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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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.

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.

Just a Prospective Adopter

“As you are still a prospective adopter, you can have little real idea of what it is like actually to parent one of the most difficult children in the system, though your understanding will have been augmented greatly by being able to read these boards. ” [Bold mine]

Really, it’s never nice to be told what you are.

But that’s not what I want to comment on. I want to challenge the idea that the biggest difference between the quoted person and me is that they are parents and I am not.

If you search the scientific literature, you don’t read that traumatised children thrive best with people who have experience raising a ‘difficult child.’ You read that traumatised children thrive best with people who have experienced and resolved their own trauma successfully — presumably because these sorts of parents have genuine empathy and resilience. Experience raising a child doesn’t really factor into that equation, because people don’t need to be experienced parents to have the resources, understanding and motivation to take care of a traumatised child.

In my masters training, I was told by a child psychotherapist that “children choose” who to trust. They “choose” based on their complex experiences, or rather — how their experience of you fits into their previous experiences. It is a mostly automatic process, as people do not always have the capacity  to step back from and challenge the connections between emotions, thoughts and behaviours. As I observed child-adult interactions for my course, I saw this in practice: we are all captive to our life experiences. It is difficult to challenge our semi-automatic judgments of people, including ourselves.

I am a prospective adopter. But my ideas of what it is like to “actually parent one of the most difficult children in the system” come from my own life experiences not my adoptive status nor the amount of time I’ve spent reading adoption boards. I trust that my home study will fully explore these experiences in order to answer that very question.  I may even share a bit of my history with you here. Please don’t mistake this future disclosure of information as seeking your approval, as I don’t want or need it. The only people that matter regarding my parenting skills are the people in my care and the people who sometimes act on their behalf (aka the social workers).

What I can offer you, dear reader, is the same respect, consideration and acceptance of your disclosures that I demand for mine.  I understand that we may have had different experiences; we may make different choices. But we are united by how we take responsibility for those experiences and choices: our actions, our beliefs. We strive to understand, to know more, to do better. We share our vulnerabilities and strengths, by our own choice, and in time we realise that respect has less to do with shared experiences and everything to do with acknowledging ourselves.

I empathise with the original source of the quote. They were motivated by a desire to protect the vulnerable members of their group. I am reminded again that I’m an outsider  a prospective adopter. As an outsider a prospective adopter, I have no leverage to challenge the way things are done. Strange how this experience of rejection and frustration feels a little like… a real idea relevant life experience.

Don’t worry, I have a support network in place to cope. 😉

Big City’s comedy of errors

The first time we inquired with Big City adoption agency, they sent a big packet of information plus a DVD. Hand-stitched dad and I found the DVD very helpful (if not a little clinical and scripted) as we both prefer visual learning aids.

The second time we inquired with Big City adoption agency, we filled out an online form and someone called us several weeks later to take our details. In hindsight, we probably should have asked whether this person was a part of the adoption team or a social worker, as it turns out they were just an admin in a special data collection team!  The phone call ended with a verbal invitation to their information meeting in five days and an assurance that the adoption team would send a letter invite out.

On the day of the adoption information meeting, we received a call from the same person asking for our details again. I kindly reminded her that she already took our details and we were still waiting for the invite to the information meeting. Coincidentally (!), we also received a call from a Big City social worker asking if we would be attending the information meeting that evening. Um, no? They apologised for not sending the letter through and assured me that they would send an invite to us for the next information meeting.

A couple weeks later, we still haven’t received an invite. We did, however, get a call from a member of the adoption team who was interested in progressing our application and wanted to “see where we are.” I advised her that we still have not received anything from Big City regarding the information evening. She apologised. I asked for the details over the phone. She said she would send them through email. We confirmed our correct email address. She said she would “send it in the next thirty minutes” and that we should review, print and call to RSVP.

It probably is no surprise, but we still haven’t received this email.

Big City adoption agency already had a few marks against it, and our initial experience has done nothing to improve our opinion. We wanted to give it a fair chance against the other two agencies, but that is becoming a lot less likely!

So with Big City out, that leaves Little City and Rural adoption agencies to decide between.

Little City Information Evening

I’d never really contemplated the idea that having a child would involve panels and social workers, rather than antenatal class, midwives, etc. Life however is in the habit of ignoring my assumptions, turning any preconceptions on their head, and long story short here we are embarking on quite a different path to what I expected: the path of adoption. And for me at least, the first big step – the moment that made it all seem real – was the the Little City information evening hand-stitched mum and I were invited to.

I would normally be pretty nervous attending an event like this, but somehow the timing seemed right. We had previously attended an information evening by Rural, however I felt like an observer that night. I was dipping my toe in the bath to check the temperature before taking the plunge. At Little City’s evening I felt like I was actually there for a reason.

The event was held in a small room at their offices, which felt intimate, unassuming and welcoming. Hand-stitched mum and I made our way in, sat a couple of rows back from the front (not wanting to seem too eager or not eager enough) and chatted while waiting for others to arrive. All in all there were probably about eight other couples there by the time things got started.

First up was the team lead who introduced herself and talked a little about the history of adoption and the adoption process as it is now. To be honest, many of the details washed over me a little during the first part of the night. Most of the stuff they said, hand-stitched mum had already told me.† Also I was trying to be mindful of my feelings – something that doesn’t always come naturally to me.

Next up was an adoptive parent who talked us though their adoption process. For me, it was reassuring to hear someone talking passionately about their experiences. At the information evening for the Rural adoption agency last year, one of the adoptive parents who spoke was clearly stressed and very upset. It was scary to see such strong emotions. As I hadn’t heard from an adoptive parent before that night, I started to wonder if that’s just how adoption is! At the Little City information evening it was nice to be reminded of the positives too.

Lastly, a social worker introduced herself and described her part in the adoption process. She was warm and friendly, with a genuine smile. I knew it was unlikely that she would be our social worker. The whole process of inviting someone into our house and our lives seems very alien to me, so it was just nice to put a friendly human face to the adoption agencies.

Questions were invited at the end, as you tend to expect not many people were brave enough. However, many stayed on at the end to speak to the social workers and adoptive parent more privately. Hand-stitched mum and I stayed too and we asked the social worker whether it was okay to start to the process while considering a house move. Thankfully, the social worker said it was fine, as long as it was completed before we adopted.

As we drove home, hand-stitched mum and I chatted. I remember being excited.  I could hear the excitement in my own voice and it felt good. In fact, it felt very good to be embarking on a path that I’d never anticipated being on.

Hand-stitched mum has an unbelievable ability to research, absorb and recall information!