Stay Safe

I’ve probably never had so much to say as I have done over the past year. But I haven’t had the means to express myself. Lockdown has limited conversations – both in real life and virtually – and my ability to write down my thoughts has all but gone. Last weekend I spent much needed time with a wonderful friend, and it was exactly what I needed, not least to help me write again. So, if this gets long, boring, and maudlin you can partly blame her.

There’s no point me rehashing the past six months or so. I couldn’t find the right words during that period and I suspect they would be shrouded in hindsight and navel-gazing if I recapped now. Suffice to say, lockdown has been hard. It has been for everyone; we are in no way unique there. To borrow from Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”. In many ways, enforced nesting was just what our family needed – and we have reaped the benefits. Little Chick’s attachment to us feels stronger and more secure. Conversely, that has made the tricky times ridiculously hard. The juxtaposition of what we know can be possible and the onslaught of violence, rejection, and dysregulation has been difficult to manage. We have often felt trapped, both literally and figuratively.

We fully appreciate why Little Chick has struggled and, to an extent, understand his behaviour. But living with it is something else. Repeatedly, we remind him that it our responsibility to keep him happy, safe, and well. Safe is a massive word; much bigger than those four little letters. Safety is at the heart of our family. If Little Chick is, or feels, unsafe we all struggle. His safety is paramount.

School has become, or is becoming, a safe place for him, particularly his TA. We were delighted and relieved to learn that he would continue to receive 1:1 support next year and with the same teaching assistant. On the odd occasion I let myself consider it might not happen I was overwhelmed with grief for Little Chick and hopelessness for myself. His brief return (part-time for several weeks) towards the end of the academic year was vital for us all. He needed to know that those people were still happy, safe, and well themselves. And it reminded him that we always come back, in this case to collect him from his school bubble. He will be restarting Reception in September. This was discussed before lockdown, but the consequences of the pandemic confirmed the need. There are concerns that he will have to catch up with his original cohort before starting secondary school, but we would rather deal with that later. Right now, he needs the safety, familiarity, and nurture. And it gives us a few more years to research, learn, and square up for the fight.

In terms of keeping ourselves physically safe, we have been fighting on two fronts. We have had COVID to contend with as well as Little Chick’s attacks. Although Little Chick’s outbursts may seem unprovoked or unexpected, we are starting to recognise when they are more likely to occur and spot the warning signs. Coronavirus is a more stealthy bugger. I was ill in April and suspect I caught the virus. I improved relatively quickly – from an ambulance callout to pottering about again within two weeks – but I’m still not quite right. Lack of sleep and an aching body from Little Chick’s dysregulation haven’t helped. I’m hoping that a return to school and a new normality will help his routine and, in turn, allow me to take better care of myself. I am not the kind of person who can survive on limited sleep, as my family will confirm. It is safer for everyone when I practise self-care.

With the imminent threat of violence, keeping ourselves physically safe has been prioritised. But at the expense of our mental health. I’m sure the Other Mrs Reed Warbler has struggled too, though we have had few opportunities to sit together, uninterrupted, and share (though imminent counselling sessions should help with this). My mental health is not good at the moment. I am confident it will get better; it has before. But it’s a hard slog when it’s not great. For the whole family, not just me. Everything feels like an uphill battle and I feel increasingly less safe. When I suspect I am not in full/enough control of myself I tend to withdraw, to keep others around me safe. But this has the adverse effect of them thinking I am distancing myself from them. This is particularly unhelpful for a five-year-old with attachment difficulties.

Now that I have started writing I could waffle on for ages. But that benefits no one. I needed to put myself out there, overcome my barriers to writing, and reconnect again. I’ve done that. I hope to write again soon and return to regular posts. It helps.

So, for now, please take care of yourselves. And stay safe.

A huge thank you to all the Lockdown Heroes

This is by no means an exhaustive list and I will (unintentionally) miss off people, but I wanted to share my experience of Lockdown (so far) and thank all the Lockdown Heroes who have helped me and my family.

The NHS

It’s an obvious place to begin, given the circumstances. We have always had a positive experience of the NHS, even if waiting times are long and services woefully understaffed. But they have reached new heights of awesomeness. Calling 111 a second time (the first to discuss suspected COVID), the responder was concerned by my breathing during the phone call. Within half an hour an ambulance arrived, and two paramedics checked on me. My first thought was gratitude and relief, as the unexpected call out had heightened my anxiety to silly levels. My second thought was concern that their PPE would frighten my son. Yes, he was anxious, but not because of the PPE. Honestly, I have better protection when decorating than they had for tackling a potentially deadly virus. The sight of those two lovely souls in cheap masks and disposable aprons hammered home how much our key workers are at risk. Thankfully, my (suspected) case was mild and hospitalisation was unnecessary. But that will not always be the case when they respond to a call.

I am indebted to all the NHS staff who place themselves in danger to help us. Thank you.

School

I follow several teachers on Twitter and have watched with interest their new takes on ‘home schooling’. I have seen them dedicate hours to preparing new resources. They have taken the time to reassure students and their families. My sister, an assistant head in an independent school, has taken a significant pay cut and almost doubled her weekly workload, to ensure that pupils are provided for and that there is a viable, functioning school to return to afterwards.

Little Chick’s school have been incredible. Having collaborated with several local schools, they have kept provision going for children of key workers and those that need it. Little Chick was offered hours, but we declined them. However, now that I have (probably) had Coronavirus (and the health risks are lessened) and he has been off school for eight weeks (due to various issues before Lockdown) we feel that he needs that interaction. He is a sociable wee fella and he misses his friends. The phone calls from teachers have buoyed us, the headteacher has contacted us regularly, including with video assemblies and messages. We have sent his beloved TA photo postcards to show her what we have done and to stay connected. She has responded with videos of stories, hilarious tales that make him giggle that little laugh that only Mrs F can elicit.

School is a funny place for Little Chick. It can cause ridiculous levels of anxiety and dysregulation. But, especially with the tailored provision the school have put in place for him, he is starting to see it as a safe place. And a fun place. And he misses it. And, boy, so do I!

Thank you to all the school staff who are finding new ways to engage and reassure children, to be virtual safe spaces until we can all commune safely.

Key workers

Having been ill, with a school-aged child, it is no surprise that the NHS and schools start the list. Often other key workers are overlooked. Wrongly. Even in this section, I will miss some. And I am sorry for that. For the oversight now, but mostly for doing so in the past. Taking for granted the people and services that keep our lives ticking along nicely. The unsung heroes who keep us happy, safe, and well. Particularly, I am grateful for our postie, an affable chap who always has a smile, whatever the weather. He has helped keep us connected with others, delivering letters, packets, and parcels, which bring us joy, good news, and even gifts.

Our local delivery service has been depleted, but you would never know it from their commitment and attitude. Thank you.

Food is a sensitive topic in our house. Although scarcity of food has never been an issue, control over food is something we must watch. With limited and irregular supplies, the past few weeks have been tough for Little Chick. The unpredictability of meals has been trickier than we imagined. He has also sought comfort in food, something he has not done for over a year. Maintaining and improving the supply and delivery of food to our home has been vital to all of us since Lockdown. The delivery people have been greeted with beaming smiles and requests for Babybel.

Everyone in the food chain has kept us well fed and lessened the stress. Thank you.

Other key workers have made life more manageable for us too. Even our post adoption support social worker has kept things ticking along, checking on us and chasing our adoption support fund application, as well as fielding our calls and emails.

A massive thank you to all the key workers who are keeping the country going at great risk to themselves.

Our neighbour

We moved to this area ten years ago, knowing no one. A work colleague lived close by and became a friend. When we moved home (a mere mile up the road) we became neighbours. And it was one of the best things that has ever happened to us.

Our neighbour is a legend. She is one of those fascinating people who knows something about everything and always knows the person who knows more or can help you out. She is also the embodiment of kindness. She makes you feel good about yourself just by being around her. We cherish our time with her (and her partner). She was a guest at our wedding, one of only a handful of non-family members, and was our referee when adopting. We love her. She has always been a reliable person to call on but never more so than during Lockdown.

She has shopped for us, dropped off surprises (from a safe distance), baked birthday cakes so occasions are marked, brought flowers to cheer me up, texted to check how we are and if we need anything.

She has been a constant before and during Lockdown. What more could we ask for in a friend and neighbour? Thank you.

Our family

We have stayed well connected with family, sending regular messages, cards, and photos. We have used FaceTime, Zoom, and Skype, with mixed success. But nothing beats giving someone a hug, looking them in the eye, and saying hello. I love you. I missed you.

Little Chick has found it especially difficult. Having not seen other family members for over three months, this is the longest he has gone without physical contact. He is not a fan of video or phone calls and runs away when asked to greet a grandparent. But they haven’t taken it personally and have sent videos that he can watch when he wants. Videos of pets, videos of cousins playing in the garden, videos with songs, videos with stories. Videos sent with love. They have given him some control in a time where everything must feel completely out of his control.

For this precious and thoughtful gift, I am extraordinarily grateful. Thank you.

Adoption UK

Since we became members a few years ago, I have always been impressed with the work that Adoption UK does. We joined to gain support and help influence regional and national policy. We sought connection with others who ‘get it’.

During Lockdown, their support has reached another level. Having introduced webinars by specialist guest speakers there is even more knowledge readily available to be shared. Hopefully, these new technological opportunities will continue post-Lockdown. Equally, I have found the online community welcoming and reassuring, a sense of connection, but I am looking forward to meeting up in real life.

More than ever, I am thankful for my fellow adopters, for my tribe.

Friends

I sometimes worry that I don’t have many friends, certainly not as many as I should, but Lockdown has reminded me that it is quality over quantity that matters. The few friends I have fulfil different but essential needs – I have the friend that makes me laugh every day, the friend that will offer sage advice (or a Pinterest link at a pinch), the friend who ‘gets’ our family and understands the dynamics between us all. Over Lockdown I’ve reconnected with old friends and I’ve forged forward in new friendships.

Whether we have known each other for years or weeks I am grateful for them all. Thank you.

My wife

I genuinely would not be here writing this today if it weren’t for her. Even though I’ve sometimes questioned her level of dedication and care (sorry, please blame the illness), she has kept me afloat. She has kept me mentally and physically well. We have spent more time together than normal, including small pockets of quality time, which we needed to reconnect. On a side note, I’m also grateful for her therapist, who has helped us both, not least because she has echoed many of my concerns and suggestions, though with considerably more gravitas and far less passive aggression.

The Other Mrs Reed Warbler – Thank you!

Our children

My head and body are tired, so very tired. But my heart is bursting with pride. Pride at how well our children have done. All the children. All the small souls who have had their worlds turned upside down with no warning, no tangible explanation, and no end in sight.

Little Chick has astonished me, yet again. Yes, he has found life tricky and some days have been so catastrophically bad that we have simply vowed never to speak of them again. But some days have been glorious, rich with magical moments that seemed impossible just a few months ago. Overall, we have treated this period like nesting, that time immediately after introductions when adoptive families are encouraged to spend time together and apart from the wider community, to nurture and deepen attachments. It hasn’t always been easy, but we are certainly feeling the therapeutic benefits. Little Chick is like a new boy. Rather, he is like the little boy we knew before the anxiety, fear, and dysregulation of school sent him into a tailspin. We loved him no matter what but now we are seeing all those characteristics we loved and missed: his smile, his laughter, his ability to make us laugh, his earnestness, his kindness, his sense of adventure, his dancing, his curiosity. Most of all, we have seen how different our life is with regular, quality sleep. It has been truly transformative, for all of us.

To all our children, who are facing new obstacles daily but keep on trying, thank you.

I am truly grateful to everyone who has carried me this far through the COVID pandemic: You are all Lockdown Heroes. Thank you!

Put on your positive pants!

I’m well overdue a blog post. Not because my readership (I jest) demand it. But because writing is one of the best ways of keeping me sane.

The past few months have been tough. I’ve had illness after illness, punctuated by the occasional infection or ailment. I’ve been functioning well below my usual ability, both physically and mentally. All of this has taken its toll. Then Coronavirus came along. I have been fortunate. I don’t think I have been affected, physically; though many of my symptoms matched, so self-isolation ensued. In many ways, I live quite an insular life anyway, through choice. So, I have not felt the imposed lockdown as keenly as others. But I am a contrary bugger and, as soon as I’m told not to go out, I’m suddenly itching to explore the great outdoors, do all those things I’ve never done even though I’ve had ample opportunity.

Lockdown has tested our family. We are entering our fifth week and relationships are ever changing. Little Chick swings from wanting to be inside our skin to rejecting us completely. It’s all extreme. There is no middle ground. Perhaps because of this, mine and the Other Mrs Reed Warbler’s relationship has followed a similar pattern. We go from acting like teenagers in love to an embittered couple on the brink of divorce. Again, there is no reasonable behaviour between these poles. Overall, I would say that our relationship with Little Chick is improving daily. The problems caused by school – fear of rejection, anxiety, dysregulation, over-stimulation – have lessened. He misses school though – bloody hell, so do I – but his sense of loss is, mostly, manageable. We’ve even experienced periods of good nights, even restful sleep, helping us to restore our depleted reserves of energy and patience, both of which are in great demand now.

I have started drafting this post in my head several times. I never committed to paper because it was all too maudlin. I feel the need to be honest as much as possible, but nobody needs to hear ALL my doom and gloom. I needed to expel the negative feelings so that I could start afresh, with renewed vigour and hope. I asked Ali for an illustration, requesting a pair of pants – boy’s briefs – that I could use to highlight some of the accomplishments of the past weeks and months. Little Chick is extremely secure in his toileting now and this is a breakthrough for us all, and one that will especially benefit him when he returns to school. Previously, he would don his pull-ups whenever opportunity arose but, now, he is shunning them for big boy pants. His power pants. He pulls them on and strikes a pose. Hands on hips, chest puffed out, chin in the air. He knows he is powerful. He has mastered something that challenged him. Once again, he has overcome the obstacles before him.

The Other Mrs Reed Warbler and I also have power pants. These are the pants that, allegedly, hold in our stomachs, fooling casual observers that we are svelte. Because we have mirrors, we know that the power pants have limited capabilities. But they make us feel more confident, if only because we know we have ‘made an effort’. And confidence is not to be sniffed at. It leads to positivity and triumph. So, I have renamed them: now, they are my positive pants.

We are now in the fourth month of 2020 and, honestly, I don’t feel like my year has started yet. My best-laid schemes have ‘gang aft agley’, courtesy of Little Chick or Coronavirus. And for a while that bothered me. Ate me alive, bothered me. But now I know these things are beyond my control. So, I need to put on my positive pants, plant my hands on my hips, thrust out my chest, lift my chin(s) skyward, and know that I have the power and positivity to take on the things that I can control. I can draw a line under the first quarter of the year. I can choose to forget what could or should have been.

One thing I can control is writing. Even if it is infrequent and irregular short bursts of scribbling, I need it. I can control my narrative – literally and metaphorically. I have also realised how much I miss photography. Not just snaps on my iPhone, getting out there and capturing moments. Obviously, I can’t control where I go and what I see to the extent I would like right now. But I can control how I deal with that. And I will, deal with that.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or low because things aren’t going your way and everything seems out of your control, please realise that you are not alone. If I can help, by listening or sending you memes, please let me know. I hope you are all happy, safe, and well. And I hope you are all in possession of a pair of positive pants, even if you’re not quite ready to put them on yet.

Control

Control – or lack thereof – is a major issue in our household. Seemingly, we all feel the need for control. This just isn’t possible, not only because the three of us – the Other Mrs Reed Warbler, Little Chick, and me – sometimes want control of the same thing in a different way, but because our lives are often controlled by adoption. I don’t just mean our local authority, though that was often the feeling during approval and our extended waiting period. I mean that adoption is at the heart of everything – both good and bad. Although we suspected this would be the case, we weren’t prepared for the reality of it.

Obviously, I can only speak for myself. An adopter. I can say how tricky it is or can be. But I do recognise that I am in a privileged position. That I chose to be in this position, even if the landscape is not what I was expecting. My son – the adoptee – had no say whatsoever. No choice. No control.

His lack of control – or inability to control – is causing problems at home and at school, for him and for others. I won’t go into detail, but I will say that school are supporting us brilliantly. They quickly realised that they were only managing Little Chick and his behaviour and that this wasn’t good enough. They took control and have worked with us and other agencies to make school better for him. His attitude to school has improved enormously. Which is great. But as he enjoys school and works hard to control circumstances (and himself) we get the fallout. That’s right, but it’s hard. We have all lost control of various elements of our life, but sleep is the worst. We are all affected and we are all suffering. Little Chick is at the centre, dysregulated and overwhelmed. We are so shattered – physically and emotionally – that we are struggling to parent therapeutically more often than we would like. We are trying to help him but feel a bit (lot) useless. We feel out of our depth and out of control.

So, we are taking control of the things that we can control. The things that aren’t at the mercy of adoption. We are looking and hoping for little wins as we wait for help from the people who hold the purse strings and control our fate.

This month, we have taken control of our finances. We have been more realistic about our outgoings and limited our luxuries, excluding those already paid for or purchased (such as weekends away and tickets to the Adoption UK Conference in October). For the past few years, I have been self-employed with some ongoing part-time work to ensure a regular (though small) income. Since being matched to Little Chick in September 2017 my workload has decreased to allow flexibility to prepare for introductions then adoption leave. However, we had anticipated that my workload would be stable again by now with a reasonably regular income. It isn’t. And it isn’t anywhere near to being, either. This makes me feel guilty and like a freeloader, while it places enormous pressure on the Other Mrs Reed Warbler to be the sole earner. On the days when life is overwhelming, in the fleeting moment when you just want to quit your job and abandon all responsibilities, I’m sure she must resent it. Understandably so. I can’t contribute financially yet, not until our life is in better order and Little Chick is better regulated, but I can help control the incomings and outgoings that we have.

Next month, we will focus on regaining control of the house. This has already begun but we aim to dedicate time and resources to making our home a better environment for us all: calmer, more organised, better suited to our changing needs. We’re conscious that we have made several home improvements since Little Chick moved in with us. They were all made with his specific needs in mind, though sometimes we have tried alternatives before realising the merits of the original plan. Little Chick cannot comprehend that these alterations are made for his benefit and sometimes he is visibly upset by the changes. Now, two years later, we have finally worked out the best solutions for our family. Our aim is to implement these and take control of our home and our lives. The first step has been establishing which bedroom works best (and how) for Little Chick. This includes buying and swapping bedroom furniture to create two designated bedrooms and an office/guest room. If – as we hope – this contributes to better sleep, for everyone, then it will be time and money well spent. It will be invaluable. But that is a long way off right now.

We are so far away from being OK and in control of the big things. But controlling the things we can control will help us to help Little Chick. And that must be a win-win.

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.

My little drummer boy

Although it may not seem like it, I usually try to have a clear topic or coherent theme to my blog posts. Currently, I have so many thoughts swirling around my head I’ve found it difficult to pin them down, trickier still to sort and file them under headings. So, this post is something of a hotchpotch of ideas. But that is necessary to clear my mind and free me to write.

When I was first thinking about this post – several weeks ago before the black dog had taken up residence in my mind – I asked Ali for an illustration of Little Chick playing the drums. I visualised the idea of him going to the beat of his own drum, celebrating all his uniqueness and that he seems happy enough to do things his way, unworried by people’s thoughts or reactions. Or the drums would represent his musicality – inherited from his birth father – and his enthusiasm for his school music lessons.

These are all still true. But thinking on them for so long I keep coming back to the same thought: how proud I am of Little Chick.

His first term at school was hard. It is for all children. Rather than dwell on the challenges and obstacles I want to admire how he has faced and overcome them. Even in November we had reservations about how he would cope with Christmas and the end of term. Pantomimes, performances, and parties are all wonderful in principle but are potentially a waking nightmare for Little Chick. And I allude to sleep because we have had so little of it – and rarely in solid chunks at the expected time. All this looked set for a torrid time crammed with epic meltdowns and complete overwhelm.

But Little Chick was amazing. His behaviour was excellent, he joined in, he played with (rather than alongside) his classmates, some of whom could now be seen as friends. The school nativity, which had the potential for complete dysregulation, was a triumph. He smashed it! His comic timing was unintentionally perfect and his joy was obvious. I think his friends and their families glimpsed the real Little Chick for the first time. School – who have been brilliant – already seem to have a good handle of who he really is and what makes him tick and I genuinely believe, in time, he will flourish in such a nurturing environment.

After a long hard term came Christmas. The school festivities led straight into family celebrations. We tried to keep things low key – our Christmas tree was not up until mid-December and only a fraction of our decorations was put out – but it is still a big change. Little Chick likes routine and predictability. We all do, really. Over the past eighteen months we have made several changes to the house, swapping rooms, rearranging furniture, adding or removing items. All this has been done for his benefit, but the process is disruptive and settling. It is something of a necessary evil, but we still feel awful unsettling him in his home. Extra bodies in the house does this too. Although we had family visit, they stayed locally, giving everyone space, and keeping the family home as close to normal as possible.

Little Chick did brilliantly well until Boxing Day. Unbelievably well. But as soon as the first guests left you could see a physical change, a release in him. By the time it was just the three of us again he was in full meltdown mode. Again, not unexpected, but so disappointing (for him). As much as we tried to keep things simple or the same it is just too much. Next year we may need to pull it back further. It seems unkind not to have lavish celebrations in the festive period, but I think it is a case of being cruel to be kind. Little Chick needs stability more. Since starting school his attachment issues have intensified. We realise now that he was not as securely attached as we assumed and we need to show him that he can trust us, that we are reliable adults who will keep him happy safe and well. If that means foregoing festivities and temporarily upsetting the wider family so be it. Little Chick comes first.

This small boy astounds me. Daily. I never cease to be amazed at what he can do and how much he is growing. Currently, this is even more remarkable considering how little sleep he is getting. Fuelled by pure nervous energy, he is working miracles. If we can help him sleep better and feel even more secure, this boy will move mountains.

Happy New Year

My last post was written in November following the Adoption UK Conference. That post was a success: it was a pleasure to write and I felt buoyed by the positive comments and feedback. Since then I have found it difficult to write, both figuratively and literally. A combination of sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression, and general malaise has prevented me from finding the time, motivation, or means to write. Many of the side effects of sleep deprivation and depression are the same (for me, anyway), but my inability to physically write, to actually use a pen to craft words legibly, is unique to my depressive state.

So much has happened in the past six weeks that I wanted to articulate and share. There were giddy highs and soul crushing lows. Going back and picking over the details makes sense in the context of having a narrative flow through this blog. But it is utterly futile for me and my mental health. Instead, I will draw a line and move on. It is no coincidence that this realisation happens at the dawning of a new year (and decade). This year, reflecting on what has passed is not helpful. That may be an activity for some other time but, for now, for the sake of my family, I need to look forward. I need to hold fast, keep the faith, and remain hopeful.

Hopefully, normal service will be resumed shortly, and I can return to regular blogging. It is a sign of wellness and it is a comfort to me. I still have questions about the ethics of it and that may affect how and what I write about, but I know that I need to keep writing. To anyone who has tolerated my self-indulgent ramblings in real life or online THANK YOU.

I hope that 2020 is a year of peace, wellness, and happiness. And not forgetting hope.


Postscript

The illustration for this post may not make much sense since I am writing after Christmas. But I wanted to include this image from Ali Scothern for two reasons. First, Ali has been a great source of encouragement and collaborating with her has been a highlight in a tricky year. I look forward to working with her more in the future and making great things happen. Secondly, who doesn’t like puffins?!

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.