The importance of a good social worker

It’s been over a month since we heard from our social worker. That’s understandable; our last contact was at the celebration hearing, an event signifying our official role as Little Chick’s legal parents, marking the end of Derbyshire County Council’s responsibility. But I kind of hoped we would hear from her. I’m guessing it is her way of gently lessening contact (now that the adoption order has been granted), but after all this time it is odd not having her in our lives. I knew this day was coming and I know why this day had to come, but I still miss her. In a weird way, I’m grieving her. Or at least that episode of our lives. Getting to this point has needed all three of us, not just the Other Mrs Reed Warbler and myself.

With hindsight, I don’t think it is a coincidence that I became overwhelmed in the period when she was absent. She has supported us for almost four years. She has been a constant in a time of chaos. We can and will cope without her, but we’ve never had to.

I know that our relationship was purely professional: she was friendly, but not my friend. But I would like to keep in touch with her, hear about the changes she is spearheading for adopters, especially considering ongoing regionalisation.

I respect our social worker as a professional. I like her as a person.

Last time I saw her I was frustrated, fed up, and downright peed off. I’m not good at hiding my emotions; I’m especially terrible at masking anger. I’m ashamed I was like that and sad that it’s how I left things. I was in no way angry with her, but she still suffered the consequences of my emotional turbulence.

For the first time, I’m nervous about seeing her. I know there’s been a shift in our relationship, but I don’t understand it or know how to respond appropriately.

I also appreciate that this is a strange position in which to find myself. Most of my friends who have adopted couldn’t wait to receive the official sign off, as much to receive legal responsibility as to lose social services’ interference. But I’ve never felt like that. There have been occasions when Derbyshire County Council have frustrated us, but usually it has been due to constraints beyond their control, owing to larger problems with adoption generally. I have never felt let down by our social worker and acknowledge that we would not be a forever family without here. And that’s not to say we’ve had it easy. It’s been bloody hard at times; there have been moments when we’ve stopped and thought long and hard about what we are doing. But we never lost faith in adoption because we never lost faith in our adoption social worker. The importance of a good social worker cannot be underestimated.

Our family: One year on

So, Little Chick has been living with us for a year.

During the past few weeks, the Other Mrs Reed Warbler and I discussed if and how we should mark the occasion. We certainly weren’t going to call it ‘Gotcha Day’, or anything equally crass that suggests ownership or possession. We considered naming it ‘Family Day’. This recognises that it is special, but every day is special in its own way for us – as parents – so we don’t need this. I don’t mean that every day is perfect or amazing – heck, no – but every day we remember how lucky we are to have this wonderful wee boy in our lives.

But it’s also a reminder of what Little Chick has lost; it draws attention to what came before. It can be helpful to look back and reflect on what has passed, on what has been achieved, but I believe greater value lies in looking forward, both planning and hoping; certainly, at his current age. As he matures, he may want to explore his past more, including the circumstances that led him to us, and we will support his life story work in whatever ways we can.

The anniversary is also a reminder of others’ loss: his birth family, foster family, the others whose lives he has touched.

Like most of adoption, its complicated. It’s bittersweet. It’s tough to know what’s best.

I’m still not sure whether it will be something we recognise formally with Little Chick or whether the other Mrs Reed Warbler and I will simply clink metaphorical glasses in acknowledgement of the massive change in our lives. Whatever we decide, our love for Little Chick knows no bounds and we both feel we don’t need to mark a special day to acknowledge that.

Normal

Throughout the approval period and while we were waiting to be matched, we were continuously reminded that the child or children we would adopt would not have had the best of starts in life (think ACEs), would unlikely be neurotypical, and would probably not fit our experiences or expectations of spending time with young people. In short, we were warned not to expect things to be ‘normal’. We were encouraged to accept a new normal, with an emphasis on routine, therapeutic parenting, and predictability. For the most part this is what we have done, and we have reaped the rewards because of it.

Currently, Little Chick is a happy, healthy little boy who especially enjoys spending time outside and does not seem particularly different from his peers. However, we know this could all change, quickly and for no apparent reason. But for now, almost a year since Little Chick moved in, we are grateful for our normal. Sunday was a particularly good example. It wasn’t an exciting or spectacular day. It was the kind of day most parents would expect and take for granted. But we relish our normal. A few moments stood out.

Most mornings, Little Chick’s first request, even before breakfast, is “Kindle”. We rarely let him play with his tablet early in the morning but that doesn’t stop him asking, trying his luck. Recently, we have been encouraging him to asks for books first thing, but with little success. However, on Sunday I made up a story to divert his attention from all things electronic. I have tried this several times without success but on this occasion something clicked. For a full half hour, we sat side by side and made up silly stories, with actions that involved him, and trump noises that delighted us both. I love stories and, though not a gifted storyteller, I have wanted to share stories with my little one since we began the adoption journey. This was a milestone I genuinely wasn’t sure we would reach and doing so makes me ridiculously happy.

Later, while playing, Little Chick used his new surname unprompted for the first time. We have been cautious not to force this as we have mixed feelings about the loss of his birth family name. But my heart soared when he took ownership of our family name for the very first time.

In the car we introduced him to Lady Gaga, partly in a desperate attempt to divert attention from Mr Tumble’s album. We went to soft play, dashed about on scooters (him not us), and had a short nap in the car (me and him). We watched some TV, warmed by hot chocolate, and later had an afternoon snack on the picnic blanket. We (I) upset him for some reason, which I still can’t fathom, and he asked for an apology and reassurance. We completed forms for a passport, planning for our first family holiday abroad. We read him bedtime stories, including ‘Mummy, Mama, and Me’ and ‘The Family Book’.

None of this is especially remarkable. It is mundane. Well done to those of you that have read this far and not sought excitement elsewhere. But I want to demonstrate the ordinariness of this to show how normal our life is. Our life would seem boring to a lot of families, but I bloody love the normality of it. It’s more than we expected, perhaps even hoped for. It’s just nice and normal.

I know that we are only one year in. I know that in many ways we are still in the honeymoon period. I know that things will almost certainly get tougher as Little Chick gets older. I know that for some adoptive families ‘normal’ is an impossible dream. I know. But for now, things are nice and normal. In time, these memories might be all that sustain me. So, I need to celebrate this, our normal.

The silence is deafening

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

But it is silent. And the silence is deafening.

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

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

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

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

New year resolutions

This year, I resolve not to make new year resolutions.

I think I dislike new year resolutions for several reasons:

1. Since January 1st is a favourite fresh start for so many people resolutions become public. Mine become known to others and I hear of theirs. This feeds into my competitive spirit and, before I know it, I have set unrealistic goals and ultimately set myself up to fail. This failure kick-starts a vicious cycle of seeing myself as a failure and helps no one.

2. January 1st isn’t actually a great time to start something new, especially since so many resolutions focus on health and wellbeing. I may resolve to get fitter, but the weather conditions do not lend themselves to this; rain, cold, and dark days are not conducive to forging new habits outdoors. January is more a period of hibernation for me and recognising this prevents me from setting up myself for continued failings and frustrations (see point 1). Spring seems a much better time to commit to such ideals.

3. New year new me. I’ve used that mantra in the past and it’s been a load of rubbish. Embracing new habits, routines, desires, and goals isn’t in itself negative, but when it comes at the cost of your old self its value is diminished. To me, new year new me has suggested wiping the slate clean and starting again. It’s taken many years for me to realise that not everything about me is abhorrent and some things are even OK or, dare I say (whisper) it, good. New year new me dismisses the hard work I have undertaken in various periods of my life. Sure, some still require new focus and plenty more application (physical fitness), but some have achieved far greater levels and stability than expected (mental health). So, in 2019 it’s new year same me, but I’m open to change.

4. In my mind at least, starting on January 1st sets you a target of 365 days for success. Even though I rationally know it is made up of 52 weeks and 12 months, if I have wobbled or not met my target by, say, the 5th then it’s game over for me. Starting on a less notable date reduces (note, reduces not removes) some of that self-imposed pressure.

5. Starting on January 1st makes me feel like I need to start all resolutions together. I’ve done this several times and this quickly becomes unmanageable. Trying to lose (mumbles large number of) stone, run 10K, learn Italian, focus on my career, and see immediate progress in all areas is unrealistic. And I am the kind of person who needs immediate results to maintain the early motivation. This year I may tackle challenges like the above, but experience has taught me that starting any more than two simultaneously is a hiding to nothing.

In 2019 I will set myself challenges and goals. Many will match the clichés that bombard us at new year – eat better, drink less alcohol, exercise more – but some will be personal to me and mine. Understandably, I have focused on parenting this past year, but sometimes that has been at my wife’s expense. On occasions we have felt more like co-workers than partners, but I’m ashamed to admit that I wouldn’t treat co-workers as poorly. My wife is my rock and I often take that and her for granted.

Actually, scrap all that. I’m going to break my own resolution of no resolutions on January 1st. Instead, I promise to show my wife each and every day how much I love her, how much I like her, and how much I cherish being a parent alongside her. Not just in 2019 but always.

In praise of social workers

The Channel 4 drama Kiri has brought the focus onto social workers in the mainstream media. The lead social worker, portrayed by Sarah Lancashire, is a confusing character and I am still not sure if she is intended to be a hero, antihero, both, or neither. Perhaps that will be made clearer once the series concludes.

But the programme has raised debate about the role of social workers, especially those working with families and children. The critics have taken their shots, but the apologists are struggling to defend a profession that cannot deal in black and white but must operate in shades of grey (because life isn’t black and white).

I know there are rubbish social workers out there, just as there are examples of jobsworths, incompetents, and lazy fools in all professions. But there are also sterling social workers, who are worthy of our praise but rarely, if ever, receive it. In that vein, I want to thank all the social workers that we have encountered in our adoption journey so far. At times we have been frustrated by them but ultimately their focus has always been on the best outcome for the child or children involved.

Specifically, I would like to thank and praise our assessing social worker, who we fondly refer to as M. Below is the nomination we submitted for M for Adoption Social Worker of the Year. We want M to know how grateful we are that she was designated to us and thank her for her ongoing support.

M not only meets our expectations but consistently exceeds them. At every stage of the adoption process she has gone above and beyond the call of duty. She has made visits at short notice when a change in circumstances has warranted further support; often, these have come at the cost of her personal commitments. Recently, she offered to attend a matching meeting, despite being on annual leave.

As prospective adopters, our caseload has been complex: issues arose that were unprecedented within the local authority. For example, after approval, our LA recommended weight loss. M ensured positive outcomes by supporting us emotionally and dealing with the situation with professionalism and empathy. Moreover, she committed to losing weight herself and inspired us with her impressive achievements. The decision to place us on hold until weight loss was achieved could have broken us and deterred us from continuing as adopters, but M made it a team effort and responsibility. The support she offered us was beyond her legal obligations: having developed a good relationship with us she knew exactly what we needed and when. She kept us informed of all progress and ensured that our situation was used as a learning experience, giving us the opportunity to meet with team managers to enable good practice should this situation arise for other adopters. Because of her support, we maintained good mental health, improved our physical health, and can continue as adopters.

M has offered a high-quality service throughout: she has explained things well and in an easy to understand way, without ever patronising. Her excellent communication skills have led to her delivering many of the pre-approval training events for adopters. Throughout these she has offered a high level of customer service to the service user and responded effectively to suggestions for developing the course structure and content. When meeting other adopters within our LA they always know M and speak fondly of her: we feel proud to have her as our social worker.

M has been innovative and creative in preparing us as adoptive parents. She has ensured that the idiosyncrasies of same-sex parenting have been considered. For example, she put us in touch with other same-sex adopters: newly approved same-sex adopters to ensure we knew people in the same position and a couple who had adopted for over 10 years, to help us understand what awaits us. This has developed our knowledge and extended our support network.

We have been impressed by how well M manages our own expectations and deals with our experience of the adoption process. Speaking to other adopters, this is not always the case. Above all, M maintains a child-centric focus and that ethos has been transmitted to us. At every panel or review we have been commended for our child-centric approach, which has ultimately been nurtured by a social worker who is diligent, committed, and dedicated.

Why we decided to adopt

Reading other adoption blogs, I noted that many people begin with ‘their story’, laying out their reasons to adopt and the path they have so far trod. Many people arrive at the decision to adopt following years of heartache trying to conceive. I read these accounts with compassion but no real understanding. Only because we have been waiting for so long to be matched (close to three years since approval) do we now have even the tiniest insight. The fluctuating optimism, the almost clockwork-like disappointment, the intensifying expectation of both ourselves and others.

Adoption has always been our first choice. Neither of us have ever felt the need or desire to be pregnant or have birth children, perhaps because that didn’t fit into our earliest understanding of being lesbians. But as we’ve grown older and closer as a couple, we realise that we have so much to give. We truly believe that we can give a child what they need and have previously gone without. If you’re thinking, we are heroes and adoption is entirely altruistic – STOP! We absolutely are in this for what we get out of it! A lovely little person (or persons – more on this later) to share our lives with.

Nearly four years on from first registering our interest with our local authority I decided to look over our approval paperwork to see if our thoughts had changed. Reading the notes we made – official records and unofficial scribbles – it is clear that our thoughts haven’t so much changed as evolved. Those notes seem far more optimistic than I ever remember being, but somewhat naïve. There is acknowledgement of possible issues – attachment, possible medical issues including FASD (Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders), and CPV (Child on Parent Violence) – without genuine understanding of these or how they will impact our lives and the lives of our nearest and dearest. Since then we have learned that, while important, love is not enough. We have spent the time waiting better preparing ourselves as therapeutic parents and equipping ourselves with knowledge, skills, and experiences.

Although we’re four years in, we are still at the very beginning of our adoption ‘journey’ (that phrase is irritatingly overused but I’m also struggling for an adequate alternative). We hope, because we do still have hope (heaps of it), that we will be sharing Christmas with a little person who will come to see us as his forever family. We will keep you posted.

What’s in a name?

I have started a blog numerous times. Each time the same obstacle has blocked my way – the name. Juliet’s assertion “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” downplays the importance. But in adoption names mean a lot. Names are tied in with identity and myriad issues concerning the self.

My wife and I have been tweeting for a few years now, using the handle @mrsreedwarbler. On the one hand, that username was selected rather hastily, as we felt pressured to adopt a pseudonym before sending our thoughts into cyberspace. On the other hand, it works pretty well:

  • We are a same sex couple – some might call us a pair of birds – who enjoy ornithology;
  • The reed warbler is a plainish bird that is normally heard rather than seen;
  • It winters in Africa (that might just be wishful thinking).

However, there is one potential problem with the name. Reed warblers enjoy a symbiotic relationship with cuckoos, failing to distinguish between their eggs and other birds’ and caring for them equally. This is the aspect of adoption that we wanted to share and embrace. Unfortunately, some would view the relationship as parasitic, calling cuckoos cunning and opportunistic. My worry is that, by extension, people will think we view birth parents in this way. We absolutely do not.

The relationship with birth parents is complicated, which I will no doubt explore in detail at a later point. But without birth parents we wouldn’t have our little ones. And we must acknowledge their loss, because it seems that loss is at the very heart of adoption (sounds like another blog post…).

I guess this post serves as a disclaimer of sorts, an acknowledgement that the name might be clumsy and misguided but well-meaning. Having navigated the adoption process for almost four years I feel that we have experiences to share, which we hope will benefit others. We have benefited from others’ kindness and generosity as we have prepared to be adoptive parents and we hope that we can share the skills, knowledge, and experience we have gained with others. Equally, through attending courses, reading books and blogs, and through communicating online via websites and through social media we have extended and developed our support network. We hope to offer this to other adopters who may not have the opportunities to attend such courses or who haven’t yet encountered the amazing people we have been fortunate enough to meet.