Tuesday, February 16, 2016

How to Help Your Adopted Children Feel a Sense of Belonging

As far back as I can remember, I have always felt a strong sense of belonging. Even in times when I felt disconnected and excluded at school, or during a brief horrible time of being bullied at work, I knew that I could always return to a familiar, nurturing place called home where I was loved and understood. Feeling that we belong is something most of us take for granted, because it develops naturally through the loving input of our family and friends. For me as a child, it also came from being a part of clubs like Guides, musical theatre and the church choir. As an adult, I have been lucky enough to extend this sense of belonging in the world through close-knit friendship circles, and the loving home I have built with my husband. Even at work (bullying episode notwithstanding), I have been lucky enough to have had supportive and inclusive colleagues who created that same sense of fitting in at work.

But for my two adopted children it is a different story. At a young age they were removed from everything familiar, and spent a long time in the no-mans land of foster care. Even the most loving and nurturing foster parents cannot compensate for the sense of disaffection triggered by such a fundamentally temporary and transient existence. The process of adoption is such a major upheaval in a child’s life, involving so much transition, grief and loss, which can all contribute to a sense of disconnectedness, that in turn leads to anxiety, unhappiness and ultimately, difficult behaviour or emotional withdrawal. Everything I have read from adoptees reflecting in later life tells me that their ongoing issues can often be put down to never feeling part of something, never quite belonging.

"Adoption is outside. You act out what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t belong. And you act it out by trying to do to others what has been done to you. It is impossible to believe that anyone loves you for yourself." Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

For adoptive families today, there is plenty of advice on dealing with the most common issues that we face -  attachment disorders, behavioural problems, developmental delays etc, but my view is that until you can help your child to psychologically integrate their life experiences, none of these other problems can be successfully resolved, either. Part of this process is of course helping children to come to terms with their early life 'before' and to fill in the gaps for them with information about their birth families, and even through contact (direct or letterbox) when this is deemed appropriate. It is hoped that having access to these resources can dispel some of the sense of disconnectedness that comes from leaving behind one family to join another, removing the uncertainty, mystery and curiosity that can be a barrier to true acceptance of the new family. But even with this support, adopted children can continue to flounder between worlds, struggling throughout their lifetime to feel genuinely part of something. I often wonder how my own kids might be feeling about this, or how it will affect them down the line. They are still very young and can't exactly articulate these feelings, but I do sense their presence sometimes, reading between the lines. Every day I ask myself what I can do to increase my children's sense of belonging in our family, to help them fully embrace the now and the future. I've looked to my own childhood and tried to replicate the things that helped me feel grounded, and I do believe it is possible to help this process along without the need for professional intervention. Here are some of the ways that seem to be working for us...

Home Sweet Home

When I visited my children in foster care at the start of our introductions, I was struck by the lack of photos of them in the home, even though they had lived there for two years. It was as if they had been treading water there, without growing any roots. I wanted them to know from the outset that their presence would be completely integrated and fondly celebrated in their new home, and made sure this was visible on the first day they came to visit.

Right from the first days of your introductions with the children, you can help them develop a connection to your home and your family. Take photos of you together during this time, print and frame them to be hung generously around the house before they move in, so that it feels like they have always been there.  Keep building this family gallery as time goes on, making a visual celebration of your lives together. The kids will come with Life Story books of their lives before, but looking forwards and having a record of the now is just as important.

Make their personal spaces feel welcoming and lived-in, too. Much as you will want to present a new and perfect environment for your child, let go a little and make sure familiar possessions are present and integrated – on the bed, floor, etc – as if the child had just left the room.

Home is not just the four walls that surround you at night, it is your neighbourhood, your community, your town. For adopted children arriving in a new and unfamiliar place, developing a connection to their surroundings is another route towards the feeling of fitting in. Share your love of special local places with your kids, and build shared memories there. Whether it is a park, favourite café, walk, beach or country house. Discovering new places together and visiting them often is also a wonderful bonding experience that allows your children to feel invested in their new lives. We were gifted a National Trust membership in the early months of the placement, and have used it frequently as a springboard for family adventures. A couple of places in particular have quickly become firm favourites that we love to go back to, and can reminisce about previous visits each time.

The More We Get Together, The Happier We Feel

The adoption authorities will hammer home how important it is to keep your kids focused on you – the adoptive parents – for the first weeks and months of the placement, and to avoid overwhelming them with new people. There are good reasons behind this theory, but it should not be at the expense of developing the children’s sense of belonging as soon as possible. I quickly realised how much my kids craved friendship with peers and enjoyed being a part of other people’s lives. Our eldest especially had left behind meaningful friendships and was grieving these as well as the loss of everything else she’d known.

I wanted my children to understand that their lives would be rich with love and support not just from us, but from our friends and family, too. After a few weeks of ‘hunkering down’ we carefully opened up our social life to a few close friends, mainly those with kids of a similar age and who could be a regular and reliable presence in our kids’ lives. We have been fortunate enough to include in this a couple of other adoptive families, which dilutes some of the sense of difference our kids may feel and gives them peers with whom they can share a unique affinity. Having this extended support network on hand was a complete life-saver for me in difficult times, and helping the kids to make friends quickly does seem to have boosted their confidence, and acceptance of their new lives.

Although it has been awkward at times, we’ve avoided introductions with long-distance friends and family, or those who cannot make a regular commitment to seeing the kids. We want the people in whom they invest to be consistent and familiar, not scattered and unpredictable. I'm thankful that the friends who’ve been involved have been very sensitive about the particular etiquette needed around newly adopted kids, so that their presence in no way compromises the attachment between us and the children.

Photo by John D, Flickr

Remember That Time We…

...So goes the familiar refrain of family gatherings around the world. The ability to recall and celebrate shared memories is something that keeps families feeling connected, and the same goes for those little traditions that are unique to your own family, often borne out of such memorable times. The sooner you can establish special family traditions with your adopted kids, the better. In our house we have the weekly ritual of family pizza night on a Friday, when we all sit down to eat together and get excited about the weekend to come. The kids burst with excitement every week when they are allowed to delve into the near-mythical sweetie tin after dinner and pick a little treat. Even small things like inventing your own silly lyrics to songs, or making up games for car journeys, can all act like little anchors to the family unit. Kick start the sense of a shared history by reminiscing about shared events, even if they only happened a week ago, and encourage the children to tell these stories themselves.

Space to Reflect

Giving your kids space to explore issues of belonging through books and films is a healthy way to tap into any repressed feelings they may be having, without confronting them directly. We have discovered many wonderful books that touch on the issue without being preachy, or overtly about adoption. I have included my favourites in the reading list below.

Ask for Their Help

The feeling of being needed is a big part of fitting in to any dynamic – whether it be with family, friends or at work. Being given responsibility is also a signal that you are trusted and valued, so giving kids tasks like feeding the cat, sorting the odd socks, laying the table, or putting away toys lets them know they have a valid role in the household and are contributing to it in visible, practical ways.

Tell Them They Matter

To a person who has never experienced Love before, the words ‘I Love You’ can feel empty, unless validated with reasons why. More than Those Three Little Words, adopted kids want to hear that they are wanted and welcome. Don’t take it for granted that they feel this, tell them every day, every night at bedtime “I’m so happy you are here. Our family feels complete with you in it" or “I had a great time with you today. You are wonderful company to be around.” I hope that by telling my children what it feels like to have them around, I am helping them believe in their very significant place in our little world.


At eighteen months in, I am a relatively new adoptive parent, and I know I have a lot still left to learn. We face many challenges every day, and no doubt these will only get more complex as the children grow, but most days it feels like we are at least getting something right. I have watched my kids grow in confidence, become loyal friends and loving family members, relish their beautiful surroundings, and relax into our home. I think, I hope, they already have some sense of belonging here, and I trust that this will keep them grounded in the years to come.

I’d love to hear from other adoptive families on this subject. How have you helped your kids to feel they belong? Leave me a comment, or tweet @Rowstar with your stories.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Beauty and the Beastlies - Speaking up Against Trolling in the Beauty Vlogosphere

Anyone who sees me un-madeup and flustered on the daily school run may be surprised to learn that I am something of a beauty product enthusiast. Though I don’t bother to slap it on for the benefit of the kids and fellow parents at the school gates, I love make-up and its ability to make a weary mummy feel moderately glamorous for a rare night out, to enhance and show off one’s favourite features (cheekbones and eyes in my case), and purely for the artistic pleasure of creating and experimenting. During my three years at The Body Shop HQ, I learned an awful lot about skincare and make-up, and was lucky enough to work with some of the industry’s leading make-up artists, beauty bloggers and vloggers, not to mention the talented store staff with whom I collaborated to create inspiring beauty video content.

Since departing from that world professionally, I have continued to take an interest from afar. I regularly watch YouTube videos, though very rarely comment and interact. One of the reasons for my silence is that I cannot bear to associate myself with the frankly horrifying level of vitriol that pervades the YouTube comment boxes of beauty vloggers (and no doubt in other areas, too). Many of these young people face a daily onslaught of hateful words, criticising their looks, views, personalities, sexual orientation and anything else the perpetrators can think of to slam. Thankfully there are usually plenty of positive comments to balance out the hate, and most of the vloggers try to focus on these and ignore the haters. But sometimes it goes too far, and they are compelled to speak out. I was terribly saddened to see this recent video from make-up artist Wayne Goss, in response to the highly personal attacks to which he has been subjected online.


I’m a big fan of Wayne’s for many reasons, and having seen this video, felt the need to throw some positive vibes his way. He is a brilliant make-up artist, and in my view, the best source of practical, useable make-up tips and hacks on YouTube. Though I really enjoy watching other artists like the Chapmans and Lisa Eldridge creating amazing make-up looks for all occasions on their channels, really what I am after is little everyday tricks to boost my usual regime. As a 40 year old who's been using cosmetics since my teens, I have experimented plenty, and am not about to drastically change the way I do my make-up, but I do appreciate the expert knowledge that allows me to keep improving techniques and adapting to the challenges of a face that is growing older. I love watching Wayne’s videos precisely because he is not a flawless 20-something woman to whom I will inevitably compare myself. I take his advice on face value (no pun intended), and if I were to comment on his (or anyone else’s) videos it would be to ask a follow-up question, leave an appreciative remark, or to add to the conversation in some other productive fashion. When the comment box starts being used as a forum to criticise and attack the individual, we have a problem. 

I cannot understand what makes people think it is OK to abuse others online, when I doubt they would ever dream of doing the same in a real word context. Imagine sitting in the hairdresser’s and saying everything negative that came to mind about the person cutting your hair. You just wouldn’t. Even if you dislike their choice of clothes, or think their laugh is too screechy, you keep it to yourself; it’s called internal dialogue. Of course there is a place for constructive criticism, but there is a big difference between saying you didn’t like the make-up look someone created, and attacking them personally for being too thin. These are human beings with feelings, and such behaviour is directly damaging to their self esteem and mental health. 

Perhaps it’s because so much of the hatred goes unchecked that this toxic culture continues to seep across the web. I admire Wayne, and others like Becky, for having the courage to stand up to the bullies, and I hope that the rest of the beauty industry will do more in future to take a proactive stance against the dark side of this otherwise glitzy world. The Body Shop’s history of ‘activating self-esteem’ makes it the ideal brand to take the lead, so I call to my former colleagues to support the victims of this online abuse. How will you educate the offenders, highlight this culture of hate and help beautify the very culture of the beauty vlogosphere? Because clearly ignoring it is not making it go away.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Don't Call Me a Stay-at-Home Mum: Reflections on Becoming a Full Time Parent

When I think back to my childhood, I feel lucky to have had constant love and security, and to have grown up in a fun-filled, happy home. On paper it may not have seemed like a perfect lot, and like any family there were ups and downs, but most of my memories are good ones. This is largely to do with the unwavering presence of my mother, who raised us pretty much single-handedly, but was steadfast, nurturing and kind. She chose not to work during our infancy, and so my siblings and I benefitted from a great deal of one-to-one attention. I was taught to read and write before starting school, and was initiated into the complex world of social interaction through the supportive and regular circle of friends with whom we would spend time.

Me in the 70s, in my happy place.
From this experience, I can personally vouch for the advantages of having a full time parent, although I am by no means against the idea of working mums. It is such a thorny issue, and one that I have recently wrangled with myself, as I started my own journey into parenthood. On the one hand, I wanted my kids to have the same advantages that I had, but what about my career, my needs? I had worked solidly for 15 years before my children came along, and I couldn’t imagine giving up all that I had achieved to become a housewife. I had planned to take my full year of adoption leave and then return to work when my youngest child started school (which fortunately coincided with the end of my leave).

But adoptive parenthood is far from straightforward, and as it turned out when the time came, the summer-born little one was not quite ready for school. We were thankfully able to defer him for a year, after applying to the local authority for permission (for more on this subject, visit http://summerbornchildren.org), then I was faced with the choice of what to do about work. I really loved my job and was truly torn, but I knew in my heart that the right thing to do was to give my son a little more of me. I had already missed three years of his childhood, and our first year together had flown by in a blur of emotions and adjustment. Now I had really started to get to know him, I wanted to build on this intimacy and trust. So I took a deep breath and gave myself over to motherhood, 100%.
Our family, as depicted in Lego by my seven year old daughter.
I can understand why many women need or want to return to work after having a baby. Parenting is tiring and confusing, and you pine for an environment in which you feel confident and valued. You miss the mental stimulation and adult company. Not to mention the salary. But when it comes to making that choice about whether to go back, I do believe most of us know instinctively what is best for our child, in our individual situations. There is a balance to be had between one’s own well-being and the needs of the child. And for those babies lucky enough to be born into a safe, loving home, with strong attachments to their parents, there may be no long term detriment to having some time apart from the mother. I think women should be able to choose the path that works best for their family, and to feel it is a valid choice, without being judged either way.

Leaving behind a lucrative and rewarding career to be a full-time parent may seem like a huge sacrifice, but I see this time less as a career break, more as a new venture that will ultimately enrich my arsenal of life and work skills. Certainly, bringing up my two special and complicated little people is no less challenging or stimulating than marketing books or beauty products, and I embrace the new skills and knowledge that I’m acquiring along the way. I’m learning more than ever before about negotiation, persuasion, time management, planning and teaching, and I’m changing as a person with every new parenting experience. Far from distancing me from vocational aspirations, it is opening my eyes to new possibilities and future career paths I may not have otherwise considered. I do miss bantering with colleagues, but I'm making new friends through the children, building lasting connections with others who are in the same proverbial parenting boat.

So why do I still feel awkward and like I have to justify myself when people ask me what I do for a living? Maybe it’s because of the labels associated with being a full time parent. There needs to be a better description for this life choice than ‘Stay At Home Mum’, because that makes it sound so boring and restrictive, and doesn’t come close to encapsulating all that full-time parenting entails. For me it’s also technically inaccurate because if I can possibly help it, I’m rarely At Home with the kids. We prefer to be running free in the woods, paddling in rock pools, climbing trees or scooting down the seafront. So how should I describe myself these days? Free-range mum? Progressive parent? Adventurer in Chief? Seriously though, you wouldn’t write ‘Sitting At A Desk Person’ on your CV, so why shouldn’t full time parents have a title that better defines their role? Perhaps it’s because parenting is in fact more than one role – it’s like running an entire company. A really weird and hectic company with tiny, shrill little customers.

Surely I can put 'Expert train track and marble run constructor' on my CV?
And this is partly why I don’t feel intimidated about returning to the workforce at some point down the road - because I’m keeping my brain ticking over by doing what is arguably the most significant and varied job in the world. As was ever the case back in the office, I want to do my best and make a success of this role. I take the job seriously, and as I only have another ten months at home with my boy before he starts school, I need to make every second count. Yes, there is monotony and repetition (do I really have to run the washing machine again?), not to mention the snot, tears, mess and angst, but there is also magic, wonder, adventure and love. And that’s not something that you get in the office every day.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Saying Goodbye to My Thirties

In a few days’ time, as summer officially turns to autumn, I will be reaching That milestone birthday. The one that sounds more ancient than it really is, and always seems to prompt people to ask "how are you feeling about it?" as the date looms. I have pondered this question over the past few months and conclude that it’s not so much the prospect of turning 40 by which I am daunted, but rather the leaving behind of my thirties. Compared with the carefree twenties, being a 30-something brought with it the demands and rewards of responsibility, the deepening and refining of friendships, and new perspectives on life born out of reflection and experience. It was growing up; a most eventful, significant and life-changing 10 years.

Despite the inevitable intoxication, I can remember my 30th birthday celebrations quite distinctly. The theme was School Daze – and guests could dress as school pupils, teachers, or a childhood hero. Ant and I went as Han Solo and Princess Leia (the white nightie version, not chain mail bikini). I will never forget the image of Matty using all his strength (and a fair amount of talc) trying to help Ant on with his riding boots before the party started. They were so snug that they then had to be cut off again at the end of the night.

Since then, we have dressed up as ninjas, Sybil and Basil Fawlty, Lara Croft and Indiana Jones, Karen Carpenter and Frank Zappa (Dead Celebrities), Pagan deities, Disco Pirates, An evil magician and his zombie assistant, Yin and Yang, Village Eccentrics, the French Resistance, Alpine stereotypes, half of ABBA and Olympic Curlers. Will my love of fancy dress endure into my 40s? That remains to be seen.

What I do know is that already life is changing, and as I wave goodbye to my thirties, I can’t help but reflect back on the circumstances, people and events that defined them.


Let’s start at the place where I have woken up most days for the last ten years – home. I was almost 30 when we bought our first flat, up on the hill above Kemp Town in Brighton. Four happy years there, and we made the move over here to Eastbourne, into our little house in Old Town. Goodbye IKEA flat pack (well, almost), hello second-hand G-Plan.

For most of my thirties, home has been a place to be myself and indulge in those things that make me feel more like me - music, food, sleep, friends, and of course, the significant other with whom I share these walls and all that is within. Inside my two thirty-something homes I taught myself to play guitar, learned to be a good cook, drank a swimming pool’s worth of red wine, threw more than a few decadent parties, set the world to rights with Ant and various house-guests, slept through the majority of Saturday and Sunday mornings, and had countless cups of tea in bed. Sure, some of these traditions will continue, but 40-something Home will definitely have a different list of pursuits at the end of it.


Ant and I lost the last of our collective grandparents during our thirties – putting us one step higher up the family hierarchy and a leap further away from childhood. This sense of being propelled into maturity was further fuelled by several weddings of younger siblings and cousins. By the end of my 40s, the children born out of these marriages will be teenagers, some adults. It’s a daunting prospect. The first of my nephews was born at the end of my twenties, then the rest came along in the last few years, giving me the wonderful experience of being an auntie. This is something that really influenced those years, as together, Ant and I relished the joys of caring for and entertaining these special boys, before deciding to become parents ourselves.

Reconnecting with family after my independent twenties was an important factor in many of the major decisions made over the past ten years. We came back to Eastbourne mainly to be close to family, and to ask for their support in our journey into parenthood. The last three years of my thirties has been taken up with the business of adoption – an involved process that resulted in us becoming Mum and Dad to two remarkable siblings. Their presence in this past year has felt like a seal closing the end of one era and a door opening up to a new one. That this has coincided with moving into a new decade of my life seems fitting and poignant. I will be spending the next ten years raising them and this will inevitably affect how the next phase of my life unfolds.


At the start of my thirties, I was working for John Wiley, commuting daily from Brighton to Chichester, to market business and finance books. Soon after, my commute got shorter and the books fluffier, when I joined GMC Publications in Lewes, where I was to learn all one might need to know about the specialist worlds of knitting, stitching and woodworking. There I stayed contentedly for two years, until the opportunity came up to join a start-up social media agency, also in Lewes. This roller coaster adventure has its highs and lows, and unfortunately did not end too happily, but it certainly developed my resilience – a quality that has come in very handy since having kids.

Thankfully the next career venture, and the one which would see me out of my thirties, has been an altogether more uplifting, fun and enriching experience. For three years (the last of which on adoption leave), I have been leading the social media strategy for The Body Shop’s UK operation. It is a brand for which I have had great affection since childhood, and I relished the opportunity to help bring its products and values (back) into the public eye. One of the highlights of my time at The Body Shop was a trip to India to visit one of its Community Fair Trade suppliers, Teddy Exports.

Although I recently decided not to return to work after my leave, I have a feeling that my journey with The Body Shop is not over for good. But for now, when people ask me “so what do you do?” (a question I loathe, by the way), I will tell them “I am doing the most challenging job of my life, raising two children.” This is a big change for me, after more than a decade of nose-to-the-grindstone 9-5 office life. I honestly don’t know what my forties will bring, career wise, beyond the next year or so, but I know that it will never be quite the same again.


In my thirties I graduated from camping holidays in a two man tent (think Nuts in May) and occasional cheap package deals in the sun, to a six berth motorhome and carefully planned independent trips all over the world. I visited Sweden, Denmark, Brazil, the USA (Texas, California, Washington and New York), Malaysia, Greece, France, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, Montenegro and India, not to mention many wonderful breaks here in the UK.

I sang Leonard Cohen songs on the rooftops of Harlem, dabbled my toes in two oceans at the same time and watched the famous Skagen sunset, made a 700 mile round trip just to see Camille live, nursed a terrible hangover in the middle of a Mariachi festival in San Francisco, and drove through majestic scenery in the land of classical heroes – to name but a few memorable travelling moments. Although my yearnings to see the world are no less potent, I accept that holidays in my 40s are destined to be somewhat different in nature, with two young children in tow. Goodbye crazy adventures… for now.


In my teens and twenties, socialising tended to revolve around messy nights out with fleeting acquaintances. It was a time to experiment in many ways. Since then I have learned to love the intimate dinner party, and nursing a pint of real ale while shooting the breeze at my local. The Big Nights Out have been fewer, but more memorable.

In between homemaking, working, looking after nephews and travelling, I was lucky enough to forge many special friendships during my thirties. I won't name them all here, in case I miss someone out and they're offended, but while I am in this reflective mood, I want to extend my thanks and love to those wonderful friends, old and new, who have been there for me in my thirties, and who influenced, entertained and supported me. It is because of these friendships and the love of my family that I can embrace my 40s with confidence and swagger.

So is turning 40 a big deal? No, not really. But being thirty-something was. And I will surely miss it.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Love Is The Question: Adoption and Matters of the Heart

Ten months ago, two small strangers moved into my home. Last week they became, permanently and legally, my children. Our journey, which began with a spark of chemistry at an adoption activity day just over a year ago, has been challenging, eye-opening; a complete revelation. In between the confusing emotional muddle of the first few months of parenthood, I will always remember distinctly the day They arrived to live with us, after a period of introductions in the foster home. These unfamiliar little people were suddenly my responsibility – reliant on me to feed, clothe, protect, entertain and comfort them. After 20 years of freedom as an independent, unchained adult, it was a shock. Although I’d planned for and pondered about their arrival for almost as many months before, nothing could have prepared me for the reality of becoming an instant mother to these fully formed and highly mobile creatures, with all their hopes, fears, foibles and baggage.

Adoption is not something one takes on lightly. As soon as the formal journey begins, one enters an often-frustrating application process of form-filling and hoop-jumping, designed to actively weed out less resilient adopters. There is certainly no sugar-coating around the possible emotional and behavioural challenges associated with children from troubled backgrounds (which most children waiting for adoption inevitably are), and you are expected by the Powers That Be to demonstrate your preparedness for the near and long-term, in order to be accepted as an adopter. While the candid scenarios presented by social services were not enough to deter me from going ahead with adoption, the process was eye-opening, and did prompt me to acquire as much knowledge and understanding as I could around the most common issues. I wanted to feel ready to embrace whatever adoptive parenthood may throw at me, and I knew that having some proven strategies and techniques up my sleeve – even if I were never to need them - would give me more confidence than relying instinct alone.

During this quest for pre-adoption enlightenment, I found that there is plenty of valuable, practical advice to be had - from both professionals and parents with hands-on experience - on the subject of adoptive parenthood and its particular trials, and I was encouraged by this; soaking up as much knowledge as possible. But in between these self-help binges, I worried; was I over-complicating things? Should I be relying instead on maternal instinct and the reparative powers of Love? Some would say so (and did). But with almost a year of adoptive parenthood now under my belt, I feel justified in saying that, no, Love is not enough. Adoption is no fairy tale, and Love does not automatically spring forth from some sparkling well with a wave of the proverbial magic wand. Had I trusted in Love alone as a panacea in troubled times, I fear I would have found myself drowning in confusion and despair over the past few life-changing months. As wonderful and powerful and desirable as it may be, the hard truth is that Love can be tantalisingly elusive, unpredictable and strange.

I know I am not the only adoptive (or otherwise) parent who would admit that the pursuit of Love can be heart-breakingly mysterious and frustratingly nebulous in the early days of parenthood. Adoptive parents especially may find themselves baffled and disheartened by their unspent desire to love a child who does not know how to be loved. While a new born baby is an empty vessel just waiting to be filled with love, adopted children may never have experienced it, or be too afraid to accept it. My son had just 50 words when he came to us, and 'Love' was not one of them. In the first few weeks he added 'cuddle' and 'kiss' to his limited vocabulary, then one afternoon, while I was handing him a drink in the kitchen, he quite casually uttered the L word for the first time, as if testing out its relevance. But for me, to hear “My love mummy” was sustenance and salvation. I knew then that love could grow between us, even if its significance was still less than palpable to all parties.

What I have learned is that before love can blossom in either direction, there are more important jobs that must be done – wounds of the past to be healed, bridges of trust to be built. The most encouraging counsel I’ve received over the past few months has been from good friends who were brave enough to confess that they, too, struggled in the first few months of parenthood, and did not experience the expected thunderbolt of love with their new child. They described how it grew slowly and in unexpected ways through the humdrum routines and rituals of daily life. This candour gave me the strength to ride out the dominant early emotions of fear, grief, loss, anxiety and doubt - to name but a few - and to feel encouraged by those exquisite moments when a shimmering glimpse of Love would flutter up, precious and fragile and begging to be caught. But however much one has desired and pursued It, surrendering to Love is a daunting prospect, and for me, the scariest part of becoming a parent.

“Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love.” 
Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge.

In almost 40 years on this planet, I have loved and been loved constantly. I know what Love is and how it feels when it goes away. Even though Love has sometimes hurt me, I trust that it will endure. My children have not had the same experience, and it would be naive to expect Love to keep us together - for now at least. But here we are, a little family growing together, getting used to each other and getting through the day. Love is all around, but we do not rely on it to sustain us. Instead, we have had to take a more pragmatic and practical approach. More than anything, I have needed...

Patience. Just having the inner strength to wait for each little attachment milestone to happen - without judging and berating oneself in frustration at the seemingly endless time it takes – has been crucial in maintaining self-confidence and sanity in the early days. Then there’s the daily patience needed to support and nurture two hurt, grieving children with their baffling behaviours; to remain calm in the face of raw, irrational, impenetrable anger. And a longer term kind of patience that involves reassuring each other that life as we knew it has not completely disappeared for good.

Resilience. My inner well being and the flourishing of the children has required all of us to be tough. I have found that my resilience to the daily trials is strongest when I have plenty of adult company and support, and I try not to let a day pass without seeing another grown up who can reinforce my mental health and sense of self.

Resourcefulness. Finally, I’ve needed to be incredibly resourceful in order to maintain any kind of equilibrium in our family. Certainly, much of this comes from instinct, from my own upbringing and other life experiences – but I do regularly draw on what I have read and been told about adoption, attachment, child psychology and parenting. Don’t knock it.

Love is important in adoption, and of course in any kind of parenthood. The love of my partner, family and friends has cushioned and consoled me through the most challenging days of my life so far. And now the promise of love blossoming between me and my children propels us into the terrifying and exhilarating next phase of our 'official' life together. But if you are embarking on adoption, or considering offering advice to someone who is, please, do not mistake the role of Love and expect it to solve all of your problems. Call me a cynic, but through my own experience, I now firmly believe that Love is the goal, not the solution.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

What Can I Do To Help? A Guide to Supporting Adoptive Families

Last week I wrote about my journey to adoptive parenthood, in Expecting Without a Bump. I was deeply touched by all the encouraging messages and comments it inspired – from family, friends, and complete strangers who picked up on it via Twitter and elsewhere. Many friends expressed their desire to support us through the next stage of the adventure, when our children actually come to live with us, and asked what they could do to help. As we’re now only two sleeps away from moving in day, I took advantage of a quiet house this evening compose a follow up piece with some thoughts on this very subject. I hope it will be useful to my nearest and dearest, and to anyone else out there who is supporting an adoptive family in the early days.

It will be a challenging time for the kids and for us, as they leave behind their foster carers and get used to their ‘forever family’, and we adjust to being ‘Mummy and Daddy’ to two walking-talking beings after 15 years of DINKY freedom. As well as the obvious basics of feeding, clothing, entertaining and protecting our children, we also need to help them process everything that’s happened to them so that they can move forward and flourish, and to instill in them a tangible sense of feeling properly claimed into their ‘forever family’. A lot of this will come down to love, patience and instinct, but thankfully there is also a wealth of accepted wisdom on attachment theory as well as many useful resources available on child development specifically relating to adopted families.

We’ve used the past year and a half in the lead up to the adoption to take advantage of these, and have done a lot of reading up and thinking about different approaches, to try and identify strategies that resonate with our own values and will fit naturally into our parenting style. Of course we won’t get it right all the time, but we hope that with the help of our support network, we can in turn give our little ones all that they need to thrive. If you are one of our loved ones reading this, or indeed a friend to someone else who is adopting, here are some fairly simple ways you can help…

Be there, but don’t be there

Please don’t be offended if we don’t invite you to visit in the first few weeks or months. It’s really important that we spend most of our time just with the children, bonding with them on their own, and forming the all-important attachment with them. We still need your help, though – so do drop us a line or call us (in the evenings!) to see how we’re doing. We may feel very isolated during this time. If we happen to bump into you in the park or supermarket, it's fine to say "hi" casually, so don't feel you have to scamper past.

Cuddles and Comfort

When you do eventually come to visit, or we arrange to meet up with you, we’d ask you not to be overly affectionate with the kids. To begin with, things like sitting on laps and comforting cuddles is reserved for Mummy and Daddy. This may seem strange (especially for close family), but this is to help them understand that we are the most important adults in their lives. In the nicest possible way, please re-direct them back to us if they seek you out for comfort and affection.

The Etiquette of Gifts and Treats

We know that you’ll be excited to meet our new kids and might want to help them feel loved with welcoming gifts, but we’d ask that you check with us before handing over treats. Too many new things can be overwhelming for children who have never had many possessions of their own, and it’s important that they value love and security in the home over material items. Appropriate gifts are small things that can be enjoyed by all the family together and can help with our bonding.

Support our parenting style

Because of their backgrounds and the things that have happened to our kids in their short lives, the way we parent them may seem different to how you might approach parenting a birth child. For example, we won’t use the naughty step or time out, because these methods can be traumatic for a child who has experienced neglect and abandonment. We’ve decided not to use reward charts either, as they can reinforce poor self-esteem if never ticked. You can help by accepting and supporting the way we parent and discipline our kids, even if it seems a bit alien.

Help build their self-esteem

These children have suffered loss and will need a lot of re-assurance. We've been reading up on ways to reinforce children’s self-confidence, and these are some of the key things we've discovered:
  • Be specific with praise, and praise effort over skill (e.g. instead of saying “hey, that’s a great picture you drew”, say “wow – look how carefully you chose the colours for those flowers” or “I can see how much effort you put into making those lines so neat”). Children accept this type of praise more readily, they trust that you mean it, and it encourages them.
  • Engage with their intellect over their physical appearance. In particular, please try and resist the temptation to say to girls when you greet them “you’re so pretty” or “look at your lovely dress/hair/shoes”. We’d like our daughter to grow up valuing herself by more than looks. Ask her what book she’s reading or what crafty things she’s made lately instead.
  • Try not to label them – Our kids will have already attracted labels just by virtue of their situation in life, but we will try our best not to add to or reinforce these. This means never saying in front of them things like “oh, aren’t you the bossy one” or “wow, you’re such a fussy eater”. Kids with low self-esteem particularly will take on board such statements and model their view of themselves on this. Better instead to adopt a positive model that states what you want them to be: “It’s great that you’re so confident, and because you are kind and caring as well, I am sure you’ll let your friend have a say” or “It’s good that you ate all of your peas tonight…you’re an enthusiastic eater!”.

Avoid play that involves pretend abandonment or rejection

It may seem like a harmless tease to run away from a child or enact putting them in a bin, but games like this can unhelpfully reinforce feelings of being unwanted and unsafe. Being a big scary baddie may not go down too well either for kids who have been exposed to domestic violence or chaotic households.

Acknowledge inner truth and show empathy

Sometimes our kids may get overly upset about things that seem trivial (as indeed all kids do), but it’s really important not to dismiss their feelings or say things like “it’s nothing to be upset about”. Every opportunity to explore what’s on their minds is valuable as part of processing what they have been through, and their tears may be about something other than whatever actually happened in the moment. So if they seem distressed by something little, ask them “I can see you’re upset. I’m wondering what that’s about?”.

What not to say

Please don’t tell our kids ‘you’re so lucky’ or ask them how they like their new family – it may seem to you that they are fortunate to get adopted by us, but actually none of what has happened to them is at all lucky, and it’s OK to accept and acknowledge that. You can help them to accept and trust us by demonstrating that you do.

Never introduce them to other people as our ‘adopted kids’ or refer to them as such – they are just ‘our kids’. It’s OK to talk about being adopted with them if they bring it up (as they will always know they are adopted), but we’d like to avoid them being labelled and feeling stigmatised because of it. Likewise, don’t refer to their birth family as their ‘real family’. They will always have two families – a ‘birth family’ and us, their ‘forever family. Both are very real.

Social Media and sharing

Sorry, but however cute they are being, we won’t be putting photos of our kids on Facebook, and for fairly obvious reasons, we need to ask the same of you. Please don’t ever share any details or photos of our kids online, talk about them by their actual names to people we don’t know, or discuss with anyone else information about their history and circumstances that we may share with you in confidence.

It’s also important to say that just because we’ve suggested some specific steers around the needs of adopted children, it doesn’t mean you have to treat our kids any differently to any other kids in your life for most of the time. Above all they are amazing little people who want to have fun and feel safe and loved.

If you’re interested to dig a little deeper into some of the above theories, I can recommend some really accessible books on the subject that we’ve found particularly useful:

Attaching in Adoption by Deborah Grey
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber (all parents should read this – it’s genius!)
Creating Loving Attachments by Kim Golding & Daniel Hughes

And some good articles:
10 Things Adoptees Want You To Know
10 things adoptive parents wish their friends and family understood
Adoption in the UK: 9 common misconceptions
17 Things Never to Say to An Adopted Person 

Finally, to anyone from our social circle and extended family who is reading this, THANK YOU. You have all already been so supportive and wonderful through our journey to adoption, and we are truly grateful for this and for all that is still to come in the biggest adventure of our lives. Bring it on.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Expecting Without A Bump

About a year ago, I asked my eight year old nephew how he’d feel about getting another cousin. His eyes lit up, and instinctively flicked to my tummy, then back to my face, with a questioning smile. Having witnessed his other auntie pregnant twice, and been fascinated by the development of each bump, and the little friends that eventually materialised, I could see in his beaming face the excitement of what he assumed would be about to happen again. I almost felt sad to have to break the spell in order to tell him that this time it would be a bit different; there would be no bump.

I had picked my moment carefully to talk to him about this, because he’s incredibly important to me, and I wanted him to feel completely involved and comfortable with my journey to parenthood. “Do you know what adoption means?” was my next question; there was less recognition in his expression, but his inquisitive nature kept the impetus of the moment alive, and I began to explain. He was remarkably relaxed and accepting of what he was being told: that Auntie RoRo and Uncle Ant would give a home to a child or children whose parents couldn’t look after them anymore.  His inevitable concerns were: “will it be a boy?” and “will they be older than me?”. Since then, we have talked about it in an open and matter of fact way, and he seems to be looking forward to the event.

The day I told Isaac we were adopting.

I have had the same, if slightly more sophisticated, version of this conversation, with many of my friends, family and colleagues over the past few months. All of them have been excited and encouraging, too, but I sometimes get the sense that their initial well-wishes are couched in an underlying sadness on my behalf. I suppose it is (and rightly) assumed that if you are coming to adoption, there must be a sad reason that you could not conceive naturally, and that adoption is somehow second best. This is not at all how I feel about it.

At this moment in time, just weeks away from becoming a mum, I am as joyful and expectant as any parent-to-be. I am nesting, putting child-proof catches on cupboard doors, making regular trips to Mothercare, and all the other usual things that pregnant women do. The only differences are that I am also preparing myself for the unique challenges of being a parent to an adopted child, I don’t have to pick out names, and I’m not carrying round an ever-growing bump for all to admire. I am bursting with love for my two almost-children, and grateful to fate, karma, or whatever you believe in, for bringing them into my lives. This pregnancy is of the heart.

Several of my colleagues at work have also been expecting over the past year, and have been very considerate in including me in their conversations about imminent parenthood. But it has thrown into contrast again the differences in reaction between physical pregnancy and adoption. When one of the girls announces they are pregnant to the rest of the office, there is group merriment and a surge of shared emotion. The words “congratulations” and “wow” are used a lot. This usually happens just after the 12 week scan, once they are into the “safe” stage, but with adoption, there is no such milestone around which to stage a big announcement. We have been filling in forms, meeting social workers and swotting up on child psychology for months, and the process of telling people has been very gradual during that time. It’s only in the last few weeks, when we’ve known who our actual children would be, that the real excitement has been evident. I suppose until then, with no bump, it is just not as tangible an event.

As we approached our panel date recently (the moment when we were officially approved to become parents to the children with whom we’d been matched), I’d been pondering on how to celebrate the (hopefully) good news. Like any expectant parent, I wanted to be able to share my excitement with friends and family, and to involve them in my children’s lives before their arrival. It felt much like that 12 week scan moment, only much closer to the arrival, and there’s no picture of a foetus to put on Facebook. So I started looking around for ideas – perhaps other people had come up with a way to share the news – but everything I found was from the US, and largely to do with international adoption. I found photos of couples holding a globe or map showing the country from which they were adopting, but nothing from this country by parents who’d adopted from here. It seems people are reluctant to shout about the fact that they’re adopting, like it’s a dark secret they have to conceal from the world. I find it hard to accept this, and I think the lack of open celebration about adoption probably contributes to the ongoing mystery surrounding it.

Increasingly I get the sense that the very concept of adoption is intimidating to most people. As a nation, we are remarkably ignorant about it – and I’d have included myself in that up until recently. I have begun to think that if there was less mystique about the whole process, and if we knew more about the children waiting for new families, we would be less inclined to produce more of our own biological offspring,  and more likely to embrace the idea of bringing up someone else’s. And if it were more commonplace, maybe we would celebrate news of an adoption in the same way that we swoon over a pregnancy. But we are afraid because we know that adopted children can be difficult. We know that they might reject us, might not look or behave like us, worried that we won’t be able to love them. 

I know it won’t be simple or straightforward, but I am filled with conviction for the task ahead. I have been given the opportunity to turn two little lives around, and I mean to embrace it wholeheartedly. Alongside this determination is a growing need to enlighten others about adoption and to make them feel more open to the idea. My nephew’s unaffected reaction was the right one – if someone’s parent can’t look after them then it makes sense that another adult would naturally want to help them.  In some cultures this is the case, and there is no concept of children waiting perhaps years to find a new home. Having had the urge myself at some point, I can completely understand the need to produce at least one biological offspring, but why have two or three more when there are children already out there without parents?  In 2013, there were over 65,000 ‘looked after’ children in the UK, and only 4,000 or so adoptions. If only a fraction of the 700,000 people who had given birth that year had adopted instead, all of those children in care could have found new homes.  To me these are startling, even shocking, statistics.

Perhaps the main reason more people don’t come to adoption proactively, and that there aren’t any common customs for celebrating with those who do adopt, is that we don’t talk, or even think, about it enough in society. It’s an uncomfortable truth; something other people do. We teach children about safe sex and the responsibilities of parenthood, but many of them will never come across adoption unless they happen to know someone who is adopted, or have friends who are adopters. And even then, there are no accepted conventions for exploring the subject.

The past year and a half has been an incredible learning journey, during which I have become increasingly enlightened about adoption; I have found the process to be in equal parts fascinating and emotional. I’m academically stimulated by the books on child psychology and therapeutic parenting techniques, but constantly affected by the shocking case studies of real children who have been neglected, abused and un-cared for.  Having known a few adoptive families throughout my life, I considered myself fairly well informed, but I now realise there was so much I never knew, or even considered, about adoption. I find myself eagerly sharing my recently gained knowledge with anyone who shows an interest, wanting to spread more understanding. My friends and family have readily engaged with this, and the questions that people ask, and the assumptions they make about adoption, have made for interesting discussions. I've welcomed the opportunity to dispel a few myths along the way, for example:

They’re only babies – surely they won’t remember anything from before? Firstly, there are very few babies available for domestic adoption these days. Since the stigma of unwed mothers and underage pregnancies has become less intense, hardly anyone relinquishes babies any more. And as for not remembering, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that even children who are adopted at a very young age carry baggage from their life before – whether that be fully formed memories or primal, sensory ones. Nancy Verrier argues in her book, The Primal Wound, that children separated from their mothers will always bear the scars created by that fundamental, life-changing rift. On top this, most adopted children have also been exposed to some form of neglect or abuse which will have affected their very blueprint for operating in life. To try and sweep that history under the carpet is like ignoring a lump – it may seem easier not to confront it, but you know deep down that it will be worse in the long term if you don’t. Everything I have been learning is about unpicking the past for these children, while helping them to survive and thrive in the future.

Why does the adoption process take so long? People don’t have to go through all that to have birth children – it’s ridiculous. No, but birth children come to you fresh and unsullied. You can rely on your instincts to parent them, protect them from harm in the world, and raise them with your own values and habits. Adopted children have already been imprinted with tragedy and loss, and your job in parenting them is more challenging, less intuitive. I have been grateful for the time to prepare, and do not in the least resent having been subject to a thorough screening process that is entirely in the interests of both parents and child. And in fact it doesn’t take that long these days – at least it shouldn’t if things go smoothly. It only took us six months to get approved, and a further nine to find the right match – which is about the same as an average physical pregnancy if you count the time of trying to conceive.

When will you tell the child he or she is adopted? There is no big reveal - it will be something we always talk openly about. We’ll create a life story book for the child, so that they can learn about their birth parents as well as us, their ‘forever family’. We’ll try our best to answer their questions and proactively help them to come to terms with their unique journey.

What will you do if your child tries to find its birth parents later? Most adoptions these days have some form of ‘contact’, which means their birth parents will be present in some capacity all along. Usually this is in the form of annual letterbox contact between birth parents and adoptive parents, although sometimes there is direct contact, if this is deemed in the best interests of the child. I welcome this, because it takes some of the mystery out of it for the child. I don’t want them - like Orphan Annie singing “maybe far away, or maybe real nearby” - day dreaming about the fantasy mum and dad who will one day come and sweep them up. Better that they should have a realistic picture of their birth parents, and that they come to understand why they needed to be adopted. If one day they decide they want to get to know their birth parents better, I will do all I can to support them, and be there to help them through the likely emotional fall-out.

You’ll probably get pregnant as soon as you’re placed with a child – that always happens. I find this a difficult one to respond to, because I know people mean well in saying it, but this belief undermines my own acceptance of the journey to parenthood that I have chosen. If you are struggling to know what to say in response to someone’s adoption news, the best thing you could ask is “what can I do to help?”.  More than any cursory encouragement you’d offer a new mum, extend your sincere promise of practical and emotional support for the person who will be facing the daily, perhaps all-consuming, challenges of parenting an adopted child.

For me, the journey of adoptive parenthood is just beginning, and I’m sure there’ll be many more outpourings of words, opinions and emotions to come. This is a moment, a standing-on-the-edge-of-something moment, where I cannot help but reflect on all that brought me here and all that lies ahead. If in sharing my thoughts I have inspired even one other person to open their eyes to the realities of adoption, and to feel more comfortable about celebrating it, I am content.

Should you be interested in learning more about adoption in the 21st century, there are some useful resources on Adoption UK’s website, and I would highly recommend the book 20 Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew by Sherrie Eldridge, which gives a voice to the great unheard.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

I Wanna Take You To A Wine Bar, Wine Bar

It's only mid July, but I feel like summer has been around forever already, and it's one of those summers that you look start to back on fondly even before it's over. It feels distinct as an era that kicked off with being Mabel and has sprawled into long laid back evenings of rosé and repartee. New friendships have been formed, and old ones cemented; I've soaked up the rays in Greece, India, Paris and Eastbourne, and even on the odd rainy day, I've had enough sunshine under my skin to see me through to the next blazingly good one.

Galvanised by this enduring feel-good factor, last night a gang of us took the train to Lewes, in search of a mini adventure and in celebration of several birthdays. We spent most of the evening in Symposium, a swish off licence-come-wine-bar, where you can sit and enjoy all sorts of hand-picked and unusual wines at retail price (plus corkage) and nibble on local cheeses and other treats. There's nothing like this place in Eastbourne, and I'd recommend it as a nice change from either pub or restaurant. The service and atmosphere were both excellent as we made our way through three distinctive bottles of red. After bottle two, I decided it would be a good idea to start vlogging, and this was the result...

If you enjoyed my boozy Lewes vlog, I've also made little films of my recent travels to Athens, The Peloponnese, Wales and Stockholm.