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.

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

Fournado


Talking to other parents of pre-schoolers, they concur that first there’s the Terrible Twos, then there’s Threenagers. There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent when children hit four, but I recently heard the term Fournado and it seems perfect for Little Chick.

Fournado conjures images of a fast, furious force of nature. And he is certainly that. Perhaps it’s because his birthday had coincided with the end of nursery and the onset of big school, but he seems more wild than usual. His energy levels seem to have doubled and he can be like a whirling dervish with the least provocation. I’m praying it’s a phase and that life – and him – calms down soon. It must be exhausting him. It’s definitely draining me.

I think it is also a good name for a superhero, one who helps at breakneck speed. Again, this is a perfect moniker for Little Chick. He has always enjoyed helping, but now he is more determined than ever to do jobs and his trademark energy means we often spend as long tidying up after the job as we do completing the task. At the moment, I feel like his dysregulated behaviour is overshadowing his innate goodness and I’m perhaps forgetting what a kind, loving, super wee boy he is. He is extremely considerate of others and their needs, he is bright and funny, he overcomes all obstacles in his way, both literal and figurative. Sometimes I forget why his fears present in these ways; I overlook the causes for his behaviour. I need to remember that each and every day he shows superhuman strength and resilience by just getting on with things, by beating the odds.

To paraphrase, like Batman, he is the hero we need but don’t deserve.

4th birthday

Little Chick is four. Four years old. Seriously, how did that happen?! Suddenly we have a little boy in our household. A little boy who is adamant he is a big boy. Who believes he is strong and tall and almost a grown-up. And it is a delight. But it is also bloody hard.

It genuinely feels that not that long ago Little Chick was very small and babyish. He looked and acted younger than his chronological age. Now he looks every inch a boy. Not a baby. Not a toddler. A boy. He seems to have had a massive growth spurt lately (I wish I was better at recording such details). All the clothes we bought him just two months ago for our holiday abroad are that wee bit snugger and shorter. They will make it through the summer, but only just.

Not only does he look like a boy now he is acting like a boy. This is the first time that he has understood that his birthday is about him. And he has accepted and embraced that. He hasn’t been too bothered by presents but he has been keen to point out that its his birthday and we should do his bidding. Mostly we have. We spent the day ay the seaside – his favourite place and no hardship for us. We have eaten his favourite snacks and treats and allowed birthday cake for breakfast. This is the first time since he has lived with us that I have felt like a ‘normal’ family on a big occasion.

I have loved celebrating him and how special he is and how much he means to us. But the day is tinged with sadness, though I try not to share that with Little Chick. I recently read online someone’s argument that birthdays should not celebrate the person born but those who birthed him. On his fourth birthday I thought about Little Chick’s birth parents, and especially his birth mum, and how they must feel. Some occasions or anniversaries may not be precise for them (for example, they will know he will start school in September but will not know the date or details), but his birthday will always remain the same and be inextricably linked to them. We have not started Letterbox with his birth family yet and part of me wishes I could just let them know that he is happy and well. Not to rub it in their faces. Just to let them know that he is getting big and strong, that he is growing into a kind boy, that he is just a normal four-year-old.

 

Transition days

We began the unofficial work of preparing Little Chick for the transition from nursery to school several weeks ago. Drip feeding information about the building, the uniform, the new opportunities. All this has been balanced against the reassurance that it might be strange and even scary at first, but it is somewhere he will be looked after. Like at home and at nursery, he will be happy, safe, and well.

Now the official transition has begun, with Little Chick enjoying two sessions in his new setting. Despite me setting him up for failure by being late on the first morning, overall, it’s been a success.

Home time on the first day prepared me for the next decade: when asking Little Chick what he had done today he replied “nothing”. Further probing failed to elicit any more details, but he did confirm that he had enjoyed his time at school. We walked home together, setting the precedent for our likely term time routine. During my preparation, I had found a more direct route that I hoped would be quicker: it was certainly shorter, but the new sights and sounds proved too much and the journey was long. Very long. Painfully long. I may need to rethink this come September.

The second session covered the school timetable from morning registration to the end of lunchtime, with parents and carers invited to share a meal with the children. This was a great opportunity to trial the food, see the school, and work out which parents you might like to befriend when term starts. After lunch, Little Chick’s class joined the other children on the playing field: it was a privilege to watch him play with his peers. He also palled up with a gang of Year 5 children, who happily followed him around and listened to his instructions. This was a stark contrast to nursery where he has often displayed shyness and been extremely reserved. Honestly, I was close to tears, but tried to play it cool.

School provided some information to help us for September and suggested some (optional) activities over the summer, to help with school readiness. We will see how we get on with these but won’t force anything. I can’t wait for him to start school as I think I will feel more involved than I have done with nursery. It will offer more opportunities and hopefully give me more chances to meet other parents and carers.

More importantly, Little Chick is excited for school. Long may it last.

End of nursery

In the fifteen months that Little Chick has attended nursery, it’s incredible to see how much progress he has made. There are no longer any concerns in any areas; he is meeting or suitably working towards all his expected targets. It’s gratifying to see his progress quantified in this way, but it’s not especially important. Or rather, it is the subtle differences the things that are hard to register and record that are more valuable in my eyes. I’ll try to give some examples of what I mean.

Table manners

When he first lived with us, Little Chick’s eating habits and table manners were poor. Partly, this was due to the inevitable regression caused by the emotional upheaval of leaving his safe person (his foster carer) and coming to us. Partly, this was due to his complicated relationship with food, which included eating lots, fast. Over time he has grown more comfortable with us and he has slowed down when eating, looking less like a competitive eater and more like a typical pre-schooler. He still needs to work on his cutlery skills (but he’s consistently competent). But his table manners are impeccable (well, they can be. He can also be a whirling dervish come mealtimes. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground). And we can’t even try to take any credit for this because he occasionally, but firmly, corrects us. When checking if we can all start or asking if we have all finished so he can be excused, he is showing a greater understanding of other people’s needs. Which leads me to my second point.

Empathy

He is much better at thinking of others. I realise that this is a natural progression with age, but the extent of his development has only been possible from the time spent with his peers. During drop offs and pickups, we have observed him consoling other children, usually with a gentle hug or reassuring peck on the cheek. With smaller boys he may affectionately ruffle their hair and this practice has extended to his younger cousin. He is generally well liked by his peers and, in part, I think this stems from his caring for others.

Confidence

People are often surprised when I say that Little Chick is extremely shy. His perceived confidence is either a result of faking it, to mask the fear, or borne of feeling comfortable with particular people in certain situations. At nursery, we can always tell which staff members he trusts and likes and those he still hasn’t measured up or knows less well. His behaviour with his key worker is joyous and boisterous. With the nursery manager, whom he spends less time, he is more cautious and reserved. When he feels comfortable (an alternative word here could be safe) he radiates confidence. He likes to try new things. Even if he knows he might not be able to do something he knows it is OK. Because of this he is liked at nursery and gets on with everyone. He gives everything a go with a smile on his face: what more could we ask for?

I appreciate that these do come under broader headings in the EYFS Curriculum, but they are grouped with other skills and targets and can be seen as less important than areas such as numeracy and literacy.
Probably the one area where he is showing slight delay, and especially when compared to his peers, is self-care, particularly toileting. But when I see how much progress he has made in just the past two months I’m confident he will be fine. I suspect there will be some regression when he starts school, but he is already in a better position than I imagined six months ago. He can afford to take a step (or two) backwards without it derailing the whole process.

His time at nursery has been invaluable – for him and for us. We will all miss it over the summer months. But I think we are all ready for school now. Crikey, I hope we are!

Dominoes

Little Chick flits between activities and interests. But every now and then he really gets into something. Almost obsessively. His latest passion is dominoes. I’m happy with this. I enjoy watching YouTube videos and share his admiration for Hevesh5. We even bought a second-hand domino set to build our own amazing creations.

This has not been a great success. The lorry that lays out the dominoes at set intervals to allow a smooth run doesn’t work (partly explaining the ridiculously low price we paid). Or rather, it works intermittently but the frustration we both experienced at the stop start nature was enough for me to declare it officially broken. Unfortunately, placing dominoes by hand is a much trickier endeavour than I anticipated. It tests me, a relatively calm, steady handed adult. For an overexcited fidgety three-year-old it is a disaster waiting to happen. Even when we leave the safety gap (we learned this from the pros) we aren’t guaranteed to keep them upright, in place, secure.

And that’s how it feels with Little Chick right now. Precarious. Dangerous. One false move and it will all come crashing down.

There’s a lot going on in this wee fella’s head.

Toilet training; starting school; being a big boy; being a baby; being a puppy; mummies; daddies; babies; happy; sad; angry; fed up; listening; not listening; glasses; no glasses; see better; not see; friends; not friends; hospital; safe; not safe.

And that’s just today. I’m finding it exhausting, so no wonder Little Chick is absolutely spinning. I’m just disappointed, for him, that he found his routine hospital trip so challenging today. Previously, he has been very compliant, and staff have commented on how easy he has been. With hindsight, he was in Freeze mode. Since it proved helpful for those around him, I overlooked the possible reasons why, for which I am sorry. Today – as has regularly happened lately – he flitted between Fight and Flight mode.

It’s tricky. Freeze mode was likely just as difficult for him to manage, but people (often myself included) are content to see a compliant child who is making life easier for everyone. Fight and Flight draws attention. Draws look of pity and judgement. Draws tuts and sighs of disbelief. Mostly, I can focus on Little Chick’s needs and ignore public comments, but sometimes my skin and patience aren’t thick enough. Recently, on holiday, Little Chick struggled significantly with the new. New location, new food, new sensations. Daily meltdowns were witnessed by other holidaymakers. Since the time and location (and triggers) varied they usually received new audiences who, assuming it was a one-off smiled patiently and apologetically. However, mealtimes, for reasons we need to explore further, were the worst times and often the same guests would witness his meltdowns several times, from breakfast through to the evening meal. Well-meaning people would try to intervene and calm the situation; invariably causing Little Chick more distress and making a bad situation worse.

His behaviour is the physical manifestation of his early years trauma. I wish we could ignore it, but that’s neither helpful nor kind. We need to acknowledge it. And help Little Chick. We made that promise to him. But sometimes I just feel so helpless and inadequate. It’s so frustrating that, like the domino rallies he enjoys building, one false move and it all falls down, then we have to start all over again. The safety space that pro builders use isn’t available to us. We must become that safety space. But it’s so much harder than I thought.

Home from holidays

When I first started making notes for this post, I considered naming it “The Aftermath”, since that’s what it initially felt like. I felt shell-shocked and the least rested I have ever felt after a holiday. However, I soon realised that “Lessons Learned” was more appropriate. As tricky as the holiday was at times, we are determined to learn from it and try again.

Preparation was key. I knew we couldn’t prepare for every eventuality but considering possible obstacles and thinking about how we could help Little Chick to overcome them was vital. Without doing this the holiday would have been much tougher.

Checking in and the time spent at the airport in the UK was relatively straightforward. The busyness and noise were difficult – for all of us – at times, but we coped. We were some of the first people onto the plane, which helped Little Chick to settle, but the additional time on the tarmac unsettled him. By the time we took off, he had been in his seat for an hour and was keen to take off.

He loved taking off. He looked so chilled and took it all in his stride. But he was also excited and amazed by the experience. Once we levelled off and the seatbelt signs came on the trouble began. We kept our belts on to encourage him to stay still, but he wanted to explore. I should have foreseen this as he always performs a full inspection when we visit somewhere new and there was no reason why he would see this as being any different. The lengthy delay added to the feeling that the flight was not just long but too long, for all of us. The toys and distractions worked reasonably well, and the snacks were happily devoured, but the Kindle barely left the bag. With hindsight, Little Chick displayed signs of hypervigilance, aroused as he was by the unfamiliar setting, all the new sights, smells, and sounds, not to mention the vast number of people in such proximity.

We arrived at our destination airport late in the evening, though the lack of lighting in the terminals made it feel considerably later. This also made everything feel slightly more chaotic. One thing I hadn’t considered was the different language. The staff in the resorts all speak excellent English but I had forgotten that it would be a much greater mix of nationalities and languages in the airport. At times the noise was deafening and the words were indecipherable. I think this was probably the hardest part of the day for Little Chick and I will need to consider how we can ease this pressure should we fly abroad again.

In some ways the travelling was as tiring as the entire holiday, especially when he didn’t sleep on the way home, even though it was a night flight and he was beyond shattered. Any future holidays may need to involve less travelling and waiting time. Though, like most things, I also anticipate that the more we do it the easier it will become. The fear of the unknown is hard for Little Chick, but my own anxiety can also make things harder than they need to be. I need to consider my own self care in order to make it easier for him.

Our time abroad was definitely a mixed bag. Undoubtedly, the biggest issue was food and mealtimes. Little Chick is a good eater and will try most things, which he did. But he struggled with the number of people and the necessity of staying still. We have experienced this a little when having meals out in the UK, but those occasions are few and far between. Since we had an all-inclusive package, mealtimes were plentiful and painful. The sheer abundance and availability of food was too much for Little Chick. By the end of our holiday we were taking shifts and the five of us were unable to eat together. But we all ate well and mostly enjoyed the occasion.

As we had an open plan apartment Little Chick essentially shared a room with us. This disrupted his sleep, even though we made allowances, such as putting him to bed much later than usual, so that we were all on similar timetables. His lack of rest equally disrupted us and the combined tiredness was not pleasant. Having grandparents in the adjoining apartment was a blessing and he had a couple of sleepovers to allow us to restore our energy and refresh ourselves for lots of time in the pool.

Little Chick is such a water baby, but the public baths are too hot, too noisy, and too crowded for him to enjoy. The openness of the outdoor pool suited him much better and his confidence and ability in the water improved incredibly over our stay.

Undoubtedly, the best outcome from the holiday was Little Chick’s progress with toilet training. About a week before leaving he had announced he wanted big boy pants. We happily obliged and encouraged this. Our previous attempts to get him dry for school in September had been futile: this was the moment we had been waiting for. He did brilliantly well at home and at nursery, so we decided to run with the momentum of his success and try it on holiday. He was a superstar. The good weather, the regular toilet breaks, and the child sized toilets all contributed to major progress. Admittedly, I wouldn’t want to put my head in the pool as I think that may have been used as a giant toilet but… This leap forward is a relief for us. We suspected that he might not be toilet trained by September and, while we appreciate that it must be in his own time, we didn’t want him to stand out from his peers. More importantly, Little Chick has grown in confidence and takes such pride in his newfound skills. Though we did make more than a dozen trips to the toilet on the flight home just in case he really did need to go. We didn’t want to do anything that would dent his confidence.

To be honest, if you had offered me the improvements in toilet training and confidence in the pool for the cost of the holiday, I would have snapped your hand off. So, anything else – the day trips, the sun, the unlimited ice cream and cocktails – was a bonus.

So, would we do it again? Probably. But not yet. It was entirely different to the holidays the Other Mrs Reed Warbler and I have enjoyed in the past. It was often tense and the lack of sleep made us more tired upon our return than before we left. But we spent quality time with Little Chick (and my parents) and we saw his joy. Yes, there were bleak moments where I think we all considered thumbing a lift back to the airport, but overall it was filled with memories. And that’s what holidays and family are all about. And, hopefully, Little Chick will learn that one of the best things about going away is coming home again.


Edit (July 2019): When you’re in the midst of things it is hard to see clearly. Similarly, it is easy to remember only the stress and disappointment rather than the successes and moments of joy. Looking back, it was tricky, but it could have been much trickier. We have paid for the holiday in the form of dysregulation and other fallout, but we have also gained a much more confident little boy who can (occasionally) show pride in his achievements. Ultimately, it’s about whether Little Chick managed it and enjoyed it. He says he did and wants to go again. I doubt that we will go abroad again next year (not least for financial reasons) but it is encouraging to know that it has not been ruled out entirely. As I’ve said before, we love travelling and have gained so much from our experiences. We want to share that with Little Chick, but only if it is helpful and beneficial.

Happy birthday to me…

It was my birthday this week. And it sucked. Partly because I’m creeping closer to 40 and I had a mini existential crisis (perhaps a forerunner to the impending midlife crisis). Mostly because Little Chick did not like me having a birthday.

Several times on Twitter I’ve seen adopters comment on how celebrations were ruined, plans spoiled, and that they had learned not to mark such occasions with their children. To date, we have all had a birthday since Little Chick has lived here and all have passed without a problem. In fact, he’s been non-plussed by it all, his birthday and Christmas included.

But something has changed. Instead of laughter, cake, and balloons, there is anger, frustration, and violence. And I don’t really understand why. Well, I have my suspicions.

Lately, we’ve noticed changes in Little Chick’s fight, flight, or freeze responses. When faced with perceived danger, his default mode was freeze. Over time, this had morphed into flight mode, with Little Chick darting off when confronted. Alongside this, fight mode has appeared. At the heart of these responses is fear.

A seemingly enjoyable outing with his cousins to a venue of their choice ended with hitting, kicking, general defiance, and running away – both publicly and dangerously. Whether he couldn’t cope with it being my birthday or was overwhelmed by other aspects is unclear. But he was clearly frightened. When you’re excited by your birthday and your plans get scuppered it’s difficult to (immediately) separate the behaviour from the child. To see it as fear rather than wilful or mischievous hijinks. When you’re the kind of person who still appreciates your parents’ acknowledge of your half birthday it’s hard not to take it personally.

But it’s not personal. It’s not about me.

And that’s adoption, really. It’s scary, it’s confusing, and it’s not about me.