What have you done today? Hurt Mummy

While he may tell the occasional white lie, Little Chick is generally very honest, especially when asked something outright. He won’t deny his mistakes or wrongdoing – he owns them. I admire this quality in him, and I hope it is one he maintains into adulthood.

When the Other Mrs Reed Warbler came home from work she asked him what he had done today, expecting a reply of playing in the garden, using the Kindle, going for a walk, or any of the other stock answers he gives based on our regular daily activities. “Hurt Mummy”, he replied. The Other Mrs Reed Warbler was surprised by the candidness but not the answer itself. Little Chick’s aggression and violence has increased dramatically and is now a daily occurrence. It generally begins around 2pm, when he begins to feel tired and in need of a nap. During the holidays we are happy for him to nap if that’s what his body needs, knowing we can adjust this pattern before school starts. But he fights it. Boy, does he fight it. And it’s not always clear if he is in control or not. At times, his little body is just a shaking ball of rage. These outbursts can last up to two hours, ebbing and flowing with punches, kicks, and hair pulls. Then they subside, often as quickly and as unexpectedly as they began.

The real outbursts come at night. As much as Little Chick is fighting us, he is also fighting sleep. Now, this is a boy who loves his bed, has always slept a minimum of 11 solid hours, and thrives on routine. So even just a few nights of eight hours sleep can greatly unsettle him. More than a fortnight of less than six hours is taking its toll on the whole household. The Other Mrs Reed Warbler is struggling most. Little Chick and I can lay in and catch up on sleep. It doesn’t help the routine but it just about maintains sanity. The Other Mrs Reed Warbler doesn’t have that luxury as she maintains her work schedule.

At night everything is heightened. We are conscious that our neighbours, working during the daytime, are home and trying to relax and rest. The cacophony seeping through the party walls must disturb them. This causes us embarrassment: worrying that they think we are hurting Little Chick and humiliation that he is the real aggressor. We try not to let this bother us, but it does, and the additional anxiety increases the tension in our home. At night we expect him to sleep. Being overtired and desperate for bed ourselves, we find it much harder to parent therapeutically, but keep trying all the same.

When we mention it to other parents, they reply, “Oh, all children do that”. Really? All children beat their parents, gouge their eyes, bite them? Certainly, there seems to be a whole cohort of four-year-olds who will soon start school who are acting out and showing more aggression than usual. But this seems more than that. This is full on and is becoming the norm. I don’t want that. For us or Little Chick.

As I pull him close, feed him milk with his baby bottle, I remember that I am parenting two children simultaneously. The four-year-old who “Hurt Mummy”, who is dysregulated, who is hurting. And the eighteen-month-old who is still finding his place in the family, who craves our full attention, who loves us deeply. Reconciling the two is tricky, but not impossible. I just need to find a better way of keeping them both happy, safe, and well.

Oh, all children do that…

Before we were adopted, we were warned about this phrase: “Oh, all children do that…” Often it is uttered by well-meaning friends and family who want to reassure you, especially when you are a brand-new parent. Sometimes it is simply ignorance. Other times it can be dismissive, as other people, especially other parents, want you to know that your precious child is not as uniquely special as you think they are. None of these are intentionally malicious, but they can be extremely unhelpful all the same.

We know that no one else will view Little Chick as we do. Sometimes we are guilty of wearing rose coloured glasses, but I would like to think that it is more through optimism than naivety. We, mostly, know our son’s flaws and foibles. We, mostly, know which ones are age appropriate. We, mostly, know which ones are the result of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as neglect, abuse, and domestic violence. We, mostly, know when he is being a little sod. We, mostly, know when he is hurting because a sensory experience has triggered a regressed memory. Unfortunately, to the casual observer, all these things look the same.

As Little Chick’s behaviour has deteriorated over the holidays we are hearing “Oh, all children do that” even more. Honestly, it’s beginning to grate. We have realised that many of his peers are similarly acting out, in equally frustrating ways. And, like Little Chick, these behaviours are borne of fear. The difference is that many of his soon-to-be school friends are imagining the worst, the inconceivable, and, ultimately, the most unlikely scenarios. Little Chick’s fears are based on past experiences: his fear is of history repeating.

Little Chick has been physically and emotionally pushing us away as a survival technique. It is textbook self-preservation. Because he believes that starting school means living there, with the teachers. No longer calling us his family and our house his home. To our fully formed adult minds this seems like something of a leap. Little Chick’s logic is flawless. The parallels between transitioning from nursery to school and moving from foster care to his forever family are obvious – but I didn’t see them (it was Grandma who made the connection).

We have gone to great lengths to show Little Chick pictures of his new school, just like his foster carer showed him photos of his new house. We have created a Starting School Book, just as we prepared a Welcome Book for his foster carer to share. We have spoken of what a typical day might be like, just as his foster carer showed him the video of us and our daily routines. We have read books and completed activities to prepare him for starting school, just as Little Chick’s foster carer prepared him for having two mummies and understanding (as best he could) what adoption means.

It’s no wonder Little Chick is dysregulated. To him, it must seem like our promise to be a forever family who will keep him happy, safe, and well has been broken. A promise that his birth parents similarly reneged on.

So, we have banned all mention of school until it is necessary. Our focus is on him and doing whatever we can to keep him happy, safe, and well. To assure him, if possible, that we are his forever family and forever really does mean always. At the same time, a couple we know – also same-sex adopters – have separated. While we have not explicitly said anything to Little Chick, he is astute enough to pick up on this. By his simple arithmetic, if it can happen to them why not us? And I’m not sure how we can convince him otherwise, so the possibility hangs there, feeding his fears of rejection and abandonment.

Yes, all children do that. Sometimes. But rarely for the same reasons. It is our duty to honour Little Chick’s past and champion his present and future. We need to acknowledge that adoption is trauma and it is lifelong.

Life lessons from birds

This summer we have had more breeding birds in the garden than ever. The list of species includes blackbird, blue tit, great tit, dunnock, wood pigeon, house sparrow, robin, magpie, and goldfinch.

It’s costing us a fortune in seeds, nuts, and fat balls, but it’s worth it. Especially as Little Chick is taking great interest in keeping the feeders topped up and caring for our feathered friends. The overflowing feeders have also encouraged a few more daily visitors, including Jack the jackdaw and Cyril the squirrel.

We have enjoyed watching their lives play out before us, the large living room window offering a cinematic view of their comings and goings. As a genus, I took no interest in birds until I met the Other Mrs Reed Warbler. Before then, I kept a healthy distance. Now, I am surprised at how much we can learn from these wee creatures that share our homes and gardens.

I say homes because we have house sparrows nesting in the eaves of our roof. They have successfully fledged several broods over the past years and have done so again this summer. House sparrows are the Other Mrs Reed Warbler’s favourite birds. They are the bird of her childhood, conjuring memories of a simpler time. They are understated and overlooked. House sparrows are declining in numbers in our cities and are symbolic of how we are damaging our and their natural environment.

In the garden, we have watched the various species mark and defend their territories. The blackbirds are particularly vocal in this and provide great entertainment when the neighbouring pair try their luck on our feeders. ‘Territorial’ usually has negative connotations. Before parenthood I probably would have agreed. But watching them now, as a mother, I admire their tenacity in protecting their family.

The blue tits are probably my favourite visitors, not least because they often occupy the nest box with an inbuilt camera and we can observe the minutia of their lives, including when the eggs hatched and the first chicks fledged. However, what struck me most was how industrious these birds are and how hard they work. This summer has been tough for the Other Mrs Reed Warbler and me; we have felt exhausted and overwhelmed at times. But seeing the blue tit pair physically and emotionally broken gives you a sense of perspective. Especially when the chicks they have so valiantly fought for are predated by the local tom cat.

It is almost impossible to distinguish between the blue tit sexes, unless you are an expert, are in ultraviolet light, or are holding the blue tits. Goldfinches, dunnocks, and great tits are equally difficult to separate. I like this. Even at four-years-old, Little Chick has some ideas of male and female qualities and projects these onto the birds in the garden. Mr Blackbird goes to the office; Mrs Blackbird stays at home; Mr Sparrow goes out all day; Mrs Sparrow looks after the babies. This doesn’t follow the roles in our same-sex household, but he has learned it anyway. When we cannot identify the sex of the bird our expectations change; we accept them as they are.

We are reminded that looks can be deceiving. Our luscious hedgerows are home to several species and provide the backdrop for the most intense drama. Dunnocks have crept into my list of favourite birds, simply because they are so common yet unusual. Typical little brown jobs (LBJs), they are boring at first glance. Upon closer inspection, they are not just brown or even just one shade of brown. They are unexpectedly glorious. And there is certainly more to them than meets the eye. They are by far the friskiest birds in our garden and their sex lives are curiously fascinating. Every time they scamper after each other, ‘The Benny Hill Show’ theme plays in my head. Unlike most species, both sexes, rather than just the male, has a breeding territory. The female will encourage male suitors in order to get the best sperm, a classic example of survival of the fittest. Rival males will peck out competitor’s sperm from the female’s opening to ensure their lineage. However, the female is not above allowing several males to believe they are the father, ensuring the best provisions and protection for her offspring. Dunnocks would not be out of place on ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’.

Occasionally, we will be visited by a passing bird of prey. Buzzards often ‘kee kee’ overhead and sparrowhawks occasionally soar through the garden or perch on the feeder. Birds of prey were my most feared birds but now they are among my favourites. Spotting a rarer species in the garden is a true joy and a reminder that we live in a genuinely wonderful place. It is easy to lose sight of that.

Corvids, including crows, jackdaws, magpies, jays, rooks, and ravens, are amongst my favourite family of birds. They show such guile and intelligence and are incredibly entertaining. Jays stand out from the rest since they appear uncommonly exotic while the others are uniformly black. But the sombre backdrop makes the magpie’s iridescent wing feather shine brighter. I love the magpie’s habit of borrowing and curating to make something beautiful. I feel this is something I try to do with my crafts, creations, and writing, though I’m also mindful of plagiarism.

Beyond the home and garden, there is so much more that we can learn from birds. Starlings work together splendidly, creating one of the true natural wonders of nature. Anyone who has seen a murmuration in the wild, the communal flocking dance before they roost, will know exactly what I mean. Geese are a great example of working smarter not harder, as they employ a V formation to conserve energy and increase efficiency. Long tailed tits will work together and help each generation thrive not just survive. I love when a little gang of young long tailed tits alights on our trees or feeders. Their rotund bodies and ridiculously long tail feathers always bring a smile to my face.

My favourite species is found far further afield: the Atlantic puffin. Puffins waddle. They shouldn’t be able to fly. They are impressive swimmers. Their beaks regularly hold up to ten sand eels, crisscrossed to utilise the space (the largest haul on record is 62). They live in burrows underground. Rather than a melodic song, they growl, a noise somewhere between a cow mooing and a muted chainsaw. Their multicoloured beaks have earned them the nickname ‘the clowns of the sea’. In short, they are extraordinary.

Little Chick likes puffins too, because they are funny, star in a cool TV show called ‘Puffin Rock’ (highly recommended viewing), and are my favourite. In time, I hope he will find a favourite for his own reasons, similarly inspired by these amazing creatures.

Birds are beautiful, tenacious, industrious, adaptable, brilliant, competitive, protective, understated, and incredible.

Be more bird.

Get your penis off the furniture (and other things I didn’t expect to say)

“Get your penis off the furniture” is not a sentence I have ever expected to say. But when Little Chick decides he wants to feel the fresh air around his genitals I politely remind him that pants have a purpose and that no one wants to see his willy or sit where it has been. The past few weeks I have noticed how many of the things I say are so unexpected to me. Some are baffling (see above), some require explanation (again, see above). Some are the result of my own upbringing. Lately, I’ve experienced the realisation that I suddenly sound like my own parents, especially my mother.

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Eventually we model (at least some of) the behaviour we experienced as children, and this extends to speech. Our adoption preparation dedicated a significant amount of time to exploring this: considering how we were raised and how that might influence us as parents.

But it has shocked me all the same. Currently, I’m reflecting on what my parents said to me, as well as how they said it. The school holidays are catching up with me and my patience has taken a beating. I worry that my speech is suffering because of this. Drawing on my long-term mantra, I try to remember to THINK before I speak. Before opening my mouth, I ask if what I am about to say meets the following criteria. Is it:

Thoughtful

Helpful

Important

Necessary

Kind

I believe this is important with everyone, but especially with Little Chick. Overtiredness has led to a few careless words this summer. It has shown me that the positive affirmations need to be repeated multiple times, even hundreds of times, before they are processed and believed, but negative slights are swallowed up whole and immediately fuel Little Chick’s toxic shame.

Above all, I need to be kind with my words. That’s not to say I can’t correct Little Chick if he makes a mistake or misbehaves. But I need to think and parent therapeutically, remembering connection before correction.

I realise this post is a bit of a muddle. It seems to go in one direction before exploring something differently entirely; only ever scratching the surface. But that’s where my head is right now. And I think that’s where Little Chick’s head is too. We are both dysregulated and out of sorts. We both need kindness and patience. We both need me to think before I speak. We both need me to say what we expect me to say. We both need that consistency and reliability. We crave it.