Rachel and Tim reflect on their journey to adopting three children at once.
My husband and I have been together for nearly 17 years and married 11 years ago. Since marrying we had tried for a family but when it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to have biological children we both (separately) came to the conclusion that we would like to be considered as adoptive parents. We then embarked on a completely different journey! I read the information on the adoptive process and we approached our local authority and CCS for further information. After attending information sessions by both organisations we asked CCS to consider assessing us as potential adopters.
We both found the assessment process a very positive and informative experience albeit harrowing at times. We didn’t tell many people that we were being assessed as we wanted to be absolutely certain that this was what we wanted to do and that we would be approved. The few family and friends we did tell remarked that it seemed to be taking a long time but we never felt this as there were so many things to consider and we wanted the time to really take on board as much information as possible to ensure that this was ‘for us’. At no time did either of us have any doubts.
Once approved, we started looking for a potential match which was a strange time – excitement every time a group of children looked like a possible match, followed by disappointment that the match didn’t seem appropriate and a growing concern that we were being unrealistic in our expectations. After seriously considering a sibling group of two sisters and finding the local authority approach to sharing accurate information casual at best and misleading at worst and deciding that the obvious (yet glossed over) special needs of the oldest sibling were more complex than we felt we could support, we really felt very downhearted that we were, actually, not going to become parents.
And then one day our social worker sent off our information to the local authority of three children who needed to be placed out of authority and whose details had been passed on to CCS from the adoption register. This was before we saw the details of the children but as soon as did, we just knew that there was something about them. We were shortlisted by the Local Authority who had a lot of interest in the children, then we met with their social worker and family finder who were so professional and sensitive in their approach that it made a huge difference to our placement. The social worker knew the children extremely well and the family background as well as any social worker in her position.
We were then approved at a matching panel in March and had introductions in April before the children came to live with us in mid-April, almost a year to the day since we were approved as adoptive parents.
The children’s experiences of family life before we met them
The children are the youngest of a full sibling group of 9 children – three in their twenties, three in their teens and our three. We understand that the house was extremely chaotic with no routines or boundaries in place. Our three children are very close and I think that the wider siblings were generally very close but without any adequate adult supervision, there were a lot of accidental injuries (particularly to our eldest daughter) and out of control behaviour. Adult supervision was passive and inappropriate.
We also know that there was sexual abuse in the family and although it is unclear whether our youngest three were abused in any way they were clearly in an environment of blurred sexual boundaries and exposed to inappropriate material and behaviour. We also know that although there was food in the house mealtimes were erratic and irregular and that the house was, at times, extremely dirty. School attendance was also erratic and not supported and the children were noted to attend in a very grubby and poorly clothed state. Money was not particularly short but the rent was seldom paid and the money was instead used to buy expensive clothes and technology so house moves were frequent.
We suspect that at times the children had a lot of fun as they were allowed to do exactly as they pleased but this also meant that it was quite frightening for the younger children as boisterous behaviour spilt over into violent behaviour. The older siblings were expected to care for the younger children and they did this in the only way they knew how which was sometimes by very aggressive behaviour. Our eldest daughter was very much a mother to her brother and sister and our son was a very frightened little boy bullied by his older brothers who spoke very little when he was placed in care.
These children made us feel we could be their parents
As soon as we saw the children we were attracted to them. Initially, this was on quite a superficial level as they are attractive children with nice names. However, as soon as we started reading more about them we realised that they were bright, full of energy and had interests which we felt we could nurture. We felt that we had the energy and the wherewithal to help promote their interests and talents and could hopefully help them reach their undoubted potential. We had always been interested in a sibling group – a particular of three. I am the eldest of three children and my husband is the penultimate of six children who naturally split into groups of three. We also read that they were very close and if a family couldn’t be found to adopt them all then they may have had to be split up. We really didn’t want that to happen.
When we watched the DVD of the children, we felt like we were watching a family film – the way the children behaved in general and with one another felt very recognisable. We found them sweet and funny with bags of personality – and were thoroughly engaged by what we saw. Our social worker watched us watching the DVD and commented that there was a lot of chemistry going on! The more we found out, the more we felt we could be their parents and that with the right support we could help them come to terms with being adopted and finding out (in time) about the complex nature of their family background.
The impact on both of us when the children first came into our lives
We first met the children at introductions. It was an extremely stressful time. Despite being very well prepared by our social worker and the children being well prepared by their foster carers and social worker we were all out of our comfort zones. The children tended to the chaotic and things we thought would be low key fun things to do (pooh sticks, going for a walk, colouring) were a lot harder than we could possibly have imagined! Eyeballs were prodded, bridges nearly jumped off, electric fences galloped towards, sheep harassed etc. It was absolutely exhausting. Then we got the children back to our home and we all went into a state of shock.
For the first few weeks every time, one of the children went to the toilet we had to accompany them to wash their hands despite being 7, 5 and 4. Even the simplest tasks like getting dressed and washing their teeth – which they could do – they were unable to do such was their sense of shock. I know that my husband wondered what on earth we had done for the first few days. It took us three days to unpack the car and on one day 5 hours to unload the dishwasher – and we were both at home.
We also found that we were much, much stricter than we ever thought we were going to be even down to specifying which toys were to be played with – too many toys too much chaotic behaviour and they were not able to self-regulate at all. Both my husband and I were so tired. The children slept well and we quickly got into a good bedtime routine but we were sleeping very lightly with ears on elastic for the least sound. Our dog kept us awake too! The disruption to her life was massive and when she realised that these little people weren’t going to go away again, she too started acting up …
I always wondered what people did with children all day and the answer is very little. About 4 days after the children came to live with us we decided to buy some swimming costumes for them and take them swimming. Buying swimming costumes took one day. We went swimming the next day. From leaving the house to coming back through the door again took 3 hours and we were in the swimming pool for precisely 10 minutes. However, the delight on their little faces as they squealed and splashed in the pool – for the first time in their lives – gave us huge amounts of joy and that was probably the very first experience we had of this with them.
One thing that we found very hard in the early days and still do is the depth of the children’s grief – either articulated or acted out. A week after the children came to live with us it was our eldest daughter’s 7thbirthday. She wanted to wear a princess outfit her much older sister had given her the previous year which she did. When it came to the bedtime wash she didn’t want to take it off and dissolved into such distress that she couldn’t stand up. She felt that she would be too small for it the following year and that brought up all her feelings of loss. She wanted to sleep in it but I explained it would be too hot and so we compromised and hung it on a hanger in her bedroom so she could look at it as she went to sleep.
What made a monumental difference to the children settling and my husband and I adjusting family life was that we were both at home full-time for 4 months. I had been made redundant a few months previously whilst my husband was able to take adoption leave of 3 months on full pay (an enhanced special package with his employer) with a further 4 weeks on reduced pay. We believe this was crucial in helping us all come to terms with our changed circumstances.
The joys and challenges of family life now.
We have been very lucky. After 18 months as a family, we feel very bonded to the children and have created a simple family life that the children are comfortable with and makes them feel safe. I remember talking to another adopter who said that for the first year she felt that they didn’t have any fun. I feel that we had quite a lot of fun soon after the children came to live with us. They are very bright children with an acute sense of the absurd so we have a lot of giggles as a family. The joy of seeing the children flourish is incomparable. Our son has gone from a small pinched-face little fellow who would barely speak and only eat beige food to a strapping lad with boundless energy, an enormous appetite and a thirst for all sorts of facts to divulge at the meal table. Our eldest daughter has gone from an acutely anxious and brittle little personality with very poor concentration to someone very popular with her peers, loves art and will spend hours making pottery and whose reading level has moved from 18 months behind to 2 years ahead of her age in 18 months. Our youngest daughter has taken the longest to bond in many ways as she was only tiny when she moved into care and so is still very confused about what has really happened to her. She is yet to articulate her feelings even though she is very bright and tends to lash out with anger. However, she is beginning to understand how to express how she feels and does look to me as her mummy to look after her.
In terms of the challenges, as we get to know the children better and they relax with us and let go of information about their past we are gaining a better insight into the true ramifications of their early life on their development and understanding of the world around them. They have some badly skewed ideas of what is appropriate and what is not and we feel our biggest challenge is to help the children form a strong value system with the personal skills for making good and safe choices in their lives. Hopefully, this will enable them to become well-adjusted people able to reach their full potential. We are learning all the time about how we might help them do this and seeking professional support as and when we need it.
Like any parent, we feel being a parent and parenting is a life’s work. It is the hardest yet the most amazing thing I have ever done. Over recent months, our eldest daughter has remarked, ‘I like it, mummy, when you tell me things. You explain them to me’. Our son murmured to me when rocking him goodnight with a lullaby ‘mummy, you smell of love’. Last, but no means least, our youngest daughter. When tucking her up one night, her glowing little face peered out from underneath the duvet with two thumbs sticking up. ‘What’s that for then darling?’ I asked. ‘One thumb – for the delicious food, the other thumb – for the love and care.’
Rachel’s 10-year-old daughter talks about her experiences with adoption
One evening when our eldest daughter Hermione (now 10) was having a bath, she asked ‘do they ever have children talking about adoption on the radio?’ ‘why darling?’ I responded. ‘Well, I would like to talk about it. About it being a good thing. I like being adopted and think it is a good thing for other children.’ So, having spoken to CCS and volunteered this information we sat down one wet and soggy Saturday evening after supper and put together the following – me as the interviewer asking the questions and Hermione answering them:
‘Do you ever feel sad about being adopted? ‘Um no. I feel happy about it and actually, sometimes I forget that I am adopted. I feel like I was actually born into the family.’
‘But there must have been times which you felt were difficult.’ ‘Yes, there were but my parents helped us through the difficult times. And they still do.’
‘Do you miss your birth family?’ ‘Sometimes yes, but most of the time I don’t think about them. Sometimes I think about them when I think of things that are special to me.’
‘Would you like to know more about them?’ ‘Yes at times but I stick with the information I have been given and wait till I am older and then ask mum more about them.’
‘What are the best things about being adopted?’ ‘You have a nice, safe, caring family around you and there is no need to be scared about anything.’
‘Do you feel different to other children?’ ‘Yes but then other children feel different to one another anyway. I also feel different to other adopted children.’
‘Because we are all unique. Anything else you want to say?’ ‘Yes. That mummy has told me that people think that they are too old to adopt or that they maybe think that they can’t or aren’t allowed to adopt but they can and it would be really good if more people could adopt a child or children because it would make a huge difference. It has made a very big difference in my life. I feel really strongly about children being adopted because it makes a huge amount of difference to the child and to the grown-up that looks after them.’
‘You see that in us? (The greying hair, needing glasses, the look of exhaustion …’) ‘It gives pleasure to mummy and daddy to see their children being happy.’
At this point, I get a big kiss on each cheek and not to be left out of things our youngest daughter Susan suggests we should end with the following ‘don’t just sit there twiddling your thumbs – adopt a child.’
Four Years since our children came to live with us
It is hard to believe that it is just over 4 years since the children came to live with us and nearly 2½ years since our adoption day. So much has changed and, at times, so little! The bumps in the road tend to be less frequent but more dramatic with the influence of the children’s complex early life becoming clearer to us all. As the children mature emotionally we are able to give them further information about their family circumstances and in turn, they have a greater capacity for self-expression. This self-expression can, at times, still be physical as opposed to verbal but we are so much more aware of the triggers and the responses. It has been hugely helpful to have the CCS post-adoption support meetings to attend – not just in terms of the expert guidance but, as ever, the highly useful contact with other adoptive parents. Somehow, other parents never quite ‘get it’ in all its ramifications – and that feels very isolating at times. We have also been very lucky in being able to link up with a really excellent Clinical Psychologist through CAMHS who has given us a ‘space’ on a monthly basis to talk through any issues that are top of the agenda. It gives us a chance to reflect on what is working, what is not and what we need to do about it – without involving the children which at this point we don’t feel would be helpful to us.
Tim is still keeping a diary and that has proved a very valuable resource to go back to over and over again. It is reassured to see how the children have developed and how we have progressed as a family – what we can now do and enjoy with the children to their benefit would have been unthinkable a few years ago. When times are tough it is good to remind ourselves! As well as this, the diary is a really helpful reminder of how the children behave at different times and in different situations, how we’ve dealt with this previously and whether it’s been successful. It’s pretty hard to keep everything in your brain so having it written down is immensely helpful!
I consider myself incredibly lucky that although I do work a few hours each week, without the adoption support package secured for us by CCS I would probably have to work full time. Being able to be around for the children before school, during school to accompany them on trips, and collect them from school has given me the opportunity to really pick up on the things that need attention and anything that is bothering them that need to be given time and space for expression. I also have more time to be actively involved with the school PTA which in turn has given the children a lot of pride in me which is important – they take great delight in talking about me as if I run the whole show (as if!)
Yesterday, we got together with a good friend who we met on the CCS preparation course 6 years ago and it was so good to acknowledge and talk over how things are just different for adoptive families. So much of our children’s behaviour has improved beyond belief – they make much better and more appropriate choices about what to do and say, are better able to keep themselves safe and we are much more able to trust them and to give them greater levels of choice and freedom which they appreciate and enjoy. But, the vigilance continues and we never stop questioning what might be behind their behaviour and how to handle it appropriately. It is absolutely draining and I don’t think most parents of children of a comparable age realise that is what we have to do – and continue doing.
But what we do share with other parents is just how much we love our children and what joy they bring us, how proud we are of them and all their achievements big and small and how no other children are as beautiful, funny, talented as ours …