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.

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