Looking back/looking forward

The problem with looking back is that you’re examining with fresh eyes, filtered, usually with the benefit of hindsight. In January I would have said that the year had started as badly as the previous one had ended. Now, I can barely remember the events that passed or how they made me feel. February – when Little Chick was placed with us – was a tiring month, but overall satisfying. But the details that felt so clearly imprinted on my mind are fading and memories are becoming jumbled, out of sequence, out of time.

No single month in 2018 was exclusively good or bad, though I suspect that’s how it’s been for every year of my life. In December, some of our lowest points were juxtaposed with what we hope will remain our most cherished memories. It’s a cliché to say it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but it’s apt.

I realised that I’ve tended to look back over my year when I’m least satisfied: unsatisfied with my performance, my achievements. It’s a frustrating and foolish task and one not suited to my temperament and unhelpful for my mental health.

Rather than looking back this year I’m looking forward.

I’m looking forward to:

  • Our first family holiday abroad
  • More walks and adventures
  • Seeing Little Chick in his school uniform
  • Hearing Little Chick utter even more words
  • Falling further in love with my forever family

I won’t be using the Word of the Week format in 2019. Little Chick’s speech is developing well: all being well, it is just a matter of playing catch up. Thinking of a word to sum up the progress Little Chick has made, I immediately thought ‘Proud’. But pride infers implicit responsibility, acknowledging your role in the success. That doesn’t seem right and isn’t testament to the tenacity Little Chick consistently displays.

Awesome.

He inspires me with awe and inspires me daily. He is truly awesome.

I will continue to write next year, and I hope to be braver: braver with the content and braver at sharing.

The Reed Warbler family wish you and yours health and happiness in 2019.

And me!

December has been tough. There have been some absolutely gorgeous moments though, such as time spent with family and Little Chick attending his first proper birthday party, and these have shone even brighter against the darkness of a difficult month.

Despite the deregulation, the lack of routine, the general sense of uncertainty, Little Chick has been brilliant. Typical of his can-do attitude, he has embraced everything – new food, new experiences, new people. Sometimes this hasn’t worked out – notably, me accompanying him on a nursery trip – but that’s never stopped him from trying again. Each day’s highs and lows have been punctuated by “And me!”, as Little Chick’s willingness to join in has endured even the trickiest of times.

December has been tough. But Little Chick has been tougher.

I’m fine

“I’m fine” is Little Chick’s go-to reply when something happens that he’s absolutely not happy about, but suspects he is to blame for or results from not listening to us. The phrase is usually shrieked, accompanied by hand flapping, and, occasionally, tears.

We have heard “I’m fine” a lot lately. He has also heard the same reply repeated from us, “Yeah, you’re really not, mate.”

Without dismissing his initial reaction, we are trying to show him that it’s OK to not be OK. Fair enough, it took us decades to learn this, but if we start early enough maybe he will get there sooner. Equally, it’s important that we recognise that he isn’t always fine and consider if we could have prevented this. Certainly, there have been more preventable moments this month. The festive build-up has taught me to follow my gut instinct more because it is invariably correct. Each time I have second guessed and gone against my instinct Little Chick has become overwhelmed and upset at some point. Yes, I have supported and consoled him, but I owe him more than that. As much as he is learning so am I: I hope that soon he will say “I’m fine” and we will both knows it’s true. He will learn to accept that not being OK is an option and I will learn to be better at managing the circumstances, so he is fine.

Pretending

In the past ten months, Little Chick’s imaginative play has improved enormously. Initially, his ‘people’ (Happyland toys) were bounced around a play mat with occasional excursions in vehicles and very little dialogue. Now, Little Chick is creating scenarios, albeit very simple ones, and acting them out. When I ask him what he is doing, he replies “pretending”. He is differentiating fiction from reality, in some ways anyway.

Little Chick has created several imaginary friends, and these have recently moved from Miffy the rabbit to Jack with the orange hair. All previous incarnations have been animals or clearly fictitious. Jack seems a more rounded character; there seems more truth in him. Specifically, “Jack pushed me”. This can be announced at any time: having fun in the playroom, driving home from the shops, eating breakfast on the weekend. When we ask where Jack is now, we are told “pretending”. Trying to unpick this, we ask if Jack is real. Sometimes he is, sometimes not. It seems that Little Chick is getting muddled. Elements of fantasy are mixing with reality. I believe this is not unusual behaviour for his age, but I am mindful that truth will be especially important to Little Chick when we progress life story work. I want him to be clear on what is real and what is pretending.

‘Pretending’ has also extended from imaginative play to little white lies or fibbing, like “Mummy did something”. Again, I believe this is typical, but it scares me. When he bellows “don’t touch me” I worry that the neighbours assume I am battering him. In truth, he is across the room from me, furniture dividing us, and I couldn’t touch him if I wanted to. If I ask why he said that he may reply “pretending” or say nothing at all.

I am thrilled that Little Chick is developing confidence and his ‘pretending’ through play is helping his social standing with his peers. I am anxious that the blurred line between reality and make believe could become problematic, for him and for us, as false accusations are made, and genuine memories are confused.


Edit (January 2019): Speaking to nursery, we have learned that Jack is now in Little Chick’s preschool group. There have been some incidents of pushing between them, but nothing worth worrying about. It is just two little boys finding their place. In a way, I am delighted. First, Jack is real (though he doesn’t have orange hair) and Little Chick is starting to tell us about his time at nursery, often a mystery now we only receive one short weekly update. Secondly, he is beginning to navigate relationships, even if he is pushing and shoving his way there. I would much rather he test this out on his peer in a highly supervised environment than he does it with much older, bigger boys and/or in an unsafe setting. Their fighting is only ‘pretending’, but they are learning valuable lessons through play, lessons that only his peers can teach him.

Igloo

Christmas is big, loud, and brash. This can be exciting, but it can also be terrifying. The lack of routine can be confusing; the deregulation can be mind-blowing. Since Christmas now seems to begin as soon as the Halloween decorations are reduced in shops, it can be a two-month long panic-fest. And that’s how it feels to well-adjusted adults. For young people who have encountered Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) it can be simply too much to bear.

In the swirl of all this madness, home has changed. We have been cautious to keep Christmas decorations to a minimum, but we still want to acknowledge a period that can be fun, which Little Chick’s peers enjoy, that he may even have enjoyed in the past. We want to protect him and keep him safe, but at the same time we don’t want to deny him potential pleasure.

As we search for this middle ground we have invested in a new safe space for Little Chick. An igloo. It meets the requirements of a winter wonderland of festive whimsy, but, most importantly, is a haven. This cardboard construction (a bargain at just £6 from Hobbycraft) will take pride of place in our living room until twelfth night. A wee raft of tranquillity in the ocean of Christmas mayhem.


Edit (January 2019): The igloo was a resounding success. Lined with a duvet and stuffed animals, it was a cosy Christmas dwelling. All visitors commented on it and Little Chick took great pride in showing off his new abode. Those people he was most comfortable with were even invited into his inner sanctum, though not all could squeeze into the tiny structure. We will purchase another (or a suitable alternative) next Christmas, the first of our new Christmas traditions.

Catch

When Little Chick was first placed with us there were a few question marks over his mobility. These have since been clarified by the local authority medical examiner. Still, his movements were slow and unsteady: often his bearing resembled a weary pensioner rather than an energetic toddler. Over time, he has grown more secure with us and this has been reflected in his physical actions. He now appears more comfortable in his body.

Now that he is happier and more settled, he is filling in gaps in his development. He is hopping and jumping regularly, not brilliantly, but better and certainly with more confidence. Noticeably, he is running more and encouraging us to catch him. His shrieks of delight make me smile and my heart almost hurts with pride. We are also encouraging him to catch items, throwing them gently to him. He has a great arm and throws well, but, as a glasses wearer, his ability to catch is compromised by his peripheral vision.

He is filling in the gaps in other areas of development too, more willingly engaging in games of peekaboo and developing an interest in hide and seek. While we find these games somewhat tedious (I am not great at feigning surprise when he reveals himself, having been in plain sight the whole time). they encourage us that he is building more secure object permanence (the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be perceived). It is especially important that he knows we still exist when we cannot be seen, heard, or felt. He can be reassured that we are there for him even if we are not physically present.

Little Chick tries so hard to improve and is desperate to be bigger and better after a tricky start to life. He is playing catch up, but his attitude reassures us that he can meet his potential.

Now!

I am continually impressed by how much Little Chick can express in just a few words. The economy of his language is astonishing and further highlights my own verbosity. So, I shouldn’t be surprised that in one word – a single syllable – and one oh-so-important punctuation mark he can say so much.

“Now!”

The exclamation mark is essential. It shows the ferocity with which Little Chick uses this word. It is a demand, a threat, a call to arms. But, frankly, it’s becoming a pain in the arse.

Motherhood can be amazing. Some days I wonder how I got so lucky. But other days it feels like utter drudgery and I find myself daydreaming about sleep and daytime TV (that isn’t pitched at under-fives). I feel like a servant to the tiny tyrant who has taken over our lives and our home. “Now!” is synonymous with this. “Now!” makes me feel shit.

As an adoptive parent, I think it makes me feel ungrateful too. Yes, motherhood can be mind-numbing and dreary, but I wanted it. I worked hard for years to get to this point, consciously prioritising it above everything else. It was no accident. But my sacrifices – minimal as they were – are nothing compared to what others in the ‘process’ have lost. Little Chick. His birth family. His foster family. And more besides.

Somehow Little Chick’s cry of “now!” has also become synonymous with loss. My instinct is to give him what he craves to compensate for the other intangible losses. But my head and heart know better. More often than not, “now!” is met with a “no”, “not yet”, “later.” Because that is the answer he needs to hear now, even if it is not the one he wants to hear.

Rosie

We have two dogs. Little Chick loves dogs.

We have two dogs. I love them, but I am anxious around them. I am not brave. My anxiety means that I worry about how the dogs will behave around Little Chick. Ironically, my anxiety makes everything worse.

My parents have a dog, Rosie. Little Chick loves Rosie.

My parents have a dog, Rosie. I love Rosie. I have not infected Rosie with my anxiety. Rosie offers so much to Little Chick.

  • She offers cuddles when he needs one, often without being asked
  • She shows limitless patience
  • She shares her adventures with him and sometimes even sticks
  • She encourages him to be kind and to share, but doesn’t make a big deal of it
  • She makes him happy simply by being in his life

I try not to have regrets; they seldom help anyone. But I regret not being better for the dogs and in turn helping them help Little Chick. I wish I could be braver, let them affect me less. The anxiety they cause me can be almost crippling, second only to the guilt I feel because I am not a good owner. I want to be better for them, for Little Chick, for myself, but I don’t know where to start. In the meantime, Rosie helps fill this emotional vacuum that I have caused and brings Little Chick such joy.

Thank you, Rosie.

Forever

Mummy. Mama. Little Chick. Family. Forever.

We have been saying this to Little Chick every day since we applied for the adoption order. But we didn’t want it to just be a trite phrase Little Chick repeats, with no regard or understanding of its meaning. So, we have continued to show him his introductions book, which presented the idea of us as a family. We have used other books – including The Family Book by Todd Parr – to familiarise Little Chick with different types of families – all equal, all special – and introduce the idea of adoption. We are beginning to build on Parr’s simple text by using examples specific to us as a family, including “Some families look the same… like Little Chick and Mummy have the same colour hair and Little Chick and Mama both wear glasses” and “Some families adopt children… like Mummy and Mama adopted Little Chick and will be a forever family.”

Now when we say “Mummy; Mama; Little Chick; Family…” we leave a pause. Little Chick completes the sentence with a very sweet and excitable “forever!”. Importantly, he says it with some understanding of its meaning. Time is an abstract concept for a three-year-old, but he understands that ‘forever’ means safety and reliability.

The phrase now has even greater meaning – the adoption order has been granted. Our forever family is now official.

Safe

From day one, we have made it clear to Little Chick that it is our job to keep him safe, but it’s also what we want to do. He seems to have a good understanding of this and as he has (seemingly) grown more secure with us he has used the word more often.

Lately, he has been using ‘safe’ a lot, incorporating it into games, especially chase and hide and seek. He has also devised and instigated a game with safety at the heart of it, specifically me keeping him safe and protecting him from dangerous outsiders.

Little Chick loves the Trolls movie – in truth, it is a family favourite that we enjoyed before even meeting him. On one level, he understands that the Bergens are not villains but misunderstood creatures who haven’t experienced true happiness. But that is pretty deep and a conversation for when he’s older. On another level, he knows that the Trolls retreat to safety from the Bergen attack and this is the aspect he incorporates in his play.

Initially, he was happy to shout the warning of “Bergen!” and we would both hide from the imaginary enemy. We would then re-emerge once he deemed it safe. This has now evolved to us diving for cover in Mummy and Mama’s bed and hiding under the duvet until the danger has passed. Further, he has started encouraging me to talk with the Bergen and negotiate with him (or her – Mr and Mrs Bergen both turn up uninvited). The scene plays out like this.

Little Chick [breathlessly, hiding under the covers]: Bergen! Hurt me. Mummy, talk. Please.

Me [politely]: Hello, Mr Bergen. How are you? (pause while I pretend to listen to his reply) Oh, no. I won’t let you come and hurt Little Chick.

[firmly] He’s my special boy and I love him very much. I promise that I won’t let you – or anyone else – hurt him.

[still firmly but a little softer] He’s my family and I will keep him safe forever.

[firmly, think best teacher’s voice] Go away!

(Here I leave a pause for Little Chick to think about what was said and, sometimes, to regulate his breathing. I then gently stroke his hair or reassuringly place one hand on his back)

Little Chick [takes a deep breath then calmly speaks]: Safe.

Part of me worries that this is a latent memory of a real time when he was scared, but I also appreciate that it is most likely the creation of a fertile imagination. For now, I am happy to play the game and am satisfied that he feels secure enough to ask us for help and protection. Our home is his safe place and we are his safe people and we need to work hard to maintain that.