Adoption UK Conference 2019

Throughout October we experienced some giddy highs and nauseating lows. I haven’t blogged much and have shied away from social media. I had penned a post called ‘Trick or treat’ (which the lovely Ali Scothern had kindly illustrated), but it felt imbalanced and angst-ridden. With hindsight, it was written on the days when I was at my lowest point, when I felt like life was constantly tricking me. That’s valid, but it’s not representative of every day. I was underappreciating the treats that I was also granted. I began to forget that they were happening but, worse, I stopped believing they would happen again. I was losing hope.

Cue the Adoption UK 2019 Conference.

This year the event moved from Birmingham to Harrogate, kickstarting the tour over the next few years of conferences being held in different venues (next year we are Bristol bound). The theme for this year was slightly broader than in previous years: “Stronger Families Brighter Futures”. Rather than focusing on one single aspect, such as education or life story work, they considered a wider range of issues affecting adoptive parents and their children. There was an addition to the proven format, with delegates choosing two workshops (from a list of seven) to attend.

Knowing that Little Chick would be happy, safe, and well with his grandparents, we took the opportunity to head to Harrogate on Friday afternoon. This was a canny move considering the floods affecting Derbyshire and parts of Yorkshire but, more importantly, meant we could attend the pre-conference drinks. I love the idea of things like this, a chance to meet with like-minded people and talk about a shared interest. But putting that theory into practise is terrifying and my social anxiety does not always allow it. Fortunately, I found a few other people who were happy to forego small talk (yuk) and delve right into the big talk (yay). Even before the event had officially started, I felt connected and affirmed.

The welcome was given by Rob Langley-Swain (Head of Membership for Adoption UK, hosting his first conference – and performing admirably), who instigated the ‘snowball game’. Every delegate was asked to write what they wanted to get from the day onto a piece of (high quality) paper. That paper was then scrunched into a ‘snowball’ and, when directed, everyone threw theirs in the direction of another person or table so that we could see and share some thoughts. In a moment of brevity, I wrote just one word. Worried that my paper might not make it to another table, I launched my snowball, throwing it straight over the adjoining table into the wastelands yonder. This seemed a fitting metaphor.

Sue-Armstrong Brown (CEO of Adoption UK) gave the opening remarks, focusing on the results of the Adoption Barometer survey. There were, understandably, statistics showing issues with the adoption process, recurrent problems within education and then issues gaining employment and training, as well as difficulties accessing ongoing adoption support. Overwhelmingly, most adopters surveyed (approx. 4 in 5) said they would encourage others to adopt despite the challenges they face. This set the tone for the day. This was a room of people who want the best for their young people and will fight for them.

Joanne Alper – Encouraging resilience

Founder of AdoptionPlus, Joanne Alper focused on the need for and importance of resilience. At the heart of this, she highlighted vulnerability. Embracing and accepting vulnerability allows flexibility, a vital component when building resilience. She drew on her own experiences to show this, which I believe helped delegates feel more at ease. I’m always impressed that the speakers at these events demonstrate immense knowledge and understanding but deliver this with humanity. It feels like we’re all working together – a theme that was touched upon several times throughout the day.

Further, she highlighted the importance of self-compassion and the need for parents (all, but especially adoptive) to be kind to themselves. I especially liked her reminder to stay curious, as this is something I try to do but often forget. But when I am curious life is better, and easier, for me and my family.

My biggest takeaway from her informative and compassionate talk was the value of finding your tribe. This is something I have been exploring a lot recently, especially as we await official adoption support, and it was reassuring (though a tad frustrating) to know that others felt the same. At the Adoption UK conference, I found my tribe, some of whom I already knew (in real life or from social media), some I met for the first time. I am ridiculously grateful for that.

Adoptee panel hosted by Sally Donovan

This was a highlight for me at last year’s conference. The young people sharing their experiences of adoption were brave, honest, funny, clever, and bloody amazing, quite frankly. But, my goodness, the tears. I should have learned from last year that such raw emotions will require tissues. Perhaps these could be supplied next year.

Sally Donovan facilitated the panel perfectly. Her measured approached and gentle tone seemed to help Nellie, Louise, Lara, and Martin feel at ease. I cannot emphasise enough how impressive they were. They were absolute stars.

I’m conscious that adoptee voices aren’t heard enough and that adopted people are not always granted the same platform as adoptive parents. The four young people were immense and their tips and advice on what they believe helps make Stronger Families and Brighter Futures were insightful and well considered: their standing ovation was deserved. They highlighted the benefits of connecting with other adoptees, the role pets can play (as non-judgemental companions with unconditional love), and the importance of supportive parents who listen to them and never give up on them. I will try to remember these lessons now and as my son grows and vow to always champion him.

Dr Dave Williams – Building the village

Next, Dr Dave Williams, an adviser to Welsh government on children’s mental health, spoke about supporting one another and the strength that comes from being acknowledged and heard. He used the analogy that there is too much focus on a person who is ‘drowning’ and not enough on teaching them to swim. As someone who feels they are treading water at best this was a valuable mental image. Again, he promoted the need for a collective group, a village, to help children and families. The message that families can only become stronger by asking for and receiving support was loud and clear by the time we entered the coffee break.

Workshop 1 Becky Brooks – Home education

Although school have been brilliant so far, I thought it might be prudent to have home ed on our radar. I didn’t attend the workshop with the intention of removing him from school the following Monday. Rather, I wanted to know how people arrived at the decision to home educate so that I could learn from them, from their successes and their mistakes.

Becky Brooks is Adoption UK’s education policy adviser and knows her stuff. I enjoy her tweets and blogs and her recent publication (The Trauma and Attachment-Aware Classroom: A Practical Guide to Supporting Children Who Have Encountered Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences) has been recommended to school. She was able to share her own experiences of home educating as well as guidance on legislation, requirements, and practicalities.

The other adoptive parents shared their stories, enabling me to better understand why people educate their children at home, usually as a first choice or as a last resort. Those whose children have attended school before being home educated were most helpful to me as I was able to understand what we and school need to do better to ensure Little Chick’s success. By success I don’t necessarily mean a raft of top GCSE results. I mean a child who is happy, safe, and well, who can undertake practical tasks, and is able to ‘function’ in society.

It was extremely useful to hear other people’s experiences and, although I hope we never need to home educate, I feel less daunted by the prospect. I also feel better equipped for working alongside school to create a plan suitable for Little Chick. The Other Mrs Reed Warbler chose to attend a separate workshop, giving us access to more information and resources. She learned more about sleep therapy and was able to garner a few tips. We now also have further ideas to share in our meetings with the GP and behaviour specialist.

Lunch was a welcome break. The morning was fantastic but there is a lot of information to digest and emotions to deal with.

Workshop 2 Philippa Williams – Life journey work

I find life story work one of the most interesting aspects of adoption, perhaps because of my own struggles with identity and fascination with storytelling. Adoption UK’s Philippa Williams refers to it as life journey work. I like this word choice as it suggests that it is ongoing, continued. There is also the opportunity for travel companions and help along the way.

Partly because I have attended several life story workshops or training sessions recently, partly because I am jaded and cynical at present, the introductory overview was familiar and offered nothing new. However, the second part of the workshop was the best I have experienced in terms of practical tips and suggestions.

Drawing on work she has done personally and professionally, as an adoptive parent and as Early Intervention Support Manager, Philippa Williams shared ideas of how to help adopted young people better understand their past, present, and future. Combining music, artwork, stories, photos, and artefacts, she skilfully showed how these could prompt important questions or conversations. I especially liked her idea of a magic box as this is something that we could start now with Little Chick and it will evolve as he grows.

Importantly, I was reminded of the importance of asking questions when given photos, gifts, or information. Asking who gave him that outfit? Where was this photo taken? Why did he have this? Equally, labelling things is essential, particularly with names and dates. A beautifully presented photo album has less value if it is unclear who or what is pictured.

By the end of the workshop, I felt reassured that we are doing the right kind of things with Little Chick in mostly the right ways. However, listening to other delegates, I was angered and frustrated that this work is given such low importance by too many local authorities and the quality of life story books and later life letters is still woefully poor, if they exist at all.

Again, The Other Mrs Reed Warbler and I attended different workshops. She refreshed her knowledge of therapeutic parenting and was reminded of a few practical tips that we can employ in daily life.

Simon London – Overcoming adversity

Simon London is an incredibly interesting guy – the kind you would love to chat to over a drink – and he delivered his story with a fantastic mix of humour and honesty. Recounting his experience as a black adoptee, he wasn’t maudlin or negative, despite the challenges he faced, and his call to keep looking forward and remain positive were a welcome reminder. This was his first time speaking publicly about being adopted and I hope it is not his last. I felt honoured to hear his story and I hope he can share it with others who can learn from him.

Dr Marie Kershaw – The power of positive relationships

After a long but extremely worthwhile day, I felt for Dr Marie Kershaw, presenting in the final slot. However, her talk was extremely engaging. More than that, it was incredibly uplifting and a fitting end to the day. She focused on how trauma can trap us and make us feel stuck but that we can overcome that. Primarily, this is achieved through positive relations, with other adopters, professionals, and within our own families. Her talk centred around hope. There were so many Aha! moments as she spoke, but her reminder than adults can hold onto their children’s hope until they feel able to look after it themselves resonated with me (and most of the room). As much as I am struggling to remain hopeful, I need to remember that Little Chick is facing a much harder time of it than I am. I need to safeguard his hope.

As the conference ended, I wanted to stay to chat and ask questions, introduce myself to people who only know me as an avatar and online persona. But tiredness and anxiety won out. Hopefully, I will attend more Adoption UK events in the next year and build my confidence by next year’s conference. That evening The Other Mrs Reed Warbler and I decided against our planned date night and stayed in the hotel with takeaway, excitedly sharing what we had learned and optimistically planning ahead.

On Sunday we prepared to return home, armed with new ideas, renewed confidence, and hope. We received a surprisingly warm welcome from Little Chick, a timely reminder that he is why we attend such events and why we want to be better parents and advocates.

After conversing with other adoptive parents, adoptees, and professionals, our chats with family (who politely enquired what we had gained from our experience) were welcomed but frustrating. The conversations revealed how much people wanted to know and understand but how far they are from that point. This theme recurred throughout the conference and is, perhaps, an idea that could be considered next year. It is also something we will be discussing further with our own regional adoption agency.

Overall, the Adoption UK Conference was the shot in the arm that I needed, at the required moment. I felt that I had found my tribe, been reminded of the importance of a village, learned new things, consolidated existing knowledge, and felt more like me than I had done in weeks.

Oh, and what was the single word I penned on my snowball? The one word that worried me I hadn’t written enough? The one word I needed? HOPE.


I should have posted this sooner – building on the momentum of the day – but I have had neither the time nor the headspace. The Adoption UK conference was immense and we had a truly fabulous weekend. After the elation of such an event we have crashed back to Earth with an almighty bump. However, I still have hope, kindly given to me by the speakers, organisers, and delegates of the Adoption UK community. This will sustain me and my family, hopefully until we receive formal adoption support from Adoption East Midlands (promised within the month), and I am extraordinarily grateful for that.

(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.

Starting school

Now that the dust has settled, I’m able to consider how Little Chick starting school has affected us all.

First, I need to say how proud I am of this wee boy. Starting school is a major challenge for any child, but there are added complications for children who struggle with change. Of course, there has been fallout but he has coped admirably. And, in the grand scheme of things, he has been heroic.

Frustratingly, our biggest challenge could (should?) have been foreseen. I failed to spot the correlation between transitioning from nursery to school and leaving his foster family to join us. I didn’t make the connection between the transition activities for adoption and those for starting school. Logically, Little Chick assumed that going to school meant leaving us, despite our protests. His experience is that visits, stories, and books mean leaving his safe place and people he loves. It’s no wonder he was so afraid.

The lead up to starting school was painful, literally. The violence increased and we all started school battered and bruised. We all started with a deficit of sleep after weeks of co-sleeping and restless nights. Fortunately, the first week included a couple of INSET days; a full week may have broken us. As soon as Little Chick started school something changed. His body seemed lighter, looser somehow. It was like flicking a switch. The difference was instant and obvious. The two-month interval since the transition days must have felt like an eternity to him and he surely questioned whether it would happen. I think knowing that something – even if it wasn’t necessarily something he wanted – was happening was a reassurance of sorts.

Of course, this was compliance on his part. We expected this ‘honeymoon period’. We expected it to last more than three days. Though, again, Little Chick’s logic was flawless. He had been brilliantly behaved at school for three days, had slept better (not well, but better), and there was no violence. When he realised he had to return on Monday, he was not happy. After tracing four letters he was ‘done’ with writing: after three days he was ‘done’ with school. The compliant boy of the first week vanished as quickly as he appeared, melting into a pool of hysterical tears when it was time for us to leave him.

Every morning of the second week he cried. He felt rotten. We felt rotten. It sucked. He increasingly showed more signs of disjointed attachment. We increasingly showed more signs of helplessness. The Other Mrs Reed Warbler had maximised her flexi working hours to help with drop off and collection in the first two weeks. Since our long-term plan is to utilise breakfast club in the morning and for me to walk him home after school, we began this routine sooner than anticipated. We had held off the early start and extra exercise to conserve his energy but something had to give. The first morning he was dropped off at breakfast club he never looked back. The choice of cereals was far more exciting and enticing. And we haven’t had tears since. We’ve experienced resistance, but nothing to cause us concern.

Our main tasks are to get him to school on time, collect him when the bell rings, and clothe him appropriately. We’re progressing with the first two but washing?! Oh, the washing. I naively believed we would do less washing than when he was at nursery and at home. Even with enough uniform for each day (and spares) we have found ourselves putting on a half load at stupid o clock. Most days he is returning home in the change of uniform we leave at school. We anticipated that he would have toileting accidents, having regressed over the holiday and faced with new stresses. My champion has not had a single toileting accident! I am overwhelmed at how he has managed this. However, his penchant for painting, water, and generally messy play has (thankfully) been encouraged. His hair has been especially pretty colours, sometimes several colours at once. The constant washing is frustrating but it’s a small price to pay when I know how happy it makes him.

As a teacher and learning mentor I spent (too) much of my working day chasing homework and it frustrated me. So, I feel for Little Chick’s teachers. He has a very fixed idea of what happens at school and what happens at home. He will happily look at books for hours but if I try to show him one for his book bag, I’m in trouble. He shuts down. To paraphrase Kipling, School is school and home is home and never the twain shall meet. Currently, school are happy with this but I doubt it will be tolerated indefinitely.

Saying that, I have been extremely impressed with the staff so far. His headteacher is wonderful. She genuinely seems to get it and speaks with an awareness of attachment and trauma without sounding like its rehearsed or forced. Our conversations about Pupil Premium Plus spending have been candid but encouraging. Obviously, it’s early days but we have been greatly encouraged by what has been said and done so far. They genuinely seem to like Little Chick and want him to meet his potential, in all aspects. There are plans for a nurture group next term and he is already receiving 1:1 time. He was thrilled to play in the woods with the TA who helps at breakfast club (he actually told us about something he did at school!).

I attended a Stay and Play session last week, spending an hour in Little Chick’s class. This was further confirmation that he struggles when home and school collide: I experienced similar behaviour when I accompanied him on a nursery trip last Christmas. We have already agreed that grandparents will be drafted in when volunteers are required within his classroom. We had already been told that he plays alongside other children rather than with them, which was no surprise to us. However, seeing it up close was heart-breaking. He was so awkward and out of place with his peers. Not knowing how to play with others, he ultimately ruined their games, causing tears and tantrums from the other children (though I was impressed with how well the teacher diffused the situation, which is lucky as I suspect this might be a common occurrence this term). A few of his classmates engaged with me and have since said hello at home time.

Most people think I am friendly and chatty and I certainly try to be. But I suffer terribly with social anxiety and small talk can absolute drain me. Polite chit chat at the school gates takes everything I have. And I was dreading it. I’m still not comfortable with it but it’s not as bad I thought. I’m tied to these parents for the next seven years (probably longer with secondary school) and that terrifies me. I don’t want to make a fool of myself now and have it haunt me (and Little Chick) for the rest of his education. I’ve enjoyed the adult company over the past few weeks but I’m painfully aware that I have nothing to say. It feels a little like university freshers’ week where you talk to everyone but ask and answer all the same questions. Instead of ‘What A levels did you study?’ it’s ‘When’s your child’s birthday?’ or ‘Do they have any siblings?’ I’ve already been involved in several childbirth conversations, blissfully ignorant on the periphery of the conversation. I’m keen to help and be involved – with conversations and events – but I think it will take me time. I’ve offered to bake for the school disco (why?! I can’t bake! But it was preferable to making small talk) and volunteered to listen to readers (I’m fine with children). That’s enough for now.

We’ve faced several challenges so far and I know more will present themselves soon. Of course, the first topic they will ‘study’ is about us and people who help us, difficult conversations for adoptees of any age. We’ve never been secretive of the fact Little Chick is adopted but equally it is not always our information to share. As a same-sex couple people are wondering which of us is his ‘real’ mum (I’ve heard whispers). Little Chick will not be able to take a photo of himself as a newborn, or even as a baby. The youngest photo we have was taken weeks before his second birthday. The teacher I spoke to didn’t think this would be a problem but it just highlights Little Chick’s difference. Maybe I’m overthinking it. But I need to be his champion at school and I want to be proactive rather than reactive. If I can spare him any hurt or discomfort then I will.

Since I spent some time in the classroom with him, Little Chick seems more confident with his peers at home time. He’s not making friends yet but you can see that he’s trying to be friendly. Like the class tortoise, he’s coming out of his shell. And I need to do the same. Starting school is a brilliant opportunity for the whole family to become part of the community, something we have wanted for a long time.

Adoption Support

Earlier this month we contacted Adoption Support. This was the second time we had made a request, though the first had been before Little Chick’s adoption order was granted so we were guided then by our designated social workers. This was the first time that we had called the duty line and played the lottery of which random social worker would answer our call. I know that social services will argue that every duty officer is an experienced professional and will help us, but I was genuinely impressed by our initial call. We haven’t had any formal follow up yet (when can we start getting Bolshy?), but I was pleasantly surprised by our initial encounter.

We probably should have contacted adoption support sooner than we did. Partly, we didn’t have the time. Partly, we didn’t quite know what to say. Partly, we thought things may just settle down and resolve themselves. Partly, I hate speaking on the telephone. For some reason, telephone calls with strangers send me into a tizzy, even when I know exactly what I want to say and have confidence in my knowledge, understanding, and/or request. But phone calls with people in positions of authority are worse still. I am a gibbering wreck within minutes, jabbering away incoherently, going off at any number of tangents despite my compiled notes and salient bullet points. But I persisted and the kind, patient lady on the other end persisted and we made some progress.

Our primary request is to access some form of Non-Violent Resistance (NVR) training. Somewhat predictably, the child parent violence has notably decreased since we contacted East Midlands Adoption Services for support. We half expected that, which is why we had been slow to contact them, but we cannot take the risk that it will return and escalate the next time we deal with transition and change. We need to help Little Chick and be able to keep him (and ourselves) safe.

I was simultaneously pleased and saddened that they did not question my request. It’s par for the course it seems. I was pleasantly surprised when she spoke about accessing the adoption support fund, especially when her mental arithmetic showed that she was making calculations based on his full annual allowance. Of course, this was a short initial conversation but I was encouraged by the possibility we would receive the support and financial help required.

Similarly, I was pleased with the suggestions the worker gave to help us in the meantime. Yes, they were mostly things we were already trying or services we were already accessing, but at least we are all on the same page. During the conversation, I realised that we still need to work on our support network and continue to access all opportunities to learn. As a non-driver in a rural county I sometimes struggle to make the most of the training available, especially since regionalisation has made some of the venues significantly further away. I’ve spoken about the possibility of a ‘support’ group locally and even investigated it. I didn’t proceed because ‘life got in the way’. But that’s no excuse. I need to priotise this, as a form of self-care, to keep us all bobbing along, keep us afloat.

In our meeting with Little Chick’s headteacher I mentioned that we have been in touch with adoption support. I wanted them to know that we are struggling now but we are proactive. I wanted them to know that we are collaborative and unafraid to ask for help. I wanted them to know that we parent therapeutically and need them to support and recognise that as best they can. I wanted that to set a precedent for our ongoing relationship with them. Because school will become (hopefully) one of our greatest allies, one of our greatest sources of adoption support.

Introducing Herbert and Rose

I am super excited to announce a new collaboration with the extremely talented Ali Scothern. Trading as Herbert and Rose, Ali is a Derbyshire based artist and creates gorgeous paintings and illustrations, some of which will be gracing my website in the coming weeks.

Additionally, Ali and I are working together to create a range of resources for adoptive parents and their families. These will include books, life story aids and prompts, as well as greeting cards and prints. Our primary audience will be adopters, but everything will be designed and made with adoptees in mind. The tools and resources will be aimed at supporting them through issues such as identity and life story work as well as difficult emotions, particularly recognising their early years and ongoing trauma.

Ali will be illustrating my website pages and I couldn’t be happier. I have always known that I needed to add photos or artwork but couldn’t find the right style. Because I always had Ali’s work in mind, and I was delighted when she agreed to work with me.

I will let you know when our collaborative work is ready; in the meantime, you can pop over to www.herbertandrose.com to see more of Ali’s work, follow her on social media, or even commission her yourself.

Adieu, but not goodbye

Now that our Adoption Order is through and several months have passed, we are no longer assigned our social worker. We will still receive support through the East Midlands Adoption Agency, but it will be more ad hoc. It is time for us to move on. We will be just like other parents. Kind of.

I’ve appreciated the accountability of having regular appointments and checks. On occasions they have felt a tad intrusive or unnecessary, but I fully understood that they were intended to safeguard the child and help us. Moreover, we have a great relationship with our social worker, so it’s never felt burdensome. It has been a genuine pleasure and I will miss seeing and speaking to her regularly.

However, it is a case of adieu but not goodbye. We are keen to continue supporting the adopter training, which she regularly runs. Having benefitted from this we want to give back, sharing our experiences and knowledge, in the hope that they will help someone. Should we consider adopting again in the future, she will likely be our supervising social worker once again, a factor which may sway our decision.

I know that I have praised our social worker before and I’m probably getting a bit repetitive, but I think it is worth saying. Social workers get a lot of stick, sometimes rightly, and as a profession they can be derided. But M is one of the good ones. We honestly wouldn’t be a family now without her. She guided us gently and never tried to manipulate or change our opinions. She always let us make our own decisions, then gave a huge sigh of relief when we selected what she believed would be the best for us. And often she knew us better than we knew ourselves. Her insight is remarkable. I will miss her wisdom, warmth, and wit. I will always be grateful that she helped forge our forever family.

B is for biting

Since returning from our holiday, Little Chick has continued to be unsettled. There could be so many reasons for this and often it is a matter of guesswork as he isn’t fully able to communicate his emotions to us. I’m assuming that staying in another house in another country has been a large contributor to his dysregulation. We emphasised the temporariness of our vacation by constantly calling it his holiday house and never using the word home, but maybe this overcomplicated matters. Home is a building, but it is also when he is with us, or at least that is what we have tried to show him over the past year or so.

His dysregulation is, unsurprisingly, more apparent when he is tired and is mostly taking the form of biting. And it bloody hurts. Little Chick has clean strong teeth, sparkling white and in good condition. This can be unusual for care experienced children, so I take it as a double blessing, though not when those pearly whites are gnashing on my flabby bits, of which there are many. My backside is his favourite target. I realise that this is a sizeable target, but it also means he avoids eye contact. Little Chick is full of shame. I am not always clear whether he knows what he is doing or is in control of his actions, but on the occasions he is, I can see a mix of anger, sadness, fear, and remorse in his eyes. That is what I need to remember as my buttocks throb. Anger is a secondary emotion; it has been labelled the bodyguard of fear. And as his teeth sink into my wobbling flesh, I need to remember that he is afraid. Of course, there are better ways of expressing this. Hopefully, we can help him with those, develop them over time. I’m not suggesting we grin and bear it for now, but we do have to have some understanding of the thought processes flying around his synapses.

It is easy to get lost in the thought that A is for aggression, B is for biting, C is for controlling, etc. Rather, I need to remember that A is for anxiety, B is for bewilderment, and C is for cowering. Little Chick is a gorgeous wee boy who has experienced things no one should have to. That’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation and that should give me pause for thought, to remember that under the anger, frustration, and aggression is a small scared boy who is trying his best. B is for beautiful, brilliant, bold. And that’s what Little Chick is.