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.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Beauty and the Beastlies - Speaking up Against Trolling in the Beauty Vlogosphere

Anyone who sees me un-madeup and flustered on the daily school run may be surprised to learn that I am something of a beauty product enthusiast. Though I don’t bother to slap it on for the benefit of the kids and fellow parents at the school gates, I love make-up and its ability to make a weary mummy feel moderately glamorous for a rare night out, to enhance and show off one’s favourite features (cheekbones and eyes in my case), and purely for the artistic pleasure of creating and experimenting. During my three years at The Body Shop HQ, I learned an awful lot about skincare and make-up, and was lucky enough to work with some of the industry’s leading make-up artists, beauty bloggers and vloggers, not to mention the talented store staff with whom I collaborated to create inspiring beauty video content.

Since departing from that world professionally, I have continued to take an interest from afar. I regularly watch YouTube videos, though very rarely comment and interact. One of the reasons for my silence is that I cannot bear to associate myself with the frankly horrifying level of vitriol that pervades the YouTube comment boxes of beauty vloggers (and no doubt in other areas, too). Many of these young people face a daily onslaught of hateful words, criticising their looks, views, personalities, sexual orientation and anything else the perpetrators can think of to slam. Thankfully there are usually plenty of positive comments to balance out the hate, and most of the vloggers try to focus on these and ignore the haters. But sometimes it goes too far, and they are compelled to speak out. I was terribly saddened to see this recent video from make-up artist Wayne Goss, in response to the highly personal attacks to which he has been subjected online.


I’m a big fan of Wayne’s for many reasons, and having seen this video, felt the need to throw some positive vibes his way. He is a brilliant make-up artist, and in my view, the best source of practical, useable make-up tips and hacks on YouTube. Though I really enjoy watching other artists like the Chapmans and Lisa Eldridge creating amazing make-up looks for all occasions on their channels, really what I am after is little everyday tricks to boost my usual regime. As a 40 year old who's been using cosmetics since my teens, I have experimented plenty, and am not about to drastically change the way I do my make-up, but I do appreciate the expert knowledge that allows me to keep improving techniques and adapting to the challenges of a face that is growing older. I love watching Wayne’s videos precisely because he is not a flawless 20-something woman to whom I will inevitably compare myself. I take his advice on face value (no pun intended), and if I were to comment on his (or anyone else’s) videos it would be to ask a follow-up question, leave an appreciative remark, or to add to the conversation in some other productive fashion. When the comment box starts being used as a forum to criticise and attack the individual, we have a problem. 

I cannot understand what makes people think it is OK to abuse others online, when I doubt they would ever dream of doing the same in a real word context. Imagine sitting in the hairdresser’s and saying everything negative that came to mind about the person cutting your hair. You just wouldn’t. Even if you dislike their choice of clothes, or think their laugh is too screechy, you keep it to yourself; it’s called internal dialogue. Of course there is a place for constructive criticism, but there is a big difference between saying you didn’t like the make-up look someone created, and attacking them personally for being too thin. These are human beings with feelings, and such behaviour is directly damaging to their self esteem and mental health. 

Perhaps it’s because so much of the hatred goes unchecked that this toxic culture continues to seep across the web. I admire Wayne, and others like Becky, for having the courage to stand up to the bullies, and I hope that the rest of the beauty industry will do more in future to take a proactive stance against the dark side of this otherwise glitzy world. The Body Shop’s history of ‘activating self-esteem’ makes it the ideal brand to take the lead, so I call to my former colleagues to support the victims of this online abuse. How will you educate the offenders, highlight this culture of hate and help beautify the very culture of the beauty vlogosphere? Because clearly ignoring it is not making it go away.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Don't Call Me a Stay-at-Home Mum: Reflections on Becoming a Full Time Parent

When I think back to my childhood, I feel lucky to have had constant love and security, and to have grown up in a fun-filled, happy home. On paper it may not have seemed like a perfect lot, and like any family there were ups and downs, but most of my memories are good ones. This is largely to do with the unwavering presence of my mother, who raised us pretty much single-handedly, but was steadfast, nurturing and kind. She chose not to work during our infancy, and so my siblings and I benefitted from a great deal of one-to-one attention. I was taught to read and write before starting school, and was initiated into the complex world of social interaction through the supportive and regular circle of friends with whom we would spend time.

Me in the 70s, in my happy place.
From this experience, I can personally vouch for the advantages of having a full time parent, although I am by no means against the idea of working mums. It is such a thorny issue, and one that I have recently wrangled with myself, as I started my own journey into parenthood. On the one hand, I wanted my kids to have the same advantages that I had, but what about my career, my needs? I had worked solidly for 15 years before my children came along, and I couldn’t imagine giving up all that I had achieved to become a housewife. I had planned to take my full year of adoption leave and then return to work when my youngest child started school (which fortunately coincided with the end of my leave).

But adoptive parenthood is far from straightforward, and as it turned out when the time came, the summer-born little one was not quite ready for school. We were thankfully able to defer him for a year, after applying to the local authority for permission (for more on this subject, visit, then I was faced with the choice of what to do about work. I really loved my job and was truly torn, but I knew in my heart that the right thing to do was to give my son a little more of me. I had already missed three years of his childhood, and our first year together had flown by in a blur of emotions and adjustment. Now I had really started to get to know him, I wanted to build on this intimacy and trust. So I took a deep breath and gave myself over to motherhood, 100%.
Our family, as depicted in Lego by my seven year old daughter.
I can understand why many women need or want to return to work after having a baby. Parenting is tiring and confusing, and you pine for an environment in which you feel confident and valued. You miss the mental stimulation and adult company. Not to mention the salary. But when it comes to making that choice about whether to go back, I do believe most of us know instinctively what is best for our child, in our individual situations. There is a balance to be had between one’s own well-being and the needs of the child. And for those babies lucky enough to be born into a safe, loving home, with strong attachments to their parents, there may be no long term detriment to having some time apart from the mother. I think women should be able to choose the path that works best for their family, and to feel it is a valid choice, without being judged either way.

Leaving behind a lucrative and rewarding career to be a full-time parent may seem like a huge sacrifice, but I see this time less as a career break, more as a new venture that will ultimately enrich my arsenal of life and work skills. Certainly, bringing up my two special and complicated little people is no less challenging or stimulating than marketing books or beauty products, and I embrace the new skills and knowledge that I’m acquiring along the way. I’m learning more than ever before about negotiation, persuasion, time management, planning and teaching, and I’m changing as a person with every new parenting experience. Far from distancing me from vocational aspirations, it is opening my eyes to new possibilities and future career paths I may not have otherwise considered. I do miss bantering with colleagues, but I'm making new friends through the children, building lasting connections with others who are in the same proverbial parenting boat.

So why do I still feel awkward and like I have to justify myself when people ask me what I do for a living? Maybe it’s because of the labels associated with being a full time parent. There needs to be a better description for this life choice than ‘Stay At Home Mum’, because that makes it sound so boring and restrictive, and doesn’t come close to encapsulating all that full-time parenting entails. For me it’s also technically inaccurate because if I can possibly help it, I’m rarely At Home with the kids. We prefer to be running free in the woods, paddling in rock pools, climbing trees or scooting down the seafront. So how should I describe myself these days? Free-range mum? Progressive parent? Adventurer in Chief? Seriously though, you wouldn’t write ‘Sitting At A Desk Person’ on your CV, so why shouldn’t full time parents have a title that better defines their role? Perhaps it’s because parenting is in fact more than one role – it’s like running an entire company. A really weird and hectic company with tiny, shrill little customers.

Surely I can put 'Expert train track and marble run constructor' on my CV?
And this is partly why I don’t feel intimidated about returning to the workforce at some point down the road - because I’m keeping my brain ticking over by doing what is arguably the most significant and varied job in the world. As was ever the case back in the office, I want to do my best and make a success of this role. I take the job seriously, and as I only have another ten months at home with my boy before he starts school, I need to make every second count. Yes, there is monotony and repetition (do I really have to run the washing machine again?), not to mention the snot, tears, mess and angst, but there is also magic, wonder, adventure and love. And that’s not something that you get in the office every day.