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.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Celebrating a Daughter

The day that a judge does whatever he does that means you have a new daughter or son by adoption feels like a day that should be celebrated. It's an odd day because it all happens without you, and the phone call to the court almost feels like an anti-climax after all the months of working and waiting, but still, it seems right to mark the occasion.

Over three years ago, when the judge did his thing for OB, my parents happened to be staying with us on a trip that had been arranged months before we even knew the date. This time, we happened to be visiting my parents, again, taking a trip that had been booked when Birdy's adoption was still well and truly stuck in the mire. I was delighted that we could have the same family celebration for Birdy that we did for OB.

We did, we really did try to celebrate in style. Except we were in France. In August. Throughout France, August means only one thing: Les Vacances! In vain, we called all the nicest restaurants in the area, hoping to secure a celebratory lunch together. The result? En vacances, en vacances, en vacances.

And so it was that we found ourselves eating McDonalds out of the wrappers on a bench at the side of the river. Somewhere mid-Big Mac, I called the court and got the news that all we had hoped for and worked towards for 17 months had finally got the legal stamp of approval. We toasted the news with wine from plastic glasses and oodles of French patisserie. The sun shone, the children ran about, over-dressed for riverside frolics, and we took our first photos of mum and daughter, grandparents and granddaughter, brother and sister. Happy day.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Trust Issues

Birdy has spent a fair amount of time around swimming pools but, sadly, for her it has mostly been watching OB's swimming lessons through a huge glass window. So I was equal parts excited and apprehensive to get her in the pool at my parents' house in France and see how she went on.

We were here last summer, of course, and she went in the pool a bit then, but it was a long time ago and her eczema was so bad at the time that we really restricted her exposure. This time, with her skin so much better and her little chubby legs having finally mastered not only walking, but also running, I was hoping I'd have a water baby on my hands.

From the first day, it has been great. She was appropriately wary, and often keen to have her feet on the floor of the shallow step, but she allowed herself to be carried all around the pool by any of the adults there. If we held our hands out to her she would reach for us and let us pull her along the water to us. One time she adventurously dived off the step towards my stepdad when he wasn't expecting it and got a face full of water. He caught her immediately and we all clapped and cheered her, so she clapped and laughed, water streaming down her face.

OB was almost exactly the same age as Birdy when he got his first proper taste of the pool here, so I can't help myself comparing the two of them. Their reactions were so different. After a while, it struck me where the difference lies: Birdy trusts us. Yes, she's in an unfamiliar environment, and yes, she's a bit nervous about it, but basically she assumes that any one of the adults around her will make it ok, whatever happens, so she's willing to give it all a go.

With OB, I have learned that trust is a hard-won commodity, and can be easily lost for no real reason at all. On his first trip to my parents' pool, he preferred to stand on the shallow step with a watering can. In fact, 'step' was a word he learned that summer, which he would call out with increasing urgency whenever someone took him away from its safety.

We worked hard for two weeks and made good progress, but the following year, it was as if we had to start again. The third summer, my Mum managed the awesome feat of persuading him to jump off the poolside into her arms. I have photographic evidence! Yet we have been unable to repeat that success in two subsequent trips . . . well, there's still time yet this summer so you never know.

I am heartened though, because I know we can make progress with OB, and not just in the pool. Among other things, OB is terrified of dogs - I mean really, viscerally, out-of-control terrified. My parents had been dog-sitting my nephew's dog prior to our visit and we had introduced her to OB via skype, so when my nephew came to visit and asked if he could bring the dog, OB said yes, he would like to meet her.

But when the moment came, he couldn't control his terror. He had to be carried everywhere, high above the dog, and shook and wailed whenever she came near. As with all phobias, rational explanations carry little weight. My nephew's dog is clearly a gentle, soft-hearted animal. She lay perfectly still while Birdy 'stroked' her and shook her paw, yet OB was so scared we had to put the dog outside.

Despite it all, though, change has come. OB loves his cousin, and wanted to love his cousin's dog too. Tiny bit by tiny bit, OB steeled himself first to stand on the ground while the dog was in the room, then to allow the dog to walk past him without losing it. By the end of the second visit, the miraculous moment came when OB voluntarily touched her, and then stroked her, and then shook her paw. After that, he started constantly asking when the dog would be visiting again. His experience proved that our words were true, and a new little layer of trust was laid down.

Trusting others doesn't come easy to some kids. Knowing that Birdy trusts us is a wonderful thing. Knowing that OB can learn to trust is no less wonderful, whether it's fleeting or permanent.

Friday, August 5, 2016

My IRO Fairy Godfather

The saga of Birdy's adoption process could fill a multi-volume tome. It has been at times brutal, incomprehensible, upsetting and frustrating, but now the end is tantalisingly close. We are daring to hope.

Today we had what I sincerely hope will be Birdy's last LAC Review. It was just me, the IRO (a new guy), and her social worker (also new) sitting on sofas in our playroom, surrounded by brightly-coloured plastic toys.

The social worker called in advance to say that she was going to be unavoidably detained, which left me entertaining the IRO alone for nearly half an hour. I made him a brew. He decided to fill himself in on the background details as, in his words, there are some aspects of the paperwork that "seem rather irregular".

In particular, he wanted to know why I, as a foster carer and previously approved adopter, was pursuing a private adoption for Birdy. An excellent question I thought. So I told him the whole tale. He raised his eyebrows a lot. He seem perturbed. He interrupted several times to say things like, "Why would they say that?" and "That doesn't make any sense!"

I cannot express how gratifying it was to hear someone in a position of authority say that, yes, all that we have been through for the past 16 months has been, well, ridiculous and unnecessary. This professional used the phrase 'best interests of the child' several times and actually seemed to have an understanding of what that means, day to day, in our real lives. I could have hugged him. I didn't.

When the social worker arrived, one of the first questions he asked her was what steps the LA are taking to learn from their mistakes in this process. To be fair to her, she has only picked up this mess of a situation in the last two months and has been the one to get it sorted out, so she takes no blame. The IRO acknowledged that, and suggested that he would make those enquiries himself.

Then he asked the social worker to make sure that she wrote a Post Adoption Support Contract for me. I have been told several times that PAS won't be an option for us (despite legal advice to the contrary). The IRO wanted the PAS contract in writing so that there could be no question about eligibility in future.

Then a thought occurred to him. He turned to me and asked me very sincerely if I felt I would be able to approach the LA for PAS in future, considering the way I had been treated. If not, he would authorise for our future PAS to come from a different agency. Wow. I got that urge to hug again. I resisted.

As it happens, I am already accessing PAS through the LA for the boy, and it's going rather well actually (so far), so I declined his offer. Anyway, I'm too feisty to just let them off the hook like that. But how reassuring to know that this option could be made available.

I've sat in meetings with quite a few IROs now. They can be shadowy figures from a foster carer's perspective, blazing in for reviews, all efficient, and then disappearing for months. Sadly, I've experienced their excellent recommendations being completely ignored in the meantime. I know what they are supposed to do, but sometimes I've wondered what tangible effect their work really has. Today I found out, and I like it.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

If I Had Known Before

Birdy has developed a new and terrifying allergic response. Previously her episodes have involved anything from mild reddening of the skin around her mouth, right up to full-on wheezing with hives, running nose and eyes, coughing - anaphylaxis in fact.

Prior to her diagnosis, she had several anaphylactic reactions - thankfully none going as far as anaphylactic shock - but I didn't realise what they were until later as her symptoms varied slightly each time and she seemed to recover relatively quickly with the blue inhaler I thankfully remembered to administer. I had never seen it before and couldn't correctly interpret what was happening. The worst was when she touched some peanut butter. She probably has a reddening of the face reaction about twice a week, but we haven't had a serious reaction since we had some allergy testing earlier in the year.

However, nearly two weeks ago and only a few days after being discharged from hospital after the 'viral wheeze' episode, she had quite a different reaction. Swelling. I don't know why she's never experienced significant swelling before but on this day she made up for it in spectacular style. If I describe what her face looked like it will sound as though I am indulging in extravagant caricature. Suffice it to say, it was extreme, sudden and horrifying to witness. And it was accompanied by lots and lots of hives. The only explanation I can come up with is that some children in the vicinity had chocolate spread. She didn't eat the chocolate spread or, as far as I know, touch it. But there we are.

Yesterday it happened again, at home, over lunch. I was quick with the anti-histamine but still had to dial 999. It's very difficult to tell whether her tongue and throat are swelling in the heat of the moment when she's screaming crying anyway, and if I wait until I am sure, it might be too late. So off to the hospital we went. Thankfully, as with the first time, it was superficial and mostly confined to her face, leaving her airways unaffected. The culprit? Houmous containing sesame seed paste. It's not on her list of confirmed allergies and she's had it a couple of times before with no ill effects but apparently that can happen.

So, now we have an epipen to add to the Salbutamol and Desloratadine toolkit (note to self: carry a large bag), and a referral back to the Immunology Department for further investigations. And I have spent a couple of days re-reading the packets in my cupboards looking for sesame-related ingredients.

I can't help feeling as though my parenting resume makes me the last person who ought to be raising a child with severe food allergies. I am a terrible cook. My idea of meal planning is rifling through cupboards at 4.45pm wondering what we can have for tea. I am, in short, distinctly laissez faire about food in general. Added to this, I have no food allergies myself and I'm not aware of anybody else in the family that does have them. My friend has a nephew who is severely allergic to many foods. I have listened to her talk about him and his family with my mouth open, barely able to imagine how they live their lives when even a glancing contact with so many foods would land him in hospital. I thought I could never cope with something like that. And now, here we are.

Before you adopt, they give you a terrifying sheaf of papers detailing a list of potential 'issues' that a child might come with, and ask you to indicate for each issue whether you would be fine with it, would possibly consider it, or would not consider it. Would you consider a child with a range of learning or physical disabilities, chronic diseases, horrifying past experiences? You have to decide about that when your own personal experience of these things may be absolutely zero. I am eternally grateful that adopting children I have fostered has meant that I have escaped this form entirely.

I am even more grateful about that now as, had I been asked whether I would be comfortable with adopting a child with a range of severe food allergies, I might have been unsure for all the reasons above. I'm not even sure if that's one of the questions, but either way, I'm glad I was never asked. Many of the things on the list would have left me unfazed, but thinking very logically about severe allergies, I might have been concerned that I would not cope very well and that frequent hospital visits would have a deleterious effect on the other children in the house (and they do!).

But I am coping. I am coping because there is no other choice. I have to become good at things that I was not previously good at. I have to change my habits and increase my vigilance in order to protect Birdy because she's not a list of symptoms on a page, she's a lively, characterful, beautiful, funny, smart, loving, human being and I love her outrageously. I can hardly imagine a day without her. I can hardly remember a time before her.

Adopting a child with medical issues also means that family medical history will always be looming over us. In all of OB's life, I have never been asked about his family medical history, which is a good thing as I know virtually nothing of it. I get asked about Birdy's all the time. She is little now and doesn't understand so I can give all the information I have (we have some relevant information in her case) without beating around the bush. I hope those questions will lessen as she gets older and the diagnosis phase of all this is completed, but if not, we may be having a lot of conversations with medical professionals where 'adopted' and 'birth mum' will be unavoidable phrases. It's just another  manifestation of the 'white noise' that accompanies adoption.