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.

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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.
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