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.

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.

 

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.

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.

Any questions?

I have found – and still find – that the most valuable information and advice came from other adopters. These are the people that have been there and done that, trod the path before me. When my local authority asked me to speak to prospective adopters as part of their official training, I was nervous but immediately agreed. The afternoon session talking to adoptive parents had been the highlight of the five days’ training. Everything suddenly felt real, not just theoretical.

I prepared some notes, double checked some facts with my wife, grabbed a few recent family photos, and borrowed Little Chick’s introductions book from his bedroom.

The photos and introductions book were useful props, but I didn’t need the notes to prompt conversation. Once mid flow, the details and the dates all came flooding back to me. As the afternoon wore on, my nerves waned, and my confidence grew. Heck, by the end I even enjoyed it.

Afterwards, some kind people thanked me and a few even chatted a little longer.

As a prospective adopter, I found Twitter a great place for asking questions. And I still rely on the community there for ongoing support. But I appreciate that it won’t suit everyone.

If you have questions about adoption that you would like answered from an adopter’s perspective, then I will help as much as I am able to. I will answer as candidly and fully as I can, but you must remember that at the heart of my story is a little boy with his own story to tell and it is not my right or place to share too much about him.

Cathy

Little Chick has developed a new, incredibly irritating habit of pushing on the stair gate at the top of the stairs. The stair gate is fixed so that it can’t be pushed open. However, the gate will not stay secure when it is partially opened by an adult then launched at by a sturdy little boy. In that instant, the parent will scream, the little boy will squeal, and the parent and health visitor downstairs will worry. Fortunately, we have a staircase with a landing after five shallow steps or it could have been far worse when a toddler takes a tumble.

The immediate tears that sprang forth from Little Chick were simultaneously alarming and reassuring. He was conscious, at least. He was visibly shaken, but didn’t seem physically hurt. All the same, we took him to our local minor injuries A&E.

Checking him in, I recounted the incident and mentioned that he was still in care (as we continue to await the adoption order). It was one of those moments when I felt like I was offering up his story without being asked for it and I felt like I was almost betraying him.

After just a few moments wait – much to Little Chick’s dismay, as he was enjoying playing with the Happyland rocket – we were seen. I repeated the details of the incident. Throughout, Little Chick was superb. He listened well, responded appropriately, and didn’t fiddle with too much medical equipment. In short, Little Chick demonstrated what a wee star he is. Coupled with his looked after status, it was obvious that the nursing staff developed a soft spot for him, confirmed when I was asked if Little Chick was allowed a teddy.

The Freemasons donated teddies to the hospital that could be dispensed as the staff see fit (or that was my understanding). It is a generous initiative by the organisation and a thoughtful gesture from the nurse, who then enquired what colour Little Chick would prefer. When selecting pink from the options (rather than blue, green, or yellow), the nurse double checked this with him. Little Chick repeated pink. The nurse then asked me if he was sure: I confirmed that pink was one of his favourite colours and he was sure. He wanted the pink one. Though frustrated, amid her kindness, it didn’t feel like the time to argue gender politics and plead her to let toys be toys.

On the way home, we asked Little Chick what he was going to call his teddy. Cathy. We were both surprised but touched by the choice: Cathy was the name of the nurse and his health visitor.

Cathy represents people who help us. Hospital and the medial staff can be scary, but, ultimately, people are trying to keep us safe and healthy or make us better. In a world where grownups can be unsafe and unpredictable, it can be tricky to convince Little Chick that these strangers are good people, allies, potential friends. But we must keep trying.

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.

Connecting with other adopters

The much-used African proverb asserts that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. If we take this to be true, then it is even more essential within adoption. During Stage One of the adoption approval process, prospective adopters are asked to map out their support network. Typically, this starts with close family and friends and extends to wider family, members of the local community, and to friends you see less often but know have parenting experience or skills. As time goes by, it becomes apparent that friends and family are a great start, but more expertise is needed. Some people are fortunate to have friends and families who fully engage with adoption, who gen up on trauma, attachment difficulties, and accept that you will parent therapeutically, even when that seems foreign.

Even before having a child placed with us, we are acutely aware how vital expert support is. This is not to diminish or dismiss the help and support provided by our close friends and families, but they don’t always get it. How could they? We are just getting our heads around the basics after a few years of intensive reading and learning. How could they be well equipped after just a few passing conversations or one morning of training information?

First-hand knowledge and experience seem to be crucial in this instance, but how do you make those necessary connections? Especially when you’re spending so much time completing the approval process, looking for matches, or better preparing yourself for the imminent arrival of a child or children.

Our first connections were people we met through our local authority training, people who were undertaking approval at the same time as us. The training days were intense and our lives were laid bare to strangers: this fostered an intimacy that normally takes years not mere days. We could share our hopes and dreams, but perhaps more importantly, our fears without hesitation or judgement. As people began to be matched this support withered. Those with children needed a new source and different type of support. As the last in our training group to be matched we were left behind.

But we learned quickly that networks evolve and change according to your needs. For us, Twitter has been the greatest support. The anonymity the social network affords you can be its greatest asset, though in time we may encourage meeting up with adopters in ‘real life’. But through Twitter we have been able to have very frank discussions that would not have been possible with local adopters (due to bias) and ‘taken advantage’ of experienced adopters who know more now than we will perhaps ever know. Facebook can offer the same advantages, if you join the right closed groups, but we have removed ourselves from that social platform for security reasons.

Once a child is placed with us, we are conscious that we will develop our network organically through the connections made through nursery, school, activities, etc. but it is unclear how appropriate this will be. It may be our responsibility to educate these new contacts on attachment and the impact of trauma so that they can better help us support our Little Chick.

We have made several connections through work, both of us discovering we have colleagues who have adopted or know those who have. These have been handy contacts to have, especially when they signpost you to other connections, including professional support from specialist therapists. It has been our experience that adopters are very generous at sharing their own stories and experiences to help other children, other families. We have also made contacts through attending training events locally and nationally: while attending an event hosted by our local authority, we discovered even more colleagues and mutual friends who had experience of fostering and/or adoption. These are people we may not call on often, if at all, but it’s reassuring to know that there are other people in our daily lives who get it.

Support groups have also been useful for us. As a same sex couple, we have attended an LGBT group for adoptive parents. Likewise, we have made good use of New Family Social forums, through our local authority membership. In time, we will develop this further, considering attending additional support groups and events, such as training and family meet-ups. Locally we have not discovered support groups for just adoptive parents, perhaps because we haven’t been matched yet, and this is something we are considering starting in the future. If we can’t find our tribe, we will make it!

National Adoption Week 2017

Initially, I had planned a long, positive post praising National Adoption Week (16th to 22nd October 2017) and all it stands for. But the more I thought about it the more despondent I became. For some time, we had been looking forward to attending the National Adoption Awards in London, having been invited for nominating our social worker. Being shortlisted for Adoption Social Worker of the Year was a highlight in a difficult year for her – and us – and we all had something to celebrate. However, our excitement was short-lived when she had to withdraw on the advice of our local authority, considering her involvement in an upcoming high-profile case.

And for me, that pretty much summed up our experience of adoption so far. Every positive step is marred by sadness and disappointment. And that is tough to take sometimes, even making us lose sight of why we are doing this. Our own grief occasionally blurs our focus on who really matters, namely the children at the heart of all this, those waiting for forever families. Yes, it is essential to recognise the sterling work undertaken by those involved – including our own social worker who will forever be a winner in our eyes – but we should never forget that we have National Adoption Week for the sake of the children.

National Adoption Week is essential because over 2,000 children, more than half in sibling groups, need to be adopted. The reasons why they are being placed for adoption are many and varied: physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, mental health issues, learning difficulties, substance misuse, and, rarely, relinquished. In more cases than not, the birth parents are simply unable to care for their – or any – children.

I guess I’m trying to say that it’s terrible that there even needs to be a National Adoption Week. And beyond that I’m grappling with the need to better inform people of the needs of children awaiting adoption. The abuse, neglect, and trauma they have experienced, and will continue to experience. The photos and videos of cute children only scratch the surface. Most people would want to give a cute wide-eyed child a loving home; it’s in-built.

Like most aspects of adoption, I can identify a problem but can make no headway in finding a solution. Getting exasperated about it but doing nothing doesn’t help anyone, but I feel I need to do this to process my thoughts appropriately so perhaps in the future I can find a solution, or at least be part of the solution. As an approved adopter waiting for a child to be placed with us, I have sworn to champion his needs and be his advocate. And by extension, as a corporate parent, I will be a supporter for all children awaiting adoption. In the long term, I hope that the need for National Adoption Week will diminish.