Suddenly Mummy | Christian Fostering and Adoption Blog
A single woman's foray into fostering and adoption. This blog provides an honest account of a foster mum’s experiences. She has also adopted one of her foster children and discusses that regularly, so this blog could be useful for anyone considering adoption after being a foster parent and the differences between the two.
I recently attended a medical check up with my husband (I'll just pause here for a moment to relish the use of that word!).
He was updating his nurse about a symptom which he described using a layman's term that I thought was pretty descriptive, as well as accurate. Nonetheless, the nurse asked numerous questions about his symptom and, in the end, determined that the word he had used was quite wrong, and it was actually something else entirely.
This was a Good Thing because the treatment for what he actually had was quite different from the treatment for what he said he had.
I expect we'll probably carry on using the original (wrong) word between ourselves because it's less of a technical medical term and we both know what we mean. But words have meanings and, in some circumstances, they have very specific meanings, so it's worth asking the right questions to check that we all mean what we think they mean.
I was reminded of a time, years ago, when I went to the GP complaining of 'muscle weakness' among other things. She referred me on to a specialist who examined me, declared that I didn't have any muscle weakness and sent me packing. Strangely, my symptoms didn't all magically disappear. It was a long time later that it occurred to me that perhaps a more medically accurate description might have been 'muscle fatigue'. If only the specialist had asked a few questions.
Parents of kids with any kind of additional or medical need get pretty adept at spotting signs, noting symptoms and coming up with strategies but, when we meet with medical and other professionals, we need them to ask the right questions. Words have meanings. If I know what I mean, but use the wrong word, I hope that the professional in front of me has the patience and the time to ask me the right questions until we get to the must accurate description of what is happening.
I need them to ask me questions.
I do not need them to question me.
I do not need them to question whether I am exaggerating, or whether things are really as I've described, or whether this isn't just something that 'all kids do'. I don't need them to question my parenting skills, or my decision-making abilities, or my understanding of my child's needs. I do not need them to say, "Who told you that?" or "You can't believe everything you read on the internet!" Ask me questions, please, but don't question me.
At four and a half, Birdy is quite the character. Her nursery teachers describe her as "a natural leader" and say that she "knows her own mind." As I am familiar with teacher-speak, I know that these terms are euphemistic.
A lot of our conversations at home are characterised by intense amounts of stubbornness and a lot of "No!" and "I don't want to!" More than I would like, I correct her, re-direct her, and cross swords with her. Sometimes she cries. Sometimes she flounces. She's got quite the teenage vibe.
The other day, after a particularly sticky moment, I reflected that I had never had the need to correct Birdy or tell her off until she was nearly two years old. More than 18 months of love bombing. When she was hungry, I fed her. When she cried, I rocked her. When she laughed, I laughed with her. It was all good times as far as she was concerned.
How glad I am now, when I have to correct her and she hates it, that we had those early months and years to build a foundation of love, love, love. Whatever I say now, and however much she doesn't want to hear it, she can be in no doubt that the bedrock of who we are together is pure love. She recovers quickly from these disagreements and is soon all smiles and giggles that radiate her essential security in who she is and who I am to her.
And it made me glad and grateful again that, unlike so many adoptive parents, I had the wonderful chance to have those first months of Birdy's life so that we could build those foundations. Most care-experienced children are much older when they move to their permanent families. The foundation isn't there to underpin the necessary stage of correcting and re-directing that will come next.
Instead, families are straight in the deep end, trying to learn each others' characters and quirks and figure out a way to get along together, without the security of love, love, love underpinning it all. The love will come, of course, but it's hard to go back and fill in the foundations and, without them, every correction, every "No", every consequence, is a minefield of possible rejection.
Adoptive parents are doing life differently. And so are their children. This is just one of the ways.
Birdy spent a couple of days in hospital recently. It's not the first time this has happened and these days we tend to be better prepared, so, before I loaded everyone in the car at 5 am, I threw a few things into a bag - whatever drinks and snacks I could grab from the cupboard, the kids' tablets and chargers, all the spare change I had. I also made a large instant coffee in an insulated mug and brought it with me.
You need to do this if you're going to hospital with your child because you will need change for the car park. You will need lots of change because it costs £8 for 24 hours, the machine only takes coins, and the hospital shop will not change notes for you.
You will also need change for the vending machine in A&E as this will be the only way you can get food and drink for yourself and either of your two children. When you're a single parent, there's nobody to leave by your sick child's bedside while you go in search of a coffee, or a snack for the non-poorly child who was roused at 4.45 am and has had no breakfast.
By 9 am, Birdy was admitted on to the ward. Once your child is admitted, they will be fed hospital meals but you, as the parent staying with them, will not. The ward staff will tell you that you can make a coffee in the parents' room, and get food and drink from the hospital shop, or the cafe. Except to do these things, you have to leave your child's bedside. This is not always possible. Both the shop and the cafe are closed by 8pm, so you can't even wait until your child goes to sleep for the night and sneak off.
I know all of this, so I throw a few things in the bag before we leave. I also have a few other tricks I won't mention. We get by quite well, but the young mother whose baby was admitted onto our 4-bedded side ward at 10 pm was not so experienced.
I know this young mum was not experienced, and also that she was at risk of losing her baby, because, from behind our bed curtains, I heard two people who may have been social workers, having a conversation with her and her partner about it at her baby's bedside without even going to the trouble of using hushed voices. There was no discretion whatsoever. I will not further demean this lady by sharing here what I should never have heard, but it was the kind of sad tale I have unfortunately heard too often before.
Perhaps I could have popped my head around the curtain and said something. What I did instead, hoping to save the mum's embarrassment, was pretend to be asleep, and act as if I'd heard nothing.
The next morning, the partner was gone and the social workers were gone. I was quite taken up with Birdy who was feeling better and needed a lot of entertaining, but at some point I noticed that young mum had left her baby sleeping in the cot, and gone off the ward. After a few minutes he woke up and started crying. Shortly after that, a healthcare worker (I can't say 'nurse' because I don't understand the colour code of the uniforms so I'm not certain) came to comfort the baby.
At almost the same time, mum returned. The healthcare worker turned to her and said, "He's been crying and crying. You can't go off and leave him crying like that!"
Mum looked crushed. She spent the rest of the day sitting by his cot. We were there until Birdy was discharged at 4 pm. Nobody visited her. I didn't see her have a drink or any food. The baby slept a lot. She slept a lot too, in the chair.
As we got up to go, I asked her if she any food with her, or any money for food. She did not. She said she was hoping they could go home soon, but she was waiting for the social workers to say it was ok.
I have waited for social workers enough times to know that it can take a while. I packed up Birdy's things and we went to the shop. I got some pop and a packet of biscuits - nothing really - and walked back up to the ward. I asked one of the members of staff behind the reception desk if it was breaking any protocols for one of them to give it to the mum for me.
They looked pretty confused. They didn't smile or move to take the little bag. I left them and went to find the nurse who had looked after Birdy. I explained it to her. She also looked confused.
I really had to spell it out.
"She's on her own. She's not had anything to eat or drink all day and she can't leave her baby's bedside. I've been there and it's really hard! It's just a drink and some biscuits."
"Oh, right," said the nurse. "I see what you mean." She took it and promised to deliver it.
This is not a blog about how I got someone some biscuits. Neither is it a blog demanding that NHS hospitals should provide free meals to all and sundry. Neither am I criticising the nurse, who did a great job of looking after Birdy.
No. This is a blog about how somewhere, someone is judging whether that young mum is fit to raise her baby - and I feel fairly certain that the professionals who interacted with her in the hospital will be asked their opinion - and yet nobody seems to even notice that the mum herself is not having her most basic needs met.
And this was not due to her own failing, but to the difficulties that all parents face when accompanying their child to the hospital - difficulties which crash down even harder on those who have no reliable support network.
It makes me fume to think that someone may have written "left her baby crying in a hospital cot" on some notes in a file, but it did not occur to a single person that this obviously struggling mum might need a little extra help to get something as simple as a bag of crisps and a drink. Our structural integrity is failing.
At some point in the chaos that was my house renovation, the builder asked me what I wanted to do about lighting in the kitchen. I was adamant that I didn't want spot lights anywhere. The builder seemed shocked, as if I was suggesting illuminating the room with candles. What did I want instead? I said, "You can put a massive fluorescent strip light in for all I care, I just don't want spots!"
Anyway, there are eleven spots in my kitchen. There are three more in the adjacent play room, which is open plan. Numbed as I was by months of builder talk, I can't really remember the process by which my builder persuaded me that this was a good idea, but I do distinctly remember him objecting to my assertion that I'd be forever changing bulbs. "These new bulbs can last for ten years!" he said, confidently.
In the five years since then, I have replaced every single spotlight at least once, and quite a few of them several times. We reached the point recently where five out of six bulbs in the main cooking and food preparation area were out. It's not an area of the house where mood lighting is desirable, what with all the knives and hot things around the place.
It was only when I put the light on in the playroom and found that two of the three bulbs in there had also spontaneously given up that I finally took action, got the step ladders out, and restored light. I really, really hate the spots.
I'd forgive you for thinking, "What's the big deal? It's only changing a couple of bulbs!" And I know that's all it is. But I also know myself. These little jobs are exactly the sort of thing that I seem to be ridiculously ill-equipped to deal with. It's not just changing the bulbs. It's having the new bulbs in the house in the first place, which means buying the bulbs, remembering what sort of bulb, deciphering whether this is the correct brightness of bulb now that the old-fashioned "60-watt" label no longer seems to exist.
Then it's unearthing the step ladders from whatever obscure corner of the house I abandoned them in last time, finding the stupid little sucky rubber thing so I can actually get the old bulbs out, balancing precariously on the ladder while my three-year-old "helps" by holding on to the side of the ladder and occasionally wobbling it dangerously in a fit of forgetfulness. In short, it's a faff. And I hate faff. I marvel at people who manage these simple adulting tasks with aplomb.
So, yeah, I'm bad at bulbs. But I'm fine with public speaking. Honestly, stand me up in front of a room with a few hundred people in it and I'm good to go. I love it. I'm also totally relaxed about needles, overfull nappies, kids throwing up, rooms full of teenagers, night feeds, and a whole host of other things that I've heard other people sometimes find stressful.
Different people have different tolerances. So when I occasionally come across conversations about whether a very frank and candid description of what adoption is like for everyone involved might be off-putting to potential adopters, I scratch my head. I honestly don't believe that we need to sugar coat the truth about any part of adoption for fear of putting off potential adopters, because if you'd told me that being an adoptive parent would be like giving a presentation to an audience of 500 people, I'd have been fine with that, while others might have baulked. But if you'd told me it would be all about changing light bulbs, I'd have run a mile in the other direction, leaving all the other prospective adopters staring at my dust with puzzled expressions on their faces.
Whatever the challenge, there's somebody out there with the skills and aptitude to step up, but what everybody needs is the truth. Tell prospective adopters about FASD, about attachment, about the impact of adverse childhood experiences. Tell them about the struggle to get the right support for their children, the challenges they might face in school, the tears, the tantrums and the trauma. Tell them everything. Don't give them some fairy story about bulbs that last for ten years (I don't care what you tell me - it's a fiction, all of it!) because knowledge, understanding and preparation is everything, and you can't prepare for things you don't know anything about.
There's talk about a recruitment crisis in both foster care and adoption. Maybe. But it's not about getting more and more people to sign up to a fairy tale. It's about getting the right people to sign up to the reality, knowing that they have what it takes because they know what will be needed.
When you adopt a child, there's a lot said about 'life story work' which is, basically, an economical term for describing the lifelong process of helping an adopted child understand their past and their present, and why things have happened as they have.
OB has never really been interested in his life story. I feel strangely guilty about that, as if it's somehow a failure on my part to make the whole life story thing interesting and worthwhile. The prevailing view seems to be that life story is good, life story is essential. It's really frowned upon to give less than one's best to life story.
But here, life story is a non-starter. He's seen photos, he knows people's names, we've had a few brief conversations - just enough so that he has a sense of the main events - but other than that, unless I prompted it (and occasionally I do), it wouldn't come up.
He's not interested in letterbox either. He knows I write to his birth family, but he doesn't usually want to talk about it. Except for this year. This year, I mentioned that I was about to write, and asked him, as usual, if there was anything he wanted to say. He usually just says no. This year he said, "Don't write anything at all."
I signed a letter box agreement, not him. I agreed to write annually to update his birth family. At the same time, I don't feel as though I can just ignore his wishes. It may be me who signed the agreement, and me who writes the letters, but it's his life I'm writing about. I've always felt a tension in that, and this year we'll have to resolve that tension head on, somehow.
As it happens, the letterbox co-ordinator called me this week. I had another twinge of guilt, assuming she was chasing up this year's letters, which I always seem to leave until the last minute, and more so this year, considering OB's pronouncement. But no, she was contacting me to see if I would sign a letter box agreement with OB's siblings' adopters, and if I'd be prepared to speak to them about a more informal arrangement, or be open to the possibility of our two families meeting up.
I absolutely would. Not sure if OB will be so keen though.
He knows about his siblings, and he knew that they had been removed, and were being adopted. This evening I had a conversation, mainly with the back of his head, where I explained where things were up to, and that I was going to be in contact with his siblings' adoptive parents. I said he didn't need to be involved or decide anything right now, but there was the option of meeting them in the future if he wanted to do that.
He said, "That's never going to happen. What was the result in the Chelsea Liverpool match?"
Interestingly, during the phone call with the letterbox co-ordinator, I learned for the first time that OB's birth mum never actually signed a letterbox agreement all those years ago. So she's definitely never seen any of the letters I've written and definitely won't be replying. The messy reality is so different from the soft-focus ideal.
I've been thinking for a while that going from 'single adoptive parent' to 'engaged adoptive parent' is an experience that probably has a blog post or two in it. Surely I could come up with a 'Top Ten Tips for Dating While Therapeutic Parenting', or a 'Six Ways to Keep Your Relationship Alive in the Face of Every Possible Inconvenience'?
But no, it seems that I can't, because in this, as in everything else that is parenting, I really can't imagine that my one experience of dating-while-parenting has given me anything like the expertise required to dole out top tips to anybody else thinking of embarking on the same path. It's a tricky thing, giving advice, so I'm not going to give any.
For a start, I broke my own rules, such as they were. Well, just the one rule really: I was absolutely certain that I would be months into any hypothetical new relationship before my children knew anything about it. Blew that out of the water. The kids came with us on our second date. Yes, really.
The thing is, the rule was redundant because the Boyf already knew my kids. He volunteers at the theatre group OB attends and knew him for nearly two years before he even clocked who I was. He'd seen Birdy running about there too. So, after a successful first date - a double with the couple who introduced us - and in the face of a dearth of babysitters for a second evening any time soon - we ended up taking the kids to the cinema to see . . . I can't remember to be honest. It was a kids' film and I spent a fair amount of it taking Birdy in and out to the toilet. My main memory of the day was my desperate hope that none of us would do anything too humiliating in the Frankie and Benny's where we went for lunch and wreck the whole thing. High pressure.
There was a gap then, because Squidge came to live with us, and that was all I could manage for a few weeks. Finally, stirred into action by the friend who introduced us, I made a huge effort . . . and invited him round for a takeaway and a film. I know. Living the high life. I think we watched 'La La Land'. To be honest, I didn't see much of it (see a theme developing here?) because Squidge chose that evening to be immensely sick four times, necessitating lots of bedding changes and laundry. As I closed the front door behind the Boyf at the end of the evening, I noticed for the first time a long streak of vomit down the leg of my trousers.
Despite it all, we miraculously managed to go on a fourth date, and then reach the point where you can't call it dating any more and it has to be re-defined as a relationship. The kids have taken it remarkably well. It helps that the Boyf has a generous helping of the 'P' part of PACE parenting (playfulness, for those of you not in the know), which is an area I am woefully lacking in. Somehow, we have established a new routine that seems to work quite well for us all.
So, no top tips then (who'd listen to advice from somebody as obviously inept at this as I am, anyway?!) but one potential pitfall that I can share. I established early on that the Boyf is remarkably receptive to talk of all things attachment, trauma and therapeutic parenting-related, which is all to the good. However, that doesn't stop me being on pins when the kids are around him. I tend to have an overwhelming desire to police their behaviour not only with me, but now also with him. This was unfortunate as it had the effect of turning me into an even more boring nag-bag than I already am. It was also redundant as the Boyf has no difficulties whatsoever establishing and stating his own boundaries (although I can't say that the kids particularly listen or always respect them just yet!).
I have discovered over time that the Boyf has different levels of tolerance than I do. Obvious, I suppose, but it took me time to understand that I can relax about certain things the kids do around him because the Boyf isn't remotely bothered by them. Then there are some things that I can ignore, but the Boyf can't. So he says something. Simple as that really. It takes actual mental effort on my part to just let the Boyf be with the kids, stop myself from commenting, and let him establish what's manageable for him and express it in his own words. I fail at this most days, but I hope it will get easier.
And now we are engaged and planning a wedding. That's a whole other post! I never imagined this turn of events at all. I wasn't unhappy single, and I wasn't particularly looking for someone. But, single adoptive parents everywhere, here I am to say that if a relationship is something you'd like, it apparently is actually possible!