Brazil

Strictly speaking, Brazil is not Little Chick’s word of the week. It is mine.

I write this from my hotel room, overlooking Copacabana Beach. Having attended a friend’s wedding, I am now enjoying a week in Rio with my best friend. The Other Mrs Reed Warbler is solo parenting and Little Chick, despite my best efforts to explain the situation, thinks I am on an extended shopping trip. He will be expecting some stellar presents upon my return.

To prepare him for my absence, I started laying the groundwork early, drip-feeding information without panicking him that I would be leaving at any minute. Additionally, I compiled a few bits and pieces for Mama to use, as she sees fit, in my absence.

Little Chick and I both love Miffy (Dick Bruna’s sweet little bunny) and the character is special to us and our relationship. I bought a special Miffy plush toy for myself, partly because it is adorable and partly so that I could leave it with Little Chick whenever I am away. I am away far less often than Mama, who leaves for work several times a week (but always comes back), so we haven’t had the need for anything before now. I kissed and cuddled Miffy with Little Chick before departing so that he knew she was special to me and that she could pass on my love. He also has Tag, the cuddly dog we gave him during introductions, which is a link to both Mummy and Mama and affirms our status as a family unit.

Although we share responsibilities and try to alternate who does activities with Little Chick (so that he doesn’t become dependent on or detached from one of us in a particular circumstance or setting), Mama takes the lead during bathtime and I am in charge of bedtime stories. I love stories and reading to our child was one of the things that most excited me about becoming a parent. In my absence, I have recorded some stories onto the Kindle so that I can still share stories with Little Chick and be involved in the bedtime routine (if appropriate).

I have promised him some small presents upon my return. These will include a replica football shirt and sundries from the hotel. I cannot give him toiletries because of his sensitive skin, but I think he will enjoy having his own comb (in its own special box), writing paper, and pen. I have also swiped some honey from the breakfast buffet, a mini jar that will be just his, which he doesn’t have to share.

The physical stuff is important, serving as tangible reminders. But I also want to remind him of the less tangible, such as me coming back. Since introductions, I have reiterated to him that while we sometimes go away, we always come back. I have emphasised this message over the past weeks and given myself more opportunities to prove that I always return. This has benefited both of us. It has reinforced my reliability to Little Chick and has forced me to focus on myself more.

For the past six months or so, Little Chick has been the sole focus of our attention. It is right that he was our priority, but sometimes we have focused on him to the detriment of ourselves; ultimately, that hasn’t benefited him either. Until I took this break, I didn’t realise how much I needed it. OK, a fortnight in an exotic location is good for most people, but I had underestimated how much I need a change of scene, some time for self-care, and adult company.

The weather in Rio is unseasonably poor for this time of year but it is still considerably warmer and more uplifting than back at home. Different sounds, sights, smells have all invigorated me. I have been excited for things for my sake, not because they thrilled Little Chick or given me five minutes’ peace. I saw a Toco Toucan and squealed with delight; the magnificent frigatebirds and black vultures have captivated me from the rooftop terrace; Sugarloaf Mountain was breathtakingly beautiful.

Adult conversation has been tricky. I left the UK feeling poorly and arrived in Brazil with full-blown tonsillitis. Over the course of the first few days I gradually lost my voice until I was no longer audible. I was finally in adult company and I couldn’t talk. Initially, I was gutted, knowing I would be even more on the social periphery (being amongst chiefly strangers and not struggling with social anxiety). But as time passed, I realised that I didn’t know what to say or have much worth sharing. Perhaps my ailments were a blessing in disguise.

I knew that I would miss the Other Mrs Reed Warbler and Little Chick – that was a given. But I didn’t appreciate how much, or how silly moments would make me yearn for them intensely. Chilling on Ipanema Beach was blissful, but I became bored more quickly than I expected and looked around for my playmate to build sandcastles with me; I also knew that my wife would have loved this opportunity and especially enjoyed the fresh coconut water and cocktails being brought directly to her.

Focusing on Little Chick’s preparedness for me leaving, I overlooked my own readiness. I hadn’t steadied myself for the time apart, for the time difference, for the disrupted communications. I knew that it would be a fantastic opportunity for my wife and Little Chick to bond, having spent less time together without me. But now I’m worrying about where I will fit in on my return, whether I will be welcomed or shunned.

So, this trip has been somewhat bittersweet. I have had an amazing opportunity, but I haven’t embraced it like I would have previously. I haven’t been the fun travel companion that my best friend hoped for and has come to expect (that is something I do need to think about and try to remedy). It has been different because I have changed. I am a mummy now. And I hadn’t fully appreciated how much I love the changes until I had some distance from them. It isn’t always easy – sometimes it is downright painful – but I love my life, I love my family. And Brazil will always remind me of that.

Self

This week, Little Chick has been saying self. A lot.

Like much of his language, this word has multiple meanings. Generally, this has two distinct uses: self in terms of identity and self as an abbreviation of myself, symbolising his desired independence.

Little Chick has, or appears to have, a positive identity and strong sense of self. We repeatedly tell him he is special and, again, he appears to believe it. We say he is good. That is a given. He is inherently good. But we praise specific skills and traits. He is a good listener, following instructions carefully. He is a good helper, assisting us with tasks. He is a good friend, sharing and being kind.

In terms of our relationship with Little Chick it is incredibly early days. On top of that, he is only three years old. But we are keen to foster this positive sense of self as we are aware it may diminish as he gets older and especially as he becomes more aware of his life story. We want him to be proud of himself, of his identity, of who he is.

Little Chick is desperate to grow up, to be a big boy. As he becomes happier and more comfortable with us, he is also pushing for greater independence. We see this as a positive development, a sign of his growing confidence and his increasing attachment. Each day, each week, he is making such progress. Obviously, we are encouraging and nurturing him, but we can take no credit for it. That is all on him. His birth parents provided the genetic disposition, his foster carer sowed the seeds of his positive self-worth, and we will continue to water them and watch them flourish.

Share

Little Chick, like most three-year-olds, is not big on sharing.

In his foster placement he had to share a lot: time, attention, toys. It’s the same at nursery.

At home, with us, he has more. He has less competition for attention and the toys are (almost) exclusively his (though he is eyeing up my Lego collection).

I find it hard to strike the right balance. Sometimes I feel like I am overcompensating for his tough start in life by indulging him. There are times when I should say no (more often or more firmly). When I should encourage him to share – with us, with his peers, with his cousins.

Little Chick, like most three-year-olds, is not big on sharing. But he is trying.

During imaginative play, he is always keen to share things with us, both real and imagined. He will offer toys, including some of his most prized possessions, so that we can be happy.

He is getting better at sharing by taking turns. Even the precious resource of bubbles will be shared, as he alternates blows.

The biggest breakthrough is him sharing food, especially when he shares sweets and treats. He willingly shares little sweets if he has more than one. Chocolate is strictly off limits, though he is always keen to share ours. If he ever offers someone his last Rolo then we will know it’s love.

Little Chick will learn by listening. Sometimes.

Little Chick will learn by watching. More.

We need to lead by example. We need to show Little Chick how to share. And, that’s harder than I thought as an adult. I’m used to having my own way. Mostly, I’m used to being indulged. So, I’m having to change. And change can be hard. But it’s worth it. I want Little Chick to continue to be a kind, loving, caring boy and for others to recognise this in him. And sharing is caring.

Hospital

Next month I will be travelling abroad and leaving Little Chick alone with the Other Mrs Reed Warbler for over a week. It’s not something we would have planned this early into ‘placement’, but, when the trip was initially planned, we expected to have been parents for much longer than we have been. Having agreed after much discussion that the trip should go ahead, we planned in a weekend of just Little Chick and Mama time so we could all get used to it.

I booked in a weekend with my best friend and travel companion so that we could finalise plans for our trip and enjoy a catch up. My wife made a list of things she and Little Chick could see and do. Everything was set for a great break.

8pm on the Friday evening, having only been with my friend for a few hours, I received a garbled message on my mobile. All I could decipher was ‘X-ray’, ‘hospital’, and ‘blood’. Never have I needed a message to be clearer. I cursed the mobile reception gods for choosing that moment to just give up.

It was several hours before I was in full possession of the facts. Those hours seemed endless. I’ve waited for news before, but never about Little Chick while away from him. My mind went into overdrive fearing the worst. I feared my tiny cuddle that morning (keeping things low key so as not to unsettle him) would have been my last. My phone kept receiving answerphone messages without alerting me to incoming calls. The messages continued to be broken by interference, enabling me to only pick out a few key words. This only added to the frustration and anxiety. Adding further to the confusion, the messages received were arriving chronologically out of order.

Finally, just shy of midnight, I stood outside in my pyjamas and spoke with my wife. She sounded broken and my heart sank. But it was simply a combination of tiredness and guilt.

She and Little Chick had been in his room saying goodnight. I’m usually the giddy one and she had tried to fill this void. They both enjoyed frolicking and being silly; unfortunately, neither she nor Little Chick realised he had misjudged a bounce until his front teeth came into full contact with his wooden bedstead. He screamed for five full minutes, blood pouring from his mouth, before he could be soothed, but the Other Mrs Reed Warbler quickly bundled him into the car collected a friend (who’s fortunately also a neighbour) and headed to A&E. They were seen relatively quickly and there was no permanent damage. But they were both badly shaken.

As my wife recounted the sequence of events, I reassured her that it was an accident, that it could have happened any time, and it was much better she were there. I don’t drive so that would have made things trickier and resolution slower. It was deeply unfortunate that it happened only a few hours in to her solo parenting stint but was no reflection on her abilities.


Edit: Months on, Little Chick still shows visitors the teeth marks left on his bed frame. The Other Mrs Reed Warbler visibly recoils, but we have put a positive spin on it. It’s a reminder of all the fun we have, the importance of listening to instructions and warnings, and that Mama will always keep him safe.

We have learned to leave better, more concise, though more detailed messages. The risk of repeating ourselves outweighs the worry of the other being confused, panicked, and fearing the worst.

Our biggest fear was that ‘hospital’ would become a scary, foreboding place; especially problematic since we attend regular appointments with the eye clinic. We have worked hard to show Little Chick that planned appointments are good: the lady helps him see better, he gets to play with new children in the waiting room, and we normally go somewhere fun on the way home. When we announced his next hospital appointment, we half expected backlash. Instead, he smiled, saying ‘see better’ and ‘toys’. Optimistically, he even asked ‘Donald’s?’, hoping to be treated to a burger on the way home.

No, thank you

Little Chick has, unwittingly, devised a genius plan to not do anything but not get in trouble for not doing it.

Each and every request is now met with a very cheerful “no, thank you”. The sing song phrase is concise, polite, and frankly delightful. But it’s infuriating. Obviously, the nub of the problem is that we’re asking him to do something rather than telling him to do something. I have always chosen my words carefully, selecting the most appropriate phrase or term for the occasion, but I never come more unstuck than when communicating with Little Chick. Previously, I have communicated with many young children but never for so long, so often, or covering so many varied topics (though many tend to be questions about specific episodes of children’s TV programmes and the minute details contained within).

Every time Little Chick replies “no, thank you” it is a reminder of how well he is doing and how hard he is trying. His language is developing and his communication is ever improving. And it’s a reminder that I need to think more carefully about my word and syntax choice before I correct his. I need to model it better.

Bigger

Little Chick seems to have the most candid conversations with Grandma. He cherishes the 1:1 time and insists that each visit incorporates a walk, ideally just the two of them (well, three if you include the dog). On their last excursion Grandma managed to gain this nugget of information, which she helpfully passed onto us.

“What makes you happy, Little Chick?”
“Full tummy and getting bigger.”

As far as we know, Little Chick has never gone hungry, quite the reverse. However, he does have a complicated relationship with food. Already I can see that he comfort eats when he is uncertain and in unfamiliar circumstances. Knowing this, I am not surprised that a full tummy brings happiness. Though we are still working on his understanding of what full feels like (but he is demonstrating clear progress from when we first met him).

Getting bigger is very important to Little Chick at the moment. He’s younger than most of his classmates at nursery and short for his age so some do tower over him. Neither myself nor my wife are tall, nor do we come from tall families, so he never seems out of place at home. But when he spends time with his cousins, most of whom are several years older, I can sense the frustration that he can’t run as fast, climb as high, or perform as acrobatically as them. His cousins have been amazing and have welcomed him with open arms. We really could not have hoped for more. But the more he sees of them the more he looks up to them and sees that they are bigger than him. Only one cousin is younger and smaller than him (though he’s catching up in height) and I think this reassures him. You can see that he enjoys being bigger, the biggest even.

It made me happy that Little Chick was content with things that we can provide. That we are meeting his needs. That we are good enough. We will strive to ensure this continues as he gets bigger.

Carrots

Little Chick eats pretty much everything. Except most vegetables and salad. We have tried making them look more desirable by following Pinterest boards with beautiful suggestions and have hidden them in or amongst preferred food. But Little Chick sniffs them out and refuses to eat them.

However, carrots are now on the menu. The solution was so obvious. He loves helping to prepare meals, what if he helped provide the food?

Each year Grandad sets a birthday challenge for all his grandchildren. Usually, it is growing or creating something: for his 70th he required both. Little Chick and each of his cousins were to grow their own carrots then include them in a carrot cake, which would be judged and sampled at Grandad’s birthday party.

We were given plenty of warning so that we could grow our carrots in advance. Little Chick assisted us at every stage: he diligently watered them every day through the summer, often nipping out of his paddling pool to check if they needed sun lotion.

This dedication, and the happy accident of using an irrigated compost bin to plant them, resulted in a bumper crop of giant, tasty carrots. I was always going to be biased but they were the biggest and best by far. In the short time we have known him I have never seen Little Chick look so proud as when he harvested his vegetables and declared “my carrots”. Nor have I been as surprised as when he brushed off the soil and took a huge bite, murmuring with delight at the taste he had produced. Taking ownership of his food production continued as the Other Mrs Reed Warbler helped him bake a cake, following the issued recipe, to allow for fair judgement.

Little Chick loves baking. So does the other Mrs Reed Warbler. I’m not a fan. Happily, it can be something he shares with Mama and I perform taste tests and deliver appropriate praise. The care and attention he gave that cake was astonishing and belied his tender years. His repetition of “Grandad’s cake” also made it clear that he knew it was a special gift for a special person.

When Grandad’s birthday finally arrived, the whole family kindly and genuinely applauded his efforts; graciously Little Chick accepted their praise. All children were awarded a medal for participation and a trophy (engraved – this competition is taken very seriously). His prizes now sit on the shelf in his playroom, pride of place.

Next year’s challenge will be confirmed in the coming months (there are rumblings of growing fruit then producing jam). I hope it will stir as much excitement as this year’s has, promote as much pride, and produce such great results.

Carrots are important because they showed Little Chick that trying new things can be good, that he is very capable, that we can all work together as a team, that not all veg is yuk, and that commitment pays off. They also remind me of the kindness and patience people have shown us, how they have accepted Little Chick, and welcomed him into the wider family. Carrots taste of love.


Edit (January 2019): Little Chick has continued to eat carrots and added further vegetables to his diet. In the spring, we plan to encourage more gardening and growing and have set aside a small plot solely for Little Chick’s use.

Miffy

Miffy (nijntje in her native Netherlands) is Dick Bruna’s most famous creation and a firm favourite in the Reed Warbler household. She has become symbolic of Little Chick’s development and growing confidence.

The first new book we shared with Little Chick was Miffy in the Snow. I had enjoyed the bright illustrations and simple rhymes as a child and hoped he would share my pleasure. We chose Miffy in the Snow as our first tale, since Little Chick’s arrival coincided with several weeks of snow. Amidst all the upheaval of introductions even the weather conditions were unusual and unpredictable, but Miffy made them a little safer and less threatening. The story includes Miffy finding a home for a little bird, which allowed us to share our love of ornithology and develop a narrative of looking after/being looked after. Echoing text from the book’s final page, “See you in the morning, bird” are always my last words and promise as I kiss him goodnight.

Having enjoyed more books in the collection, we introduced him to the movie. Until this point, he hadn’t watched much television and, frankly, we needed an electronic babysitter to give us a few minutes to ourselves. The film is American rather than European and was insufferable the first time we watched it. But Little Chick sat quietly, rapt, so we agreed on another viewing some days later. As I learned to blot out the terrible accents and whiny voices, I realised that it provided education as well as entertainment. Miffy at the Zoo encouraged Little Chick to identify colours, numbers, animals, and he tentatively joined in the songs, or demanded that we sing them to him at bedtime.

When we realised that Little Chick would not or could not sleep in a room with all his toys, we decided to create a separate bedroom purely for sleeping, at the expense of the guest bedroom. This small space contains just a bed and a few books, allowing for optimum rest and calm. To make it less like a monastic or prison cell, we set aside a budget for adding personal touches. Now Miffy adorns the walls and watches over him as he sleeps (not as creepy as it sounds). We had already decorated most of his bedroom before he moved in, but this time, he was able to see the room take shape and watch as his personality and interests were reflected in the décor. When the finishing touches were complete, he literally jumped with joy at his ‘big boy room’ that he shared with his friend Miffy.

More recently, Little Chick has started talking to and playing with imaginary friends, including Miffy. Initially, his soft toy of her likeness would sit at the table in the playroom and enjoy tea parties. Now there is no visible sign of her as Little Chick pours her another cup and offers one lump or two. His creative play is developing as he becomes more confident with us and more confident in his own abilities. These skills have probably shown the greatest improvement, and will no doubt continue to blossom when he resumes nursery in a few weeks and can regularly play alongside his peers.

Miffy has been a companion to us all these past six months, binding us together. In six months’ time, she may no longer be relevant to Little Chick as he replaces her with a new interest, a new character. But Miffy will always have a special place in my heart for the part she has played in getting to know my son.

Grandma

Having taken a holiday in May, the long summer stretched out before me with no anticipated break. This early into placement we have been mindful to not overwhelm Little Chick with too many changes and have limited new experiences, settings, and people for all our benefits. But when my mum invited us to join them in Wales for a week I could have wept with joy.

Little Chick adores his grandparents. He benefits from Grandpa’s quietness and steadiness. This ability to just be and spend time with him is often underestimated and underappreciated, certainly by me. But it centres and calms Little Chick and brings joy to my dad too.

Grandma is Little Chick’s partner in crime. She is a friend and safe place rolled into one. Initially, I have been jealous of their bond, worrying that I am being replaced and that I have introduced other people too soon before securing our attachment. But I have been heartened that he looks for me even when happily playing with Grandma. While swimming, his giggles and splashes were interspersed with calls of “watch me!” and furtive looks to check I was close by. My initial jealousy was reasonable but unfounded and seeing Little Chick so happy with his grandparents makes my heart sing. This is ‘normal’.

In turn, Grandma cherishes her time with her best boy and her boundless enthusiasm and attention offers me down time without worrying that he isn’t happy or cared for. Her willingness to join in with the evening entertainment each night also gave me a break from self-consciously jigging and allowed me to watch Little Chick dancing freely, joining in the games with the other, often older, children, and even braving karaoke. His rendition of ‘I can sing a rainbow’ may not have wowed the audience but I could not have been prouder.

Spending a week away from home was tricky, but manageable. It was the longest Little Chick had spent away from the house and the first extended stay away from Mama. Considering that, he was brilliant. Yes, there were moments when I wanted to scream and pull out my hair, but, really, they were to be expected. His behaviour was typical of any three-year-old excited to be somewhere new with his pals. If we were to do it again, I would perhaps rethink the accommodation: you don’t realise how many doors there are in a static caravan until everyone has been opened into or slammed in your face.

Bedtime was the only major issue of the week, with Little Chick refusing to settle, a departure from our successful night-time routine at home. By the end of the week, we accepted that he wouldn’t readily go to sleep – even with me in the opposite twin bed – while he knew Grandma and Grandpa were still pottering about mere feet away and let him stay up until he crashed through exhaustion. Not ideal but the least stressful for all of us.

As much as Little Chick has enjoyed getting to know his grandparents, I have also appreciated my parents in these new roles. I never doubted that they would be good grandparents, but I hadn’t expected them to be so perfect for Little Chick. Between them they offer him so much that he wants and needs: calmness, adventures, quiet rest, high jinks, safety, fun. Unprompted, Little Chick lists them among his family. He loves Grandma and Grandpa and they love him.

Happened

“What the…? Mess how?”

“Happened.”

Leaving the room for less than a minute, I am stunned by how much chaos Little Chick has created. I have learned that keeping questions simple and to the point is best for eliciting the truth. Lately though, Little Chick will only reply “happened”, with a Gallic shrug and perfect pout.

Initially, I laughed. It was funny. Little Chick responded to this – he loves making people laugh – and now overuses the phrase. Every time he does something it is followed by an enigmatic “happened”, whether it is accidental (dropping cutlery during meal time) or deliberate (smacking me around the face when we’re singing nursery rhymes, usually because he is unable to regulate himself).

I appreciate that he is only three and can’t be responsible for all his actions, nor can he control his behaviour, but “happened” is getting to me. Oh, the temptation to respond in kind (say, knocking over a tower of blocks or tipping his dessert on the floor followed by a nonchalant “happened”) is overwhelming sometimes. But I know it is petty and unnecessary. I need to take a step back and respond calmly and therapeutically. But that’s easier said than done sometimes.

I also recognise that I am fortunate. Little Chick sometimes struggles to regulate himself, but for a child of his background he copes incredibly well with everyday life. He is a kind and likeable boy and isn’t remarkable from his peers. Yes, he can be a handful sometimes, but he is a three-year-old, it’s par for the course. On the days I do find parenting hard work, when I have had my fill of “happened”, my wife can share the load and give me a break, usually to regulate myself. I genuinely don’t know how single parents or parents with more challenging children cope, when the onslaught is relentless. “Happened” reminds me of the need for self-care for all, but especially adoptive, parents; it reminds me that we need to be kind to our children, parent therapeutically, but also be kind to ourselves, so we can better deal with whatever has “happened”.