(Re)Building blocks

One of the best metaphors used in our adoption training was the image of a brick wall. Each brick represented a need, such as warmth, stimulation, and comfort. As children grow, more needs develop, adding more rows of bricks. As children’s needs were met the wall became stronger and taller.

For adoptees, there are usually missing bricks. They may not have been regularly fed, their home may have been cold and damp, and they may not have been taught how to play.

Subsequently, their walls lack solid foundations. As the wall grows higher, this becomes more problematic. Irregular food and drink may lead to unhealthy eating habits such as binging; living in poor conditions may mean their body doesn’t recognise true sensations of hot and cold or wet and dry; not learning how to play may lead to doing so in an unhealthy way.

I’ve seen this image dozens of times since. I’ve shared it with others. I’ve taken it on board.

But I don’t think I fully ‘got’ it until Little Chick started school. Now his bricks – or, rather, his missing bricks – are becoming more obvious. Even the very act of playing with building blocks is trickier for him than his peers. His literal and figurative bricks are wobbling precariously. I’m worried that they could topple at any moment.

Little Chick was relatively young when he was taken into care and placed with his foster carer. Some people assume he will be OK because he was ‘given a chance’ at such a young age. Unfortunately, this is not the case. (And this isn’t even taking into consideration that adoption itself is trauma.) The bricks (the needs) in his first six months were unstable (unmet). In some cases, we have tried to repair the damage by stripping things back and starting again. We have tried to meet those unmet needs, such as cuddling Little Chick at bedtime, feeding him with a baby’s bottle, and singing him soothing lullabies while we maintain eye contact. Missing out on this as a baby means that Little Chick finds it harder to accept comfort and reassurance. He struggles making eye contact, especially with new people. Currently, he is torn between being a big boy and a baby. In some ways this is developmentally appropriate. However, Little Chick’s wall is not stable enough to underpin this exploration. As he switches between wanting to be a grown up and a baby, his need for nurture is primal. He needs to be treated like a baby, or certainly a child younger than his chronological age, to fill in the gaps in his wall, to meet the unmet needs of infancy.

Subsequently, it is no surprise that his sense of self is so confused. In the first six months of their life a healthy child would have received comfort, stimulation, security, love, and cuddles. Little Chick experienced some of these, but inconsistently. Some he never experienced. As such, Little Chick finds friendships harder to form than most of his peers. He struggles to play appropriately and unsupervised. He doesn’t always trust that his needs will be met and we must convince him to trust us. All of this makes starting school ridiculously hard.

School are managing Little Chick but, by their own admission, this is not good enough. He deserves better. As much as it has saddened me to see Little Chick struggle, it has heartened me to see how school have responded. The other pupils have shown kindness and empathy; the staff have shown patience and a willingness to learn. The headteacher has been incredible, a genuine silver lining in an otherwise gigantic, gloomy cloud. Yes, it is early days, but she is an excellent ally. She gets it, she gets Little Chick. She is impressively efficient without compromising her humanity. She is on our side. She has even chased adoption support regarding their lack of action.

For now, we take half term as an opportunity to rest and reset. We practise self-care so that we are all a bit better prepared for what faces us upon our return. Next term we need to remember that some of the building blocks we thought were secure are not. We need to strengthen them or rebuild them altogether. It won’t be easy and it will continue to be a strain on Little Chick. But with school onside and asking what they can do to help we will get there. We will build up Little Chick’s wall together. In doing so, hopefully we will also build up his sense of self. Everyone who has met him at school has commented first that he is a lovely boy. Now we need to help secure the bricks in his wall, so he believes that himself.

Adoptee voices

Lately, I have been thinking about adoptee voices. My adopted son is only four years old. He doesn’t say much and what he does say isn’t always easy to understand. But what he says is important. I listen carefully to what he shares. So, when do we stop listening to adoptee voices? Do we only listen to our own children? Because it seems that adult adoptees are not being heard.

National Adoption Week is in full swing and there is a distinct absence of adoptee voices, notably adult adoptees. National Adoption Week is a recruitment drive, raising awareness of the children who still need adoptive families and encouraging those considering adoption to find out more. Perhaps this isn’t the right forum for adult adoptees to share their stories. But when is? Are they given that opportunity? I feel like adopters are given a platform. Which is good. And right. But it seems to be a case of either/or. Shouldn’t we be looking to promote all voices in the adoption community?

Perhaps I’m being naïve. Perhaps I’m not looking in the right places. Perhaps I’m not listening.

Adoptee voices need to be championed. All my friends who have adopted will fiercely fight for their children’s rights to be heard. When does this stop? When they turn 18? When they start to say things that sit uncomfortably with our own narrative, with our own take on adoption?

It is tricky for younger adoptees to share their voices safely. If adoptive parents help share their stories it can be deemed exploitative. Social media is a potential opportunity but there are – sensibly – recommended age restrictions. Then there is the issue that many adoptees, because of the trauma they have suffered, are developmentally younger than their chronological ages. Organisations such as Adopteens and Who Cares? Scotland are excellent at promoting the views and rights of care experienced children. But there seems to be less available when they reach young adulthood. Less still for adult adoptees.

Some adult adoptee voices are easily accessible. For example, Jeanette Winterson has spoken openly about her perspective as a child adopted in the 1960s. Her memoir Why be happy when you could be normal? reflects on her childhood with her adopted family and charts meeting her birth family as an adult. It is raw, honest, and incredibly moving and should be recommended reading for all prospective adopters. But if you’re not picked up by a mainstream publisher there isn’t always the opportunity to share your story.

The Open Nest charity is excellent at giving adoptees a platform. Equally, birth families are included. The whole adoption community is welcomed and valued. We attended one of their conferences while in the adoption approval process and I honestly think it was one of the best things we could have done. It positively shaped our view of adoption and exposed us to the myriad voices of adoption. This week they hosted another conference, focusing on Preservation or Severance. Childcare issues prevented me from attending but the feedback from delegates was wholeheartedly positive. Afterwards, several experienced the ‘hangover’ of being immersed in a community then having it withdrawn. How do we ensure that these opportunities are less rare but still treasured?

So why I have I bothered with this blog post? I guess the answer is twofold.

First, for want of a better expression, I would like recommendations. Where can I hear adoptee voices? Blogs? Books? Social media accounts? I’m not suggesting that some voices are more valuable than others but I am looking for accessible voices. The opportunity to listen without being attacked. The potential to engage. To learn. To educate myself so that I can better parent my son, now and in the future.

Secondly, if you are considering adoption, I am not here to discourage you. I do not aim to paint a grim picture that advises you against finding out more. But I encourage you to view adoption realistically. To remember that adoption is finding families for children and not the other way around. I urge you to listen to, speak to, adoptees. Hear their stories first-hand, to give you a better overview. National Adoption Week focuses on the present, the urgency of adopting children who need families now. There is less acknowledgement of the past (why they have been taken into care) or the present (the support they will need because of past trauma (while not forgetting that adoption itself is a further trauma)).

I pose a lot of questions and I offer few (if any) answers. It’s certainly not my intention to lecture anyone else on what they could or should be doing. But it is a reminder to me to listen to all voices. Even if what they say is uncomfortable and hard to hear. I won’t tolerate abuse or insults. But I appreciate that there is a great deal of anger and trauma. As hard as it is to hear, I am sure it is far more difficult to articulate and share. And I am grateful to the adoptees who share so freely and openly. Twitter was a great forum for this but it has become more closed off recently. I am guilty of this too, locking my account as a security measure. Perhaps I need to reconsider this. It’s tough to face the hostility sometimes, to face the divide of ‘us and them’. But, I believe, adopters are in the most privileged position within the adoption community and therefore have a responsibility to listen. Adopters have the greatest access to a public forum and need to use that opportunity to champion all adoptees, not just their own.

It takes a village

I’ve been thinking about this post for a few weeks but still managed to miss my (self-imposed) deadline. That sums up our current life well.

10th October was the two-year anniversary of this blog. Fittingly, it was also World Mental Health Day. Everyone in the Reed Warbler household has been struggling lately; each of us striving for better mental health. We are all feeling the effects of Little Chick starting school. Obviously, he is feeling this most keenly and it breaks my heart to see him in a constant state of fear, confusion, and pain. His lack of sleep is affecting us all. After almost three months of disturbed sleep we are all barely functioning. He needs us to be therapeutic and to practise PACE (Playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy). We are trying but our reserves are running low. There are myriad issues that need to be addressed but we can’t face them properly until we all find a better routine and catch up on much needed rest.

The past ten days or so have been particularly tough, a catastrophic series of events, seemingly triggered by Little Chick’s first school disco. Many days he comes out of school and his relief at ‘being released’ is evident. He is a whirlwind. He cycles through Fight, Flight, or Freeze modes. Before the disco, we experienced all three and questioned whether going was such a good idea. I’m thinking I should listen to my gut instincts more. But I don’t want him to always miss out and I want to give him the chance to try new things. In fairness, he was brilliant throughout the disco. A few wobbles, but no more than his peers (and far fewer, in some cases). All hell broke loose when it was time to leave. I hold my hands up. I managed this badly. Partly, this was avoidable and was me falling into a false sense of security. Partly, this was unfortunate and unexpected. As I say, he was great during the disco. I was so proud of him. There were a lot of people in a very small space and it was something of a sensory overload. He was brave enough to buy his own snacks and gave me the change (rather than pocketing it or buying extra). He couldn’t understand why no one was dancing at the disco – this baffled me a bit too, but that’s the problem with an event including four- and eleven-year-olds – but danced merrily on his own anyway. He regularly checked in on me but didn’t want me to stay with him. In short, he exceeded all my expectations and my heart swelled with pride.

But it all ended too suddenly. I should have been more mindful of the time and given him the usual countdown, signalling that we would be leaving soon. I could have controlled that, but I didn’t. I couldn’t have foreseen that he would want to go the toilet five minutes before the end and the disco would be dramatically ended whilst he was out of the room. That he would return to bright lights and bodies. To silence. I think the dark was more comforting in that situation: he didn’t need to make eye contact or meet social expectations. He could just be himself and dance his heart out. The suddenness of the change led to a tricky transition. He had been having fun and didn’t want to leave. It’s logical. But impractical when people are tidying up around you as you madly try to corral a four-year-old and take them home safely. Yes, it was frustrating for other parents and staff to see me running around like a loon, an incompetent, overweight halfwit. But that’s par for the course now. I don’t want them to think badly of Little Chick. I want them to remember his enthusiasm, his sweet moves, his manners. I certainly don’t want them to confuse this for naughtiness. It infuriates me that Little Chick’s behaviour is so easily and so often seen as attention seeking rather than connection seeking.

Transitions are our toughest challenge now, but especially coming out of school. We have tried to be consistent but it makes no difference. It doesn’t matter whether we walk, drive, or catch the bus. If it is sunny, cold, or lashing it down with rain. If I am a few moments later or waiting at the gate for forty-odd minutes to make sure I’m on time. If I’m on my own or with someone else. The outcome is always the same. Fight, Flight, or Freeze. All three are awful for him, but Freeze is easiest for me to manage. I can get him home as quickly as possible and keep him safe. Fight is painful, literally. And embarrassing. And now sometimes requires help from the teaching staff. But Flight is by far the worst. Usually because it always surprises me. There is no indication that its coming. Often things seem OK (maybe that’s what I should be more alert to and worried about) and then WHAM! Everything is turned on its head in a millisecond. I am wrong footed. I am as out of control as he is. This has happened several times this half term. On three occasions, I have experienced panic attacks as a result. The last time, I had to call school to request help to keep us both safe. The Other Mrs Reed Warbler and I have always agreed to be as honest with school as we can be, in order to help Little Chick, but I never expected to be so vulnerable. Though, that only gives me a glimpse into the heightened state of anxiety Little Chick currently inhabits.

We have always said that things were pretty much OK and we, generally, bobbed along nicely. Other adoptive parents, knowingly, said “wait until school starts”. As much as we prepared Little Chick, and ourselves, for this transition, it has hit us like a brick wall. Adoption is trauma. And we have hit a trauma wall. Two years ago, we felt like we had hit a brick wall with the legal process. Adoption is ridiculously frustrating. And I realise I say that as the most privileged person within the ‘process’. Privileged to have received the most and lost the least. To have a voice that is listened to (not just ‘given’ a voice or ‘allowed’ a place to speak). Yet, I am still conflicted by events such as National Adoption Week.

Two years ago, despite having been approved for a few years and matched with a child, we were still on the edges of understanding adoption. Sixth months ago, our daily lives matched our expectations. Today, we are in the thick of it. Now, we need to champion Little Chick and be the parents he needs and deserves. And we will give it our all. But it is tough. And tiring. But it is worth it. He is worth it.

We will give it our all, but we need help. We have contacted Adoption East Midlands regarding formal adoption support. We have our friends and neighbours who offer daily, practical support. Our family who offer emotional support – and practical when they can. We underestimated the importance of local, physical, practical support. We have some relatives nearby but more would always help. And that would be a two-way thing, not just us always on the take. Starting school has been ridiculously hard. But it would have been impossible without the support of the staff. We do appreciate them.

The adoptive community has been a great source of comfort and wisdom, both in real life and, especially, online. I assume most people reading this are doing so because they are involved in adoption in some way. They are reading to find common ground or learn how to help others. They say it takes a village to raise a child: they are looking to be part of the village.

To all those who have helped, and continue to help, us to grow as a family – thank you. To all those who help us, individually and as a couple – thank you. To all those who help Little Chick meet his potential – thank you. Despite my moans and asides, I am extremely grateful for my village.

As a member of our village, you can download a free digital print below or from Herbert and Rose.

FREE DOWNLOAD // Created by Ali Scothern of Herbert and Rose

National Adoption Week – Monday 14th to Friday 18th October 2019

National Adoption Week is an annual event that raises awareness about the adoption process and encourages more people to consider adoption. This year, the week (Monday 14th to Friday 18th October 2019) will focus on finding adopters for ‘priority children’ – sibling groups, BAME (black, Asian, and minority ethnic) children, older children, and children with complex health needs.

National Adoption Week leaves me conflicted. The fact we need to raise awareness is problematic. That money needs to be directed into recruiting adoptive families rather than addressing the causes that lead to the need for adoption is troublesome. It is easy for me to suggest investment in birth families before crisis point but the solution is less straightforward. And well beyond my comprehension.

Previous year’s events and ethos have drawn criticism, not least from those who believed that adopters’ needs were being placed above the children’s. That the children featured in national awareness campaigns were treated as commodities. And that adult adoptees were being completely forgotten (or ignored). There is validity in all these arguments.

But the recruitment drive is needed. The tide of prospective adopters ebbs and flows. In my region, East Midlands, there are 68 children currently waiting to be adopted and just 25 approved adoptive families. More adopters are needed. Adoption must be about finding forever families for children (not the other way around).

I think my view of National Adoption Week has also changed this year because I have changed and my circumstances have changed. Two years ago, we were waiting for confirmation of Little Chick’s placement order. Having been matched, we were still unsure if we would even meet him let alone parent him. Last year we were still waiting for Little Chick’s adoption order to be granted. We were in legal limbo and our parental status was less clear. This year, we are his legal parents, which removes some tensions but adds plenty more. Last year we were bobbing along nicely. It wasn’t always easy but it was manageable. National Adoption Week came and went with little fuss. This year is much tougher.

In previous years I have championed the National Adoption Awards held, recognising success in adoption. I have (successfully) nominated individuals for these. These Awards served a valuable purpose, but this year the money and energy are being spent elsewhere. If viable, I think the Awards should still be held, though perhaps in a different guise and at a different time. National Adoption Week should focus on the adoptee, though others – birth families, foster carers, social workers, adopters, etc. – should be acknowledged, at another time.

This year I will spend National Adoption Week seeking support for myself and my family. I will be chasing adoption support to follow up last month’s plea for help; I will be meeting with Little Chick’s headteacher to find a manageable way to keep him in school and happy, safe, and well; I will be meeting up with other adoptive parents and spending my one child-free evening talking about my child, but to people who ‘get’ it. This year my family are living the reality of adoption. It is the best thing my wife and I have ever done but it’s the hardest too.

If you are considering adoption, I urge you to contact your local agency and find out more. Similarly, if you have any questions that I can help you with please get in touch.

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to…

The Other Mrs Reed Warbler celebrated her birthday this weekend. Celebrated is inaccurate. We knew that Little Chick had struggled on my birthday so we purposely made low-key plans, barely acknowledging her special day. But even this passing acknowledgement was still too much for Little Chick.

I fully understand that adoptees’ own birthdays are problematic, bringing together their past and present, their birth and adoptive families. But I couldn’t quite fathom why other people’s special days were so difficult. Rather than remaining ignorant, I turned to Twitter for help, hoping that more experienced adoptive parents – or adoptees themselves, ideally – could clarify just why birthdays are so tricky for (some) adoptees.

As with so many issues in adoption, it appears that fear is at the very heart of the matter. A fear of being forgotten. A fear of being left out. A fear of what has happened. A fear of what could happen. That’s hard. Little Chick is already surrounded by fear due to the transitions of starting school. Adding an extra layer of fear, especially one that he might be forgotten or not wanted as much, is incredibly painful.

The fear of abandonment is extremely real to Little Chick presently. I was a few minutes late for school collection one day and it majorly dented his confidence in me. Worse, it dented his confidence in himself. His already low self-esteem took a battering in those moments and it will take a lot longer for him to recover. At just four years old he has expressed feelings of worthlessness, of being rubbish, of not being important. Being late doesn’t help that. But nor does focusing on other people.

Our plans to bake a birthday cake were shelved, seeing how upset Little Chick was by the thought of not having control. Not being the one to blow out the candles. To control when it is time to cut the cake. To an outsider he may have appeared selfish and spoilt. But we saw him hurting and needing to be seen. So, we each had our own mini cakes, made in mugs, zapped in the microwave. Everyone was equally ‘celebrated’ and there was less chance of overeating, a consequence of anxiety and fear for Little Chick. His relationship with food is complicated (so is my own) but he has improved significantly in the past eighteen months. But since the summer he has fallen back into old habits and looked to food as a comfort again (mind you, I’m probably guilty of this too).

In the long-term we will need to find effective ways to help him. We understand why he sabotages our plans and ruins our day. It doesn’t come from malice but from a place of hurting, a place of fear. But others won’t recognise that. They will label him naughty or silly. Worse, they may think him unkind, when he is anything but.

In the short-term, we will probably avoid birthdays, both celebrating our own and attending peers’ parties. It seems sad that Little Chick is missing out on supposedly nice things, but if these occasions heighten his anxiety and unsettle him then it’s kinder to decline invitations. But not celebrating brings it’s own problems, triggering shame, which many adoptees have by the bucketload. Shame is toxic and consuming. Speaking with other adopters, birthdays will almost certainly get worse before they get better. They may never get better. They may just be annual reminders that, for many, adoption is trauma.


Postscript: I would like to hear from adoptees how they feel about birthdays. Hopefully, they may even feel able to share tips so I can help Little Chick, even if it is telling me what not to do rather than offering solutions.