Thursday, 30 March 2017

Letter to me from Birth Mum

It started off as a beautiful day. It was warm and sunny so I planned a walk to the beach while the boys were in school. I was all dressed and ready when the postman came. An envelope 'Private and Confidential' from our LA. I didn't expect anything from them this week so as one would, I freaked out! There was another envelop inside; it was opened. A picture fell out. I picked it up from the floor. IT WAS HER! With Snoops' smile and Goofs' eyes! My heart sank...

We were assured she will not write. Even when we met her she told us 'she has moved on'. Recently when we needed her for something she was utterly rude to the SW and told her 'I have nothing to do with the children anymore so leave me alone'. And yet, I am holding a neatly written letter from her addressed to me.

I don't want to read it! I don't want to know anything about her life! I don't care what she's up to next! The only thing I want to know is why did she write to me, but for that I have to read her letter.

She is very polite and courteous. She thanked me for my lovely letter to her that was jam-packed with information about the children; their likes, hobbies, achievements in school and sports. She is only responding to my letter in a friendly tone. It stirs up so many puddles in me.

1. We are NOT friends!
This well known quote in adoption circles from Jody Landers summarises my feelings well. The only reason she and I even know each other is because she gave them birth and now they call me MUM.

From the letter you would think we are, indeed, friends. She is commenting on my comments, adding her own experiences, she is asking relevant questions and no doubt she is expecting me to answer them in my next letter. She is communicating with me better than some of my friends! What the heck is going on here???

2. I don't WANT to become friends with her!
Even though we know she herself had a very difficult childhood, which contributed greatly to her not being able to care for the children I frankly don't want to think of her as the victim. It is easier to see her as the abuser who hurt the children repeatedly and therefore lost the right to have them in her house and in her life! We have agreed to do letter box contact twice a year, but I was hoping for it to be a one way communication...

3. Nature vs nurture.
I shared with her about the newfound interest Snoops has for science, space and engineering. I'd like to take credit for that as until he moved in with us he had showed no signs of even remotely being interested in that, but in our house he was exposed to books on space and planets, sci-fi geeky stuff, funny science experiments...etc. But now she tells me 'it is fascinating how much he takes after me, I wanted to become an astronaut and studied science and engineering and space...' Baaaaah! When the initial anger subsided I had to conclude it is for the best that I know these things about her. Not just because I want to be in a position to answer Snoops' questions when the dreaded conversation comes, but also for his sake to know if he has any special gifting in those areas. In moments like this I am painfully made aware that he is not my biological son! And it has two obvious implications: he does NOT take after me and that he does carry HER DNA in which lots of secrets are encoded.

I know it is us who provide him with opportunities to feed his interests. It's highly unlikely she could have ever taken him to science shows, pay for his coding club, take the time to explain gravitational force to him a millionth time or just listen to his non stop chatter about space and planets. That was all us! But the initial input came from her...

4. Should I tell the boys about this letter?
They have the right to know, simple is that. But the SW also agrees it is not the time to do it! But when is it the right time? The longer we wait the heavier the secret gets and the potential of a future explosion grows exponentially! Xt = X0 (1+r)t  (in case you were wondering. See what I just did there?) From the way the boys behave, if our first recent Mother's Day is any indication, they are safely, securely and happily attached to us. They do not think about BM, they definitely do not miss her or have any positive memories of her, just the opposite. They do not need their pond stirred at this time. We haven't told them we met her or the fact that we wrote a letter to her. We even agreed with SW not to include that photo of her and us together in the children's Life Story Books. So, for now, we wait with this information. If it comes up in a conversation (as in if the boys ask me a direct question) I might include random snippets about her, but then I am sure their next question will be 'how do you know that, mum?'

For now her letter is tucked away in a locked cabinet and I will not look at it again until it's time to write my second letter to her, in which I will attempt a friendly (???) tone and respond to her questions so our pen-pal relationship can grow until such time my sons are ready to here about it.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Love Languages in Adoption

Caring for children is one of the most powerful expression of love I believe. But just as with birth families and birth children, love has many faces. Love can be classified along countless lines. For now, I will focus on the 5 Love Languages. It's a concept that helped me over the years to become a better person, daughter, sister, friend, girl friend, wife... and now, mother (all in progress). It's a never ending process of course. For us, adoptive parents (especially if you, like us, adopted older children) it's extra hard, because we didn't have 'years and years to find out' nor can we say 'he takes after me in this regard'.

A quick rundown on the 5 love languages from their website:

  • Words of affirmation (uses words to affirm other people's worth)
  • Acts of service (actions speak louder than words)
  • Receiving gifts (what makes them feel most loved is to receive a gift)
  • Quality time (giving the other person your undivided attention)
  • Physical touch (nothing speaks more deeply than appropriate touch)
When the boys moved in and we became a family of four after meeting and 'dating' only for 2 weeks, we were thrown into the deep end and survival was the most important target. Now, several months later when feelings and emotions don't run that high any more and all 4 of us accepted the fact that 'this is how it's gonna be from now on' we can look closer into this topic. We have spent now a significant amount of time together so I feel I have a good understanding now about their personalities so I feel I am in a position to narrow down their love languages from 5 to maybe 2?

I say 'maybe 2', because in the beginning the situation was way too complex to get a clear picture. It still is. Our family roots still run shallow. With Looked After Children (LAC) who suffered loss, trauma, neglect and separation several times in their short lives, it's often impossible to get a clear read. They don't fit into any category, or more accurately, they tick all 5 boxes! Their self esteem was 'under the frog's arse' as my grandma used to say. They were not used to being treated nicely! No gifts, no hugs, no attention to their interests or worries, no time to play with them... They were deprived of all aspects of love!

So, naturally, Well Meaning Ignorant (WMI) people kept on advising us:

'All they need is love!'  

But what kind of love? For the sake of staying focused and keeping the length of this post under control I will only mention some of the most obvious obstacles:
  • lack of trust towards new parents
  • fear of the unknown
  • loss, separation, trauma and their 'fruits'
  • staying in constant fight/flight mode thus not being in a position to just BE 
  • not being in the state of mind to act rationally / age appropriately / 'normally'  
  • having the need to feel safe, secure, settled, attached as overriding emotions 
  • not being optimistic about their own future 
  • self blame or believing they don't deserve love or any good in their lives
When I look beyond these massive challenges and occasionally, when I am able to provide a minute or 2 of calmness where the boys feel safe, their lovely personalities start to shine through. I get a glimpse of the real Snoops and real Goofs; the ones they could be 24/7 had they not have their rubbish past that locked those personalities away...

A few months ago I started to experiment a bit. Following the approach used in play therapy when they have a hypothesis and then they test it, I also assumed Goofs' primary love language is Gifts. This is a tricky one as children do want lots of things and can nag us for a new toy. But I have never really met any 6 year old who would do a happy dance when I told him I have bought his favourite spinach leaves...

I noticed that whenever I bought them new socks or a treat or new colouring books he was always more excited than his brother. Often he would say 'you got this for me because you love me, right?' Well, yeah, but I also do colouring in for hours with you or give you praises or wash your clothes because I love you. But apparently, those seem insignificant in his eyes. Deep down he knows we love him, but for him to feel loved, he needs to receive gifts. So now I try to make a point every time I buy something to reinforce it with words and say it back to him 'I got this to show you I love you'. You only need one glimpse on his beautiful face to see it light up like nothing else... :)

His secondary love language might be physical touch; it's hard to know as even grown men would put this first when asked about their love language and only after careful consideration are they willing to admit that actually words of affirmation are, for example,  more important than an (intimate) touch. But my 6 year old Goofs loves sitting in my lap or play with my hair or come up with new 'clever' game ideas that would somehow make me wrap him in my arms. He can concentrate on basically any subject as long as my arm is touching his or we sit very close to each other. He often insists on a play when he is 'a baby who just came out of you and is so cute you want to cuddle me and feed me', but again, this might just be his way of trying hard to attach to me and not an actual representation of a certain love language.   

Snoops is (as with everything) less straight forward. He was often used as a scapegoat and he truly believes that he is 'stupid, worthless and beyond hope'. He said these words so many times we are certain he is repeating what he was told regularly, proving that affirming words (or the lack of it) can linger for a lifetime. Even though those words were said quickly and in anger, they will not be forgotten anytime soon.

My approach with him at this stage is still the same as on day one: to show love in all 5 languages, because, frankly, he needs all the messages he can get! I do buy his favourite things and both boys get told the same thing. I also make a conscious effort to grab him randomly for a nice long hug and we play the 'tickly game' a lot (and to be honest this does require lots of effort on my side as this is not my love language!). As part of our therapeutic parenting we give compliments and recognise little things in excessive ways. Extended comments like 'wash your beautiful face so I can see how handsome you are' go a long way with him! Even though he is 7 he really enjoys colouring in with me and I noticed he is much better at staying within the lines when I am working on the same picture with him. So, is it quality time then? I so hope so as this is MY love language so for me this would be the easiest way to show him how much I love him. The fifth one is acts of service; I think at this age they take it for granted that mummy does everything for them (make food, clean their room, change their wet sheets, wash their favourite t-shirts, fix their broken toys...etc), but because of their complex history it's hard to see clearly and this might develop into a dominant language in the future!  

As a mother my job is to fill my boys' Love Tanks because if it's full, he can truly develop into his Best Himself, which will translate into better behaviour, higher achievements, healthier self image and a more hopeful future for all of us!

Friday, 17 March 2017

Time to Say Goodbye

As Andrea Bocelli sings his heart out my two boys react very differently. One is crying, the other one is looking forward to it. I am sitting in the middle of their bedroom surrounded by piles and boxes and we try to negotiate our way through the problem.

The matter at hand: removing outgrown and unused clothes from their respective wardrobes.

Why would this be such a big issue, you ask.
Why did it take the whole day of Saturday to go through a small number of torn trousers, holey socks, permanently marked jumpers, all too small onesie pyjamas and stretched t-shirts?

How do you relate to your clothes? What memories have you attached to specific clothes? How do you pick which is your favourite item? Most of my clothes are just what they are; clothes that cover my body and keep me warm. I have a few that I bought because I liked the colours or because they looked good on me. Some are non negotiable and follow the work dress code, some I got for specific occasions like a wedding so naturally when I look at it I remember all the fun I had at that specific party.

But when it comes to our children, each clothing item carries extra added attributes. At this age the boys are not too bothered about how the items look on them. They often don't remember why they got them at the first place (unless it was a Reward for something) or where they wore them first. What they remember is WHO gave it to them.

Sitting among piles of clothes both boys were able to piece together a pretty accurate timeline of their short lives purely based on who gave them which t-shirt and from that they were able to estimate the dates. We did have a few clothes from birth mum (BM). I never, for a second, suggested we get rid of them, but still it was extremely difficult to convince the boys to put those items into their Memory Box instead of their wardrobe.

We did find a few t-shirts that were given to them by Andy / Adam / Alan / Andrew*. Who are they, I asked. 'Well, other children we stayed with in the various foster placements.'  I understand all the emotions and memories they have attached to those clothes: for them they are not just clothes; they are part of their life story; some of the few tangible memories they have left from their tragic past! How can I ask them to just throw those away? Most of them are too small already and all of them had marks on them. I have bought tons of nice, new clothes for the boys that fit them. Still, they really struggled to part with the old ones... As a compromise I suggested they each pick the 2 most precious ones (whatever makes it precious for them) and we put those back in the bottom of their shelves. The rest will 'go to charity'.

When it came to the way too tiny trousers Goofs (6) showed a little more understanding and reluctantly agreed to give them away to children who need it more. Some of Snoops' (7) old trousers fit his brother now. I got to the typical parental dilemma: is it good parenting to give older brother's outgrown clothes to the younger brother and buy new clothes for the older one only (thus save money too) or treat them equally and buy new clothes to the little one, too? Just another thing to consider when you have same gender children...

Thank God it was easier to get rid of broken socks and very old underwear. I was not in the mood to negotiate on this matter so as a preemptive strike I had bought them lots of new and cool stuff. It worked! :)

There were confusion about some hoodies that I know I have bought for them. Yet, Goofs argued that his last Foster Carer has purchased them. It was no point arguing about it. Instead, I asked why did he think she had bought it? 'Because she loved me!' What can I say to that? He is projecting feelings into clothes! 'Oh course she does! You know what, you are probably right, silly mummy got it confused...'

At the end we managed to put only a small amount of clothes into the 'give away' pile, much fewer than I hoped for. For me, it was only a practical exercise to reduce the mess in their wardrobes. For the boys, it was a highly emotional experience that stirred up lots of memories. This was their first 'culling' and I promised them we will do this only once every year. I hope and pray, in time they will be able to see it as a painless, practical exercise and nothing more...

*names obviously changed

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Who is the Enemy?

Before I crack on with this week's post I feel I need to clarify a few things:

1: Don't like, don't read! Simple!
2: Don't understand? Ask, before you report me for 'bad parenting'.
3: The 'target audience' is primarily fellow adopters who can appreciate the weight of 'being the mother of THAT child', who can celebrate with me when I say 'his tantrum only lasted 30 minutes' and most importantly those WHO HAVE WALKED A MILE IN MY SHOES! If you haven't, please refer to the second point before you say/do something we will both regret... Or sod off...

That being said let me tell you what promoted this post. We have been recently reported to Social Services by 'a concerned citizen' who knew squat about our life as a family of four. After a few agonizing and sleepless nights it's now closed (with no further action mind you) and we can move on with our life; the children are blissfully unaware of this ordeal. A fellow adopter told me 'welcome to your new reality'. Just like a doctor always dreads somebody someday will sue them, now we have to worry about this as well. This is such a real and depressing thought that I needed to write this out of me before I go crazy...

So, who is your enemy today? Take your pick...

1. Is it your adopted child/ren?

Our life as a couple has been really great. We had time and money for everything. We could spontaneously go to the cinema, do shopping at 11pm, go on mini holidays, achieve in our respective fields, have a social life, discuss problems in a civilised and calm manner...etc. This all went out the window the moment they moved in. I am a stay home mum for the time being; locked up in my house-prison; the topics reduced to poo, farthing or Peppa Pig; only have adult conversations with the teacher/Social Worker/Play Therapist/GP ABOUT the children; I step on bloody Lego everywhere in the house; #InsertYourProblemHere ...etc.

I wonder if you can read the next, very honest lines without judgement? The naked truth is, this chain of thoughts is not uncommon among adopters:
We decided to adopt children to help them change their stories so we opened up our hearts, our home, we put our life on the back burner and all we got in return for our goodness is pain and destruction. Our frustration is originated with the children and it is also aimed right back at them. And suddenly you realise you are not that good at all! So your anger turns towards yourself. How awful I am for blaming this poor child for ruining my happy life? What a rotten attitude is that? Oh, hello self conflict, just who I needed in my life right now. I hate what I have become, I hate what this child turned me into! This child has ruined my life! It's easy to see how they can become the enemy...

2. Is it your spouse?

'For crying out loud, why on Earth did you have to say/do that to our son?'
'Just because YOUR dad/mum used to do that to YOU, it doesn't make it right or an example I want YOU to follow when you parent MY child!'
'No, it's your turn, I woke up the first 3 times when he cried'
'I am so exhausted, I have no energy to talk to you unless it's related to the boys.'
'How can you not keep your cool? Do you think it's therapeutic parenting what you have just done?'
'It's easy for you, you go to work, I had to give up my career,  I have to take them to school, do house work, pick them up from school, make food, do all the therapeutic parenting, suffer through the tantrums, do the home works...' and it's twin sister: 'It's easy for you, you are home all day, I have to go to work, worry about money and then come home to more shouting, I have no energy to play with them...' It's easy to see how (s)he can become the enemy...

3. Is it me, myself and I?
Being a perfectionist helped me all my life to achieve my goals from swimming to masters degrees and a career. We can all agree, any type of parenting is hard, but because our boys had such a difficult past I struggle with the idea of 'good enough' parenting. I know it's self destructing in the long run and 'you can't pour from a dry cup', but I find zero consolidation in comments like 'if your children are fed and alive, it's a good day'. I know in my head it's a marathon, but my legs can't slow down from the sprint, so from time to time I stumble and fall. But even then there is no time for self care or me-time, because... there is always a reason. It's easy to see how I can become the enemy...

4. Is it other perfect parents?
'Oh, that's normal, my child does that, too. Why don't you just...' Soooo not helpful. I am sure we all hear the comments and helpful suggestions from others, well meaning birth parents who might know a thing or two about parenting their own specific children, but have no clue about the complexity and extra added challenges that we have to face on a minute by minute basis. I am tired of explaining why Reward Charts don't work or that my child's violence is not because 'boys are boisterous', but because he is used to see it at home as an effective way of dealing with problems and end arguments. Or the ones who complain we are too strict in our parenting style and they don't have a clue we are actually protecting their sorry asses from a potential allegation our child is likely to make against them... The other end of the spectrum is when they question your sincerity or severity of the incident simply because 'he is always lovely when he is with me. Are you sure it's not just you misreading the situation?' It's easy to see how they can become the enemy...

5. Is it the PIE?
From Sarah 'therapeutic parenting guru' Naish's book they are the Patronising Ignorant Experts (teachers, social workers, therapists) who have 'seen it all' so they must know it all, too. In one sentence they tell you 'you are the expert when it comes to your child' and in the very next one they tell you off saying 'trust me, you are wrong, I am the expert'. A teacher who only sees my child is constantly disrupting the class because every time the door opens he must turn to see who is it (but failed to position my son's desk to face the door as I had requested to lessen his anxiety levels). Or a TA who doesn't get that even though he looks 7 he can revert back to a 3y old in a second and unless they use toddler distraction tactics he will not 'just snap out of it' and therefore TA concludes he must be challenging TA's authority only to annoy them. Obviously.

6. My new reality: the concerned citizen
Perhaps the scariest of all. You don't know who might have a personal grudge against you. You don't know which friend you honestly confided in about your struggles will get anxious enough to turn against you strictly 'out of concern'. Or perhaps a neighbour, who had enough of the shouting and crying that goes on in your house at 4 am and (s)he incorrectly assumes the child cries because you are beating them. Or a mother of the boys' classmate who has no idea you are not the same mother who had abused the boy in the past when he casually mentions during a play date 'my mum hit me with a...' because we didn't tell everyone the boys are adopted.

Perhaps the next post should be about Who is a Friend and how to recongise them?