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.

Life lessons from birds

This summer we have had more breeding birds in the garden than ever. The list of species includes blackbird, blue tit, great tit, dunnock, wood pigeon, house sparrow, robin, magpie, and goldfinch.

It’s costing us a fortune in seeds, nuts, and fat balls, but it’s worth it. Especially as Little Chick is taking great interest in keeping the feeders topped up and caring for our feathered friends. The overflowing feeders have also encouraged a few more daily visitors, including Jack the jackdaw and Cyril the squirrel.

We have enjoyed watching their lives play out before us, the large living room window offering a cinematic view of their comings and goings. As a genus, I took no interest in birds until I met the Other Mrs Reed Warbler. Before then, I kept a healthy distance. Now, I am surprised at how much we can learn from these wee creatures that share our homes and gardens.

I say homes because we have house sparrows nesting in the eaves of our roof. They have successfully fledged several broods over the past years and have done so again this summer. House sparrows are the Other Mrs Reed Warbler’s favourite birds. They are the bird of her childhood, conjuring memories of a simpler time. They are understated and overlooked. House sparrows are declining in numbers in our cities and are symbolic of how we are damaging our and their natural environment.

In the garden, we have watched the various species mark and defend their territories. The blackbirds are particularly vocal in this and provide great entertainment when the neighbouring pair try their luck on our feeders. ‘Territorial’ usually has negative connotations. Before parenthood I probably would have agreed. But watching them now, as a mother, I admire their tenacity in protecting their family.

The blue tits are probably my favourite visitors, not least because they often occupy the nest box with an inbuilt camera and we can observe the minutia of their lives, including when the eggs hatched and the first chicks fledged. However, what struck me most was how industrious these birds are and how hard they work. This summer has been tough for the Other Mrs Reed Warbler and me; we have felt exhausted and overwhelmed at times. But seeing the blue tit pair physically and emotionally broken gives you a sense of perspective. Especially when the chicks they have so valiantly fought for are predated by the local tom cat.

It is almost impossible to distinguish between the blue tit sexes, unless you are an expert, are in ultraviolet light, or are holding the blue tits. Goldfinches, dunnocks, and great tits are equally difficult to separate. I like this. Even at four-years-old, Little Chick has some ideas of male and female qualities and projects these onto the birds in the garden. Mr Blackbird goes to the office; Mrs Blackbird stays at home; Mr Sparrow goes out all day; Mrs Sparrow looks after the babies. This doesn’t follow the roles in our same-sex household, but he has learned it anyway. When we cannot identify the sex of the bird our expectations change; we accept them as they are.

We are reminded that looks can be deceiving. Our luscious hedgerows are home to several species and provide the backdrop for the most intense drama. Dunnocks have crept into my list of favourite birds, simply because they are so common yet unusual. Typical little brown jobs (LBJs), they are boring at first glance. Upon closer inspection, they are not just brown or even just one shade of brown. They are unexpectedly glorious. And there is certainly more to them than meets the eye. They are by far the friskiest birds in our garden and their sex lives are curiously fascinating. Every time they scamper after each other, ‘The Benny Hill Show’ theme plays in my head. Unlike most species, both sexes, rather than just the male, has a breeding territory. The female will encourage male suitors in order to get the best sperm, a classic example of survival of the fittest. Rival males will peck out competitor’s sperm from the female’s opening to ensure their lineage. However, the female is not above allowing several males to believe they are the father, ensuring the best provisions and protection for her offspring. Dunnocks would not be out of place on ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’.

Occasionally, we will be visited by a passing bird of prey. Buzzards often ‘kee kee’ overhead and sparrowhawks occasionally soar through the garden or perch on the feeder. Birds of prey were my most feared birds but now they are among my favourites. Spotting a rarer species in the garden is a true joy and a reminder that we live in a genuinely wonderful place. It is easy to lose sight of that.

Corvids, including crows, jackdaws, magpies, jays, rooks, and ravens, are amongst my favourite family of birds. They show such guile and intelligence and are incredibly entertaining. Jays stand out from the rest since they appear uncommonly exotic while the others are uniformly black. But the sombre backdrop makes the magpie’s iridescent wing feather shine brighter. I love the magpie’s habit of borrowing and curating to make something beautiful. I feel this is something I try to do with my crafts, creations, and writing, though I’m also mindful of plagiarism.

Beyond the home and garden, there is so much more that we can learn from birds. Starlings work together splendidly, creating one of the true natural wonders of nature. Anyone who has seen a murmuration in the wild, the communal flocking dance before they roost, will know exactly what I mean. Geese are a great example of working smarter not harder, as they employ a V formation to conserve energy and increase efficiency. Long tailed tits will work together and help each generation thrive not just survive. I love when a little gang of young long tailed tits alights on our trees or feeders. Their rotund bodies and ridiculously long tail feathers always bring a smile to my face.

My favourite species is found far further afield: the Atlantic puffin. Puffins waddle. They shouldn’t be able to fly. They are impressive swimmers. Their beaks regularly hold up to ten sand eels, crisscrossed to utilise the space (the largest haul on record is 62). They live in burrows underground. Rather than a melodic song, they growl, a noise somewhere between a cow mooing and a muted chainsaw. Their multicoloured beaks have earned them the nickname ‘the clowns of the sea’. In short, they are extraordinary.

Little Chick likes puffins too, because they are funny, star in a cool TV show called ‘Puffin Rock’ (highly recommended viewing), and are my favourite. In time, I hope he will find a favourite for his own reasons, similarly inspired by these amazing creatures.

Birds are beautiful, tenacious, industrious, adaptable, brilliant, competitive, protective, understated, and incredible.

Be more bird.

Get your penis off the furniture (and other things I didn’t expect to say)

“Get your penis off the furniture” is not a sentence I have ever expected to say. But when Little Chick decides he wants to feel the fresh air around his genitals I politely remind him that pants have a purpose and that no one wants to see his willy or sit where it has been. The past few weeks I have noticed how many of the things I say are so unexpected to me. Some are baffling (see above), some require explanation (again, see above). Some are the result of my own upbringing. Lately, I’ve experienced the realisation that I suddenly sound like my own parents, especially my mother.

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Eventually we model (at least some of) the behaviour we experienced as children, and this extends to speech. Our adoption preparation dedicated a significant amount of time to exploring this: considering how we were raised and how that might influence us as parents.

But it has shocked me all the same. Currently, I’m reflecting on what my parents said to me, as well as how they said it. The school holidays are catching up with me and my patience has taken a beating. I worry that my speech is suffering because of this. Drawing on my long-term mantra, I try to remember to THINK before I speak. Before opening my mouth, I ask if what I am about to say meets the following criteria. Is it:

Thoughtful

Helpful

Important

Necessary

Kind

I believe this is important with everyone, but especially with Little Chick. Overtiredness has led to a few careless words this summer. It has shown me that the positive affirmations need to be repeated multiple times, even hundreds of times, before they are processed and believed, but negative slights are swallowed up whole and immediately fuel Little Chick’s toxic shame.

Above all, I need to be kind with my words. That’s not to say I can’t correct Little Chick if he makes a mistake or misbehaves. But I need to think and parent therapeutically, remembering connection before correction.

I realise this post is a bit of a muddle. It seems to go in one direction before exploring something differently entirely; only ever scratching the surface. But that’s where my head is right now. And I think that’s where Little Chick’s head is too. We are both dysregulated and out of sorts. We both need kindness and patience. We both need me to think before I speak. We both need me to say what we expect me to say. We both need that consistency and reliability. We crave it.

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.

 

Holiday!

We are fortunate enough to have not one but two holidays this year. The first was in May, when we travelled abroad with Little Chick for the first time. We are currently enjoying the second, in the UK. Aside from the locations, there are many differences. For example, I have found time to write on this holiday. Correction: I have made time to write on this holiday. I need to write, even if it is only scribbles that go in the bin minutes later. Often, I need that cathartic process of getting out the words, expelling them, then forgetting them.

This holiday has been more about self-care. I have been mindful that I need to feel happy safe and well to keep Little Chick happy, safe, and well. Yes, I want him to have a fab time and make memories, but I also need to enjoy it. And so does the Other Mrs Reed Warbler. And the rest of my family who are staying with us.

Our holiday abroad was, generally, a success. Though it was hard it has not stopped us considering future foreign holidays. Interestingly, Little Chick has said that he has enjoyed/is enjoying this holiday more. I think there are several reasons for that.

Whenever we go away – whether it’s for a night or a fortnight – we are careful to make it clear that it is a temporary abode. We always emphasise that we will be going back to Little Chick’s house – that we will be going home. This week Little Chick has voiced his desire for this to be his home. Again, I think there are a number of explanations: it is a gorgeous house, with lots of space and a flat, enclosed garden; it is near the seaside, his favourite place; it is filled with more people than usual, people that love him and want to spend time with him. This week I think Little Chick has begun to understand the concept of home as a feeling as well as a place. I think, because he cannot communicate this even if he is thinking this, that he is feeling happy, safe, and well and, above all, loved.

We are making the most of the heatwave and are spending as much time as possible outdoors. Living in a landlocked county, we all love the openness of the sea and Little Chick especially enjoys the freedom of frolicking on the beach and splashing in the sea. He is like a different child when he is in wide open spaces and I am thankful that we have so much outdoor space at home. But he truly comes alive at the seaside and his joy and giggles are contagious. Having the weather to truly enjoy it is a massive bonus. If we could guarantee the sunshine in the country, I would be happy to holiday here more often. The sun lifts my soul and, as I get older, I feel that I need those rays increasingly more. Good weather that lends itself to playing and eating outdoors for every meal is a little slice of heaven for all of us.

The Other Mrs Reed Warbler and I are more relaxed on this holiday. We still have a few issues to contend with, just by being away from home, but we also have more factors within our control. Little Chick has his own room and can maintain his own routine better. Noticeably, he is sleeping through so that both he and us are well rested each morning. We can control his meals and mealtimes more easily, making good use of the impressive kitchen facilities in our self-catering cottage. We have our car so that we can just nip out for an hour or two, if the mood takes us or Little Chick’s mood dictates it. We also have the benefit of lessons learned from our holiday in May, especially knowing what doesn’t work well. In many ways, it is a cheaper holiday (though I am always astounded how much you can easily spend) and I think that eases some of the pressure too. There is less resentment and/or disappointment if things don’t quite pan out. It is much easier to manage our expectations as well as Little Chick’s.

Our holiday isn’t over yet and there is plenty of time for things to go south, but for now I am enjoying it. I am thankful for the time with my family, thankful for the glorious weather, and thankful for the opportunities – those we have embraced and those we have let pass us by because we know that rest is just as important. This feels more like the family holidays of my childhood and those I imagined sharing with my children.

 

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!

A Room of One’s Own

In Virginia Woolf’s famous quote, she argues, “A woman must have money and a room of her own”. She says this is a prerequisite “if she is to write fiction.” I agree. But I think it is also a condition for sound mental health.

Currently, I’m lacking both and feeling the effect. It will be tricky to find a solution to the money problem, but it is something we will tackle soon. With some careful consideration and a whole lot of Pinterest, we realised that we could improve the room situation now.

I’m getting desperate for my own space. Somewhere to sit and scribble. To ponder and produce. To just be. I’ve even considered rehoming the tumble dryer so I can enjoy the tiniest of nooks under the stairs. Ultimately, we realised that this was not even a medium-term solution and we would soon need to rethink. The only possible solution (that didn’t require planning permission) was to swap around the upstairs room. Again.

To be clear, Little Chick has not lost out in this arrangement. He has a different set-up but just as much, if not, more usable space. But while things are in flux the house is chaotic and messy. And he really cannot cope with that. I’m not a big fan of it either and find it a trying time. But I am privy to and able to see the big picture. I can envisage the result and sense the satisfaction of completion. Little Chick, understandably, cannot. And it is affecting him and his behaviour greatly.

We have undertaken a lot of DIY and reorganising in the past eighteen months, simply because as our daily lives have found a rhythm and routine, we have needed to make changes to ensure safety, efficiency, and calm. But the transition time is hellish. Little Chick is clearly disorientated. Whether he thinks that he is as dispensable as our belongings and furniture I don’t know. We have tried to reassure him that this is not the case, that this is his forever home with his forever family. But words aren’t enough sometimes. We try to show him, hoping that our actions will affirm our good (and long-term) intentions. He has returned to his original bedroom, though the toys that cluttered it have been rehomed in a downstairs playroom. It is a room fit for sleeping, dressing, and reading. And that’s it. This clarity helps him. The blurred lines of mixed purposes and multiple users confuses him. His name is on the door; he has staked ownership. We have added wall stickers of Hey Duggee to match his bedding and create a loose theme. Slowly, it is becoming clear that this room is his. That the playroom is principally his. That the many changes (and, boy, there have been many) have all been made to make it better for him. This is the only change to date that hasn’t been directly for him, though his needs have firmly underpinned all ideas.

To me, a room of one’s own feels decadent, outrageously luxurious. But it is necessary self-care. I need to remember that to be the best parent for Little Chick, I need to feel happy, safe, and well too. It might take me some time to reconcile the heart and head but, like everything we do, hopefully I, and Little Chick, will see that it has been done in the belief that it is ultimately the best thing for him.

Introducing Herbert and Rose

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

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

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

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