Friday, December 16, 2016

A Little Help From My Friends

I spoke to a friend on the phone the other week. It was just an innocuous conversation, but part way through I found myself telling her about an 'incident' that had occurred in our house that day.

The conversation that followed was everything I could have wanted from someone in my support network. Here's why:

  • She did not freak out
  • She listened to what I had to say, without judgement
  • She acknowledged what had happened and did not try to brush it off with a dismissive 'all kids do that' sort of comment
  • She did not try to defend the indefensible 
  • She acknowledged my feelings about it all
  • She asked me a few open questions with a view to heading towards a plan
  • She let me work out the plan for myself, out loud, while making the odd encouraging noise
  • She expressed full support for the plan, and promised to check in with me to see how it was going
  • She urged me to speak to her any time about it, and reassured me that it was right for me to be supported while I do what I have to do

It isn't rocket science but it's what every parent needs from time to time, especially parents and carers of children with additional needs of all kinds.

Daily, I find myself giving thanks for my support network. They walk this road with me in all kinds of ways and I couldn't do it without them.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Even Numbers

I've always preferred even numbers. I imagine them as rounded, more complete than odd numbers for some reason. The satisfying swirl of a 6 is so much better than the awkward 5 with that wayward top stroke you have to add at the end. A cheeky 2 has so much more character than the uninspiring 1.

So it is with great satisfaction that I can report that in the past two weeks, my children have ceased to be 1 and 5, and have become 2 and 6. And Birdy's new age brings with it the added pleasure that there is now definitively no need whatsoever to include any number of months in the reporting of it. She is no longer 20 months or 22 months. She is simply two. And in a few months I may allow two-and-a-half. I am very happy to now be able to report my children's ages on request without resorting to any level of mental arithmetic!

This is our annual breathtaking descent towards Christmas, packed with birthdays, birthday parties (my kids and so many others too), nativities (OB was a Wise Man this year - he was quite pleased about it), carol services and general discombobulation. And all topped off with our flight to France to spend Christmas with family. I tend to adopt a brace position, similar to how I imagine I looked the first time I braved the vertical drop on Blackpool's The Big One roller coaster. This year, we threw in an early December trip to Centerparcs as well. 

I can begin to see the track levelling out in front of me now though. The birthdays are done and both children were suitably impressed with their gifts, our trip to Centerparcs went off pretty well with only 4 out of 5 of us coming down with a vomiting bug, and OB managed to say his line in the Nativity, although Angel Birdy was something of a no show!

Ahead, there is a week of 'doing Christmas' with friends and family in England, and then we will board the plane and breathe a huge sigh of relief because even though there is the Big Day still to come, it will be my wonderful parents who orchestrate events and all I will need to do is go along for the ride and change the occasional nappy.

Nearly there now....

Friday, November 25, 2016

Romania on My Mind

When I first met Alina (not her real name) she was a quiet, shy teenager. I was volunteering for two weeks at a summer camp for teenage girls living in Romania's 'orphanages'. I use the inverted commas because none of these children were orphans. And the official term in Romania is 'placement centre'.

Many of the girls were very chatty and friendly. They wanted to try out their English on us. They wanted to get close, attract our attention. These days I would call it 'attachment-seeking behaviour'. These girls appeared to form bonds with the volunteers very quickly. It was gratifying for visitors who perhaps didn't stop to consider that they were just the latest in a long line of 'here today, gone tomorrow' people in these young women's lives.

Alina was not like these. Tiny, with her dark, curly hair drawn into a low ponytail, she hung around at the back, reluctant to get in the thick of things. She would sit with us and weave friendship bracelets - the trend of the camp that year - but would rarely speak or even raise her head.

I saw Alina at a couple more camps, and then she left the orphanage and I didn't see her again until I went to live in Romania several years later. As well as running the camps, the Romanian charity I was working with mainly concentrated on providing transition support to young women when they left the city's orphanages, often with just a small bag of belongings, no money and no plan. The charity was there for them long after the state had finished with them.

By this time, Alina was married. She seemed happy enough. During my two years there, she had a baby and I remember visiting her, nervously holding this tiny infant in a room packed with Alina's husband's family, while all the grannies commented on my cradling technique and I concentrated furiously on avoiding some terrible childcare faux pas. Such a thing is easily done in a country where folklore would have it that draughts, going barefoot and sitting on walls can all be sources of terrible illness.

A few weeks ago, an American lady we both knew in Romania messaged me to tell me that Alina was coming to the UK to work and would be in Leeds, near enough to me for visiting. I messaged Alina but didn't receive a reply until she was already here. She was lonely, scared. She wanted to meet up. I put her in touch with a friend who lives in Leeds. Alina messaged and phoned my friend many, many times in one day.

It transpired that Alina would only be in Leeds for one week, training. After that, she would be moved on to a care home somewhere else in the country. She was offered Dorset. She messaged me six or seven times that day, asking whether I thought she should refuse the offer and hope for somewhere else closer to me. In the end, there was no chance of that and, with time running short, I arranged to go over to Leeds and meet her before she left.

I took a little goody bag of useful items, scrambled together at the last minute. We drove to Yorkshire, stopping for the kids' sake at Bradford's Media Museum on the way. All day, messages were flying back and forth. She would be back at her hotel by 5.40. Now the course leader said they were going to finish at 9pm. Now it would be 6.30pm. After 6pm her phone started going straight to voicemail and messages went unanswered. I think her battery was dead. We waited at the hotel until 7.30, but it was getting late and I couldn't occupy the children in the hotel foyer any longer. We left our goody bag at the hotel reception and made our way home. Alina finished her training at 8.30. We never did get to meet up, and as I write she is likely on her way to Dorset.

All week I have been thinking about it. Alina has left her husband and her young daughter in Romania to come to the UK and work in a care home for what I hope will be at least the minimum wage. I hope she will be fairly treated. I hope her husband and daughter can manage without her.

In 2009, the Romanian government released data on children living in Romania's placement centres - the 'orphanages'. Most of the children were there because they had been removed from their birth families due to abuse and neglect. The system of foster care was in its infancy then, having only begun properly as a condition of their accession to the EU two years previously. But, if I remember rightly, 20% of children in Romania's orphanages were there because one or both parents had left to work abroad. And this is before Romania was granted full access to EU freedom of movement.

Alina has already been abandoned by her family, left alone in the world. Now she is alone in the world again, having left her own family and the grinding poverty of so many of her peers to come west in search of work. And in Romania, there is a child without her mother. Many children.

And in the week in which I have been mulling over all of this, I read an article about the work being done by Romania's social workers among street children. These tiny, lone children, sniffing paint and seeking shelter beneath overpasses and bridges are the children and grandchildren of those who fled appalling conditions in orphanages, preferring a life of unimaginable hardship on the streets. These are children who were born to the streets.

Ceaucescu's shadow over Romania still stretches long.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

What to Expect From Your Child's Former Foster Carer Post-Adoption

Straight out of the block I'm going to admit that I may have over-sold this a little with the title. I can't really tell you exactly what to expect from your child's former foster carer because all foster carers are different, all situations are different, and there seems to be little consistency in the guidance given to carers from different agencies in how to handle ongoing contact once a child has moved onto their permanent home.

Despite this, I feel I want to say something on the subject because it comes up so often among adopters. Some are comfortable with well-managed ongoing contact, while others have settled for various reasons on little or no contact and are making it work for them. Yet for others, there are unmet expectations - too much contact or not enough, or struggling through ongoing contact that they don't really feel is working as well as it could.

From my perspective, ongoing contact is as much of a minefield as it probably is for many adopters. Literally the only thing that has ever been said by any social worker to me on the subject is that any ongoing contact is up to the child's new family and that I need to accept that I might never see or hear from the child again. I have always taken this very literally, and even more so now that I have seen the huge range of differing perspectives from adoptive families.

What that means in practice is that if you were to adopt a child from my home, I would not be contacting you at all unless you contacted me. If you emailed or messaged me, I would reply, but if you didn't reply back, then I probably wouldn't push it. I would send birthday and Christmas cards for the child, but if those went unacknowledged for a couple of years then I would consider stopping. If you vaguely suggested meeting up sometime, then I would be happy to do that, but if you did not come back to me with some attempt to firm up arrangements then I wouldn't push it.

If you, as the child's new family, were keen to maintain contact then I can see how my approach might make it seem as though I was reticent about the idea. The reality couldn't be further from the truth. Whenever I hear even a snippet of news about any child I have fostered, I am beyond excited. I was recently sent some up-to-date photos of BG who I fostered back in 2014 and I couldn't stop looking at them with a huge soppy grin on my face. Even better, I was given permission to share them with my parents - like any other family, a foster family consists of many more people than just the parental figures.

Yet I also have to think of things from the perspective of families who, for whatever reason, may not want continuing contact at this time. How intrusive would it be in that case if I were to be sending regular emails, suggesting meet-ups or posting cards and presents?

I don't want to overwhelm you!

The thing is, when adoptive parents come to my house during intros, I don't know what they're going to want from me in the future. And neither do they, beyond the hypothetical. We are likely to have different lifestyles, different ideas about parenting, about lots of things, and sometimes these differences can cause tension, or at least, a perception of tension. It is impossible to predict how a child will react to the enormity of their move from their foster home to their forever home. Ideas about continuing contact that might have seemed eminently sensible during the planning stages can quickly fall apart once the rubber of adoptive parenting hits the road.

So, based only on my own thoughts on the subject, here are a few tips for a smoother approach to continuing contact. I'd love it if other foster carers were able to add their own perspectives in the comments as I know it's not a one-size-fits-all situation!

  • Don't assume your child's foster carer has had extensive training on handling intros, transition to permanence or continuing contact. I have had none. Others might have had loads.
  • Expect that sometimes, a foster carer's emotion will creep into things. Yes, fostering is our professional role and yes, we know that we will say goodbye to these children we have loved and cared for and yes, we mentally prepare as much as we are able, but we are humans too and sometimes our emotions can rise to the surface before we even realise it's happening.
  • If you do want continuing contact, then encourage the foster carer by initiating it in a format which you are comfortable with so that the carer has your lead to follow. 
  • Be very clear and honest about what you do and don't want. Spell it out so there is no ambiguity. If the carer is suggesting something that you think isn't a good idea right now, say so, and suggest reviewing the situation in 3 or 6 or 12 months.
  • Try to avoid making lavish commitments to continuing contact during intros. It's a time of high emotion, and if things are going well between everyone then it can be tempting to make plans that might not seem such a good idea a few months down the road. An experienced carer should understand this, but see point 2 - we can be emotional too!
  • Remember that some carers may have fostered dozens and dozens of children. It might simply be logistically impossible for them to sustain high-level regular contact with each child for years to come.
  • And finally, it just might be possible that some foster carers (ahem - like me - ahem) are not terribly administratively gifted. I have pictures on the wall of every child I've fostered and I think about them pretty much every day, but if I have to remember a birthday, buy a card, write it, get a stamp, post it . . . well, there are a lot of stages there where something can disappear to the bottom of my handbag and get forgotten. Even my closest family members consider themselves lucky if I remember to post a card! Moonpig helps me a bit with that. I guess that this is just a roundabout way of saying that parenting, and especially foster parenting, takes up a lot of a person's time and energy - if you haven't heard from your child's carer in a while, it doesn't necessarily mean that they have forgotten about your child.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Branching Out (With Song and Dance!)

I love our home education journey, and I was an advocate of home education before I ever knew I would have children of my own to educate, but I also know that some things that are taken for granted at school need a little more organising for home educators.

OB goes to swimming lessons partly to learn to swim, and partly to learn to take instructions from an adult that isn't his Mum. He goes to football training to get that essential 'team sports' experience. He goes to home-ed co-op partly for that 'socialisation' that everybody is so keen on, and partly to do messy activities - I don't like clearing up! And recently, he has started at a local theatre group.

I'll admit, I was nervous about theatre group. Yes, a few of his friends go and, yes, his bestie's mum is a volunteer helper, but still, I could see the whole thing being well out of his comfort zone. Whenever OB has to join in any group activity - action songs for instance - his body goes stiff and jerky, and his eyes are everywhere, constantly seeking reassurance from watching what others do. The first time I asked him if he wanted to go, it was a definite "no". A few months later, I reframed the question (I called it something else!) and he agreed.

He's been going since the summer. He has hardly told me a single thing about what he does there except the occasional surreal snippet. I rely entirely on my friend to be my spy! She tells me he is doing brilliantly, that he has learned all the songs and the dances, that he joins in and has fitted in with the other kids. One evening as she drove him home after rehearsals, he confidently explained to all the other various kids in the car about how he is adopted and what that means.

As I write this, he is out at the first dress rehearsal. It is show weekend. On Sunday afternoon I will finally get the chance to see what my son has been working on for all of these months. I will admit that part of me is worried that, overwhelmed by the lights and the sight of the audience, he will freeze up or fall apart. It would be daunting for anybody, never mind a child so young.

Or maybe his youth will be his salvation. Lacking the life experience to realise that he should be scared, maybe he just won't be!

What I know for sure is that whatever happens on that stage, I am already proud of my boy. Even if he doesn't sing a note on Sunday, he has already exceeded my wildest expectations.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Hopes and Nightmares

This week I was contacted on the phone by a social worker asking me if I was willing to be assessed as a potential adopter for OB's two younger birth siblings.

I would say the phone call was out of the blue, coming as it did with no warning just as I was making tea. But if I'm honest, it wasn't. I knew about the existence of these little ones. In fact once, I actually saw their mum pushing them down the street in a double buggy. And I knew that if you adopt a child, there's always the possibility that you'll be asked to consider future siblings. So, no, not out of the blue.

Within about six months of adopting OB I knew that, when the time was right, I would look into adopting again. I had various ideas about how this would happen. Maybe I would adopt a child I fostered. Maybe I would contact the LA and be matched with a child I didn't know, like other adopters. I did not know how it would happen, but I knew I wanted to make it happen.

When I realised OB had one sibling, and then two, I held back. In fact, I held my breath. At each stage, I expected a call. It was all I could do to stop myself from calling social services and demanding information.

As the months, and then years went by with no call, I began to relax. And I began to feel hopeful. I had spent a lot of time around OB's birth mum. I got to know her. I wanted her to do well and hoped for her to have a better future. I moved forwards and began the process to adopt Birdy. I fervently hoped that OB's birth mum was able to move forwards too, together with her family.

That this has not happened for her has upset me more than I thought possible. I cannot take OB's siblings. It's simply an impossibility, so there has been no soul searching on my part. I am certain that to attempt it would be to bring disaster down upon us all. My sorrow is not about making that decision, but about that young woman and these two little children, and the loss and the grief and the anguish.

The whole adoption scenario would be so much more clean cut if birth parents were monsters. There probably are monsters, but I haven't met any. I have met a lot of vulnerable, abused, lost people. I can't say definitively that the right support, whatever that looks like, would have remedied their situations - the reality is much more tangled than that and won't be neatly tidied up - but I do know that, even in these nightmares, not everything that appears monstrous is a monster.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Proximity Alert

If, like a Star Trek star ship, I had a proximity alert sensor, it would probably have experienced catastrophic systems failure by now, taking out a couple of anonymous redshirts along the way.

Either that or I would have taken a phaser to it, enraged by the frequency of its klaxon. Beep! Beep! Beep!

OB is keen on being close. Very close. If he can't be in close physical proximity, then he keeps up an incessant thread of noise to tie us together.

This behaviour is a classic draw for the "all kids do that" response. But I don't think it applies. I've seen other kids playing by themselves or occasionally going into another room. Not all the time, of course, but sometimes. OB is nearly six. I definitely know that other 6-year-olds are not all like OB in this regard.

If OB is playing and I leave the room, he will follow within moments, even if I'm only on the other side of the French doors . . . and the doors are still open. If I go out of his sight, he has to know exactly where I am going. On the rare occasion when he does not, or can not, follow, he will keep up a steady stream of questions that I must answer at the top of my voice, or risk total meltdown.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

If either of us are going to the toilet, it has to be announced. He must know where everybody is at all times. If I take a moment too long in the toilet, he comes to the door and asks what I am doing. He used to come in, but I don't allow that any more. I enforce it by wedging my foot against the door.

If I spend too long putting the laundry in, or emptying the dishwasher, he invents or engineers some catastrophe that means I have to stop what I am doing and come immediately to his aid. Yesterday I came running to his screams to find that his predicament was being 'buried' under a sofa cushion and apparently totally unable to free himself.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

If I go and sit on a chair in the same room as him, he is immediately up in my face. He wants to sit on my knee, but he can't sit still, so he's crawling, climbing, jabbing me with his elbows. If I protest, he gets off, but then waves his arms right in front of my face, or raises his foot so that it's millimetres away from some part of my body. If he's resting against me, he's always pressing some part of his body into mine a little harder than is necessary.

If I bend down to pick something up, he climbs on my back, knocking me over. If I sit on the floor to play with him, he clambers onto me.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

If I talk to somebody else or pay attention to something else, he physically interposes himself between me and whatever or whoever I'm looking at. If I'm working at the kitchen counter, he suddenly has need to get something out of the drawer or cupboard I'm standing in front of.

He shoves his head up my clothes, puts his hands in my pockets, touches my hair, my face, my earrings, my glasses. When we stand in the corridor at swimming, waiting for his lesson to begin, he stands on my feet.

Beep! Beep! Beeeeeeeeep!!!!

There is no neat ending to this blog post, no solution or clever analogy about life. I sometimes long to put my shields up and go to red alert, but it's not the answer. This is how we are, and I have turned my proximity alert off for the duration.

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.

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.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Our Best Interests

In a rare day away from the children, I have been in York today, laughing and talking and learning with a group of other adoptive parents, kinship carers and professionals at The Open Nest's Best Interests conference.

I would love to do a thorough review of the day, but honestly, there was so much excellent and varied content that it's simply too soon to process it and get organised thoughts down on (virtual) paper. The day was filled with passionate people sharing their journeys on subjects from parenting adopted teens to transracial adoption, from forming an adopter support network from scratch to managing positive contact with birth family. We listened, we laughed and, yes, we cried. Well, I did anyway.

What I have brought away from the day is a sense that our best interests - as parents, and for our children - are not easy to quantify. I hear about the choices that other parents have made in their own family's best interests and I wonder what I will choose if and when we find ourselves in that situation. It sounds obvious to say it, but no two families, no two sets of parents, no two adopted children are the same, even though they may have similar experiences in some ways. I have a theory that because many adoptive parents have experienced being judged, they are conscious of not judging others. It's been my experience within the adoptive parenting community anyway. Maybe I've just been lucky.

So it is that we were able to listen to one parent talk about how home education was in the best interests of her family, and to another talk about how establishing a peer support network was in the best interest of hers, and hear a couple describe how promoting positive birth family contact was in the best interests of theirs, and the atmosphere was universally supportive and encouraging, even if those choices were not ones that others had previously considered. Horizons were widened, new options were presented. It's invaluable to be able to share your experiences and know that others are listening without judgement, without raising eyebrows, even if their experiences and choices have been very different.

Today has also been a welcome opportunity to connect in real life with some people I have only 'met' on social media before, and re-connect with others who I have had the opportunity to meet before, however briefly. If someone had told me a few years ago that one day I would consider people I only knew via their profile picture and Twitter handle as friends, I would have scoffed. Yet it turns out that you don't actually need to know somebody's real name or what they look like to connect through shared experience. It's a concept that my 40-something brain is gradually acclimatising to!

So, yes, a lovely day. There was a big goody bag with chocolate (which I have to admit I ate on the train home) and my children had a fabulous day with their sitters and were appropriately pleased to see me. Couldn't be better really!

I am sure there will be more far accomplished reviews of the day forthcoming from other bloggers. In the meantime, if you want to know more and you're on Twitter, search the hashtag #bestinterests. The Open Nest website is here - worth a look as they have some ace stuff going on.

Oh, and finally, those of us who are used to conferences and training involving a lot of plastic chairs and wilty sandwiches, feast your eyes on these pics of our venue . . . . it's certainly nice to be treated to a bit of pampering every now and then!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Screen Time and Self-Esteem on a Rainy Saturday

Last Saturday, it rained all day . . . . again. So, tired of trying to fill our days with worthwhile activities, I gave in to the grey skies and declared the day a write off. Pyjamas, screen time, being lazy, eating popcorn and emphatically not attempting any Pinterest-perfect activities was to be the order of the day.

When the clock informed me that it was lunchtime, (I couldn't tell from the position of the sun as we haven't seen it for aeons) I left OB in the playroom absorbed in his current favourite video game, "Beach Buggy Racing" (or some such thing), and went off to throw together a lazy meal.

About two minutes later, he roared into the kitchen, yelling with delight. "I came fifth Mummy! I came fifth!" Well, we whooped, we high fived, we danced around like two World Cup winners. I scooped him up from the ground in a massive hug and declared him awesome, wonderful and amazing.

He came fifth, Out of six. It's not a world-beating accomplishment, but we've been playing this little game for quite a few months now, and every single other time he has raced, he has come sixth. Every single time. In fact mostly, he just repeatedly steers the little car into the wall and finishes the race two or three minutes after the computer competitors.

When we sit down to play together, I am basically his racing slave. He paints the car, customises it, upgrades it, chooses the driver and the racetrack, and then I have to race, earning coins and crystals so he can progress through the levels and get even more customisation options, cars and drivers to choose from. It works for us.

But all that time, he has been watching. OB is nothing if not visually astute. Of course, those skills don't come into play when finding lost objects, but have been marvellously employed in sharp-eyed spotting of various in-race shortcuts which are so hard to see when you're actually trying to keep the car on the track. He's got them clocked and has started pointing them out to me, revelling in his expertise and specialist knowledge. More recently he's started playing himself more, improving his co-ordination with the Firestick remote. And then came the momentous day when he didn't come last.

Now, I know, I do know that OB is not going to make a living playing computer games. I was a teacher, for goodness sake. They include that phrase in the hefty manual of teacher cliches. But when I congratulated OB for coming fifth, my delight was entirely genuine.

Like many young children, OB often falls dramatically at the first hurdle. Sticking power does not come naturally to everybody. I have allowed several pursuits to fall to the wayside, notably Story and Song sessions (kept running out of the automatic doors into the street), and gymnastics (couldn't bear the instructor touching him). There are those that I cling to in hope like the trampoline (doesn't like to be outside alone, doesn't like insects, is afraid of a cat jumping over the netting onto the trampoline), the bike (terrified of falling or being out of control) and the drums (shows much talent but won't play if he thinks anyone at all can hear him). Then there are those that I insist on despite his protestations, like swimming (over two years of torture), and reading (dissolves totally if first word in reading book is even remotely challenging).

I long for OB to experience the feeling of being successful. He has little friends who are talented at sports, who learned to read ages ago, who do drama and singing and dancing. He has begun to notice, throwing himself around the lounge and saying "I bet XYZ can't do that!" I found myself practically begging his swimming teacher to give him another badge (he has had four in two and a half years) as the children he first started lessons with are long gone and their younger siblings are now coming into the class. Progress is there, but it is infinitesimally slow.

Don't get me wrong. OB has talents. Significant ones. His painting, colouring and drawing are lovely. He has a way with K'Nex that astounds me. I look in the box and see a pile of plastic sticks - he sees a possible future car or rocket or windmill. But these, and other things, are not measurable in his eyes. I know that car he built with K'Nex is awesome, but he doesn't quite seem to believe it.

But when the screen declared that he was fifth, not sixth, for the first time ever, he knew. He had something concrete, a definite, tangible marker of progress, of success. And he was more pleased with himself than I have ever seen him. Later in the day, it got better. He came third and then second. When you come in the top three, the game rewards you with a little happy music and some shiny gold stars. And then today, a first place, and joy uninhibited.

Yes, I know it's only a computer game, and they rot your brain and are good for nothing. I know that too much screen time makes your eyes fall out and your brain turn to lard and drip out of your ears. I know all of that. But I also know that my son couldn't do something and now he can. And he didn't take the easy way of buying cheats (I'm too stingy!). He persevered and tried and practised and didn't give up, and in the end he did it by himself and was rewarded with not just shiny gold stars and plinky jingles, but with a sense of achievement that thrilled him. And if I can't find a transferable lesson in all of that then I need to check my home educating mum credentials in at the door!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

It Started with a Cough

Actually, it didn't start with a cough, it started with a slightly runny nose on Thursday morning. By 11.45 on Thursday night we were at the walk-in centre. Less than an hour later we were whizzing to A&E in an ambulance, blue lights and sirens and the full works.

Officially, Birdy was suffering from 'viral wheeze'. Unofficially she had an asthma attack, except we can't call it that because she's too young for a formal diagnosis. Her tiny lungs were squeezing, whistling and wheezing, in spasm. All her coughing and straining for breath wasn't helping. Neither was her blue salbutamol inhaler.

After two sessions with the dreaded nebuliser (she can't tolerate the mask so I have to hold the thing under her nose, following her round as she twists her head away), I sat beside her bedside throughout the night watching the monitor, listening to the alarm bleeping, and administering 10 puffs of salbutamol every hour in the hopes of getting her SATs to stay consistently over the magic 92. While she slept, relaxed, her heart rate would drop to near acceptable levels, but her SATs would fall too. When she woke, her SATs would rise, but her little heart would be racing at over 180bpm and her respiratory rate would reach upwards of 45 per minute, stomach, chest and neck straining with every breath.

To put it into context, her heart rate should be 100-150bpm, and her respiratory rate should be 25-35 per minute. SATs should be over 97.

Nobody was panicking. We weren't talking intensive care. They didn't even crack out the oxygen. I wasn't terrified, or in fear of her life. It wasn't as bad as that. Just long and tiring and unpleasant for us both. By the morning, things were looking more positive and the doctors started talking about lengthening the time between each lot of inhalers and eventually reducing the dose to 6 puffs - the maximum that I'm able to administer at home. It was borderline, but by 8.30pm they discharged us, extracting a promise that I'd be back at the first sign of trouble, and arranging for a community nurse to visit daily.

Sometimes people will say, "I don't know how you can do it as a single parent!" or something similar. I'll tell you how I can do it. I can do it because I have friends who, at 11.30 at night, will leave their own families and come to my house to kip on the sofa so that I don't have to disturb my son in the middle of the night, and then, on 3 hour's sleep, take my son to their house and look after him for the rest of the day. I can do it because I have friends who are willing to give up their whole morning in a mission to retrieve my car from the walk-in centre and bring it to the hospital so I can get us all home when it's over. I can do it because I have friends who are willing to give up their afternoon to come and sit in a hospital and watch Birdy so I can nip home and brush my teeth and pick up essential supplies; friends who are willing to pray, friends who will call, text and message words of support and love. When the rubber hits the road in single parenting, it's all about our support network. Mine is awesome.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Schools, Stickers and Shame

I was recently left a comment on a previous post about home educating my son which contained such an excellent question that I felt it deserved a whole post of its own in response!

I have a question, if that's ok. My daughter is about to start school and they have a typical system for behaviour - your name tag is in this place if your behaviour is ok, up here if your behaviour has been good, and down here if it's not acceptable. In Sally Donovan's book she talks about hating this system and how it shames children. Our children are not adopted, but I relate to what Sally says...although I don't fully understand it. Why doesn't Sally like this system? And what alternative system would you suggest for helping children understand what behaviour is acceptable (or not)? Many thanks.

I did reply in the comments, but I think the use of behaviour charts in all their variations is so widespread and such an accepted part of behaviour management both in homes and in schools, that the issue merits a more detailed response (although I must make it clear that I am not claiming to speak for Sally Donovan!!).

Let me start by saying that I personally don't believe sticker chart systems to be wrong or bad in all circumstances or for all children all of the time. I have friends who use them in effective and imaginative ways in their homes, and when I was teaching I used a system where each child kept their own log of reward marks which was private and designed to recognise positive achievements in work or behaviour - these achievements were according to each child's own personal goals. Were I to go back to teaching now, though, I'm not sure if I would use that system again without many revisions.

My own issues with behaviour charts are twofold:

1. They assume that the child is able to perform the required behaviour but requires external motivation to do so. I'll say more about this in a moment.

2. In a classroom, they are often displayed in a public place, shaming the child who is always under the raincloud or in the red zone or whatever in front of their peers. Imagine if your workplace posted your performance indicators on the wall for everybody to see? As an adult, finding your name at the bottom of the achievement list may motivate you to some extent. If you are a strong and confident person you might take bold steps to make sure that never happened again.  But it might also cause you embarrassment or shame. How would you deal with that embarrassment? Would you hide away? Become defensive? Make light of it by joking around? Become angry and feel resentful? What if your work suffered that quarter because of circumstances beyond your control? Would you feel unfairly singled out? For a child who is already struggling, public humiliation is unlikely to achieve the desired improvement in attitude.

Let's return to the problem of motivation versus ability. In the home, potty training is often accompanied by sticker charts. These can be fun for some children and are designed to reinforce the desired behaviour in a gentle and positive way. We wouldn't use a green zone / yellow zone / red zone or sunshine / raincloud approach to potty training because we know that our little ones are only just learning how to understand their body's urges and accidents will happen. It would be cruel and arbitrary to punish them or humiliate them for that.

Birdy is just about 18 months old. She is not ready for potty training. She shows no signs of readiness. So obviously it wouldn't be fair to suddenly remove her nappies and expect her to use the potty or toilet. There would be a lot of weeing on the floor and the promise of a shiny sticker would not help. It isn't her motivation that's the problem, it's her ability. She is not developmentally ready.

Before we attempt to motivate a child, we must first assess their ability to do what we are expecting of them. If they are unable, then our best efforts to motivate them will have the opposite effect. Whether by lack of understanding or lack of ability, they will fail to achieve the reward over and over again. And it's even worse if we then assign them a place of shame on the behaviour chart, under the raincloud for all to see their failure.

In my experience, most young children are not lacking in internal motivation to connect, to fit in, to 'please'. For those who succeed, the external motivating reward is simply icing on the cake, confirming their positive view of themselves. For those who fail, the reinforcement of their failure damages their positive view of themselves, creates doubt about their worth and quenches their internal motivation. What's the point of trying? I'm useless and everyone knows it.

For some children, "I'm useless" is already their internal story, woven into their worldviews very early on by trauma, neglect, abuse, abandonment, rejection and loss. We need to be very careful about how we handle these children so as not to compound their already very negative view of themselves.

Always, the answer to the question about how we teach children what is acceptable behaviour is to focus on the individual children, not general ideas about behaviour. The same behaviour might be exhibited by different children for completely different reasons, and the solutions will be different depending on the 'why'.

Let's take a child who is always distracted, not focusing on the teacher, looking around the room, disrupting others and not getting on with their own work. Tasks are always unfinished or rushed and betray a lack of attention and focus. Does this child need moving to the front of the class away from distractions? Maybe this child has ADHD and needs the work broken down into more manageable chunks to account for a shorter attention span. Or maybe this child is hyper-vigilant as a result of early abuse or neglect. They can't focus on their work because they are always concerned about preserving their own safety and so must check out every sound, every movement around them, craning their necks to see the potential threat. Moving such a child to the front of the class to avoid distractions simply moves all the potential threats to the worst possible place - behind them where they can't see! Better to move that child to the back of the room in full view of the classroom door so they can quickly assess any threat with a glance, reassure themselves of their own safety and return to the task more quickly.

What will not help either of these children is to put their name under a raincloud. It's not their motivation that is lacking, but their capacity to produce the desired behaviour. Understanding the 'why' helps us to make changes to create an environment in which they can show us what they can do instead of highlighting what they can't.

Do we stop teaching children positive behaviour and reinforcing that? No. Do we remove all consequences? In my view, no. In life, there are consequences and our children do need to know that. But before we teach we need to make sure that the child is in a position to learn, and that what we are teaching them and expecting of them is in line with their development and ability. And when we decide to apply consequences they need to be proportionate, natural (i.e. you drew on the desk so you need to help me clean the desk), appropriately timed, privately administered and non-shaming.

In the classroom, with 30 children, this is a tall order, but a good start would be to ensure that expectations in are clearly-framed and positive, i.e. a list of what we DO rather than focus on what we do not do. We do respect others, we do act kindly, we do value learning. This can be accompanied by ongoing classroom discussion about what these mean to everyone day to day. Dealing with problem behaviour can then be moved quickly to talking about positive changes that can be made with the classroom expectations as a guide. Fifteen years ago I would have thought of these approaches as namby pamby touchy feely. After five years of parenting a child affected by influences outside his control, I've completely changed my views.

(Disclaimer: I am not a world expert on this subject or a child psychologist, just an ex-teacher with my own views based on my experiences of parenting a child who has experienced trauma. If you really want to know more about this topic and get a proper professional's word on it then I encourage you to read anything by Nicola Marshall, founder of Braveheart Education, or Dr Louise Bomber who has written extensively on the subject.)