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.
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.