictable, me who makes the phone calls and sends the emails again and again. I am the one who mentally prepares answers to questions my children might ask about their early lives. I am the one who adjusts our environment to reduce anxieties, who de-escalates dramas before they become crises.

I am not saying that none of these things affect my children or are relevant to them. Of course not. Adoption has happened to them. Loss of birth family has happened to them. Not to me. What I am saying is that their story is not mine. I have my story as an adoptive parent. They have their stories as adoptees.

There are many experiences of being an adoptive parent, and many experiences of being an adopted person. We need to hear them all, even if they do not fit with the narrative that runs in our own heads. If I was to be asked to tell the story of my own childhood in 500 or so words, I would probably amaze my parents in what I have remembered and what I have completely forgotten.  It's a long time since I was a child. Perceptions of an event differ from person to person. Some things fade and blur, others remain in sharp relief. Hindsight affects perspective. Things that consume my world now might be barely noticed by my son. His current concerns might surprise me.

In 45 years time, if my son should happen to be interviewed for a national paper about his experience of being adopted, I do not know what he will say. But I do hope that he will tell his story, and not mine.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Not Like Any Other Parent

National Adoption Week is coming up. I'm probably not going to write about that this year, although I've blogged about it in previous years here and here and here. This week, though, I'm sticking to my fostering roots.

There have been quite a few changes in my LA recently. I can't call it cost-cutting as apparently the changes didn't actually save any money overall but, unfortunately for me, the net effect is that allowances and expenses that I receive in my particular situation will be reduced. In response to some of these changes, I wrote a letter to some of the big bosses at the LA in which I challenged some of their basic assumptions about what foster carers do and what we need. They replied to my letter, taking each of my points in turn, and reiterating their basic assumptions.

I didn't expect anything different really, but one phrase really took my breath away. The writer was at pains to ensure that I understood that any fostered children I look after should be made a full part of our family life, and that I should handle a particular situation "the way any other parent would do".

The way any other parent would do.

Leaving aside the fact that I am not the parent, that they already have parents and, depending on their legal status, the state may be partly their parent, here's a list of ways in which a short-term foster carer is not like "any other parent":

  • I'm not allowed to call myself a parent - the term is 'foster carer'
  • In order to become a foster carer I had to go through a gruelling year-long approvals process which resulted in a social worker who was a complete stranger eventually knowing more about me than my closest friends do
  • Children can arrive in my home with as little as 90 minutes notice
  • They can stay for a few days, a few months or a couple of years, but they will eventually move on
  • I have to keep a daily log of all our doings which a social worker will read and sign
  • Two different social workers will visit me every 4-6 weeks and, amongst other things, check on the quality of my 'parenting'
  • Once a year I have a 360 appraisal of my 'parenting' and every professional I meet from Health Visitors to Contact Supervisors to Nursery Teachers gets to contribute
  • I have to attend at least five training events each year in order to maintain my 'parenting' standards
  • I must adhere to a strict 'safer caring' policy which affects how we live in our own home
  • My home must meet prescribed health and safety requirements, which I am responsible for maintaining
  • I have a 'delegated authority' document which details exactly which decisions I'm allowed to make with regards to a child's care, and which I must ask permission for
  • I have to take the children to visit their actual parents 3-5 times each week
  • If a child has siblings living elsewhere, I probably have to take them to see each other too
  • If a child injures themselves or has an accident, social workers will come to my house and I'll have a load of forms to fill in
  • If a child becomes ill and has to go to the hospital, I phone the social worker immediately after I phone the ambulance
  • If somebody has an allegation about the quality of my parenting, social workers will come to my house, forms will be filled in, any children may be summarily removed and I could lose my livelihood - I might never know the reason why
  • My regular babysitters ought to have up-to-date DBS checks (none of them have actually but that's another story!)
  • I can't take a child on our family holiday without their actual parent's permission
  • I can't take a child for a new hairstyle without their actual parent's permission
  • I regularly have to attend meetings, medical appointments etc. pertaining to the child's 'looked after' status, over and above normal childhood requirements
  • If I become sick, any children could be removed and I could lose my livelihood
  • I must parent each child with love, knowing that one day I will hand that child over to somebody else and may never see or hear from them again

Apparently, foster carers are getting their own union. I have seen some comments querying the value of this, mainly based around the idea that foster carers should be doing it for love, not financial gain (mostly written by people who have never fostered a child). The truth is, we are doing it for love. If I was doing this for financial gain, I wouldn't be doing it. But any idea that foster caring (I'm talking about short-term fostering here) is basically just like having someone to stay as part of your family while everything else carries on as it did before . . . well, it's just plain old-fashioned and wrong.

And what is frustrating me most at the moment is that it is the people who run the system who are the ones holding on so tightly to this idea.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Massive Mummy-Fail at Build-a-Bear

As part of our recent adoption celebrations, we made our first ever trip to Build-a-Bear. It wasn't planned, but we walked past the shop on our way to the restaurant and I had this sudden bright idea of getting customised bears for the two children to commemorate the day.

And while we were there, I managed to commit a mummy-fail of fantastic proportions. In my defence . . . no, I fear there is no defence.

Let me tell you, and you can decide....

So, we'd never been there before and, confronted with a vast array of bears and accessories, I had to resort to asking a staff member what on earth we were supposed to be doing. First: the bear skin. OB, of course, immediately chose the first one his eye lit on. I encouraged him to look at everything, so he chose the second one his eye lit on. I pointed out that the little bear outfits wouldn't fit on that one, so he chose the third one his eye lit on.

Meanwhile, my Mum had picked out a cute doggy for Birdy, because Birdy loves "doddies". I liked it but had my heart set on a traditional teddy. I found a very cute curly-haired one.

Then it was on to the gadgets. Another vast array of choice. Let me just say, I'm not good with choice. I become paralysed by indecision. First was the choice of sound for the bear's paw. At first I thought I wouldn't bother, but they all have this obvious press-pad on their paws - it would be strange to press it and have nothing happen. So, we soldiered on.

OB, having seen the bear I'd chosen for Birdy, had ditched his choice, and selected the same. We listened to loads of the sounds but none of them appealed to me. Especially not the one that said, "I'm your best friend!" in a squeaky voice, and not the "Let It Go" special either. OB decided he wanted a roaring noise, but we couldn't find the right one, so off he went with Grandpa to get one downloaded off the Build-a-Bear computer. After that, I didn't see his bear again until it was finished and a costume selected.

I was also dimly aware that my Mum was getting the doggy for Birdy anyway. I was still struggling to find a sound I liked for Birdy's, but I couldn't leave hers without a sound if OB had one. Then I found the 'record you own message' doodads. Cheesy? I thought so, but it was at this point that I had the sudden realisation that Birdy already has a Build-a-Bear. Her birth mum got it for her over a year ago. She recorded a message on it.

I tried hard to remember what kind of bear it was. Could it possibly be the exact same bear that I had chosen? What were the words of the message? Might I be in danger of recording a similar message? If I recorded a message, would it be as though I was competing with birth mum? If I didn't, would it look like I didn't care as much as birth mum? Was I over-reacting? Most likely, but apparently it's what I do in Build-a-Bear!

In the end, under pressure to just make a decision, I recorded a message, hastily, in a stairwell, with no preparation or forethought, and a deep sense of dread that I'd be listening to it for years to come.

And it wasn't over! No! Then there was the decision about what sort of heart I should put in the bear. On full throttle by now, I went for the beating heart without thinking about it too much. I just wanted all the decision-making to be over!

So, Birdy left the shop with a doggy with a beating heart and woofing noise, and a teddy bear with a beating heart and a message in my very own dulcet tones. OB left the shop with a teddy bear with a roaring noise and a complete Batman outfit, named "Batbear".

If you've managed to make it this far, you've probably spotted several opportunities for disaster. Which do you think was the one that had us back at the Build-a-Bear shop four days later?

Well, no prizes for guessing it was the recorded message.

When we got home, one of the first things I did was run upstairs and get Birdy's first Build-a-Bear down from her memory box. It was a rabbit. Relief.

But it wasn't long before OB noticed that Birdy's bear carried my voice. He played it quite a few times and then said, "I hate that!", before playing it several more times. In fact, he just about wore it out on that first day.

There was no meltdown. There were no angry demands. But I knew. And I thought, how could I have let that happen? How did I possibly manage to give my daughter a bear with a message of love recorded on it, and not my son?

I apologised. We hugged it out. I suggested going back and getting another bear, with my voice on it. He wanted the exact same message as I'd put on Birdy's. When we went back, we found a bear with batman fur. He asked me to call this new bear "Batbear" and change the old bear's name. So we printed out two new birth certificates, both with the birthdate of the original bear, re-named the first one "Superbear", and re-dressed it in a Superman outfit.

It was a little self-deception that we colluded in, but it seemed to do the trick. Batbear and Superbear now have pride of place in the bedtime line up. I often hear my voice emanating weirdly from Batbear's paw when OB thinks I'm not listening. I think we rescued the situation.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Teachers: A Word About Teaching Chronology Without Trauma

A couple of weeks ago, a Twitter friend of mine posted a picture of her child's homework. It was a chart with one row for each year of the child's life. The child was invited to write down one significant event in each row, i.e. one for each year.

Unremarkable homework. In the past, I have set such homework myself as a pre-cursor to topics on biography, for instance. I never really thought much about it. The teacher had even put suggestions about what to write: I moved house; I got a new puppy; My brother was born.

But what if the most significant event in a child's life in any particular year was not so positive? What if, instead of writing about how they got a new puppy, the child was to write: my Dad left us; my parents got divorced; I was taken into foster care; my Mum died.

I know that chronology has to be taught at Key Stage 1 (and beyond). And I know that using a child's own life is perhaps the most straightforward way to approach it, but, even at the age of 5, 6 or 7, some children have lived a life that simply will not fit neatly into a series of happy statements on a personal chronology.

In many cases, if living in a nurturing family, even children who have experienced loss and sadness would perhaps have reached a stage where thinking about the events in their lives to date would not trigger them. Perhaps. But for children whose first four or five years of life have included neglect, abuse, removal to foster care and the loss of all they know, followed by removal to a new adoptive family and another loss of all they know, the chances are, some of this will still be raw.

Setting a homework task like the personal chronology places carers and parents of some children in a difficult situation. Should they approach the teacher, ask for something different, risk making their child 'stand out' among their peers? Or should they attempt to navigate through the task, managing their child's emotions as they go?

And what if the child's parent or carer does not know what happened to them in the first year of their life? Or second, or third? While we're on the subject, many carers and adoptive parents do not have baby photos of their children either, so please think twice before asking all your class members to bring in such items.

Chronology has to be taught at Key Stage 1, but there are other ways to go about it. Why not just lose the personal chronology timelines that can be so problematic for so many, and try these other ideas instead:

  • Collect photos of common household or tech items, and photos of their counterparts from decades earlier, e.g. TVs, washing machines, telephones, and ask the children to sort the photos into 'old' and 'new'
  • Bring in photos of yourself (the teacher) spaced out across your life at roughly 5-year intervals. Ask children to sort them chronologically and note how you have changed over time - that should be fun!
  • Ask the children to draw pictures representing each line of a nursery rhyme, and then arrange the pictures in chronological order to create a picture version of the rhyme
  • Take a walk in your local neighbourhood, noting 'old' and 'new' objects and buildings
  • Ask children to sequence stock photos of babies, toddlers, children, teens and adults - no need to bring in their own pictures
  • Choose a particular object/topic and study how it has changed through time, e.g. toys, homes or clothes
  • Read a simple biography to the class and sequence key events from the subject's life

The internet is awash with sites support the teaching of History and English at primary level - many more excellent suggestions will no doubt be found with a quick search. Next time you sit down to plan your lesson on chronology, please do consider the life experiences of the children who will be sitting in your classroom, and try a different approach. Thank you!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Celebrating a Daughter Part II

I am a sucker for a pretty dress. Not for myself, you understand. I'm more of a leggings and baggy t-shirt sort of a girl these days. But given the opportunity, I do love to put Birdy in a ridiculously pretty, full-skirted dress and watch her little trotty legs stomp about purposefully beneath the skirts.

This weekend provided ample opportunity. With our 'Adoption Visit' (everybody except the court calls it Adoption Celebration or Celebratory Hearing) early this week, my parents booked their flights over and we embarked on a weekend of celebrations and memory-making.

We pushed the boat out for OB just over three years ago, and we had a great time, but I had memories of aspects of it being pretty stressful for me. Let's just say event planning is not something I'd ever put as a strength on my CV.

So, this time, I made it easy on myself. I got the party catered. I don't regret it one bit. A friend of mine is setting up a business doing luxury afternoon teas, and as I'm never one to turn down a cream-covered scone, I decided this would be perfect.

It was. It really was. For various reasons, we weren't able to do Birdy's Dedication at church on Sunday, so we combined it with the party on Saturday and I'm so grateful to the many, many people from church who came along and stood with us as we dedicated this little one. And once the formalities were over, we tucked in heartily to posh sandwiches, and an array of egg-free, nut-free treats that would have had Paul and Mary licking their lips.

I won't describe the food in any more detail because if you weren't there, you'll be jealous. Let me just leave this out there: strawberry-topped salted caramel and chocolate bites. See, I told you!

Later that evening, we had family over to my house for more celebrations. There was fizz. It was good times.

And then, once the weekend was over, we got our twenty minutes in court. OB's adoption visit was, I felt, a bit of an anti-climax, and Birdy's was even more so. We had to leave pretty early and brave the rush hour to get there by 9.30, all dressed up. The place was virtually empty as I think most court sessions proper don't seem to start until 10am. We hung around with no idea where to go. We were sent up to floor 6. We were sent from there to floor 10 where we hung around some more. Then an usher came to take us to floor 9 and left us at the courtroom door. We tentatively went in to be greeted by a very smiley judge who wasn't our judge and who assured us that this was not the right place.

Another judge appeared - this was our judge. Apparently it was the right place, and the first judge was being temporarily put out of his own courtroom! A certificate, a few photos and it was over. We found ourselves out on the street, a little after 10am, looking for a cab.

We made a good job of the rest of the day though. We had planned to go to TGI Friday for lunch, as that's where we went for OB's celebration day (don't want any arguing between them in years to come!) so we combined that with a trip to the nearby Build-A-Bear to empty my bank account get some furry mementos of the big day. I must say, I am deeply gratified by how much both children adore their creations. Due to an immense mummy-fail on the day, we have had to make a return trip, so now both children have two. OB has made a bed for them in his room with pillows and blankets. Tonight he insisted on 'reading' them a story before he went to bed!

Perfect weekend. Now for the rest of our lives.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

A Letter to My Son

Hello my lovely!

We have had a lovely summer together and, as the yellowing leaves begin to submit to the inevitability of autumn, I wanted to take a few moments to remember and to mark the progress you have made this year.

It's been a big year for you. In fact it seems that every year is a big year for you. Virtually every year you have been alive, you have experienced seismic changes that would rock a secure adult on their heels. This year it has been the acquisition of a new sister.

Of course, she's not new to you. She arrived two Christmases ago, all tiny and squidgy and bundled up. But now she is your official, real-life, legal sister. I have asked you many times to welcome children into our home and to play with them and help me show love and care towards them, but this time I am asking you to make a permanent commitment and it feels momentous to me. I'm sure it does to you too.

You are an amazing big brother. I can tell that from our very long 'try out'. You fetch snacks and toys for Birdy when she is crying. You tickle her tummy to make her laugh. You sing to her and tolerate her destruction of your carefully constructed play worlds amazingly well. You kiss her goodnight. You are concerned when she is hurt. She couldn't ask for better. I couldn't ask for better.

But becoming a big brother hasn't been your only achievement this year. I know, sweet knees, that you are afraid of many things. You don't want to be afraid. In your head, you want to do the things that scare you but, when the time comes, your body betrays you, adrenaline overtakes you and you freeze up or prepare for flight. Sometimes you fight.

All of this makes it even more remarkable that this summer you actually stroked a dog. A real dog! I know that this doesn't mean that your fear of dogs in general has melted away, but I am so proud of you for taking control over your strong feelings in this way. It's something we can build on together, I'm sure of it.

Not only that, but you screwed up all your courage while we were on holiday and put your face completely in the water. In fact, you actually swam a few strokes underwater. Even now, I can picture the delight and pride on your face as you wiped the water from your eyes, laughing and smiling. You've come a long way from the little boy who wouldn't even get into the bath. These days you even let me shower the soap out of your hair (as long as you're wearing your special splashguard of course!).

And then, last week, came another amazing moment. You agreed to have a little try at riding your bike without stabilisers. We prepared thoroughly, equipping you with a shiny, new, red helmet, as well as elbow and knee pads and some very cool fingerless gloves. I thought you might back out when it came to it but, no, you let me get the spanner out and take those stabilisers away.

You didn't cry. You didn't panic. You worked really hard and would have kept trying long after I was too tired to run after you any more. You wanted to have a go on your own. I could have cried with delight at seeing you so confident at something so scary for you. You haven't mastered it yet, but you are keen to keep trying.

My very best boy, you are a delight and a treasure. Every single day, I am glad to be your mummy.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Why I Changed My Adopted Daughter's Name

It's not particularly common these days for adoptive parents to change the given first name of the children they adopt. When I adopted OB, I had to sign a form declaring that I wouldn't change his name. The form was unnecessary. I wouldn't have changed it anyway. In fact I kept the middle name his birth mum gave him too, and added another middle name of my own. Poor kid will never be able to fit his full name on the dotted line of any form he has to complete in the future!

When it came to Birdy though, I knew early on that I would be seeking permission to change her name. I know this is controversial, and am aware of adult adoptees who regret their names being changed at the point of their adoption. It is not a decision I took lightly. When I filled her new name in on the adoption application form my heart was heavy with the weight of responsibility I would bear for the decision I was making on her behalf. But I still felt that, all things considered, it was the right thing for her and for us as a family.

While I have been looking into the opinions around changing an adopted child's given name, and some of the consequences others have experienced, I have noticed a few assumptions coming up about why an adoptive parent might change a child's name. Let me deal with them one by one:

I want to give my adopted child the name I would have given my birth child...

Maybe 20 years ago, when having birth children was still a possibility for me, I did have names for my future imaginary children. These have long since faded, gone out of fashion, been taken already by close friends and family members or whatever. Actually when I first entertained the possibility of changing Birdy's name, I did not have a single alternative name in my head. This is not about somehow pretending that Birdy is not adopted, or superimposing the identity of some non-existent birth child onto her.

I want to erase my adopted child's birth family...

Perhaps there's a sense that if we completely replace a child's name when they are adopted, it also erases their past. Except, as adoptive parents, we know that the facts of our children's pasts can never ever be erased. They are carried around with them for the rest of their lives. I have taken pains to ensure that my son knows his story, as far as is appropriate for a child his age. He knows he is adopted. He knows something of why that happened. He knows his birth parents' names and has seen photos. It will be the same for my daughter. I took both of my children to many, many contacts with their birth mums and, in the case of my son, also spent time with extended family. There is no question of erasing them. One day I may be supporting my daughter in re-connecting with her birth mum. On that day, I will have to explain, face to face, why I did what I did. I have already rehearsed that conversation many times in my head.

I am embarrassed by my child's original name...

A few years ago, a controversial article in the Daily Mail bemoaned the fate of children waiting for adoption who were apparently not being chosen because of their unusual names. I tend to think that by the time a prospective adopter has walked the long journey towards considering adoption, and then completed the rather gruelling approvals process, they are unlikely to be put off by a strange name. Yes, Birdy's birth name is unusual. Yes, it draws a lot of comments. Would I have changed it for that reason? No. However unusual her name might be and however many times someone tells me they have/had a dog/cat with that name, after 20 months of using it every day, any awkwardness has long since faded away.

The reason I changed my daughter's name is very simple: it's for her security. 

I adopted Birdy from foster care. This means that her birth mum knows what I look like and she knows my name. She likely knows my last name too, and therefore would have known Birdy's entire new name if I had kept her first name. She knows what town we live in and she and her family members don't live that far away. Birdy's original name was extremely unusual. I'm not talking about an unusual spelling of a relatively common name. I have never heard of anyone with this name. Imagine me calling her at the park or somewhere and someone who knows someone overhearing and putting two and two together. If and when Birdy chooses to seek out her birth family, it needs to be in her time and on her terms, not a chance meeting brought about because somebody noticed an unusual name.

And even that wouldn't have been enough of a reason if Birdy's name had been one of special significance. I kept my son's original middle name, which I would never have chosen myself, because it was the name of a birth family member who his birth mum was close to. I was glad to honour that. I asked Birdy's mum where her birth names came from. Her first name came from a TV programme and her (even more unusual) middle name was chosen because she "just liked the sound of it".

I have kept part of Birdy's original middle name - it is now her second middle name. I have kept all the cards, documents and mementos that mention her original names. She will know what her name was and why I changed it. I imagine this will not appease her birth mum. It might not be enough for Birdy, either, in the long run. I cannot see into the future. Like any other parent, I just have to make the best decisions I can with what I know right now, and hope that we can all deal with the consequences when they happen.