We don’t deserve dogs

A couple of weeks before Christmas we had to make the difficult decision to have our Border Terrier (BT) put to sleep. Terminally ill, he had lost his essence and his verve; he was a poor imitation of the lively, loving dog we knew and loved. Conscious that Christmas is a tricky time anyway, with the potential for intense feelings of loss, we didn’t want BT’s death tied up with that. We wanted to preserve the memories of him in happier times, before he was in pain. We also had no idea how Little Chick might react.

I have written before about the difficult relationship I have with our dogs, especially since Little Chick. As fraught as it was, it was always a loving relationship and BT’s death hit me hard. The Other Mrs Reed Warbler was hit hardest: partly due to her compassionate nature, partly due to her role as their primary carer and chief walker. Little Chick has always been quite ambivalent towards the dogs, though expressed favouritism for BT in his final days (possibly because we spoke of him more than our other dog, a female West Highland Terrier).

We were keen to be factual with Little Chick. I’m a bugger for flowery language but I knew that euphemisms were more likely to cause confusion and false hope. Bluntly (though hopefully not brutally), I explained that BT’s body no longer worked. We tried not to place too much emphasis on age, since his concept of age includes that we are ancient. We didn’t want to worry him that we might imminently shuffle off our mortal coils, especially since I have a landmark birthday this year.

As heart wrenching as BT’s death has been, there has been one positive. And it’s a big one. Little Chick and our other dog, let’s call her Westie, are now able to spend more time together. Westie has a much calmer temperament than BT and is more accepting of cuddles and fusses, even actively seeking them. She has buckets of patience, which she has shown as she and Little Chick learn to live in closer proximity. I have been able to enjoy more time with her too. I was overwhelmed by two dogs but am more confident with one. I have enjoyed cuddles and walks that weren’t possible with BT (and his jealousy issues). The whole dynamic in our home has altered. Westie has become something of a therapy dog for Little Chick and I, at a time when we both need unconditional acceptance and someone who is pleased to see us. And she seems to be reaping the benefits of greater attention and freedom. Many of her negative behaviours, learned from BT, have vanished. This sounds like I am glad BT is dead. Not at all. However, I think I am relieved. We had no control over his illness, but we could manage his pain and death. At a time where we have had little control and much chaos, this has been a blessing. In a period of sadness and turmoil we have experienced new joy. In a way, BT’s passing has given us renewed hope – our watchword for 2020. It has reminded us to take heed of that popular phrase: “Be the person your dog thinks you are”.

Little Chick has announced that Westie is his best friend. Playing with her and stroking her makes him feel good. He has recognised that she has the same effect on him as using his calm kit. This is major stuff, therapeutically speaking, and is more than we could have hoped for in such a short time.

We truly don’t deserve dogs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Oh, all children do that…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The silence is deafening

Little Chick is spending a few days at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, his first solo visit and stay, giving us the opportunity to catch up on jobs, uninterrupted, and get some much-needed rest. We can enjoy some peace and quiet.

But it is silent. And the silence is deafening.

Being child-free for a whole weekend sounded magical. Honestly, I’ve hated it. I also feel guilty for wanting it; after all, we waited years to be parents. Then I feel guilty that I need this time. I’ve been pleasingly resilient over the past twelve months, but I can feel that things are not as robust as they should be, I’m not as robust as Little Chick and the Other Mrs Reed Warbler need me to be.

I’ve needed a break for a while. While I do get full days when Little Chick is at nursery, I needed to feel that I could properly switch off, relatively guilt-free. This new to parenthood, I didn’t expect to feel entirely guilt-free at a weekend without parental responsibilities, but I didn’t think I would feel so bad. Or miss him so much.

I’ve had time without Little Chick, notably my trip to Brazil, but I was occupied and busy. I barely had time to miss him. I was also in a new unfamiliar and exciting environment. Now I am at home and I expect to see him. Seeing his room makes me sad; it’s almost like I’m grieving. It’s weird. Strangest of all is the absence of laughter, music, requests for more snacks and drinks. It’s eerily quiet.

I knew my life would change beyond recognition when we adopted, but this is not what I expected. I didn’t think I could love him or miss him as much as I do. My body aches. This is a stark reminder of how his birth family must feel. It is too much. I need the noise. I need Little Chick.

Goodbye

Little Chick returned to nursery this week after almost three weeks’ holiday. He was nonchalant about returning, which suited us as we had expected full on resistance after nearly two weeks of just the three of us.

His night terrors worsened over the holidays, but seemed to tail off the past few nights. In fact, everything seems calm and well. The new year has started brightly and there is a sense of peace in our home.

I fear that will be short lived.

Next week we have our celebration hearing, where we attend the family court. It’s entirely ceremonial, but seems a good way of drawing a line under the official and legal process. It will likely be the last time we see Little Chicks’ social worker (though our own will be available for a few more months). So, it will be time for another goodbye for Little Chick, who has already been bid far too many farewells in his little life. Although I don’t think he will miss his social worker’s visits – I suspect our anxiety at having to appease another professional transmitted to him – I think it will remind him that he no longer lives with his foster carer. This is to be expected and his foster carer has been forefront in his mind over the festive period. But we will see her again within the next few weeks and he can be reassured that she is happy and safe, and he is staying with us.

But this will intensify another goodbye: this is the last working week for his nursery key worker. He adores his key worker. He has attached brilliantly. Their relationship is everything we could have hoped for, plus we like her, respect her, and find her easy to work with. Unfortunately, it has met a premature end as she has been offered a great opportunity elsewhere. Our delight for her is directly proportional to our upset for him.

We had hoped that his replacement key worker might be the one he had last academic year. It wouldn’t replace the outgoing worker, but might soften the blow. Alas, she is also leaving, just a week later (I’ll worry about staff retention later). So, hot on the heels of a reminder of loss at the court will be the disappearance of his key worker, his friend. I’m not entirely sure how to help him, how to make it better. Someone commented that he is a resilient little boy and will be fine. Yes, he is resilient, but because he has had to be. And that saddens me. I just want to protect him as much as I can and for as long as I can from the sadness of goodbye.


Edit (February 2019): Without wanting to jinx it, everything at nursery seems to be going well. His new key worker has been great. We hadn’t spoken to her much previously, but she has consciously made an effort to keep us informed and be available. We appreciate this. Little Chick doesn’t give her a cuddle in the morning when he arrives, yet. This may never happen, as it did with his previous key workers. But I think it may be a sign of him being more settled generally – at home, in life, and at nursery. It is also a positive step in terms of school readiness, when the staff may be more reluctant to offer cuddles.