Breakfast In Bed

Monday, September 05, 2022

Trauma Parenting and Loneliness

Last night I barely slept. Tears soaked my pillow in the wee small hours, as I attempted to stifle any sound for fear of disturbing the happily sleeping body next to me. Several times I got out of bed, trying to break the insomnia cycle, to banish the toxic cycle of intrusive thoughts. But pacing around in the bleak silence of a slumbering household, those thoughts continued to fold over and over in my mind. 

This summer has been hard. The past eight years have been hard, but summer holidays amplify all the tribulations of family life. We are collectively thrown by the lack of routine and the pressures of filling endless days. And this year I have had the onset of perimenopause - and with it crippling anxiety and mood swings - to contend with as well. Today is the last day of this seemingly infinite slog, and the past six weeks have come crashing down on me. 

This family we have made: four broken souls with loss and grief in their hearts, finding each other, stumbling through together and trying our best to make it work. So much love, but so much hurting, too. In the beginning there was more support, but that has faded, especially since the pandemic when everyone else has been riding out their own rollercoaster. 

 Sustaining friendships while parenting children with trauma is hard. You are spent from absorbing all their angst, exhausted from helping them just get through the day in a world which overwhelms them. Others don't see it because often to the outside world the kids smooth over their emotions and behaviours, to fit in. But at home it flows freely: all the pain and disconnectedness spews out and envelops the nearest other beings, the ones whose love can be trusted. 

You have nothing left to give, and when you do see people, it is hard to connect. You feel like you're no fun to be around. So friendships inevitably wither, leaving behind an aching loneliness, more loss and grief to ride out. You torment yourself looking at photos online, of friends who used to include you, having fun without you. You understand why they have left you behind, because you haven't been a good friend, you haven't been there for them when they needed you. Because you couldn't. But still it is painful and you wish you could slip back into that carefree, comfortable zone. Being at the front of people's minds, top of their invite list, instead of a sad and depleted person who brings everyone down. You want to be a good friend again, you try to find that person inside. You want to tell them you still love and think about them, and need their friendship and support more than ever, but you don't know how to ask for help. Instead you bury it all down and and take a deep breath. 

You wonder how you'll keep going, but somehow, you do. Because the children need you. 

A scant few hours of sleep eventually found me. I woke with the sun, feeling hollow and raw. Hoping for a good day to heal the pain. Reaching for some hidden inner strength and a second cup of tea. He goes off to work and I am left alone with it all again. What will today bring? A spark of spontaneous joy? An unexpected hug? Some sibling harmony? A text from an old friend? I can but hope. But meanwhile, the show must go on and it will.

Monday, September 21, 2020

I Don't Want To, But I Will

I don't want to distance from my friends

I don't want to wear a mask to the shops 

I don't want to go without hugs from family

I don't want to santise my hands all the time

I don't want my kids to miss out

I don't want to skip celebrating birthdays

I don't want to acquiesce 

But I will

I will do all this

And whatever else is asked of me

If it makes a difference 

If it speeds relief

Because there are greater things at stake 

Than my own wants and needs

And I won't use the failures of politicians 

To excuse my own behaviour 

Through this unimaginable ordeal

I will teach my kids about 





I will conquer my own fears

And soothe theirs

I will help them understand the value

Of the greater good

I will hold them extra tight

And love them extra hard

And when it is over 

We will know that we did all we could

Not for ourselves, but for each other

For those we love

And for the beautiful world around us

We will remember that we did it together 

That we strived and persevered

It wasn't easy; but we tried

And you? 

When it is over

When anguish gives way to clarity 

When the mist evaporates

And the clouded mirror

Reveals a crisp reflection once more

When your former self stares deep

Into the eyes of the new you

What will you know of each other? 

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Creativity in the Face of Insanity

Pandemic. Sounds like something that someone else lives through. Someone in a book or a film. Not us; surely not us. Yet here we all are, four months into a calamitous and daunting existence, socially distanced from our friends and family, watching from afar as livelihoods crumble and people unravel amidst the uncertainty of it all.

I spent the first few weeks of 'lockdown' soldiering through with a calm, practical, maternal mindset. Making sure we had enough food, keeping the children exercised and entertained. When we knew we just had to stay home to keep everyone safe, it was simple and straightforward. Not nice; but easy enough.

Then the rules started to change, and I began to feel a fizzing anxiety creeping in. Suddenly we were allowed to go places again and see people, if still maintaining our distance. But everyone seemed to be responding differently to the new rules, and it felt horribly confusing. Friendships suddenly felt fragile and precarious. The sensation of unknown adventure which we'd managed to maintain at first was quickly fading, to be replaced by the harsh realisation that this wasn't as temporary as we'd assumed. And with that, came a bleak feeling of claustrophobia and unease.

Right now, I am up and down on a daily basis. Some days, the sun will be shining and the kids just being kids in the great outdoors, and everything feels OK. Then I remember I still can't hug my mum, or go to the theatre, or enter a shop without a mask, and the weight of it falls back down on me like a ton of bricks.

The only way I've been able to quieten my frantic thoughts is by channeling my mind into creative pursuits. It doesn't always work, because the motivation ebbs and flows, much like the optimism. But with the help of willing collaborators, I have been able to at least complete a few little fun projects, which feel like an achievement under the circumstances, and will be something to look back on in years to come when we talk about what happened.

The day that we decided to lock down as a family (a week before the official lockdown), I had the idea to start a family podcast, which would record this unusual time for posterity. At the beginning, we were recording our activities and thoughts daily, but as time has gone on and the lockdown has eased, it has become more like once or twice a week. But listening back to old episodes is a reminder that family life has carried on in all its gritty, silly, ordinariness. And that is a comfort. Here's the latest episode. You can click on the title 'Bouncing Before Breakfast' to find the rest.

One of my first video projects was a topical parody of a Gilbert and Sullivan Song 'With Cat Like Tread', which I wrote and produced with the help of members of Eastbourne Gilbert and Sullivan Society:

This was followed by a silent movie style short film, also featuring G&S friends: 

All of this was making me miss performing, and a few weeks into the lockdown, I had the idea to do a play reading with some fellow thesps via Zoom, which I recorded and published as a radio play. It was really fun, so we did a few more. You can listen to them all on Soundcloud:

Singing has always been therapy to me, and I've tried to make time to use my voice while stuck at home. Lucy and I enjoyed learning this duet from Patience, and performing together virtually:

I also co-wrote this Covid-themed Mikado spoof with Adrian, although I still don't know why he decided to wear goggles:

My friend Erika (who lives in the US) had her 40th during the lockdown, and requested that people send her videos instead of presents, so I came up with this:

I'm conscious that all of this output seems fairly frivolous in the face of the global situation, and I've been trying to figure out how to express my true feelings about it all, in a more sincere way. I think it's going to take a while to process it, and to find the words to adequately articulate how it has felt, and the effect it has had - and will continue to have - on our lives.

Meanwhile, I hope these small offerings bring a smile, if nothing else. I've taken great pleasure in seeing other people's creativity explode all over the internet over the past few months, proving that although the arts industry may be drastically battered and bruised by what has happened, nothing will stop human beings creating and performing. It may take a long while for life to get back to normal, and for the arts industry to recover, but theatre will endure; it will find a way.

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.