Monthly Archives: December 2014

Looking Back, Looking Forward

As 2014 draws to a close it is appropriate to look back to the highs and lows of the past year, and to our hopes and fears for the year to come. Here are some of them.Unknown-1

 Looking Back

  • Billy getting kicked out of his public boarding school in March 2014, shortly before his GCSE exams. Quite a low as it looked as if he might leave education for good at that point with no qualifications. His mental health would have plummeted. The silver lining was that we were spared having to find a term’s fees. He did go into school to sit a couple of GCSEs, but did no revision and had very odd sleep patterns so was tired. Not surprisingly he didn’t perform well. At least he scraped an English Language GCSE, which will stand him in good stead. The Sixth Form College offered him a place for a Level 2 course as he didn’t have the qualifications, or maturity and study skills, to go on to A’ Levels or equivalent.
  • A high point was the National Citizenship Service scheme for 16-17 year olds run by the College for four weeks in July. After three months spent mostly in bed, Billy managed against all expectations to rally himself and take part in the scheme, which was a great success. He made friends, joined in the activities, and enjoyed it. We managed to get him back each Monday morning, which we hadn’t really expected. He misjudged things at the end and smashed up one of the buses, which we had to pay for. The staff dealt with it and he never mentioned it to us nor we to him. We were grateful for their professionalism.
  • Another low – being told by a friend’s mum via Facebook that at 15 Billy had got girl pregnant. He had met her online and only met her twice. To our great relief there was no sign of the girl actually having a baby, and the relationship didn’t last long. Whatever she told him, and whatever did or did not happen to the unconfirmed pregnancy, the due-date passed without any sign of an infant. I did manage to establish that the girl was known to social services and that she was being monitored, as if there were a baby it might well be at risk. There was a sense of déjà vu, as if Billy was determined to replicate the circumstances of his birth, but he seems to have been given a bit longer to grow up before taking on the responsibilities of parenthood.
  • A very important part of 2014 was Jo’s continued journey from boy to girl. A decisive moment was the intervention of the clinicians from the gender clinic, who came down to her school. The new head had decided to change the school uniform, and I had discussed with Jo the possibility of going back after Spring half term in the new girl’s uniform. She has always hated being dressed as a boy at school, and was really pleased at the idea, although understandably nervous about people’s reactions. The staff hadn’t anticipated things moving so quickly, but were open to the notion that moving too slowly also had dangers for Jo, who needed a sense of forward momentum. Over the half term she changed her name by deed poll, and we cleared out all her boy clothes. The girls’ games clothes, kilt and blouses were duly purchased and named. The biggest problem was and is the shoes, as she is at least a 9 UK size, in some makes 9 ½ or 10 in trainers. I don’t know if you have tried buying women’s shoes that size, let alone black leather school shoes that don’t look as if they are made for hiking. Most stop at 7 or 8. We did discover that Clarkes have a limited range of 9s in female styles, thank goodness!
  • Jo finished her six-month’s assessment at the Gender Clinic, and its up to her now to move on to the next stage, which is a physical examination and hormone blockers. She is scared of injections and having blood taken and nervous of the physical, so hasn’t kept any of the appointments so far. A high point was the two trans-teen groups she attended at the Tavi, and the three mentoring sessions she has had with people from Gendered Intelligence (see the links page for details).
  • Other domestic news – a third dog joined the family on a permanent basis, an 8 year-old Pointer. We’d been walking and looking after her now and then for about a year since her owner died, but she joined us for good in May. Three dogs is a bit of a pack, and being tall and clever she can open all the doors and pinch anything she likes off the counter. We have a regime of locks, but are still greeted regularly by three enthusiastic dogs rushing from the back to the front of the house when they hear the car engine. Fortunately they all get on well with one another.

 

Looking Forward

  • Where do we want to be this time next year? It would be great if Billy had completed his first year of college successfully and moved on to a two year A’ level equivalent course. He would like to share a flat with a friend next year instead of lodging with a local family during the week (the college is too far away for a daily commute) – a big jump but who knows? He has made great strides in terms of settling in, getting himself up in the mornings and keeping out of trouble (more or less).
  • We’d love to see Jo continue on her path with confidence – probably with the help of the hormone blockers as she will be 15 in 2015 and her body is becoming noticeably more masculine, which distresses her. She has to wait until 16 for the feminising hormones, but also needs to be on the blockers for a year first, so needs to get a move on. She can of course stay as she is, but our fear would be that the self-harming, usually cuts with a knife or razor on her arms and legs, would carry on if she feels she is stuck with a body she doesn’t like. It would also be great to see her find the head-space to do some schoolwork. She wants to so some sort of post 16 course, but at the present rate won’t achieve any qualifications at all. She has the ability to pass a few exams, especially in more practical subjects, but needs to find the energy to apply herself to it, and there isn’t much spare at the moment.
  • Some funds to undertake essential repairs would go in handy – the family bathroom is ceasing up and needs replacing, and a door fell off the kitchen cupboard for the umpteenth time. I came back from walking the dogs to see that Jo had left a note to that effect. The boiler isn’t working properly and anyway is underpowered for the size of the housIMG_1796e. There are holes punched in doors and walls and bathroom floors and tiles are all stained. Fortunately we are not particularly house-proud, you can’t be with kids with tempers, but it does get me down at times. I wonder whether one can crowd-fund essential repairs? And what’s really essential anyway? I guess offering a safe and loving environment is still the number one priority for 2015, so a very Happy New Year to everyone.

Birth Mother

imageWe made it to the station with less than a minute to spare. The train was waiting on the platform. I gave Billy and his friend Edgar a quick hug and told them to run. I texted to ask whether they were on the train but got no response. I waited 10 minutes to make sure they weren’t still on the platform, then texted Billy’s birth mum to let her know that they are on their way.

It’s a momentous ending to 2014. It will be the first time Billy’s mum has ever had all six of the children she carried for 9 months and gave birth to under one roof. There was a seventh child, the first-born, who died as a baby. All seven were born by cesarean section, so the toll on Billy’s still young, very pretty and lovely mother must have been pretty heavy. I have tried imagining her feelings and thoughts at having all her children together, but don’t really know where to begin. The family represent a mini United Nations. The six children have four different fathers, two from the UK and two born overseas. Some of the family are brought up as strict cultural Muslims and others are  loosely Roman Catholic. Some have moved between the two. Some are small, with dark skin, brown eyes and black hair. Billy and his baby brother are stocky, fair and blue-eyed. The children don’t all know each other, although Billy has met them all before separately.  He only saw his ‘follower’, exactly a year younger than him, once, briefly. They were shy and didn’t say much to each other but shared mannerisms and had the same way of exhibiting nervousness. On a second visit only Billy’s elder sister turned up as his brother was still in bed. That too could have been Billy, so their teenage closeness in age as well as genetics is a common factor. This lad was brought up by his father’s sisters in London, so his mother has seen little of him either. Billy has photos of them all in his bedroom at home, and used to pin them around his bed in boarding school. I have heard social workers say that if children are not brought up together they can’t be said to have a relationship. True in some respects, but it has always been clear to us that Billy’s birth family are very, very important to him. The same can be said of Jo, also from a large family. To only hear of the birth of new siblings via foster parents or by other routes can be hurtful. There is a long way to go in terms of social work practice in the UK catching up with what birth family contact could and does mean for adopted or fostered children.

So my thoughts today are with Billy and his other family. I have done all I can in terms of setting up the visit, buying train tickets, booking rooms for the night, finding taxi cab numbers, making sandwiches, wrapping gifts and providing enough cash for a meal tonight for a large family, and for any contingencies.  The rest is up to them.

Good Enough Parenting

It is always good to get a pat on the back. Neither Billy nor Jo are programmed to say “Thank You!” or show outward gratitude. They are still operating at a much younger level than their chronological years in many respects. Most of life is self-referential. ‘How does this affect me?’ ‘Am I safe?’ ‘Can I get away with it?’ Luckily we don’t parent in order to get these rewards, although learning to say “Thank You” is a useful skill they will hopefully acquire along the way.

aeroplane-in-sunsetI was therefore very touched by Edgar’s Christmas card message, which I read this morning (having got back from Heathrow at 1am). The plane had been delayed and the baggage took an age, then Billy insisted that he and Edgar go to the smoking area before we left, overshooting our two hours of parking. Pricey, but it was very good to see Edgar again after about six months absence. The message read:

 You can’t believe how happy I am to be with you now!…

It’s been AMAZING those 2 years with you all!!

My grades have luckily gone up a bit. I hope Billy is on his right path too….

I remember the first time I came over… we had Domino’s, MacDonald’s and KFC in one weekend, haha! ­Jolly good (splendid!).

Maybe Billy could come over to [X] again sometime again?

I just want to thank you all again for everything you have done for me… you can’t believe what it means to me (honestly, those 2 years have been the best in my life yet).

So enough talking, let’s celebrate 2015!

Lots of love, kind regards, yours sincerely etc.

Edgar

 The envelope was endearingly addressed: To the most splendid family on this planet!

It is good to know we have made some difference to this young man’s life. He hasn’t had it easy either, and lacks the stable family background Billy and Jo have enjoyed. I guess we are all damaged in one way or another. Sometimes its very visible – a broken leg, a congenital disability. In others it’s hidden; a neurological and emotional handicap from a difficult start in life, even before birth. Others are damaged by dysfunctional relationships, a lack of love, or extreme poverty. Edgar was part of our family  when Jo began her public gender transition. Her first attempts to go out as a girl were a little extreme. She hadn’t had much practice and didn’t have a big choice of clothes. She had not decided on the look she wanted to achieve. The first time Edgar was sitting at breakfast and Jo came into the kitchen as a girl his spontaneous remark was “That’s disgusting!” We probably hadn’t forewarned him, which I did subsequently with all Billy’s friends. Jo was understandably upset and retreated to her room. I had a word with Edgar about gender transition and how important it was to support Jo, especially as Billy was being as unkind to her and as difficult as possible. Edgar took it on board and from then on was kind and, at least in our company, was careful not to say anything inappropriate. He made an effort to adapt his language to the change of name and gender.

I was amused to have my lack of domestic skills set out in a series of fast-food outlets. If I read that about someone else I would probably be making judgements about the sort of family who just stuff the kids with junk food rather than sit round the table eating nutritious home-cooked meals. I do try to do that too, but especially when they have friends over we are often trying to keep so many balls in the air, treading on eggshells, trying to keep the kids apart and prevent a meltdown. Giving-in to requests for over-priced Domino’s pizza, or getting a MacDonald’s after a trip to the cinema or on the way back to school, can be a small price to pay for some happily occupied and relatively compliant children.

Not So Holy Innocents

images-1I could hear the church bells coming up the hill from the neighbouring town while letting the chickens out. That answered the question as to whether there was a service there today. In our parish the vicar has a day off after the Christmas festivities. The Sunday after Christmas celebrates the Holy Innocents – the infants under the age of two killed by King Herod, on hearing the news from the Magi that a king had been born in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago. I contemplated the many innocents still being killed today through war, hunger, persecution, neglect, accidents and natural disasters. Ten years ago thousands were killed by a Tsunami in South East Asia, and today another airliner disappeared with all its passengers. This evening Billy and I are going to Heathrow Airport in London to meet a former school friend who is coming to stay for the rest of the holidays. I pondered too how Billy and children like him can so easily be both victims and aggressors.

It was in Year 10, having returned to school after a long absence, that Billy got into trouble on a school trip. I dread the phone call from someone in authority – although it is not always bad news. My first thought is always, “ what have they done now?” A call late at night from Billy’s housemaster in Spain was not propitious. Billy had apparently threatened someone with a knife, bad enough, but had also spent all his pocket money on the ferry going out on vodka. Another kid had bought hundreds of cigarettes, but got away with it. The vodka was used to host a party for kids from their school and others at their hotel, plus some local layabouts. Not surprisingly the staff didn’t appreciate having to deal with it, or the inevitable calls to parents to let them know that their children were in ‘deep-shit’ (excuse the language). Billy was lucky not to be expelled on that occasion (but was subsequently). His period of suspension was accompanied by some on-line bullying from peers who wanted him to be chucked out and made their antipathy to Billy clear. This was a form of persecution that, following prolonged bullying previously, was deeply destructive for Billy. The friend coming to stay, who I will call Edgar, was the only one who stuck up for Billy on-line and stood by him in person. We did observe that Billy didn’t appear to be asked to the homes of any of the English kids, nor were they allowed to come to visit or stay with Billy, so he was dependent on overseas boarders for company. We can only assume that he was regarded as a bad influence on their kids, as he had been quite popular in Years 7 & 8. We could only speculate as none of the parents would say anything and we didn’t like to ask directly, but the assumption had to be he had been dealing drugs. We never had any direct proof, only hints from conversations.

So one houseguest despatched, the spare room cleaned and bed remade, we look forward to Edgar’s arrival. He spent most weekends and some holidays with us for about a year and a half, so it will be good to have him around again. He once said rather endearingly that staying with us was better than a 5* hotel, so the pressure was on to keep up the cooked breakfasts. We could at least provide a break from the routines of boarding school. We were thankful to Edgar for sticking with Billy when he was expelled. Billy had also been invited to stay with Edgar on a couple of occasions, although by all accounts didn’t behave particularly well. I’m not too thrilled that Edgar is apparently bringing Billy a sheesha (hookah), as the last oneBilly brought back with him from Edgar’s I threw in the bin, along with anything used for smoking. The quid pro quo was that we would buy 25 grams of tobaccoUnknown-1 a week. I don’t smoke, don’t want the children to smoke, and don’t approve of smoking. But given that Billy is going to do it anyway, we would rather know what he is taking and have some control over it. How we will deal with the sheesha I’m not sure as it hasn’t arrived as yet.

OK, time to inspect the bathroom before leaving for the airport. Just hope that Billy hasn’t been planning a drug-fuelled few days with his friend (it has happened before) while I try to get my head around his neglected coursework due in when he gets back to college next week.

We’ve Done It!

2094143354_f725a27b90Home again in one piece. We could say “best Christmas ever”. The children behaved well – some things really do get easier with time. There were a series of firsts:

1. First time they packed their own overnight bags. Jo’s ‘bag’ consisted of a duvet with ‘bunbun’ (very worn, grubby, once-white rabbit who has been a transitional objects since she was a baby),  a ‘dodo’ (dummy/pacifier – yes, at 14, sorry about that but we can’t wean her off it), a nighty and maybe some other clothes but definitely no toothbrush. Billy did have a change of clothes but didn’t actually change them. Never mind. It’s progress.

2. First time they both arrived at my sister-in-law’s fully dressed. Jo used to travel in a nightdress wrapped up in the duvet. It may have been that living as a boy she couldn’t stand wearing boy-clothes. She had begged for some of my old nighties when I stopped buying her nightdresses of her own. She is now back in girl’s clothes. To be fair she has never worn boy clothes if she had any choice. When the only dress she had was a nightdress she would wear that as soon as she removed her school uniform, day and night, and refuse to be seen in public.

3. First time they both sat at table for Christmas dinner for an hour or more. It didn’t matter that they didn’t make it to the pudding stage without leaving the room. Jo did play with the candles and insist on pulling crackers while we were eating, but as she does not like eating with people watching her and finds it hard to sit still, she rose admirably to the challenge.

4. First time the children put themselves to bed without help. There was no fighting about who went where, no calls for a referee, no hours trying to get Jo settled, no pleas to go home, no tears or tantrums. Just as well as Tony had hurt his hip and was on painkillers and plentiful quantities of alcohol, which seemed to do the trick, but it would have been up to me to sort out the kids. As it was, I was hardly needed. Having been up so early they were both asleep by 8pm.

5. First time they were up, dressed, packed (sort of) and patiently waiting to go home without anyone arguing or fighting. They were ready to leave by 9am but waited more or less patiently until after 1pm. Billy managed to hold a conversation, and Jo didn’t feel the need to interrupt whenever my attention wasn’t on her. They waited with some anxiety while the five adults had a good family political argument, as Jo would have it, or discussion as we would say, for a couple of hours – all in good nature. The world is a scary place for Billy and Jo, and we need to spend time reassuring them that most people are good and that the world is basically a safe place. They don’t seem to have much grasp of when people are exchanging opinions and when it’s a personal attack and aggressive. Hopefully we can model that its OK to have different opinions without disliking people or falling out. Unfortunately the world isn’t really safe for everyone, but thankfully that is our reality, at the moment at least.

6. First time that, even though tired, they made it to bedtime without having a bust-up. Jo left Billy’s room when Tony asked her to – at Billy’s request. The emphasis on not fighting may seem overdone, but inter-sibling violence has  been a major source of stress in our lives for many years, and its absence something to celebrate. Billy will generally wind Jo up, verbally at first, and she will react. The whole point, as Billy would tell us frequently, was to make her behave so badly that we would send her away and he would have us to himself. He could never believe that we had enough love for Jo as well as for him. As Jo learns not to react to his taunts, the incentive for Billy to provoke her declines. As adults they can choose to have nothing to do with one other, but while they live under the same roof it is great not to have to constantly intervene. We spend much of our time and energy anticipating trouble, and picking up the pieces afterwards.

Its 8pm on Boxing Day and we have had 48 hours of exemplary behaviour. Long may it last.

So Far So Good!

imageimage

All mothers have to be project managers, but never more so than with adopted children. There are so many potential minefields. We have made it to Christmas morning. The ex-battery hens, rescued from the churchyard where they had survived in the wild for some weeks, came in to inspect  the Christmas tree. Ok, one did poo on the carpet, but who cares! Billy thought he would try to stay awake all day on Christmas Eve, having been awake all the previous night as well. He requested an energy drink when I went to do some last minute shopping. By 4pm he was fast asleep and Jo, who had made a bed on the floor next to him, had consumed the energy drink, so was high as a kite. Billy woke briefly about 8pm and they both requested a  melatonin capsule to help them sleep. No bust-ups, all reasonably quiet. They were dozing rather than asleep when I did my Mummy Christmas bit with stockings on the end of their beds at 1am after the Midnight Mass Christmas service. I knew to expect rustling sounds while I lay in the bath. They made it through till about 6am when loud footsteps signalled a trip downstairs to see what was under the tree. They knew exactly what they would find as the gifts had been requested and Jo had helped me wrap them and put them under the tree (XBox Ones, identical to avoid squabbles if at all possible). Billy had wanted to have his left in his room but I objected that I didn’t want him gaming all night, then be too tired to go to my Sister-in-Law and family Christmas Day. He accepted this, and they made it to 6am before setting them up. Peace is still the order of the day at 9.30am. Tony thought that Billy might refuse to leave the house today, and that Jo wouldn’t want to go without him, but there are no signs of that so far. They do have a history of refusal and have spent many family occasions, as well as Jo’s last school carol service, and  a family walk in the summer, sitting in the car. Where possible we make minimum fuss and just leave them to it as they are too big to compel to do anything and bribes and threats generally fail. But so far so good. We anticipate a family outing shortly. So I wish all you adoptive families out there (and the rest of my readers) a very peaceful Christmas.

The Perils of Presents

Gifts003Presents are another seasonal minefield, whether birthdays or Christmas. The anticipation invariably ends in anti-climax. We probably try to compensate for the children’s shaky start in life  by giving them too much. We used to tell Billy that the best present was a hug and a kiss, and that he was a much-loved boy. He was never very convinced about either of these propositions. We cope with the continuous demands  by suggesting that they keep a birthday or Christmas list. That way we can avoid saying “No!” which can so easily be mistaken as a rejection of the child, rather than an attempt to curb excessive material wants. Billy at 16 is much better at gauging what he can reasonably ask for and expect, and is generally pleased with it. He is a master at extracting one more thing out of us. He doesn’t like surprises. He wants to choose his presents and see them when they come into the house, so that he is reassured they are really there. Jo is more reflexive about the existential nature of her wants. She knows that material goods will never really fill the hole she feels inside. She is already anticipating ‘the worst Christmas ever’. Almost every birthday and Christmas are the ‘worst ever’. However carefully chosen the gifts  they will be a disappointment. If she is given money Billy will pressurise her into getting something he wants, and she falls for it every time, lured by the promise, seldom kept, that he will play with her. She used to break all her presents as soon as they were unwrapped, then be left distraught, surrounded by the debris. I would spend hours battling with almost impossible to open plastic and tiny screws in order to assemble, charge, and re-wrap toys. I would read and memorise instructions. If they couldn’t be played with immediately they would likely be trashed or discarded. It was more difficult with relatives, as Jo would usually break her gifts in front of them. It wasn’t generally intentional. She  would take things apart, yank and pull at them, and yes, sometimes smash or cut them up to deal with the pain inside. This displacement was probably another aspect of the self-harming that has dogged her since she was small. She would then complain that Billy had far more things than her, and we would patiently list or remind her of all the things that she had been given but subsequently broken. The first real success, about three years ago, was an iPod we gave her for her birthday. Maybe she was just growing older, or maybe it just hit the spot, who knows.

The kids have never yet shown any inclination to buy or make a present for anyone else and don’t do thank you letters (I do those still on their behalf). Jo does like giving gifts to friends. When younger this would generally be my stuff taken from home – jewelry, books, knickknacks. I would only get to know when occasionally a mother would ring up and ask whether Jo really had permission to gift an unusually valuable item. Other things just disappeared. An odd assortment of things also miraculously appear, ostensibly found abandoned somewhere. I’ve done my share of trying to trace the owner and return stuff. The school grounds must contain a wide selection of curiosities judging by the items discovered at the bottom of Jo’s school bag.

IMG_0562There is also the rivalry concerning cards or gifts from birth family members. Billy could not help pointedly asking Jo what she had been given on receiving a card with £20 in it from his birth dad. Luckily I could point out that Jo had received a lovely mouse mat with photos of two of her (half) siblings on it, from the family who adopted them. We used to have regular, if not frequent, face-to-face contact with this family, which meant a lot to Jo. Unfortunately they feel their kids need time to get used to Jo’s gender transition, and don’t want to meet up at present. It must be tough being true to yourself at times.

 

Christmas Decorations

Jo had complained that our house never looks Christmassy enough. The truth is it takes a lot of energy to source the decorations, put them up and then dismantle them. I did my best – we have the usual wreath on the front door and Tony and I selected a Christmas tree that now adorns the drawing room. Billy was happy to help decorate it and put on a couple of baubles. Jo put the angel on the top and then the family, including three large dogs, watched as I did the rest. What passed as happy family banter would probably have this blog blacklisted. The kids have spent their lives honing their insults and aren’t about to stop anytime soon. We then went to Jo’s room as she was getting into the spirit of it. With the help of picture nails and a hammer she wound coloured lights around the top of her room and put up a small artificial tree, producing a pleasingly festive effect. Billy hung around, practising his insults, deftly lobbied back, fiddling with her stuff, but too nervous to either go back downstairs or up to his room on his own. The three of us then went up to Billy’s room on the top floor with some more lights, the hammer and tacks. He preferred to quickly drape the lights over the curtain rails, battery pack hanging off the end. He did allow me to rearrange things a bit, but the two children could not be more different. One careful with a definite aesthetic, the other not quite in control and doing everything hastily as if it had to be got out of the way; or maybe just planning a sequence and following it through is too demanding. I had managed to get into his room earlier in the day when the boiler engineer needed to gain access to the pump in the loft space. While Billy decamped to the spare room I had extracted dirty plates and cutlery, a large bag of rubbish and pile dirty clothes. I also dusted, vacuumed and spent about half an hour just untangling the nest of wires from a TV and XBox, controllers, headphones, computer, mouse, speakers and several cables I couldn’t identify, that formed a huge electronic ball by the bed. He’s only been home three days. Heaven help anyone he might want to live with in the future! If there are any obsessive cleaners out there looking for a challenge, Billy might be your man. image

Birth Family Contact at Christmas

christmas-tree-man-singChristmas is a time when families should be together, and we treasured those early Christmases when the children were small and we could share their excitement. We did learn pretty quickly that too much excitement is overwhelming, and that anticipation, having to wait for things, and surprises can be distressing rather than fun, but we do still look forward to celebrating the festival together.

Christmas is also one of the times that our adoption agreement stated we should have letterbox contact with certain birth family members. This was not particularly satisfactory for a number of reasons, a key one being the slowness and censorship exercised by the local authorities administering the contact, or often lack of it. We have thankfully moved beyond that point. I have booked train tickets for Billy and an overseas friend from his last school, who is coming back to stay with us after Christmas, to visit his birth mother and the half-siblings who live with her. It will be the first time he’s been on his own. He didn’t want to stay at her house, which would be quite a squash, so I have also booked him into the guesthouse we usually use on our annual summer visits. I thought he’d probably like to see his birth dad as well, who lives in the same area with his partner and her two boys. We have just exchanged texts to see if he is free to meet up before Billy and his friend return home. It’s risky, I wouldn’t want Billy to be stood up by him. When we saw them in the summer they invited Billy to a baby cousin’s Christening in October. His dad had been asked to be godfather, and he said he would meet Billy at the station and put him up. October came and went, and I didn’t hear anything. I emailed and texted, no response. Billy didn’t say anything but it was easy to sense his disappointment and feelings of rejection, which I’m sure hadn’t been intended. I was pleased to get a text just now from his dad saying that the Christening had been postponed until after Christmas, so Billy wasn’t excluded or forgotten after all. I know many families are wary of face-to-face contact, and some have very good reasons to avoid it. That hasn’t been our experience, thankfully. All the family members we have met, and its quite a few by now, are kind to Billy, care about him and are proud of him. They are also thankful to us, and it feels more like one big extended family than a painful rupture in relationships between his family of origin and adoptive family. There was a hiatus, certainly, and damage was done, but at least Billy won’t have to wait until he is 18 to do some surreptitious searching. I don’t think any of us would have handled a closed, secretive adoption very well.

Is it worth it?

IMG_0555I sent my blog link to a cousin. We don’t meet often as we live in different countries, but are very fond of one another. She wrote:

Have just read your blog on adoption.  Left me with tears in my eyes, as to what you have and are going through. You love your kids, but it sounds as if you have gone through a living hell.

Your patience/ love and insight are just amazing.  It just goes to show, that the very early years are so important in the development of a child. You and Tony have given them so much love, but the early traumas cannot be erased...

I find it extremely difficult to express my feelings, as I just can’t even begin to understand what you have been through.  When you have children, of your own flesh, or adopted, you just never know in advance, what is ahead.  Perhaps just as well.

Her reaction showed me how hard it is to get the balance between the positives and negatives when writing about our lives, especially as I would regard her life as having had its fair share of difficulties and tragedies (father died young, a lot of serious illness in the family, economic and politically challenging situations). I think the lesson is that we can only live our own lives, not someone else’s. We get the experiences that we need and can learn from.

Before we adopted ourselves we knew two families who had had very difficult adopted children. Both were interracial adoptions, although that probably wasn’t a particularly significant factor – the children might well have had FASD, although it was not often diagnosed in the 1980s when much less was known about the effects of drugs and alcohol in utero on children’s subsequent development. In one case the marriage broke up and one parent went with the birth child and the other with the adopted child as it was too difficult and destructive for them all  to live together (we have often thought we might need to do this to separate the kids – albeit as a temporary measure). In the other family, the child became violent and had to leave home. He ended up on the streets and his father thought he should probably be in prison or a psychiatric hospital for his own safety and that of others. From the outside both instances looked tragic, disastrous. We asked the fathers whether they regretted adopting, and in both cases they answered ‘No!’ At the time that seemed noble but almost incomprehensible, but I understand it now. We would not change anything. We don’t regret adopting our children. They have been good for us, and enriched our lives. Yes, its been very hard work, but also fulfilling. We have grown as human beings and hopefully the children have been given a solid foundation after a difficult start in life. I’m not sure whether we would recommend it to others – but that’s not the same as saying its not worth it.

On not participating in school activities

imagesI had the slightly surreal experience of reading Billy’s school magazine – from the boarding school he left rather suddenly in March, when after bringing alcohol into a school dinner-dance we apparently ‘agreed to withdraw him’ (school speak for being expelled). He is now officially an alumnus so on their mailing list, although I would be surprised if they benefit from future donations or legacies from that direction. The magazine, slickly produced, was full of stories and photos of children, Billy’s peers, excelling in various activities, whether on the sports field, in music and drama, academically, and a wide range of extra-curricular activities. I would not have recognised it as the same school as the one Billy attended. He apparently achieved little or nothing, had few real friends, did no music or drama, and didn’t take part in any extra-curricular activities. He generally found the whole experience rather terrifying and exhausting. When trying to think about what would have suited him, and the many children like him, one would have to conclude that the school setting would probably need to look very different. He pushes against authority, but needs adults he respects and looks up to. Having a key adult as point of contact and safety is crucial and didn’t always work out well for him at that school. Billy needs predictability and routine but without excessive use of sanctions. He likes his teachers to be ‘mates’ but definitely in control so that he feels safe and protected. He doesn’t really understand boundaries, so will overstep them and misjudge situations, so he needs teachers who are patient and understanding, who don’t take it personally when he loses his cool and is rude and obstreperous. He also needs people around him with good professional training on attachment who know how to respond appropriately – not just to feel sorry for, blame or scapegoat him.

I’m sure that by the end of Prep School (Year 8) I was seen as an overly-protective and interfering mother, making excuses for a badly behaved, lazy child. One of the most useful resources I have come across was a video in which an actor plays the part of a foster mother advocating for her son with his head teacher who wants to exclude him. She is emotional, feels helpless, and ends up in tears. At a peer-to-peer group of adopters and foster carers someone advises her to remind the school, and other professionals, that she too is a professional doing her job in bringing up this child. I have found this invaluable advice. Time and again I have been ‘summoned’ to a meeting at which various members of staff or other professionals have basically told me off for my child’s behaviour. It is upsetting and emotionally draining, but I realise that they are unloading their frustration and sense of failure onto me. I can try to turn the situation around and to persuade them to treat me as a partner, reliant on their sense of professionalism and training. On the rare occasions I have found an effective advocate in such meetings it has generally transpired that the individual is also an adoptive parent. Training on attachment and other issues around neurological trauma and behavioural disabilities should have the visibility in initial teacher training and on-going Inset training that dyslexia and dyspraxia now have. It is not only adopted children or those in care who have attachment issues. Sadly emotional and physical neglect occur in apparently stable families and there are many children in need of a different sort of education with much better, targeted support.

Creativity

Jo was bored and didn’t want to open the large manila envelope with ‘Art Homework’ on the cover. Her computer was locked in Billy’s room where they had put in a night’s gaming, finishing around 4am. Wonderfully, she turned her energy into doing something creative, in this case making a crossbow. It was simple but very effective, the bolt being the inside of a ball-tip pen, that she could fire a great distance with speed and accuracy. When Billy emerged he was fascinated – and frustrated, as he doesn’t share Jo’s ability to make things, and was dependent on her to reload it. While she hit the bull’s-eye on the homemade target time after time, he couldn’t hit it at all. I was a trifle alarmed when Jo said “Let’s go outside and make incendiary bombs” and suggested that it was rather cold and dark outside. Billy went to his room to retrieve a Nerf gun, which he fired with considerably more accuracy. They then gathered up some more weapons and disappeared downstairs. I could hear that Tony had taken over and they had evidently all disappeared into the cold darkness of the garden to shoot at something or other. Billy kept up his usual ‘anti-tranny’ diatribe but Jo is getting much better at ignoring it, concluding that he is just not a very nice person, rather than getting mad at him.