Sunday, March 31, 2019

Reflections on Mother's Day

I wake just before six, the tiniest prick of discomfort behind my eyes. A little too much to drink last night, perhaps. I know what day it is, I know I should feel happy and hopeful, and yet anxiety prevails. The kids are up already, playing and pottering in their rooms. Soon they will peek around the door, and the day ahead will unfold. But for now I exist in a state of dreamlike detachment; floating without purpose; a blink away from sleep. Existential preoccupations creep into my semi-conscious mind, filling the ethereal void. It is here that the least welcome thoughts present themselves, rudely demanding to be addressed. Wearily, I brush them aside, to be replaced with more practical, domestic concerns. Time passes and I drift in and out of sleep.

Now it is seven o’clock and I hear the shuffle of small feet on the landing, the opening of my bedroom door. Here is my son; daughter close behind. It is Mother’s Day and they excitedly present me with a home made card, which both have signed. A year ago the youngest would have struggled to write his own name; I reflect on his progress with some quiet satisfaction. On the surface, the mood is a happy one, and their expressions of love and gratitude sincere, and yet an unspoken tension is building. Invisibly it clings to us, its jagged edge perforating the expected simplicity of the moment. While hugs are exchanged, and downstairs tea is being brewed, this silent emotional onslaught continues to swell.

I wonder whether to say out loud what I know is on all our minds, to expose the elephant in the room. After a while, and a few sips of tea, I do. Although I am without question their mum, I did not give birth to these two; there was another mother before me who is still out there somewhere, and today she is more present than usual in our lives. I reassure them that it’s OK to be thinking about her, and that I understand it must be a difficult day for them. But my validation is awkwardly dismissed. They don’t want to be reminded. I understand that, too.

Breakfast is next: bagels and chocolate spread. The morning skitters along in a muddle of feelings as we do our best to embrace the occasion. No plans have been made; it is down to me to decide. I contemplate an adventure - something out of the ordinary - but check myself. On days like this, simple and familiar is best.

We go to Michelham Priory, where everyone is usually at ease. And the familiarity does seem to bring temporary relief from the pressures of expectation which have so far tainted the day. We laugh at the ‘dead daffodil festival’ (nature won’t be tied to a marketing calendar, it seems), eat a hearty lunch, buy some books from the second hand shelves in the cafe, bump into friends, and wander through the house and grounds.

While the children play in the playground, my thoughts wander back to a time before them. At some point I decided to become a mother, but I never fully appreciated the extent of what that would actually entail until now. Here I am, tied to these two dependent beings, carrying all their baggage and filling plenty of my own along the way. But there is love, too, and fun, and happiness and affection. In spite of the angst and the tension and the sometimes seemingly relentless conflict, my heart is full. If only that were enough to keep us all afloat.

A quick stop in Alfriston to buy a book for my own mum, and then home. The confines of the house seem to re-ignite earlier frictions. The kids are getting weary, and my late night is catching up on me. We scramble to get dinner ready, and I send the eldest on an errand to Waitrose for supplies. She comes back in tears because it was closing and she couldn’t find all the things in time. My fault for sending her against the clock. Pangs of guilt (oh, motherhood) as I attempt to assuage the upset. Then back to the cooking.

5pm. My mum arrives and I hug her for longer than usual. I need it. Need to feel connected and safe. Her presence brings comfort to all, and dissipates some of the lingering unease. The kids’ relationship with Nana is less complicated, and they happily relax into being with her, glad of the distraction. As bedtime approaches, the weight of today begins to lift from our collective shoulders. Stories and kisses and cuddles, and lights out by eight.

10pm and a door opens upstairs. I go up to see who is awake. It is the youngest, apparently disturbed by mysterious shapes in his room, made by the glow stars. As I go to lift him up and take him back to bed, he sighs sleepily “I love my mummy”, and my heart explodes into a thousand sparkling fragments. This is motherhood; not the cards or the flowers or the breakfast in bed. This sleepy gift of a little boy’s love, unceremonious and indubitable. This is all I need to know that I am a Mother.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Four Years On: What is it Like to be an Adoptive Parent?

This post has been brewing for a while, but a few things have happened lately which have prompted me to finish and publish it. The summer break is for me the hardest time of adoptive parenthood, when I am the most conscious of being a Different kind of family, and because of that, I seem to spend more time than usual preoccupied with mulling over what it's all about. For much of the time, adoptive parenthood, I assume, feels pretty similar to any kind of parenthood. Many of the challenges,  pleasures and quirks are comparable. But underneath the daily normality, lurks a chasm of insecurity, which never really seems to close up. I know that I love my children, and I trust that they love me, but I worry constantly that this fragile bond will fall apart, that I will somehow break it through my own impatience or inadequacy. Whereas for many people the holidays can be a time of family bonding and shared adventures, for us six weeks with a lack of routine and the daily rollercoaster of New Experiences seems to open up this metaphorical chasm and make our family feel less tight-knit. It shifts us all into an uncomfortable pattern of insecurity and anxiety which takes at least another six weeks to wash out again. I have written about the school holiday phenomenon in another blog post, so I won’t elaborate here, but it is the recent shaky ground which has led me to reflect more deeply what it is to be an adoptive parent, and to attempt to describe how it feels as an experience distinct from being a biological parent.

The Road to Parenthood

It is no secret that most people arrive at adoption having travelled down some kind of traumatic road. Whether they are there because of infertility, genetic or medical conditions that make pregnancy inadvisable, or because they haven’t found a partner with whom to pro-create, there is, in all likelihood, a nest of complication on which the adoptive journey begins. And it only gets more tangled as things progress. I am pretty open about having adopted my children, and will happily chat to people about the experience. Mostly they are interested in the practicalities of it all - the application process and all the paperwork you need to complete in order to be considered as adoptive parents. Certainly there were a lot of forms to fill in at the beginning, but that was the easy part. I actually found the application process quite enjoyable - as we were full of excitement and hope for our future family, yes still free from the ties and responsibilities of parenthood. If anyone wanting to adopt is put off by the initial red tape, then they are probably not cut out for the long-haul, and I guess that is partly the point.

What defines the adoptive parenthood far more is the journey beyond the dotted line: the bumpy, hairpin road that you drive through in a thunderstorm. A road that sometimes never seems to end. And the adoption process does to some extent prepare you for this; at least it tries to. We were given pre-adoption training in attachment theory, and warned about some of the challenges we might face in parenting children who have experienced trauma and neglect. But four days of workshops only really scratched the surface, and of course could not predict what our own individual children would be like, and how they would react to the huge transition and upheaval of being adopted. We were furnished with a certain amount of information about our children's known needs, but it is only now - four years on - that we are really beginning to comprehend the long-term impact of their shaky start in life, and to get our heads around what it is they really need from us. Because we haven't known them since birth, we had a lot of catching up to do, and will perhaps always be unpicking the past alongside our kids as they grow and mature.

Secondary Trauma

Much like professionals who deal with traumatised patients on a daily basis, caring for children who have lived through trauma and neglect can take its emotional toll. This is known as secondary trauma, and is a very real phenomenon. My heart is regularly eaten up by the thought of what happened to my children in the past, and the fact that I wasn’t around then to protect them from it. As their mother now, I feel fiercely defensive on their behalf, and am constantly trying to shield them from further emotional harm, sometimes at the expense of my own friendships and mental wellbeing. Before children, I had only really experienced one period of severe anxiety in my life, brought about by bullying in the work place (now there is a blog post I should really get around to writing), but now I am constantly battling inner demons, feeling wracked with self-doubt, and struggling to stay emotionally afloat, while trying to project a veneer of outward composure and stability for the kids. As someone who has always considered herself a Strong Independent Woman, mental health (my own anyway) is a hard subject to talk about. But talk about it we must. 

The first year of adoption was a complete black hole for me emotionally. I often felt overwhelmed at the scale of the responsibility I had taken on, and unable to express my feelings outwardly, leading to bouts of emotional instability and depression. I was too consumed with this inner unrest to even notice the love growing all around me, and was afraid it would never come. As time has gone by, and I have felt more confident in the bond that is developing between me and the children, the constant anxiety has been replaced with a lower-level one that rears its ugly head from time to time, like in the disquieting six weeks of the summer holidays.

It Never Gets Any Easier

You would think that as time went on, adoptive parenthood would get easier, and that the childrens’ problems would start to resolve. But based on the first four years, I can’t see this being the case. I suppose you just get used to the demands of the job; you accept and deal with them because the love grows stronger and you want to be a good parent. Part of the journey is coming to terms with the fact that it will always be hard, and committing to love them regardless. In spite of my early fears, love has blossomed. It is unlike any love I have felt before, and not how I expected it to feel at all. I am filled with pride at even the seemingly smallest achievements of my two, and compelled to love them twice as hard to make up for the love they lacked in their lives before. I would not take away the experience of that love, even for an easier, more straightforward life.

As they are maturing and becoming more self aware, the children's issues are seeming if anything more complex. We have helped them through the first few years of ‘settling in’ to their new family, and certainly they have both shown amazing resilience, flexibility and progress through that time, but now we face the ongoing challenge of helping them come to terms with their past, establishing their own sense of identity based on a shaky foundation behind them, and giving them the extra support they will need through the emotionally volatile teenage years. So we take a deep breath each morning, and prepare ourselves for what daily life throws at us. Such it is, and so we go on.

Loneliness and Isolation

One of the toughest things to learn to live with with as adoptive parents has been the limitations it has placed on our social life. Of course any parent goes through times of not getting out as much because of having young kids, but our experience has affected our friendships in what currently feels like a long-term (but hopefully not irrevocable) way. Before kids, our social circle was extensive and scattered. We would often meet up with different groups of people every week, travel to see far-off friends, and have people to stay with us. But, much as it saddens me, all that has had to change. We were advised in our adoption prep training to keep things simple for the children in the early days, and not over-expose them to too many new and different places, people and scenarios. To facilitate their attachment to us, they needed to feel secure and to establish familiarity amongst a small group of regular family and friends. What we didn’t realise was that the “early days” would not be only a matter of weeks or months, but would continue for almost four YEARS (so far), and perhaps longer. The friendships that have continued have been those that are entwined with our daily lives - through school, the kids clubs, and those who live in the same neighbourhood. It has been really hard to sustain anything regular beyond that immediate circle, and I have not felt like a very good friend in recent years.

There are a number of very beloved friends and relations who I have regretfully not seen AT ALL since the kids arrived, and many more that I have seen only occasionally and who have yet to meet the kids. New places and people STILL unsettle the children, and their insecurities mean that they struggle hugely with long-distance friendships. We have really only just begun to very gradually start opening up the circle of people that we see with them, and are still unable to take part in big group meet-ups where there are too many unfamiliar faces. It has been impossible to explain in detail to all of these people the intricacies of what has been going on, and why we may seem indefinitely unavailable, so we have had to rely heavily on people’s open-mindedness and acceptance. I am so grateful for the understanding and support of those affected, but I sorely miss spending time with these important people in my life, and indeed knowing what is going on in their lives. 

Because there are relatively few adoptive parents around (compared with those who have reproduced in the conventional way) it can be an isolating experience. Even when friends are kind and supportive, they can’t always put themselves in your shoes. I am lucky enough to have the friendship and support of another couple who adopted, and so can always rely on them for an empathetic ear. It must be extra tough for those adoptive parents who don’t have others around them in the same situation. Of course, I have made new friendships through the children, but even this is more complicated than it used to be. It’s hard finding the combination of parents who ‘get it’ and are tolerant and supportive of the children’s needs, whose children bring out the best in mine and can deal with their emotional ups and downs. And honestly, I just feel like I have less to give as a friend than before. I know that there are many other parents who feel the same, especially those whose children have additional behavioural or emotional needs. So I guess this isn’t something that’s unique to adoptive parenthood, but the powerful desire to protect one’s child from any more loss in their lives - when friendships go wrong or people let them down - perhaps, is. Here I should put in a massive ‘thank you’ to the small circle of friends and family who have been consistent and supportive throughout our adoption journey, and those who have given moral support from afar, along with an apology for not being a better friend in return. 

Because They Are Worth It

Writing this post, I have started to feel a little guilty that it reads like a list of complaints and regrets. It’s not. Yes, it is hard, and yes I have had to dramatically adjust my expectations of what life is for me now, but when I look into their eyes and see happiness where desolation once dwelled, or when a sincere “I love you mum” comes out of nowhere after days of defiance and destruction, everything else falls away. Had our paths not crossed, I would never have known the feeling of fierce, protective, restorative love that comes with adoptive parenthood, or experienced the privilege of teaching another human being how to love and be loved. To have earned their love against the odds has brought unparalleled joy into my life. And although it utterly exhausts and depletes me at times, I would not be without them now. 

Adoption is not the most straightforward version of parenthood, but it is a rare and exceptional experience, and one which is daunting and frustrating and raw and sad and magical and transformative and beautiful all at once. My children have taught me more about myself than I ever knew before; they have opened my eyes to possibilities I had never considered, and they continue to astound and amaze me every day. They feel as much mine as if they had grown inside me, and I cannot imagine life without them.



This is what adoptive parenthood is like for me; obviously I cannot speak for other parents. But I have long been pondering exploring the subject further, and would love to talk to others who are willing to share their perspective and experiences, perhaps for a podcast or vlog. Please leave me a comment or tweet me @Rowstar if you are interested in being a part of this.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Dear Dad... | What Father's Day Means to Me

Father’s Day. A stream of gushing Facebook posts dominate my feed, in heartfelt appreciation for fathers past and present. A pang of guilt washes over me as I realise I have neglected to send any kind of greeting to my own Dad, a feeling accompanied by a deeper sense of regret that I haven’t seen enough of him lately. Life is hectic, and since my kids’ father is away for the weekend, I’d not even clocked that this Hallmark Holiday was upon us. 

Aside from birthdays, I’ve never been much of a fan of the ‘appreciation day’ culture - Valentine’s, Father’s Day, National Doughnut Day (yes, it's a thing); as an adoptive parent, even Mother’s Day is a far from straightforward celebration in our family. But when everyone else is so publicly on the ‘yay dad’ bandwagon, it seems somewhat callous to abstain. I could have dashed out and bought a last minute card, but it is hard to find one whose sentiments accurately reflect my relationship with my dad, and frankly the football-and-beer-themed “best dad ever” selection is just not going to cut it. So I decided instead to attempt a more authentic exploration of what he means to me…

More than anything else I have inherited from him, it is Dad’s offbeat, mischievous sense of humour and love of comic poetry for which I am most grateful. I can remember him reading me Spike Milligan, quoting the Goons, and teaching me practical jokes at a young age, and those influences have stayed with me into my adult life. I like to think I also have something of Dad’s practical nature and problem-solving skills; I have always admired these qualities about him.

Christmas time at Dad's place in the 80s

Father’s Day sentiments are complicated for me and Dad, because I don’t actually remember a time when he was living at home. There are a few hazy memories - Christmas morning in Mum and Dad’s bed with the textured orange throw, and Dad’s retro dressing gown; the chaos of him redecorating the kitchen while mum was in hospital having my younger sister - but not much of the day-to-day. I am thankful that my parents stayed good friends when they split up, and Dad was around, if not a constant presence. Both he and mum were active CND members in those days, and I can recall being taken on protest marches as a child, and riding on the CND carnival float alongside a giant model missile that Dad had constructed - one of many such props that made our childhoods all the more interesting and eccentric. 

That CND carnival float

Having a stage manager for a father has definitely had its perks. As well as the intriguing theatrical cast-offs that made their way into our playroom, Dad could always be relied upon to fix things (albeit with gaffer tape and a prayer), build things and generally provide DIY support services. I have taken to heart his motto of “if it doesn’t work, use a bigger hammer”, and am never without several rolls of gaffer tape with which to tackle any domestic emergencies.

Mum and Dad met working in the theatre in the 60s, and it was Dad who persuaded me into my first summer job on followspots at the Hippodrome in 1992, when I was 15. This was undoubtedly an influential milestone in my life. I spent 10 or more summers working there, as well as pantomimes at the Devonshire Park, forging life-long friendships and learning a useful (?) repertoire of old songs from the various veteran acts who performed there. For some of that time, I was working alongside Dad as well as other Stanfields, and it is a time I remember as being one of the closest we have shared.

Backstage crew at the Hippodrome - early nineties (Dad 3rd from left)

Another of those times was when I was away at university, and Dad would come up and visit me from time to time. I will be forever thankful to him for helping extricate me from an awful shared housing situation, rocking up with his campervan while my house ‘mates’ (who had been systematically ganging up on me for months before) were away for the weekend, and helping me move, in stealth, to a little bedsit in Barnes where I stayed for my final year. Whereas mum has always provided (and still does provide) the emotional support and physical comfort, it is this type of practical gesture through which Dad has shown his love. 

As a younger man, my dad was partial to a jive. I have distinct memories of him busting some impressive moves at various family occasions, and although I have never mastered the genre myself (there is still time!), I have an enduringly fond association with its music. Just yesterday I was at Michelham Priory’s Home Front weekend, watching a Lindy Hop group give a demonstration, and thinking about Dad’s love of dancing, while tapping my feet to the infectious tunes. I can vividly picture his younger, rock-n-rolling self of the 1950s, based on the colourful anecdotes of his youth that he has painted over the years. He is a spirited raconteur, and has inspired me to try and continue the tradition, passing on the family folklore to my own children.

Dad, we may not have the most conventional or consistent of father-daughter relationships, but as you can see, you have influenced me, and I love you. Thank you for Spike, Elvis, Brubeck and gaffer tape.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Becoming a Full Time Home Educator

I never set out to home-educate my son, but as of September this year, this is what we are doing. I was so positive about him starting school last year, having spent a bonus 12 months together after we deferred his school entry on the grounds of him being summer born. Although I knew there would still be challenges, I felt he was ready to begin his formal learning journey, and to integrate positively with his classmates. What I hadn’t considered in any depth was whether the school was equipped, or indeed willing, to accommodate his needs. Of course I had met with them before he started, talking over potential stumbling blocks with the SENCO and his class teacher, who seemed to take on board my concerns. But it turned out that the mainstream school system, currently bereft of funding to support vulnerable and challenging pupils, and with a worrying lack of understanding about the needs of adopted children, is ill-equipped to embrace a complex little squarepeg such as mine. 

We tried for a year to make it work, starting with a prolonged phased entry that turned into permanent flexi-schooling (because there was apparently no funding for an extra support person in the afternoons). I found myself taking on the bulk of his literacy and numeracy basics at home, while he picked up social skills and other cognitive tools in the classroom. His teacher was truly lovely, and worked so hard to try and accommodate his needs, but the sad fact was that there really was no framework in place at the school level to ensure a long-term support plan for him. And I didn’t want him to be accommodated, I wanted him to be included, integrated; to thrive. The reality of the situation began to weigh heavily on my mind, and by the spring term it was clear, despite several meetings on the subject, that no steps had been taken to ensure a more robust plan for him going into year one. So rather than set him  up to fail, I took the life-changing decision to remove him from the system altogether, and make myself the only person responsible for meeting his educational needs.

I am thankful that family and friends have been hugely supportive of our decision to homeschool, despite it being a departure from the historical norm amongst our folk. Naturally people are curious as to what homeschooling actually entails, but this is a difficult question to answer, since there are so many varied approaches, and we are still in the process of figuring ours out. At the moment, we are going with a semi-structured approach, whereby we try and do 1-2 hours of formal-ish learning at home a day (I say “ish” because much of this is play-based), covering reading, writing and numeracy. There is no set curriculum we have to follow, and so we are wonderfully free to take a completely personalised route to achieving our goals. For example, at the moment, we are hardly doing any maths at all, because his reading is coming on so much and he is eager to progress. I would rather capitalise on this momentum than enforce an arbitrary ‘daily selection’ as is offered by most schools. The often ignored, but glaringly obvious truth is that children learn best when they are interested, and being able to follow the natural motivations of a learner is bound to lead to more effective learning. 

The rest of the time, we are out and about, going to groups and meetups (currently: drama club, forest school, social groups, swimming, trampolining) and pursuing whatever else interests him. We spend a lot of time outdoors, because that is where we are both happiest. We learn on the go when driving along or out shopping, seeking answers to his constant questions at the library or on YouTube. We decided to have a termly topic to give some focus to this exploration, and his term we have been discovering the Celts & Romans (his choice). This has taken us to hillforts, museums and castles, and on a train trip to discover Roman Londinium. I am learning loads alongside him, and feeling generally very enthused. On the down side, it is non-stop, physically exhausting, and it is taking a while to develop a social circle so I am missing the day-to-day support of Other Mums. But after just a few weeks I can already see the benefit for him. Aside from the odd tantrum or grumpy moodswing (mine and his), he is in great spirits and enjoying the new regime. The carefree sparkle that emerged in his toddler years has shown itself again, and we are rediscovering the special intimacy we enjoyed in those days. Occasionally there are wobbles about missing his classmates, but I think overall he appreciates the advantages of being homeschooled.

Who knows how long this era will last. I still have a daughter in school (and yes, there have been some jealousy issues there, but honestly it would be too much to home-ed them both), and perhaps her brother will decide to go back there at some point, too. But for now this feels like absolutely the right option for bringing out the best in him. It is early days, but most of the time I am feeling good about it, and it is certainly a relief to have the constant worries about school behind us. 

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

When Children Have Big Feelings - An Adoptive Parent’s Perspective

There are days, many blissful uplifting days, when I feel like a regular parent to two affectionate, curious, contented, effervescent young kids. But sometimes, like a fast-rolling fog, the darkness rolls in and I remember how much pain and confusion lurks behind the dazzling smiles of these beautiful little beings. Suddenly I am staring raw anger and grief in the face, reaching out to a wounded child who needs my help. When faced with their emotional, and often physical, outpourings, I have to remind myself where these expressions of grief come from, that my children have experienced trauma and neglect in their life before adoption, and that their extreme outbursts may be an attempt to express this. The hardest part is learning to identify which of their behaviours is developmentally normal and what might be an externalisation of their unresolved grief, or a result of their emotional immaturity. Most important is to separate the feelings from the behaviours: “it’s OK to have those feelings, but it’s not OK to do that.” 

As a family we have developed our own unique approaches to problematic behaviour, and most of our close friends and family support this. But outside of this inner sanctum, I am used to having to deal with other people’s often unhelpful responses. The disapproving look when my child is hyper-vigilant in the supermarket or has a meltdown in the queue; being asked to stay home on the day of the school nativity in case he spoils it for everyone else; having fewer playdate invitations than everyone else and being left off party invitation lists. These are all real situations that our family has faced, and we are not alone. 

It’s hard enough when we are there with our kids, giving them parental support through their emotional rollercoasters, but now that they are school aged, we cannot be at their sides all the time, and they have to ride it out in the company of less enlightened peers and educators. The thought of this has been getting me down a lot lately. As they get older, the gaps in our children's emotional development become more obvious, and more problematic within friendships and social situations. While the youngest’s anxieties tend to manifest as toddler-like tantrums and lashing out physically, our eight year old lacks social confidence and her coping mechanisms project as bossiness, giddiness and lack of impulse control. But how can her classmates and their parents be expected to understand what’s behind this, and to feel compassion for her rather than contempt?

It is impossible to explain to every person who crosses our path the complicated reasons behind the way our children behave; that they cannot physically control their impulses because their brains have not developed in the same way as everyone else’s due to early neglect and trauma. Or that they are in the grip of very real feelings of grief, loss and anger about what has happened to them. The saddest thing of all is that when my children are treated as different and get excluded from social situations, it perpetuates their problems. Their self esteem, which was fragile to begin with, takes a further nosedive every time they are rejected or excluded by peers, given a ‘time-out’ by teachers, or experience disdain from total strangers. Low self esteem leads to social angst and this in turn keeps the fright-or-flight part of the brain (the amygdala) in a permanent alarm state, which then leads to more hyper, seemingly out-of-control behaviour. 

I don’t want you to feel sorry for my child because of what has happened to them in the past, I just ask that you try and understand them and why they are like they are now. What they need more than anything is to feel accepted and loved unconditionally, in spite of how they act. Of course we reinforce this all the time at home, but in the wider world they often seem doomed to meet with disapproval and rejection, and I fear for their long-term social integration because of this.

I do understand why people sometimes react the way they do; goodness knows I am frequently baffled by my own children’s actions and have to remind myself to treat their behaviour as a neurological state which needs therapeutic support, rather than as naughtiness that needs to be punished. And this isn’t something that’s exclusive to adopted children. Even adults flip out sometimes as a result of emotional overload, but we tend to be much more supportive of adult mental health problems than we do of our children’s. We expect such a lot of such tiny people, and tell them all the time that they need to suppress their big feelings, rather than give them the tools to express themselves constructively. Many school discipline systems fail to recognise that children are emotionally fragile, still developing beings, and focus too much on threats and bribes in an attempt to control behaviour, rather than addressing the underlying causes or helping them to move forward developmentally. The book Punished by Rewards tackles this widespread educational phenomenon, and I would encourage any headteacher, teacher or school governor who has endorsed the use of Golden Time, Thinking Clouds or Traffic Light systems in classrooms to read it.

Of course children must learn about rules, and need to be given boundaries, but this doesn’t negate the need for compassion and understanding for their underlying emotional distress. Fortunately, thanks to initiatives like the Thrive Approach, things are beginning to change, in schools which embrace this approach at least. But it is not enough to simply bolt this system onto existing practices. The overall mindset of schools and parents needs to shift towards a more empathetic approach, and away from labelling children as “naughty” or “disruptive” - a reputation that is hard to shake off. We need to help our children to manage their feelings, rather than punishing them for having feelings. A reward chart for compliance in class does not address children’s emotional needs, or equip them with the intrinsic motivation to Do The Right Thing.

Due to the sheer amount of time children spend there, schools play a crucial role their pupils’ emotional and moral development, but we as adults in the outside world are responsible, too. Next time you see a child having a public meltdown, or your own child comes home reporting someone else’s “bad” behaviour at school, take a moment to consider your response. Offer empathy and support, rather than disapproval. Since becoming more enlightened about infant neurology through Thrive training and from reading around the subject, I have found it easier to stand back from the midst of an outburst and remind myself what is happening, scientifically speaking, which helps me to take things a lot less personally when I am under attack by my own kids. I now know that there is no point in trying to reason with a child whose brain is locked in fright-or-flight mode. First I must help them return into the thinking part of their brain (the neocortex), and I have strategies up my sleeve to help get them there. I am also comforted by the knowledge that with the right input, young brains can still be developed and neural pathways forged to help them eventually be able to self-regulate.

I was prompted to write this post after reading an article in Psychology Today, which really resonated with my own experiences and aligns with much of the thinking behind the Thrive Approach. I would be interested to hear from others who are parenting with these thoughts in mind, too. Comment here, or tweet me @rowstar.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

He Started School - The End of an Era

My little boy started school last week, and like any parent sending their youngest off in uniform for the first time, I have been awash with a jumble of emotions. The overwhelming feeling has been one of pride for my son, who has come so far and achieved so much after a difficult start in life, and who walked happily and confidently into his new classroom on the first day. But there is also an undeniable sense of loss on my part (and maybe his) for the end of a magical, transformative time, which seems to have ended too soon. He only became my little boy two years ago through adoption, and for all of that time we have been immersed in the business of bonding, nurturing, healing, developing and adventuring together. We made the decision to defer his entry into reception, as he had only been with us a year by the time he was due to go last year, was only just four, and wasn’t ready emotionally or developmentally. I knew he needed more of me, and more time just to be a free spirit, so I put my office career on hold and officially made parenting my day-to-day business. I wrote this post at the time, about becoming a full time parent, after deciding not to return to work when my adoption leave came to an end. It was a big leap, but having seen the incredible progress of my child during that time, I have no regrets. I know I will at some point be able to drop back into the world of paid employment, but children are only tiny once, and he needed me. And it has been so worth it.

Deferring Summer Born Children

During the process of applying for permission to defer our boy from school, we were challenged by certain parties about our motivations, and told that we’d be “holding him back” by keeping him out of school for another year. Then, as now, I maintained that it was more about helping him get ahead than slowing his progress. However wonderful and progressive a school, it can never provide the same level of nurture and care as the one-to-one attention of a loving parent. And this above all was the greatest need of my child at the time. Far from holding up his education, every day that we have spent together has been filled with opportunities for enrichment and learning. There are so many things he can do now that he couldn’t 12 months ago, which I know will help his transition into formal education. Just a few that come to mind…
  • Hold a pen and make identifiable shapes with it
  • Hold and use a pair of scissors
  • Recount events and tell made up stories
  • Play make-believe/role-play games and use his imagination
  • Build simple Lego vehicles
  • Play turn-taking games
  • Ride a balance bike
  • Swing himself on the swings
  • Make meaningful friendships and play happily with other kids
  • Recognise all the letters of the alphabet and a handful of sight words
  • Count to ten
  • Cut up food with a knife and fork
  • Go to the toilet independently and have very few accidents
  • Speak in sentences longer than four or five words
  • Be confident in new situations and when meeting new people
  • Tell you all about medieval history, especially the Battle of Hastings

These may seem like run-of-the-mill achievements for an average five year old, but behind each of these accomplishments are fundamental executive and motor skills that will underpin my son’s school life, and allow him to make progress without the need for any major intervention or support. Had he gone to school a year ago, he would still have needed to acquire many of these, as well as coping with the demands of everyday school life. I am glad to see the option to defer summer born children becoming more straightforward for parents, and would encourage anyone (especially adoptive families) in doubt as to what is right for their child to embrace the opportunity to spend more time together.  Even though it hasn’t always been straightforward or easy, I feel truly blessed to have had the chance to invest in my son wholeheartedly for an extra 12 months, and I would happily do it all over again. 

What Next?

Coming home after dropping him at school, the house feels hollow and eerily quiet. I miss his little footsteps padding about the place, his many questions (to which I try and respond with more questions) and irresistible requests to “play with me mummy?”. I already miss the beat of our little routines - his hand in mind walking round the corner to playgroup, the games we’d play to make supermarket shopping fun, exploring castles, woods and beaches together. Without him here to entertain, I find myself a little lost. “What will you do with yourself now?” is the question on everyone’s lips, and right now I don’t feel I can answer it. Parenthood - for all its ups and downs - has changed me, sent me down paths I had not considered before, and I am not sure I can go backwards from here. Certainly I am not rushing to sit behind a desk again. So for now I am taking a breath, a well-earned break, while I figure out what comes next. 

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Surviving the Summer Holidays - an Adoptive Family’s Guide

The first day of September signals the summer holidays winding down, back to school just around the corner, routine and sanity almost within reach. I’m sure for some parents this brings sadness as a time of fun and leisure comes to an end, but for me the overwhelming feeling at this point is of relief (that we can all get back to normal) and accomplishment (that we made it through with all our limbs in tact and are still smiling). For many families, the prospect of six weeks off school for the kids is a joyous one - escaping the daily grind of the school run, getting a lie-in more than twice a week, spending quality time together - all understandable reasons for relishing this rest from the norm. All these ideas are appealing to me in theory, but for my little brood, who already come with no small amount of baggage, the summer break particularly brings extra challenges and is predominantly an unsettling time. It was at this time of year that they moved from foster care to live with us, and the ghost of that momentous transition seems to loom over us still during the holidays. Even without this historical curveball, mine are kids that thrive on predictability and routine, and being thrown into an seemingly endless abyss of unstructured days is a daunting prospect for them. Add to that the sense of loss and grief of leaving behind school teachers at the end of term, and we find ourselves suddenly launched into the most difficult and emotionally tumultuous time of year. This year has been particularly hard, with both kids starting new schools in September - the youngest for the first time - adding to the mix inevitable anxiety and apprehension about that.

We Made It Through the Wilderness Somehow

We have been together as a family for two years, and this is our third summer together. The first was our honeymoon period, just after they had moved in, and everyone was on best behaviour. Everything was new and exciting, and the kids were caught up in the adventure of it all. Last year, having already experienced the upheaval of half terms in between, I was frankly terrified at the thought of six whole weeks of the same, and without the support of the other half on a daily basis. So I did what I always do when I panic - I made a spreadsheet. You may scoff, but just being able to see the days laid out, and to fill them with playdates, holiday clubs and activities, made me feel instantly calmer. And a calm mummy is a better mummy. Of course there is always room for spontaneity, and many of our plans were flexible enough to accommodate the possibilities of our up-days and the demands of our down-days. I made sure I was seeing other adults on a regular basis (and I thank my friends for indulging my need to plan ahead), and had contingency plans for rainy days. Because in that first year, when I experienced the literal embodiment of the phrase “bouncing off the walls”, staying home all day was just not an option. The Spreadsheet became my comfort blanket for the first summer, and I was already making one for this year by April.

(Predictable) Yeah, that's the word of the year

Being organised about the summer holidays is good for my sanity, but also for the kids, who love to know what is coming up. They will often ask “what are we doing this week?” and repeatedly request to confirm the details of planned activities as they are looming. I always remind them before bed what is happening the next day, and it does seem to physically relax them to be in the know. It also saves on arguments and debates about what we should do, if it has already been decided and declared in advance. If the activity involves meeting new people or places, we will also factor in some familiarisation time (looking at photos or videos, describing the person or place) to avoid anxiety about New Things. Yes, we go to the park a lot, and for walks in the woods or on the Downs, but many of our favourite playground hang-outs become overcrowded and stressful during the summer holidays, and the kids will tire of the same old walks eventually. So we try to be a bit creative and varied in our pursuits, while maintaining enough familiarity to keep things calm.

Back in the Old Routine

The idea of holiday clubs may not be an obvious one for adopted kids, but it works for mine. Having the routine of a repeated activity every day in a week seems to provide something of the stability we otherwise lack once school is out, and has the added advantage of giving the younger child some much needed 1:1 time when the oldest spends the morning doing things like gymnastics, watersports or musical theatre. This year and last, she spent two out of the six weeks at this type of camp, and loved it. It also tires her out physically and gives her something positive into which she can channel those unspent emotions. We’ve also done quite a few one-off activity clubs with both kids - nature and role-play in the woods with Sarah has been a particular favourite.

We are good in the Great Outdoors, and this is where I must put in a special word for the wonderful National Trust. We were gifted a membership not long after we adopted, and have utterly embraced it. We’re lucky enough to have several wonderful places locally (Batemans and Bodiam Castle are our particular favourites), and although each has its unique charms, there is a thread of comforting familiarity about every property that makes a day out at any one of them free from the anxiety that New Places can sometimes otherwise bring. We have more recently joined the Sussex Archaeological Trust, which has extended our repertoire of beautiful nearby locations in which to adventure, including the charming Michelham Priory which seems to become more alluring on each visit. While kids will always nag to visit fairgrounds, water parks, theme parks and other shiny attractions, in reality they are much happier somewhere green and spacious, and so am I. Summer in these idyllic spots brings flowers and wildlife to explore, as well as trails and activities laid on for the kids. It is a great comfort to know that if we are ever at a loss for something to do, I can always whisk us all off to one of these delightful places and almost guarantee that we will all come home feeling better for it.

would be, it would be so nice

Let’s face it, holidays away are not what they used to be. Perhaps more than anything else in post-kids life, I miss the freedom and whimsy of travel without children. I so want my kids to discover the pleasures of exploring other places and cultures, but I have to accept that they are only little and they do love home best. That they have come to cherish their surroundings and miss home so deeply when they are away is a wonderful thing, and something that we don’t want to undermine. Asking them to uproot, even for a short period of time, is a big demand for children who have already experienced so much disruption. But it is nice to get away, and having experimented with various options, we have managed to find ways to cope with being On Vacation. So far we have tried camping, Bed and Breakfast, and self catering, and the latter was by far the most successful. The theory that motorhome camping would provide some kind of comforting familiarity didn’t really work out, and it proved impossible to persuade the kids that sleeping in the back of a van was a sensible and sane thing to do. In a hotel setting, they were unsettled by the presence of other guests in the hallways and footsteps from upstairs, but in self catering we were able to replicate the home routine more closely and create a cosy, quiet sanctuary to return to at the end of each day.

You’ve Got a Friend in Me

The summer holidays are so exhausting, that I usually just feel like downing a glass of wine and crawling into bed once the kids are asleep each night (even more-so than on a regular term time evening!). But I do try and force myself to go out from time to time and see friends. A mental health top-up is as important as physical rest, and I never regret an evening in good company. Likewise, the kids need to keep up with their peers when they’re not at school, and although playdates (especially at home) can be hard work, the pay-off is happier kids with someone to play with on their level, and less anxiety about returning to a class of half-forgotten friends in September. On the flip-side, it can be easy to fall into the trap of seeing too many new people over the summer. Inevitably, family and friends come to town and want to catch up, but I do try to mostly see familiar faces when possible during this time, avoiding the additional emotional highs and lows that new friendships (especially with long-distance friends) can bring. It’s better to introduce new people during normal working hours when everything else is familiar and predictable.

I Will Survive

Surviving your first summer holiday as an adoptive parent feels like one of those Earning Your Stripes milestones, but I am not sure that it gets any easier as the years go by. Like the rest of the year, you have to take one day at a time and not beat yourself up on the bad days - which can feel more frequent and full-on just because you are together so much more. You have to celebrate the good days, and focus on the knowledge that things will get less intense again once term time starts. And when next year rolls around, you’ll be better equipped to keep your family ticking along through the summer break.


I'd love to hear from other adoptive (or otherwise) families on how they cope with the challenges of the summer holidays. Leave me a comment, or tweet @rowstar. Meanwhile, here are my top tips in a handy list...

  • Plan ahead, with room for flexibility.
  • Have rainy day ideas up your sleeve.
  • Go to places that calm your children and you
    (Avoid hectic theme parks and fairgrounds).
  • Replace the routine with clubs and day-camps.
  • Try and make sure siblings each get some 1:1.
  • See close friends as often as possible (yours and theirs).
  • For getaways, choose holiday cottages over camping or B&Bs.
  • Join the National Trust (or English Heritage, or local equivalent).
  • Book a babysitter and get in some evenings out.
  • Give yourself a break when it goes awry. Tomorrow is another day.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

How to Help Your Adopted Children Feel a Sense of Belonging

As far back as I can remember, I have always felt a strong sense of belonging. Even in times when I felt disconnected and excluded at school, or during a brief horrible time of being bullied at work, I knew that I could always return to a familiar, nurturing place called home where I was loved and understood. Feeling that we belong is something most of us take for granted, because it develops naturally through the loving input of our family and friends. For me as a child, it also came from being a part of clubs like Guides, musical theatre and the church choir. As an adult, I have been lucky enough to extend this sense of belonging in the world through close-knit friendship circles, and the loving home I have built with my husband. Even at work (bullying episode notwithstanding), I have been lucky enough to have had supportive and inclusive colleagues who created that same sense of fitting in at work.

But for my two adopted children it is a different story. At a young age they were removed from everything familiar, and spent a long time in the no-mans land of foster care. Even the most loving and nurturing foster parents cannot compensate for the sense of disaffection triggered by such a fundamentally temporary and transient existence. The process of adoption is such a major upheaval in a child’s life, involving so much transition, grief and loss, which can all contribute to a sense of disconnectedness, that in turn leads to anxiety, unhappiness and ultimately, difficult behaviour or emotional withdrawal. Everything I have read from adoptees reflecting in later life tells me that their ongoing issues can often be put down to never feeling part of something, never quite belonging.

"Adoption is outside. You act out what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t belong. And you act it out by trying to do to others what has been done to you. It is impossible to believe that anyone loves you for yourself." Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

For adoptive families today, there is plenty of advice on dealing with the most common issues that we face -  attachment disorders, behavioural problems, developmental delays etc, but my view is that until you can help your child to psychologically integrate their life experiences, none of these other problems can be successfully resolved, either. Part of this process is of course helping children to come to terms with their early life 'before' and to fill in the gaps for them with information about their birth families, and even through contact (direct or letterbox) when this is deemed appropriate. It is hoped that having access to these resources can dispel some of the sense of disconnectedness that comes from leaving behind one family to join another, removing the uncertainty, mystery and curiosity that can be a barrier to true acceptance of the new family. But even with this support, adopted children can continue to flounder between worlds, struggling throughout their lifetime to feel genuinely part of something. I often wonder how my own kids might be feeling about this, or how it will affect them down the line. They are still very young and can't exactly articulate these feelings, but I do sense their presence sometimes, reading between the lines. Every day I ask myself what I can do to increase my children's sense of belonging in our family, to help them fully embrace the now and the future. I've looked to my own childhood and tried to replicate the things that helped me feel grounded, and I do believe it is possible to help this process along without the need for professional intervention. Here are some of the ways that seem to be working for us...

Home Sweet Home

When I visited my children in foster care at the start of our introductions, I was struck by the lack of photos of them in the home, even though they had lived there for two years. It was as if they had been treading water there, without growing any roots. I wanted them to know from the outset that their presence would be completely integrated and fondly celebrated in their new home, and made sure this was visible on the first day they came to visit.

Right from the first days of your introductions with the children, you can help them develop a connection to your home and your family. Take photos of you together during this time, print and frame them to be hung generously around the house before they move in, so that it feels like they have always been there.  Keep building this family gallery as time goes on, making a visual celebration of your lives together. The kids will come with Life Story books of their lives before, but looking forwards and having a record of the now is just as important.

Make their personal spaces feel welcoming and lived-in, too. Much as you will want to present a new and perfect environment for your child, let go a little and make sure familiar possessions are present and integrated – on the bed, floor, etc – as if the child had just left the room.

Home is not just the four walls that surround you at night, it is your neighbourhood, your community, your town. For adopted children arriving in a new and unfamiliar place, developing a connection to their surroundings is another route towards the feeling of fitting in. Share your love of special local places with your kids, and build shared memories there. Whether it is a park, favourite café, walk, beach or country house. Discovering new places together and visiting them often is also a wonderful bonding experience that allows your children to feel invested in their new lives. We were gifted a National Trust membership in the early months of the placement, and have used it frequently as a springboard for family adventures. A couple of places in particular have quickly become firm favourites that we love to go back to, and can reminisce about previous visits each time.

The More We Get Together, The Happier We Feel

The adoption authorities will hammer home how important it is to keep your kids focused on you – the adoptive parents – for the first weeks and months of the placement, and to avoid overwhelming them with new people. There are good reasons behind this theory, but it should not be at the expense of developing the children’s sense of belonging as soon as possible. I quickly realised how much my kids craved friendship with peers and enjoyed being a part of other people’s lives. Our eldest especially had left behind meaningful friendships and was grieving these as well as the loss of everything else she’d known.

I wanted my children to understand that their lives would be rich with love and support not just from us, but from our friends and family, too. After a few weeks of ‘hunkering down’ we carefully opened up our social life to a few close friends, mainly those with kids of a similar age and who could be a regular and reliable presence in our kids’ lives. We have been fortunate enough to include in this a couple of other adoptive families, which dilutes some of the sense of difference our kids may feel and gives them peers with whom they can share a unique affinity. Having this extended support network on hand was a complete life-saver for me in difficult times, and helping the kids to make friends quickly does seem to have boosted their confidence, and acceptance of their new lives.

Although it has been awkward at times, we’ve avoided introductions with long-distance friends and family, or those who cannot make a regular commitment to seeing the kids. We want the people in whom they invest to be consistent and familiar, not scattered and unpredictable. I'm thankful that the friends who’ve been involved have been very sensitive about the particular etiquette needed around newly adopted kids, so that their presence in no way compromises the attachment between us and the children.

Photo by John D, Flickr

Remember That Time We…

...So goes the familiar refrain of family gatherings around the world. The ability to recall and celebrate shared memories is something that keeps families feeling connected, and the same goes for those little traditions that are unique to your own family, often borne out of such memorable times. The sooner you can establish special family traditions with your adopted kids, the better. In our house we have the weekly ritual of family pizza night on a Friday, when we all sit down to eat together and get excited about the weekend to come. The kids burst with excitement every week when they are allowed to delve into the near-mythical sweetie tin after dinner and pick a little treat. Even small things like inventing your own silly lyrics to songs, or making up games for car journeys, can all act like little anchors to the family unit. Kick start the sense of a shared history by reminiscing about shared events, even if they only happened a week ago, and encourage the children to tell these stories themselves.

Space to Reflect

Giving your kids space to explore issues of belonging through books and films is a healthy way to tap into any repressed feelings they may be having, without confronting them directly. We have discovered many wonderful books that touch on the issue without being preachy, or overtly about adoption. I have included my favourites in the reading list below.

Ask for Their Help

The feeling of being needed is a big part of fitting in to any dynamic – whether it be with family, friends or at work. Being given responsibility is also a signal that you are trusted and valued, so giving kids tasks like feeding the cat, sorting the odd socks, laying the table, or putting away toys lets them know they have a valid role in the household and are contributing to it in visible, practical ways.

Tell Them They Matter

To a person who has never experienced Love before, the words ‘I Love You’ can feel empty, unless validated with reasons why. More than Those Three Little Words, adopted kids want to hear that they are wanted and welcome. Don’t take it for granted that they feel this, tell them every day, every night at bedtime “I’m so happy you are here. Our family feels complete with you in it" or “I had a great time with you today. You are wonderful company to be around.” I hope that by telling my children what it feels like to have them around, I am helping them believe in their very significant place in our little world.


At eighteen months in, I am a relatively new adoptive parent, and I know I have a lot still left to learn. We face many challenges every day, and no doubt these will only get more complex as the children grow, but most days it feels like we are at least getting something right. I have watched my kids grow in confidence, become loyal friends and loving family members, relish their beautiful surroundings, and relax into our home. I think, I hope, they already have some sense of belonging here, and I trust that this will keep them grounded in the years to come.

I’d love to hear from other adoptive families on this subject. How have you helped your kids to feel they belong? Leave me a comment, or tweet @Rowstar with your stories.