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.