Thursday, January 29, 2015

Back on the Contact Treadmill

I'm out of practice with contacts. Baby Girl had a few at the beginning of her placement last year but I didn't have to take her for those. The year before that I had LB for a couple of weeks respite so I did a few contacts then, and before that it was NB who had his final contact nearly two years ago. That's a long time to be out of the swing of things.

Taking children to regular contacts with their family members is part of the job, no bones about it. That's made clear from the very beginning, so we take it all in our stride. Oh but it is nice to have those periods without them!

Our local contact centre is a 20 minute drive away. Birdy's contacts last for one hour, so there's no point returning home. This means finding something close by to do for that hour twice a week, every week, with OB in tow. We have been over to the nearby supermarket for our lunch several times as one of the contacts falls right across lunchtime. We have been to the park - it's a great park but we need decent weather! There is a tiny library. If I was on my own, I'd just take a book, no problem, but OB needs something more than that, and I'm conscious that I don't want these times to be completely negative ones for him, hanging around, bored.

The local contact service doesn't do contacts in the community any more due to budgetary restrictions, but Birdy does have one contact per week at her mum's home via a special arrangement. This is better as the venue is closer and the contact is longer, but it feels very strange to me to be entering someone else's home like that. It's something I haven't done before.

I was very much hoping that some of Birdy's contacts would take place while OB is at playgroup so he wouldn't need to be involved, but the timing of contacts is dependent on availability of contact supervisors so, sadly, that wasn't possible. Every single contact takes place at a time when OB is with me. This means that I cannot keep him separate from what is going on at all. He has met and spoken to Birdy's mum, various social workers and contact supervisors. The contact centre I take Birdy to is the same place I took him to all those years ago. That feels strange too.

Taking a child to contact regularly is the perfect antidote to any confusion about whose child this is. It's just another way in which raising a looked after child is not at all the same as raising your own child. Contact means meeting with birth mum regularly and walking a tightrope between demonstrating to her that you are appropriately loving and caring towards her child, while at the same time not making her feel as though she is completely cut out, less of a mother. This is hard. I spend nearly every moment of every day with Birdy. Her mum gets a few hours each week. I know more about that child than her own mother, but she doesn't necessarily see it this way. It's tricky to explain to mum that Birdy needs winding several times each feed, without totally humiliating her. Birdy often has problems with wind on contact days. Different birth mums approach this relationship in different ways depending on their circumstances.

Then there are the times when mum is late to contact or misses it altogether. I am supposed to wait for 15 minutes and then leave. This is not for my convenience. It is designed to be in the best interests of the child to not have them waiting in some featureless foyer, wound up with stress and disappointment. Today, Birdy's mum was trying to negotiate with me for an extra contact because she had to miss one recently due to an appointment. It's not my negotiation. I can't authorise that. But I think it's unlikely that the powers that be will agree to it since she's been a no-show at previous contacts.

I don't think anybody that knows me would particularly describe me as 'diplomatic'. I have to reach deep within myself to be diplomatic with birth parents sometimes. I have the deepest respect for social workers who have to have these conversations every day, sometimes several times a day, and remain professional, diplomatic and firm while delivering bad news and saying 'no'.

Then there are little niggling things. Sometimes when I go to pick up Birdy from the contact she has at her mum's home, she is not ready. I have been waiting in her flat for as long as 15 minutes, with OB in tow. Awkward. Sometimes I send Birdy in one set of clothes and she comes home in another. Sometimes her dummy doesn't come back with her. Today she came home in a new snow suit, but without the snow suit I had sent her in. All of Birdy's belonging are hers and not mine, of course, but I need them to be where she lives, not where she visits. These are little inconveniences but they can annoy and fester. That mustn't be allowed to happen.

Right now, we are in limbo. I don't know what Birdy's care plan is, so I don't know what I'm working towards. If the social worker tells me that we are working towards rehabilitation with mum, then things will change again. Contacts will probably increase and we will all work together to try to make that a success. This might mean facilitating extra contacts myself, making greater efforts to support mum with Birdy's care needs, going out and about together. I will become a supporter, a helper, an ally. We will get to know each other and will understand more completely the nature of our relationship. Right now, I'm just the woman who's got her baby.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Our First 100 Minutes

"Mum's struggling but I've told her you're an experienced foster carer and you know what you're doing."

So said the social worker with her hand on the door, poised to throw it open and reveal ... well I had no idea really.

Thirty minutes earlier I had been taking a panicked and hasty shower.

Thirty minutes before that I had been sweeping rubble up off the stairs carpet, clearing away the last mess of a lengthy renovation designed to prepare my new home for my new role.

Somewhere between those two moments a phone call had told me of a placement and invited me to go immediately to Children's Social Care to meet a young mum and her baby boy. My first placement.

The door swung open. I scanned the room, taking in the scene. A few chairs, some toys scattered around. A young woman crumpled in on herself, face streaked with tears, hair hanging down. Next to her a man with a lanyard. On the floor, fast asleep in a car seat, you.

The social worker took a seat and gestured me towards another. She began introductions. I made my face a calm mask but my mind was racing. I had apparently been presented as 'an experienced foster carer'. This couldn't be less true. I had never had a foster child before, or any other child for that matter. I had no idea what would happen in this meeting or what would be expected of me.

The social worker asked your first mum to tell me about you but she could barely speak. Instead, she passed me a handwritten sheet of paper with some details of your routine and essential information. Apparently you liked kisses, cuddles and watching Jeremy Kyle on TV. Two of those are still true.

We spent our first 20 minutes together in that room. I can't remember a single thing that was said. Then, the man with the lanyard was ushering your first mum out of the room and your social worker was putting on her coat, preparing to leave. I think it was only at this point that it actually hit me that I was supposed to take you home now.

You were still sleeping as I carried you to the car. You were so silent on the way home that I pulled into the car park of the health centre so I could go round to the back of the car and check that you were still breathing. At home, I carried you out into the house and placed the car seat down on the hall floor. My friend, who was at the house finishing up some last bits of DIY, came to look at you.

Then you did something I'll never forget. You opened your eyes and smiled a huge smile. There, in the middle of the most momentous moment of your life so far, you opened your eyes, saw a strange house and two strange faces staring back at you, and your response was to smile. It amazes me to this day.

When I opened your change bag to see what you'd come with, the smell of marijuana was so strong it made me reel. There were some nappies and wipes, a few clothes, a dirty bottle and about a quarter of a tub of formula powder. You and your mum had been away from safety for a few days, dossing down who knows where. This was all you had.

I didn't know when you'd need feeding next, but I knew that bottle needed some work. I put a pan of water on the stove to boil. The phone rang. It was somebody from Social Services asking if I had everything I need for the placement. I had literally nothing. I was promised a delivery of cot, pram, car seat, bottles, steriliser and other essentials later that day. As soon as that call was over I phoned a good friend and asked her to run to the shops for me and buy formula, nappies, wipes.

By the time the pan of water was boiling, you were looking hungry. I cuddled you and rocked you and tried to pacify you while we waited for the bottle and teat to cook clean. Then I made your first bottle with one hand while you yelled in my ear. Such was my flustered state that I had to read the instructions on the formula carton to double check I was doing it right.

That first time I fed you I had no idea that 100 minutes would turn into a lifetime.


A post about the day I brought my son home for the first time, written on the third anniversary of the day I brought him home for the second (and last) time.

This post was written for the Weekly Adoption Shout Out's (#WASO) celebration of 100 link ups. The theme was 'The First 100'.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Re-Framing Expectations

I would imagine that most parents, at some point, need to re-frame their expectations for their children. You can't choose what you get, and actual, real human beings have an annoying habit of not living up to our imaginations. This can be even more acute for adoptive parents who can't even rely on the relative security of genes.

At adoption prep, they spoke to us about how important it was to lay down the hopes and dreams we may have carried for our future children and to accept the reality of the children we would be getting. My own social worker questioned me about my own educational background and how I would feel if my child struggled academically, for instance.

I don't know whether it's because I never married, or because I never tried to have a biological child, or because I had given up on the idea of having my own children so long ago, but I can truly say that I didn't really have an image or ideal of my future child. I didn't even have a name picked out. Over the years I have had multiple names but, one by one, they have all been used by other friends and dropped off the list until the list was empty. Ironically, some of those children are now so old that I could probably re-appropriate their names, but these days I'm not really bothered.

And yes, despite this, I still find myself re-framing my expectations. Not my expectations of my child, but my expectations of myself as a parent. You see, although I never had a clear picture of what my child would be like - I never even really thought about whether I'd like a girl or a boy - I definitely had a clear picture of what sort of parent I would be.

This image was formed through years of thinking about being a parent, being around parents, teaching the children of various parents. As with most people, it was a pretty idealistic image. I knew I really wanted to be a stay-at-home-mum. I knew I wanted to do cooking and baking with my shadowy future child. I knew I wanted to fill our days with crafts, nature stuff, healthy outdoor life, games, fun, travel.

What was I thinking?!

Let's be realistic here. I'm not outdoorsy and never have been. Yes I played out with my friends as a child - we were blessed with a home on the edge of the countryside and safer times to wander through - but that dwindled as I hit my teens and, really, I think I spent most of my childhood reading. I can't cook. I'm not good at coming up with craft activities. When I have done youth work, the 'devise a craft activity' part was almost my most dreaded planning moment. Although I've spent all my working life around children, I always encountered them in groups. I found one-to-one teaching (piano lessons!) unstimulating in the extreme. I don't know anything about nature. Seriously, I had to have someone teach me which trees the conkers came from so I could take OB to look for some.

The truth is that, despite knowing all these things about myself, I apparently imagined that parenthood would cause a switch in my brain to be flicked and I would instantly become wonder-mum with all kinds of exciting and magical doings at my fingertips.

That didn't happen.

In reality, a couple of spots of rain are enough to put me off any planned outdoor activity, I rely on OB's Playgroup teachers to supply all the craft activities, I could cry with boredom when required by OB to sit on the floor and 'play' and, despite teaching myself to bake so that I could fulfil at least one of my parenting ambitions, it turns out that OB doesn't really like cake. In short, I am not the parent I hoped I would be.

This is the kind of bedroom my son doesn't have.
This is the kind of craft activity that would never occur to me.
This is the kind of thing we don't have in our garden.
Earlier this week I was feeling rather down about it all. I felt bad for OB. I worried that in the lottery that is adoption, he had got a rubbish ticket. He could have been adopted by anybody - he could have had two parents who absolutely love bracing long walks, or who think nothing of knocking together a life-sized rocket ship from toilet rolls and felt, or who don't yell "Just get in the car!" on the driveway every single morning. He could have had parents like those I see on Facebook and Pinterest all the time. I worried that he had got a bad deal. I worried that I wasn't making his childhood magical enough. I actually used that word - magical.

And then I saw this article: I'm Done Making My Kid's Childhood Magical at HuffPost Parents, and while I don't agree entirely with the author's sentiments (I personally don't have a problem with parents who do crafts every day or who do Elf on the Shelf - if you love doing that then absolutely go for it!), I did feel suddenly a ton lighter after I read it. Her point is basically that childhood is inherently magical and we don't need to add anything to it to create the magic. Now I know that this is a problematic thought for those of us whose children have experienced periods in their lives that were anything but magical, and who are still living out the after effects of that, but I think the point still stands.

Because in amongst the tears and the tantrums and the meltdowns and the "Get in the car!!", we do still experience those simple 'magical' moments that have cost nothing and taken little effort to create. The empty cardboard box, the bedtime cuddle routine, the in joke, the fun you can have with a big stick.

I have been thinking ever since about what I actually remember from my own pre-school childhood with my stay-at-home mum. I can't remember any of my games or toys (sorry Mum!) except for three dolls, one of which had yukky matted hair on one side for some reason. But I do remember that my Mum had a spin dryer with a rubber mat that went in to hold the clothes down, and I had the special job of taking that little mat out at the end of the spin. I remember that near our house was a huge (to me) raised footbridge over a busy road and every time we walked anywhere near it I would be desperate to actually go over it and would be so excited if we actually did. At the new house, I remember having a jam butty and a cup of milk on a little table in front of the TV when the children's programmes came on in the afternoon. I remember that my Granddad used to make me a bacon butty in the morning if I stayed there over night (with warm water to drink as apparently drinking cold water with it would be injurious to health!). I remember that Nanna used to bake the most wonderful scones and give them to me with 'best butter' on them. And I remember that my Mum used to bake a lot, and I would be able to help and then, best of all, lick the spoon and bowl afterwards. Maybe that's why I was so determined to learn to bake.

I need to re-frame my expectations for my own parenting. I need to remember that in years to come, it will probably be the little things - the routines, traditions, tender moments - that OB will remember rather than the activities, trips, crafts and toys. I need to stop comparing myself to other parents who have different skills (and different children!), and to walk away from guilt and pressure. I need to remind myself that, in the long term, what will matter more will be who I was with OB, and not necessarily what I did. In the meantime I'm going to stop worrying about creating magic moments. We'll take them where we find them.