Should you adopt?

Adoption is a remarkable thing. It’s a frequent plot device in novels and films. Stories of adoption and reunions make popular reality TV shows. So, it’s not surprising that people have a lot of questions about adopting.

I quite enjoy talking about it, I suppose. Adoption is a huge part of my life and in my constant attempts to do better by my boys, I read, write and talk about adoption a lot.

I like talking about the process – from all sides – and how that’s changed over the years. I like talking – in the abstract, I try to keep some privacy for my family – about trauma and contact with birth family.

The question that often stumps me, however, is the title of this post: Should you adopt?

It’s not like asking me if I recommend a make of car. For what it’s worth, my husband and I both drive Kias, and we think they’re great.

The thing is most people want the same thing from a car: reliability, ease of use, comfort for passengers. Most people drive cars in pretty much the same way. We’re all using the same roads and car parks.

I don’t think that’s the same for adoption. Not everyone does family the same way. 

All parents are different, and all children are different. There are many ways of making a family, and it’s impossible to really recommend any one over another.

When it comes to it, adoption doesn’t have many things to recommend it. 

It’s hugely unreliable. When you enter the process (whether you’re coming in as an adopter or an adoptee) there are no guarantees about what you’re going to get.

Adoption is phenomenally hard to use. It’s complicated, time-consuming, stressful for all parties. And, though people are working on it, the support package is very hit and miss at the moment.

Adoption is uncomfortable. It’s an imperfect solution to a tragedy. Adoption only happens when a family has fallen apart. It’s rooted in pain. It raises questions about identity and family. It’s awkward to live with and to talk about.

There are many, many downsides to adoption.

And the upside is unique to each family, and each person in that family. For me, the upside is having Middly and Eldest in my life. Those incredible boys call me mum, give me hugs, let me share in the remarkable journey of their growing up. It’s absolutely worth it. It’s worth every single struggle, every cost and every tear. There is absolutely no doubt about that for me.

But, the boys’ ‘upside’ is completely different. I get them, and I think I did well. They get me. Only they can say if that’s worth it. And, I don’t think that they can make such a pronouncement until they’re much older (and no longer dependant on me, because that’s got to colour such a question)!

By adopting the boys, I have joined myself to a new family, who have been through a lot. I have made a lot of wonderful friends (there’s a lovely network of adopters on twitter, who are incredible people, strong, determined and overflowing with love).

I am a kinder person because of my experience of adoption. It has taught me patience, gentleness, and forced me to exercise ever greater self-control. I have seen another aspect of the world, and that has made me wiser, even as it has made me cry. I have learned to see small victories and to celebrate small gains.

So, should you adopt?

Adoption is a tricky thing, with more pain than joy. Nobody should go into it expecting a happy ending. At it’s best, adoption solves a problem and adds more love to the world. But, I don’t know if you are going to manage that. I don’t even know if I’m going to manage that, and I know myself pretty well.

I cannot recommend adoption to anyone, I think it has to be a personal decision and I think you need a high level of commitment that wouldn’t be affected by my recommendation anyway. But, I do think it’s important to say that adopting is a huge privilege. Being part of this world of remarkable children has changed my life, and it has changed me, all for the better.

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Letter box

Once a year, I write a letter to my boys’ birth family.

Calling them ‘my boys’ birth family’ sounds oddly distant, as though they had no connection to me at all. I feel like there ought to be a term for our relationship. They’re not just my boys’ other parents, they’re surely something to me. We’re not co-parents, as we haven’t exactly parented together. But, they’re hardly predecessors, either, they are still an important part of our family. I do wonder​ whether if there was a word for what they are to me, it would be easier. If I could name our relationship, maybe I could understand it better.

We talk sometimes about whether, and when, the boys would like to meet them again (provided, of course, that their birth family would like this too!). I support the boys in making such a decision for themselves. But, I think it will be strange, and sad, if I never see them face-to-face again. I feel a strong bond with those other parents of my sons. I don’t know if they would feel the same about me, of course!

The letters – in our set-up – are from me and my husband, not the children. So, there’s no concern about whether or not to call them ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’. We just use first names.

I have written every year since the boys came home, which means that I have just sent our eighth letter.

I have a pattern for the letters, which I thought might be of interest.

  • Address the letters to birth family by first name​s.
  • First, assure them that the boys are well. If I were receiving these letters, that would be my greatest concern. So I like to put it up top.
  • Mention that the boys think about their birth family and hope they’re doing ok.
  • Cover the boys getting older. One of the purposes of these letters is to prepare birth family for a potential reunion. I try to help them imagine the little ones they knew growing into young adults by mentioning signs of growing up. In the event of a reunion, I don’t want the birth family to half-expect to see those tiny little boys they said goodbye to.
  • Mention some of the fun things that we do together. I want them to know that we are doing our very best to give the boys a wonderful childhood with holidays, trips and fun activities.
  • Give some indication that life isn’t perfect. Again, I have one eye on the future here, I don’t want any disappointment or unpleasant surprises, so I try to mention the boys’ difficulties as well as their joys. I temper this with an assurance that we are all doing our best to support the boys. But, this is real life, not an idyllic utopia, so I want to share some struggles as well as successes.
  • Drop in a few of the boys’ interests that they could share. I tell them about films, TV shows or books that the boys particularly like. If they wanted, the birth family could see the same films, read the same books, and have a kind of connection with the boys.
  • Finish with an assurance that we love the boys and remain utterly commited to their happiness.

When I’ve written the letters, I ask the boys to read them and give their opinion. Sometimes, the boys are interested; sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they ask me to take something out; sometimes they ask me to add something. As yet, the boys haven’t wanted to write their own messages.

One day, I might find out what the birth family think of my letters and whether they find them helpful. In the meantime, I cling to my pattern, hoping that the ritual of it will assure success.

On messing up

I’m not a super-parent.

This is not me, since I am not a super hero.

In fairness, this is probably not much of a surprise to anyone but me.

I have made my fair share of mistakes in all other areas of my life, so there’s no reason why I wouldn’t make them in parenting too.

But, when I went into adoption, it was with the desire to help children. I saw myself as someone who would make things better, someone who could fix problems. I did training courses, read books, sought out experience with children with a variety of special needs, and tried to equip myself with extra skills. I wanted to be not just a parent, but a super-therapeutic-parent.

Shortly after my boys came home, I was talking to my dad on the phone, worrying about how I was doing. 

He said: don’t worry so much, everyone makes mistakes. 

And I replied: but, do many mistakes have already been made in these children’s lives. There isn’t room for me to make more. I have to get this right!

Of course, I didn’t stop making mistakes. What I did do was to feel horrendous about every little slip. Every time I didn’t want to play a game, or lost my cool, or ran out of apples; I felt awful. These children had been through so much already, they deserved better from me now!

I haven’t changed my mind about that.

My children are spectacular and they do deserve spectacular parents and a wonderful childhood.

But, I have realised that it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

Spectacular as they are, my children make some pretty big mistakes. They have made some poor choices in the time that they have lived with us. Some of which have backfired and hurt them.

It is not fun watching your children mess up and hurt themselves or others.

But, it’s part of the parenting gig. Sometimes my boys do the wrong thing. And, it’s my job to stand next to them and try to support them in cleaning up as much mess as they can.

I am beginning to see that my children don’t want me to be perfect. They want to see me make mistakes.

My children need to see me make mistakes, own up, and clean up the mess as best I can.

They need me to show the how it’s done. They need to see that mistakes are survivable.

How to survive mistakes and how to apologise with dignity: these are skills that my children definitely need.

So, for everyone’s sake, I try not to panic when I am in the wrong. I try to own up as quickly as I can. And, I hope that I can demonstrate how to cope with being imperfect.

It turns out that my dad was exactly right. All I really need to do is worry a bit less and accept that nobody’s perfect.

He was right and I was wrong. But, that’s ok.

Do you want to battle?

Middly’s current favourite game is something called Pokepark 2.
I was watching him play it this morning and a scene caught my eye.

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Every time Middly’s character walked up to this giant bird-thing, the giant bird-thing greeted him with: “What do you want? If you want a battle, I might agree to that.”
Middly had the option of clicking ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but, really it’s not a choice.
If he picked ‘no’, the creature grunted “Mmpf” and wandered off. The only way Middly can engage with this bird-thing is to fight it.
And, I thought, hey, I recognise that! I have been that questing Pokémon, walking up, offering a snack, a chat, a hug, only to be met with: “What do you want? If you want a battle, I might agree to that.”
Battles in Pokémon are a test of strength. If you can defeat another Pokémon, then they will respect you, they might even become your friend and help you in the future.
If you lose, the other Pokémon will stalk off in disgust. Though, you can have another go at defeating them later, if you like.
Pokémon value strength above all things. In a world where there’s always another fight, the only friends worth having are the really strong ones.
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The manners that maketh a man

We’ve been working hard on managing aggressive behaviour in our house (which I’ve blogged about before) and we are making some progress. A year or so ago, I was boring everyone with how brilliant Love Bombing is, but I have now moved on to raving about NVR at any and every opportunity. These two things, more than any therapy we’ve tried, have helped our boys enormously. Of course, they won’t work for everyone, but I find it hard to stop recommending the two techniques that have really helped us.
There’s a lot less violence in our house, which is amazing. It feels like the future is looking much brighter and more hopeful.
But, of course, as one problem shrinks down, another becomes far more obvious. Apparently this is called the Diderot Effect (I read about it in the paper recently). As aggression occupies less and less of my worries, I’m finding new things to worry about!
Right now, I’m worrying about rudeness.
We’ve been getting a lot of rudeness recently. Not just horrible rants mid-tantrum, but also a lot of low-key stuff. A lot of:
“We’re leaving in ten minutes, it’s time to put your shoes on.”
“Shut up. I was already going to put my shoes on. Idiot.”
And:
“Could you shut the back door, please?”
“Why should I?”
None of it’s awful or unmanageable. But it is getting rather irritating. And, when things do kick off, this is how they seem to start.
I say something that sounds reasonable to me, child responds with abuse, I object, massive tantrum erupts. Rudeness is the gateway to violence.
So, we want to do something about it.
A year ago, I thought that a house where people don’t punch me was an impossible dream. But, we are tantalisingly close to realising that dream.
So, I have hopes (small hopes, hemmed in by disclaimers, obviously) that one day I might live in a house where people don’t respond to my requests with verbal abuse.
At this moment in time, all I have is hope. The next thing I need is a plan.

What I hear when my kids yell at me.

Sometimes my delightful children yell at me. They might yell a quick ‘I hate you’ in passing, or they might have a good long screaming fit. But, quite frequently, they will put together a big rant.
When they were smaller, I timed their tantrums. Sometimes because I was meant to be keeping some kind of record, sometimes just for something to do, to keep my mind busy and put the whole thing in perspective. As they got bigger, I took to noting exactly what they said, and a pattern began to emerge.
As younger children, there were a few problems with toileting issues (I am sure you can understand why I want to keep this a bit vague). As parents, we felt it was important to remain calm and unfased, to present this as ‘one of those things’ that isn’t particularly uncommon and is nothing to worry about.
One day, however, I noticed that my children’s insults were very smell oriented. When they were angry, they would shout ‘you stink’, ‘you smell of poo’. It was the day that one of my children – furious about being told not to hit his brother – screamed ‘mummy wees in her pants all, and she smells of wee’, that made me think something was going on here. They are selecting insults from the most shameful things they know. What’s heartbreaking is that the most shaming things they can think of to yell are about themselves.
Sure enough, the toileting issues reduced, and the smell-themed insults went away.
As I have mentioned before, the boys have long struggled with aggression. They would often shout, in the midst of a meltdown, whether I was holding them or not, ‘you’re hurting me’. Sometimes they would go further, shouting ‘you like hurting people’. Having made the connection once between the children’s struggles and their choices of insult, these accusations began to sound different. I began to see in them proof that the boys understand it’s wrong to hurt. They choose to accuse me of hurting because they are intimately aware of the shame of hurting people.
There have been times, when my children started shouting ‘you steal things’, ‘you break other people’s toys on purpose’. These are probably not insults they’re likely to pick up from friends or TV.
My Mum used to tell me that the thing you most dislike in others is usually some fault that you have yourself. People, like me, who love to talk can find others who love to talk incredibly irritating – how can I fit in my endless babbling, if you have so much to say? I think that she has a point: it is easier to identify your faults bodied in someone else, and it can be a lot less threatening.
I think my boys, who are generally rather resistant to sharing their feelings, have hit on a striking way to share their worries with me.
So now, when I hear a boy screaming ‘mummy is a meany and she doesn’t have any friends’, I don’t feel bemused, I feel worried. When I hear ‘you’re stupid’, I am not offended, I’m wondering.
I am not replying ‘are you worried about making friends?’ or ‘when do you feel stupid?’ After all, I am not overly fond of having furniture thrown at me. But, I do store up these questions and concerns and try to find a suitable (outside of tantrums) time to reassure my boys. They are wonderful people, loved dearly, liked by many, and in a lot of ways very smart and successful. They are not their worst images of themselves, but, it can be a great help for me to get a little glimpse of those images. It’s far easier to help correct a misunderstanding that I have noticed than one that is hidden.
When I listen to my boys yelling at me, I can hear what they think is shameful, what they think is awful, what they don’t want to be. It’s certainly not the smoothest way into their heads, but I am glad they have some way of sharing these fears with me.

Non Violent Resistance

We were pretty excited about attending a course on Non Violent Resistance. It was run by Adoption UK and had Peter Jakob speaking. Violence has become our biggest concern with the boys. Not really because they’re getting worse, if anything they are getting better at handling their impulses. But, as they get larger and stronger, any violence at all starts to be a bit worrying. So, a day course about dealing with aggression without getting aggressive sounded perfect.
I’d already read a book about it, but I was concerned that it seemed aimed at parents of older children, and wasn’t entire applicable to us, yet.
On the other hand, some of the ideas sounded different to things I’ve read in other books, and that was rather exciting!
So, we turned up hopeful, but not expecting much.
The first thing I always look for from an expert is what they suggest we do in the moment of a tantrum. And, here Jakob was refreshingly reassuring. He said: “when all hell breaks lose, then all hell breaks lose”. Fundamentally, his opinion seems to be that during an ‘incident’, you can’t actually change the relationship nor do any therapeutic work. During an incident, the sole aim should be minimising risk. That was very reassuring. I have spent years worrying about what we do in those highly charged, sometimes scary, moments. Jakob says that I should stop trying to control the child, and focus on minimising risk.
Which brings us to the next thing he talked about: Control. He suggested that traumatised children sometimes try to “reduce every interaction to a power struggle”. Rather than advising us, as parents, to ‘win’, Jakob suggested we try to notice when this occurs and avoid entering into power struggles at all. He suggested that it wouldn’t be a disaster if our children did ‘think they’ve won’. At first, I found that quite challenging to hear. After all, isn’t it vital for me to teach my children that violence and aggression don’t win? But, as I thought about it, I realised that sometimes, I am as desperate for control as the boys, and that’s not helping anyone! I can maintain greater authority by staying in control of myself and letting these little power struggles go.
He talked about ‘reconciliatory gestures’, such as offering a cup of tea (as I noticed from his book, he does seem to be thinking of older children and young adults, rather than small children).
He also talks about ‘parental presence’, suggesting that we should enter our children’s worlds. His examples include, talking to their friends and visiting the places they go. He also mentioned finding out about their interests and – briefly – entering the virtual worlds they’re inhabiting. This wasn’t about spying, he says that we should be open and tell people what we’re doing.
“You don’t need friends, you need a support network,” also rang very true for me. Jakob has some very specific ideas of ways to use this support network. He suggests that secrecy can perpetuate abusive situations. Parents can ask other adults to bear witness by telling them about incidents and asking them to mention their concerns to the child.
He suggested a structured approach to raising concerns: the adult should mention that they know of the behaviour and are concerned for the child and for the parent and for the important relationship that is being damaged; they should offer a listening ear and (for older children) a safe place to go when the child needs a break; they should finish on a positive note, sharing their pleasure in the child, or praising something suitable. It is a lot to ask of supporters! We haven’t decided if we’re going to make the request yet.
Fundamentally, Jakob’s approach seems to be based on two main principles:
1) We cannot control our children, we can only control ourselves;
2) We can, and should, recruit supporters to aid us in parenting.
I found it heartening. I think because he was so clear in his opinion that, during an incident, it doesn’t much matter what we do. I worry that it sounds lazy of me, but I am just so relieved to hear that someone doesn’t condemn me for not being therapeutic in the really awful moments.
Jakob has more suggestions, which do seem a bit extreme for us at the moment, like holding a ‘sit in’ in protest at particularly difficult behaviour.
Ultimately, I think the best thing I took from his talk was the reassurance that my power to affect my children hasn’t vanished because I can’t control them. It is a new way of thinking about parenting. I don’t have to choose between stopping a behaviour or permitting it; I can choose to resist it instead, to state my objections and stand firm. I thought that it might feel absurd to try and draw lessons from political movements to parent my boys. But, when Jakob talked, it felt I inspiring. Rather than choosing between the roles of victim or policeman, I have a new role of peaceful protester.