Karin looks back on adopting a brother and sister.
We looked into adoption after a failed attempt at IVF and a burning primitive need to have children that came from nowhere when I met the love of my life in my late 30s. Like many people, having children was not a reality until it became too late.
Our adoption journey began five years ago – we adopted our children exactly a year later. I know this because I started a blog to chart our progress – the stuff I felt I wanted to know when we first started thinking about adoption. I’m not a writer but have periodically kept a diary and this blog is more of a diary really. It’s a bit mixed up and I really need to get some help to make it look better but hey, I read it now and remember the darker days and feel pride and happiness at how far we’ve all come.
I also started an anonymous Twitter account and joined the adoption community online through the @adoptionsocial Twitter group – a great source of support and advice in the early years and when times got tough.
We chose CCS Adoption through which to adopt our children as opposed to the local authority – having worked in the civil service for many years, I didn’t anticipate a good experience due to the number of cuts being made. Anyway, this was and still is one of the best decisions we made. Such amazing support before, during and after our adoption.
Four years ago we adopted a brother and sister who I’ll call Archie and Betty. Archie turned four during introductions and Betty was two and a half. Looking back, those intro weeks were the hardest. The head gasket went on our recently purchased ‘family’ car on the way to meet the birth parents – who didn’t turn up. As if we didn’t have enough going on.
We arrived at the doorstep of a family that we had to practically live with for two weeks and we didn’t really gel with them. At the time we felt they were one of those functional fostering couples – as opposed to a nurturing home full of love – and we couldn’t wait to get the children out of there.
Both children were pretty chaotic in the early months. Archie rejected me often, preferring my husband whereas Betty clung to me. We had a lot of ‘my mummy, your daddy’. It was all so surreal. I don’t feel I was a natural mum, my career had always been the top priority, so to find myself changing the nappy of a four-year-old in a loud soft play centre in the middle of nowhere took some getting used to.
Those first six months nearly broke us. Life was so intense. A lack of sleep, constant boundary pushing – no clue how to deal with it. It didn’t help that it was six of the darkest winter months. Did I mention that I used to have a great relationship with my husband? Our relationship was bottom of the pile. We lived for 7 pm when we could get them to bed and lie in a dark room. No honestly, we then spent our evenings dissecting what had happened that day, it was relentless.
The respite was rare – gone were the days of weekends away. It was also very isolating. It nearly broke us. On many occasions I felt ‘have we done the right thing?’
Archie started preschool in January and Betty started in September following. This was a blessing as what they really needed was some one-to-one time with me. Looking back I remember when I had them on my own we would get on the bike, cycle to a toddler class (a haven laid on by CCS Adoption) and on the way back stop by the river to have a picnic. A bonding moment for me with Archie was when a dog tried to steal our sandwiches. It was a little scary then made us laugh together.
Forget that support network drawing we had painstakingly drawn up in the lead-up to our adoption, our biggest support for at least the first year was those who had already adopted, I owe my mental health to Raychel who we met along the way and now works for CCS. That lady has no idea how important she and her husband were in guiding us through those tough times. Being able to say ‘I’m finding this hard’, ‘I’m angry’, and ‘I’m struggling to cope’ was a healthy release and the understanding conversations that followed were hugely supportive. I also met with other adopters going through the process too, knowing we were not alone and understanding what we were going through is normal was such a relief. I encourage anyone to do this. Admitting you’re not the perfect parent that you dreamed you would be is very hard.
We took professional advice and read LOTS about parenting children with challenging behaviour. Dan Hughes is right but boy, trying to operate in that way all of the time is so hard – even unrealistic. We tried to be playful, loving, accepting, curious and empathic but when a child is rejecting you, not listening and being defiant, you do lose it. I shouted – it would be the only thing that got their attention. As much as I said I wouldn’t, it was in my conditioning, it was how I was brought up. I’m not proud of it and felt such guilt as this home was meant to be different. Something I’ve learnt is that we are only human.
I went to an Adoption UK conference and learnt the best and most reassuring advice – it’s ok if:
— a third of the time you’re pretty rubbish,
— a third of the time you are rubbish but repair,
— a third of the time you’re on your game and channelling Dan Hughes.
Anyway, Archie started at a local school – you get priority places if your children are adopted. No wonder if you get in, that’s one bonus. They met with us regularly and we set up processes to support him. It worked really well and he made some friends – yeah! Betty joined a year later and absolutely loved it.
Into the first year and a new teacher found Archie running around the school, refusing to go into his classroom. He would be asked to do things that he didn’t want to and he would say ‘no’. The teacher at the time didn’t give him enough security. Those boundaries and consistency were not tight enough. I didn’t really understand boundaries and consistency but hell I do now. It’s basically the rules – you can do this, but you can’t do this. If you do this and I’ve told you not to there will be consequences – follow it through and repeat as necessary. Most children need to be told a few times before they understand a rule. Ours were around 100 – 500 times. It’s exhausting at times but we count our blessings that it’s getting easier.
Archie moved into year two with a new teacher – how we adoptive families love the impact of change. In the first term at one of our meetings with the school, we were talking about a future where exclusion could have become a reality – if we didn’t address this behaviour before he moved to his new junior school a year later. Archie had been seeing a counsellor and we had advice from the local ‘virtual school’ that advises and monitors the behaviour of children in/from care. The suggestion was that Archie was being made to feel ‘special’ and he didn’t have to stick to the rules. The new teacher tried a different tack – with our blessing. As we were finding it worked at home, they got pretty tough with him. The boundaries were tightened and if he didn’t listen then he had consequences – whatever he enjoyed at that time we would take away from him for a short period. We also found that raising our voices firmly really helped (although it’s not what we’re told to do, as each child responds to different things). Within two months he was like a different child. He has his own goals to achieve and whilst not academically as successful as others in his class, he can read and his writing is improving.
His counsellor arranged for us to visit the local fire station as a family, it was an amazing opportunity for us to work together as a team. We attended one of their training sessions where Archie was told by the fire chief (or whatever they call him) that they all have to listen to each other. He talked about the values of the fire service which all went over his head, to be honest. But coupled with this and a new approach in school his behaviour changed. They set up an exercise in class where he could earn ping pong balls for good behaviour. When he got 30 he could go back to the fire station.
I look back at the end of his final term and he is constantly being awarded for his behaviour. His empathy is off the scale – he’s a really caring and considerate little boy. He’s slowly learning in the way that other more secure children have been and he’s catching up. He’s well-liked and has a love of sports. When we’re out with a group of friends people will always say how lovely and well-mannered the children are. He can still be a little all over the place but it’s mostly at home and best of all, he’s not heading for exclusion.
I mention Betty less as she showed fewer signs of the trauma of neglect. That said, she is a strong-willed, emotional little diva and I’m not looking forward to her teenage years!
They both make us laugh constantly. They are a perfect match for our family. They said they were ‘active’ and we are pretty active. By active, they mean seriously energetic. We are still exhausted most of the time but it’s got a lot easier.
This Autumn will be four years since we adopted. We are settled as a family and have a whole new circle of friends who’ve met through the school. We’ve got a group called ‘the bad mums’ on WhatsApp. Those who tell it as it is, who are not afraid to say I opened the wine at 4 pm yesterday just to cope. Parenting is difficult and I need to be around people who won’t sugar-coat it. If I’m struggling, they give me advice and vice versa. They know about our adoption and on occasion say I would never know they aren’t yours by birth. Many say they look like us, apparently, Betty also walks like me! They’re definitely getting our sense of humour. Our friends are not all from adoption, they are a same-sex couple, single parents, and parents with twins that are just as active as ours. We all have a challenge, we choose to share our experiences and it’s good to be open and say – I’m not coping. And to be there when they aren’t.
I recently wrote to the CEO of CCS Adoption to tell her that we were fulfilling our dream of being sat around a campfire and having fun times. Sat in a meeting four years prior, she was sceptical that this would happen. Painting a picture of the challenge is what they need to do – it’s tough. We like to think that we put in the hard yards and didn’t choose the easy option of being soft and accepting of negative behaviour. It’s now paying off and life is good. We’re looking forward to our first all-inclusive holiday where kids’ clubs beckon and I might just get to spend some time with my husband again.