Quiet but busy

Apologies for having a quiet summer on our blog. We haven’t even been reading other people’s blogs, since Google Reader shut down. Does anyone have recommendations for another browser-based RSS reader?

It is October, which means our adoption journey picks up pace. We attend preparation group this month, at Suburban Agency. Soon after, we will put in our official application to Rural Adoption Agency. We will be appointed a social worker and then complete home study. A few panels, a lot of reading, and one match later — and we will be parents.

We have been entertaining the idea of Hand-stitched Dad taking the adoption leave, so all three of us can be home for the most amount of time with our new family member. I have heard that some social workers are particular about releasing a child into the care of a man. That is a diplomatic way of saying that some social workers make matching decisions based on our gender (or maybe gonad assignation?) rather than exploring what “gender” and “familiarity” really means to their traumatised child. There are of course very good reasons why some children are placed with Male or Female parents, but I hope there are even better reasons why they are matched with those parents, that have nothing to do with Male or Female parts at all.

I cannot speak for individual social workers or individual children awaiting adoptive placements, but I can speak for my lovely husband. Hand-stitched Dad is a gentle man with a boyish face, who rarely has anything but kind things to say. He is tall and slender, with a charming multi-coloured beard. Whenever I see him, I relax. Whenever he looks at me, I smile. If I feel childlike and stroppy, he returns my childlike banter in equal force. If I feel serious and philosophical, he listens quietly.

When things became very stressful — the peak of our grieving — we separated for a brief two weeks. It was horrible. But at the end of the two weeks, I knew exactly why I married this man.

We are not perfect. We make mistakes every day. We have had life experiences that have disabled us and left us lonely and afraid. We do not have everything we want, such as a spacious, clean home. But we do have a few quite remarkable things, such as deep respect for each other and a willingness to grow together no matter what the outcome. I now have a name for the values that keep us together: Acceptance and Resilience.

Hand-stitched Dad is steadfast. He embodies all the best qualities of a parent, and, yes, most of those qualities are also considered archetypical female: gentleness, sensitivity, compassion, tolerance, deference.

I look forward to seeing our prospective adopters report. How will it capture the ambiguity of gender roles in our relationship? Will I be described as masculine because of the absence of typical female traits? Will people ignore Hand-stitched Dad’s strengths because he is male? How will the biases of our social worker play out in our assessment?

It may not ultimately work out financially, but I would love to see Hand-stitched Dad grow into the role previously known as Mother. I know that I would be proud to be a Father. I’m not sure it matters what we hide in our underpants.

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Nesting in our minds

There has been a lot of growing in the last month.

Hand-stitched Dad has been volunteering with me, and it has been lovely to share that with him. He really is a natural with the girls, way more than I was when I started. I may have a keen eye for observing and knowing people, but I need to practice relaxing and being in the moment. This is where hand-stitched dad puts me to shame.  I’m learning a lot from him and I wish he would post more often, as he is an inspiration.

We regularly chat about adoption. It’s starting to feel more real to both of us, along with the feeling that we really do have a say in all of this! It’s okay to voice what we want, what we hope for… I know it sounds baffling and obvious, but, after years of having our choices and our confidence taken away by infertility, it’s taken a bit of an adjustment.

I would say that the biggest achievement in the last month has been my sense of self-acceptance. Self-knowledge is great, but what worth is knowledge if you can’t accept it? I have to battle through a lot of bad experiences to get to a place where I feel genuinely accepted (where I genuinely accept myself). I’m starting to feel that way, and it is really paying off in my social life.

I like to think of this as “nesting in my mind” … preparing an emotional home for my future child. It is naturally selfish, as I am the first one to benefit from having emotional well-being. But other people benefit, too. I make no apologies for the time I invest in improving myself. Reading adoption forums makes you feel like social workers will reject you for any sign of weakness. And yet, I can think of nothing worse for traumatised children than a pathologically narcissistic parent!

Successful adoptive parents really do have a beautiful balance of humility and courage. The demands are so high. No wonder so many feel so inadequate so frequently. I’ve been a prospective adopter for years now, and I have deep empathy for adoptive parents. I have learned so much about myself from their journeys and struggles.  I hope this translates to resilience.

Breakthroughs

After a long wait, I started cognitive analytical therapy this spring.  I have had a lot of different kinds of therapists over the last few years. Six, in fact. But don’t be put off by the number: the best indicator of success in therapy is the relationship between the therapist and you. Simply put: at any given time, you will always be you. Therefore, the therapist really, really matters. It may take a few to find the right one.

In this case, I feel like I have hit the jackpot. There is nothing special about this particular therapist. Or about this particular therapy. But I have lucked out, because it is the perfect therapy at the perfect time for me.

The structure of cognitive analytical therapy reduces my anxieties about the therapeutic process. This makes it easier for the therapist to challenge me during our sessions. I already feel like we have made significant progress.

Our goal is to develop strategies to improve my social skills. The method is to identify patterns in my thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviours, much like cognitive behavioural therapy. But cognitive analytical therapy goes a step deeper and also looks at our past experiences to understand why these patterns exist.

I was referred for this therapy because, well, I was kinda already doing it with myself.

Self-development is a huge priority for me. I come from inauspicious beginnings, but I don’t balk at a challenge. Even this last major wall (infertility) left me wondering, in my grief, just what I needed to scale it.

In this case, I needed more therapy. A new job. And friends.

The new job was easy to get. And now that I am settled, I love it. I work from home. I make my own hours. I make more money. I have more responsibility. It ticks so many boxes for me. I have even made some friends. I feel part of something. I feel like I am doing something essential for the community.

Yes!

Making friends has never been a problem either. I can charm the pants off people when I want to. That’s what you do, when you are used to moving around so much. You become good at first impressions: good at making first impressions and good at judging others.

Building friendships, on the other hand, is a baffling empire. The British, especially, do it with gusto. People seem to find friends and link arms for life. Infiltrating these networks (much less navigating them) has been a nightmare. Sometimes it feels like if you weren’t there at the beginning, you aren’t there at all.

Enter from stage left: Therapy.

The best thing about cognitive analytical therapy is that most of the work is up to me. The therapist facilitates the method, and his judgment is an essential ingredient, but the impact? The change? It is all up to me.

For a traumatised child, sometimes retaining that little bit of control can make a world of difference. I can already tell I am changing. I look forward to the person I will be later this year, when I begin preparation group training.

If we meet our goals, I will have less anxiety, more self-esteem, less perfectionist compulsions, and better social skills. Again, therapy will facilitate that, but the real work will be done in the field: making friends, building relationships, and being more of me.

…Breaking through the walls I have built myself, in order to build stairs instead.

Progressing our application

Things have been progressing at a nice pace. We are booked into a preparation group in the autumn, which gives us time to move house (fingers crossed). Little City adoption agency has been in touch and we will be meeting with them in the next few weeks.

As Little City and Rural share training, we don’t need to decide between them until we put in a formal application after preparation group training. The government, however, is changing the way adoption agencies assess prospective adopters. Things may look completely different after July 1st, meaning we will be pushed by government KPIs (key performance indicators) to apply and be approved as soon as possible (four to six months).  The alternative is that we bring down the statistics for our chosen adoption agency.

The cost of these changes is that vulnerable people who are not yet ready to adopt will either be rejected at panel or rushed into parenthood. Well, I suppose if those people wanted to take their time, they would. I’m not sure it will make the system better though — preying on people’s intense desires to be parents.

Because of these changes, I have made it clear to the adoption agencies that hand-stitched dad and I will be taking our time. The last thing I want is for an over-eager social worker to try to rush us, our report, our link, our match, our introductions, our *anything*. Thankfully, Rural adoption agency has been very supportive of our plans. This has increased our trust in this agency to the point where it would take a lot for Little City to impress us.  Rural has demonstrated a commitment to getting to know us and maintaining a continuity throughout the various hoops placed before us prospective adopters. The attitudes of the staff have all been ‘on message’ aka consistent and clear. Finally, they have demonstrated their understanding of what we have to offer and what we have to learn.

This has set the bar rather high for Little City.

I feel like my mind is already made up. But that is not how it works. A lot can change before 2014. It is important we stay flexible and only commit when the time is right.

There is still an awful lot of work to do.

Peace happens

I have become a television stereotype.

You know that geeky girl, hunched over and hiding behind books and glasses? That one that smiles but you don’t notice because you aren’t looking.  I’m pretty sure I’ve become her. Either that, or the little girls I volunteer with watch too much telly. They asked me if I could see without my glasses and I shook my head.

“No, sorry — I can’t see very well at all.” The girls, who sometimes act more like the young women they are growing into, looked at me sympathetically and curiously. I took my glasses off and smiled at their fuzzy faces. I was close enough to see their expressions change. Two girls retreated into their own minds, wondering what it meant to be partially sighted. The third girl gasped and exclaimed, staring at me adoringly:

“You look so pretty!”

Yes, I’ve become that geeky girl on telly, transformed by the removal of her sight aids.

I smiled at my little friend. This particular girl so rarely shares her feelings and thoughts, especially when they are positive. When she relaxed enough to be surprised and, moreover, share that surprise with me, so did I.

“Thank you,” I said to her, smiling warmly. “That’s a very nice thing to say.”

It’s been on my mind ever since. The remaining hour I spent with the girls was the best one I ever had with them. We connected, we laughed. The girls seemed relaxed and engaged. I caught more than one complimenting each other. And in my heart I thanked all the people in their lives who made that hour possible. That’s a lot of people having a lot of good days.

I know it is difficult to do, but it’s something I’ve been practicing for years. As a server at a special events catering company, I smiled as if my career depended on it because it really did. I was surrounded by  stressed people who were desperate to have a good time (who were often spending a lot of money to have a good time). Well, they could afford my smile. I enjoyed putting myself aside, putting on my tuxedo (yes tuxedo) and being the friendly, calm, constant one.

The world needs more people to be friendly, calm and constant.

I know it isn’t always possible and we should definitely not hide our emotions away, but isn’t it a wonderful thing when peace happens?

I’m developing that very important skill of enjoying it while it lasts.

Dissociation and regression

I learned about dissociation years ago, from a friend who had been experiencing dissociative identity disorder. To cope with stressful situations, she often dissociated and regressed. Due to her life experiences, she was not given the same opportunities to develop into a healthy adult. Her identity is fragmented, and so is mine. Identities naturally have different parts, because we are rarely raised in isolation. As children, we take in bits and pieces from everyone we meet. We try out these pieces in the world. And eventually, enough of us is reinforced in practice that we become adults with integrated and functioning identities.

For many people, childhood was not so straightforward. These children experienced overwhelming and chaotic emotions and sensations. It was hard to make sense of the world and hard to know which pieces to keep.

Some children find dissociation is a successful way to navigate the very different demands people place on them. They develop personas which are often very different. And, as they grow into adults, these parts do not always grow together.

For me, the dissociation is simple. Once I learned that it was a primary coping strategy of mine, I could accept how my brain was organised and make better choices. It was easier for me than for my friend, because I used many other strategies to cope: intellectualising, distraction, sublimation. My core trauma happened at a much older age and I was genetically gifted with an extraordinary ability to learn, which meant that it was easier for me to navigate the adult world and give myself space and time to develop.

Infertility was a trauma that hit me where I was most vulnerable: my identity. When I went to the GP, unable to speak, tears running down my face, I had little idea that the road to mental well-being would be through such dark pastures. This was because I had dissociated a good part of my trauma. My brain, to cope, split the cognitive memories from the emotional memories. Infertility opened the door to these emotional memories and without the connection to their cognitive counterparts, I was overwhelmed and re-traumatized.

In therapy, I regressed to the age of my original trauma. Over time, I learned words for my un-met needs. I learned how to get those needs met.  Through meditation training, I learned to accept and sit with my emotions. I still regress. But I’m integrated enough to recognise it when I do and care for myself in a safe way. I see other “healthy” and “normal” people regressing all the time. I see that we are all still children, made up of many parts. That helps me feel connected. I no longer feel so scared about or by dissociation and regression.

Now, I am reaping the rewards of my years of hard work. My job requires a high level of emotional literacy and also the confidence to establish healthy boundaries. I judge people, I raise concerns, I give constructive criticism… I help people see things that they weren’t seeing before. They expect me to point out their weaknesses (that’s why I’m there) but in reality, I more often need to point out people’s strengths. Our greatest weakness is when we do not realise our strengths: when we underestimate ourselves and our ability to do better. To do more.

It is ironic that I am paid to re-enact healthy parenting with “healthy” adults, when I myself have experienced complex trauma and neglect. People become vulnerable in front of me, and I watch as they choose their preferred coping strategies. I empathise. I anticipate. I mirror. I do what I can to maintain their sense of safety. I receive, contain and make sense of their emotions. I reassure. I do all of this while reinforcing the boundaries and making clear my expectations.

I would never have been able to do this as a teenager, muchless in my twenties. And if someone dared to tell me that I would never be able to do this ever, because of my traumatic childhood, I would have laughed in their face (and then cried when alone). I know now that is impossible to judge where a traumatised child will be in twenty years. I never gave up on myself. Imagine where I would be right now if I also had that support from my parents?

I learned about healthy parenting, step by step, by putting myself in situations where I needed to be a parent. I challenged myself so that I could build a sense of identity that could process the trauma I had so neatly dissociated. As soon as I was able to process it, my body let me. I have been making sense of my childhood experiences at a rapid pace ever since.

I still need some support from the mental health services. This takes the form of specialized therapy and now also medication. Did therapy and medication make me into the person I am today?

No.

The reason I cope so well today is because of the strengths and skills I had as a child. I was lucky enough to see and use my strengths in a way that enabled me to identify opportunities for development and kept me safe (enough) to grow. I did not meet my milestones. I could not be a normal teenager. I may always be “behind” my peers in social skills. At thirty years old, though, I am no longer measured that way.

I look forward to being a parent. I know that there are never guarantees. I understand that my five year old boy may never make sense of his early experiences. But I hope at least to help him value himself and realise he does have the power and independence to make choices about himself and his life. I expect him to regress, even as a forty year old. And even as his 70 year old mum, I will still look for opportunities to help my boy grow.

Sharing the News

There couldn’t possibly be a more lovely and nurturing person alive than hand-stitched dad‘s aunt. She lost her hearing as an adult, following a car accident, and has responded to life’s challenges with absolute grace. Last time we visited, we told her about hand-stitched dad‘s upcoming surgery. Hand-stitched dad expressed regret that his aunt was left confused about the news while other family members asked us questions. When I asked him how he would like to tell his aunt and uncle about this news, he was adamant that his aunt should know first. We discreetly prepared a message on our iPad and waited for the right moment.

Hand-stitched dad says:

We drove down there. I was feeling nervous.  We chatted about the ‘normal’ stuff first and then we had traditional Sunday lunch. Hand-stitched mum wrote a message on our iPad: “We are applying to adopt.” We showed it to my aunt and I said we were planning on adopting. Then, we told my uncle. My aunt cooed excitedly and asked some questions.  Later, my aunt took me aside and asked me if I had wanted to adopt. I smiled and nodded.

Afterwards, we went to my cousin’s house to tell their family. This time, hand-stitched mum said we were applying to adopt. I can’t remember what they said — I was nervous!

I was less nervous than hand-stitched dad. His aunt and I spoke later; she asked quietly whether we could have kids. I looked at hand-stitched dad sitting across the room and smiled, shaking my head. She repeated herself throughout the evening: “It’s your decision.” I wondered if she thought we were asking them if we should adopt.

At hand-stitched dad‘s cousin’s house, the news was much simpler to give. I smiled around the room and said we had news to share. Our cousins smiled at us. When I said we were applying to adopt, my cousins paused. Their response was positive, but deflated and confused. I told hand-stitched dad later that they were probably expecting me to say pregnant.  Well, a child joins a family of many layers. It is a transition for all of us.

We have now told most of hand-stitched dad‘s family and none of mine.  He is more nervous about telling them than I am. We both agree what will happen: my parents will coo insincerely and nervously and then, after a few minutes of chit-chat, start asking absurd and inane questions. They may blurt out something inappropriate. And we will all itch for the awkward conversation to be over. Nothing against my parents, but they, like many people, need to be eased into things.

We are reassured that no matter what people’s responses are now, they will change when faced with our actual child rather than our plans.

The Mid-Wait Wobble

I can see why people are keen to rush into things. Sitting with anticipation and anxiety leads to thoughts (messy thoughts) unless you keep an active reign on yourself. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the decision to adopt, but still I catch myself in the odd moment wondering if it will really happen: if we could really cope with being adoptive parents.

Several years back I would have (allegorically) hung myself in this annihilating train of thought. Now my reflective mind is a bit more resolute. I note the thought: Am I worthy? I look to the feeling: fear. I also look to my habituated response: self-doubt and sometimes even self-attack.

I remember the little, lonely girl and her bullies. I remember I’m no longer that girl. I hold her close to me; I hold that fear. And instead of turning on myself, I breathe. I remember that fear is natural, human, normal, shared. I remember that I’m here today, despite my fear. I remember that I am more than fear. I am worthy.

Slowly, with time, my brain and my body learnt not to be afraid of fear. The little lonely girl was learning to trust herself.

I wobble. Drenched in fear, I wobble.

But somehow, every wobble moves me closer to being that parent. I will not be perfect. I will yell sometimes, blinded by fear and love. My emotions will sometimes overspill in tears. I will feel helpless. I will feel unworthy. I will be afraid.

I will be all of these things. I will wobble, wobble, wobble up mountains and through rivers.

If that is the only thing my child learns from me, I’ve done my job. We are, all of us, broken in seen and unseen ways. We stumble, fall, and break some more. We wobble.

Maybe life is about learning how to wobble.

Making Decisions

Hand-stitched dad and I are notorious for our decision making skills. We like to sit with the question, weighing up an endless supply of ‘what ifs’ and second-guessing what we (and others) want. Social workers love that we took our precious time (three years in fact) between our first enquiry and our decision to proceed. They will love it less when waiting for our answers during home study, I’m sure.

The government was not thinking of me and hand-stitched dad when they decided to reduce the assessment period to eight, six and then four months. We genuinely need time to process and adapt to what we learn about adoption and about ourselves. We are thoughtful and considerate people. We are not good at making decisions.

Age? Not an exclusion factor.

Gender? Don’t care.

The social worker from Rural Adoption Agency pointed out to us that we needed limits, otherwise we would have thousands of children thrown at us once approved. We looked up BAAF’s matching criteria form and discovered we still couldn’t draw a line.

“You need to talk about it more.” The social worker suggested. I thought to myself: we’ve talked about it plenty; what we need is a way to make decisions.

The social worker’s face took on a dreamy look when sharing a story about the magic of telling an adopted child they had been chosen. “We chose you.”

I cringed.

Based on my own experience of trauma and neglect, the last thing I wanted to hear as a child was that I’d been chosen. I would much rather have had a choice. I would have wanted someone listening to me and giving me a say in the decisions. It’s not easy getting to know a traumatised child on that level. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

Where on the BAAF form does it say: “I would like the child who would choose me” ?

Hand-stitched dad and I were both on a natural high after the social worker left. We bounced from the kitchen to the dining room, putting away snacks and hanging up laundry. We reassured each other. “It went fine.” “Did I talk too much?” “No. Was I okay?” “Was I okay?” Yes. Yes. Smiles. Hugs. This is it. “The first step!”

We babbled excitedly about Rural Adoption Agency. I was pleasantly surprised by some of what the social worker described. It fit my impression of the agency from my research and monitoring. It’s nice when evidence corroborates like that.

Hand-stitched dad had preferred Little City Adoption Agency. But he shrugged, with a smile, “I can’t think of a reason not to go with Rural adoption agency.”

I paused and smiled. “Neither can I.”

We looked into each other’s eyes and our smiles grew. We bounced up and down together, both exclaiming in unison: “We just made a decision. We just made a decision!!!” Then we collapsed in fits of giggles at our absurdity. We smiled at each other. We held hands.

The first step.

Believing in yourself

For a number of reasons, Hand-stitched Dad and I were not gifted with a substantial dollop of self-confidence. This comes out in different ways.

Hand-stitched Dad is more reserved, considerate, and deferential. That’s him, through and through. He’s like that when you meet him. He’s like that when you get to know him. He’s like that, when you’ve known him for years. I love Hand-stitched Dad‘s calming consistency and carefulness. Most people agree: he’s very likable, albeit quiet.

I have an altogether different sort of consistency.

When we first meet, I will be charming. Many adopters will recognise this sort of charming. It’s the charm of someone who is too scared to fight, who just wants us all to get along, who wants you to smile and move on, who wants you to believe this girl is stronger than she is. It’s the charm of someone who has spent more time getting to know other people than getting to know herself.

It’s the charming face of trauma.

As we approach our first home visit, our confidence quakes. I remind myself: before we submit ourselves to their judgment, we opened ourselves up to our own. Our story doesn’t begin and end with trauma.  We are more than our charming faces and vulnerable hearts.

I think, ‘What if they reject us?’ but the train of thought only ever comes back to disappointment in them, because I believe in us. I think of our deepest, darkest days, and I remember: we made it through them with dignity. We lived and we are better people for it. Yes, we are made of grief, more grief than most people our age hold. But we are made of more than grief.

If I can learn how to grieve and still love, so can our child. I  may not be the most careful or considerate person. I have a hundred holes, and I will never fit in. I’m displaced. I’m forever learning my limits. But this: parenting a traumatised child. This I can do.