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.

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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.

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. 😉

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!

The Blue Notebook and Big Emotions

Hand-stitched dad and I have a lot of big emotions around adopting.

  • Excitement for working even more closely together as parents.
  • Anticipation over who might join our family.
  • Frustration that so much is in the hands of other people.
  • Fear that we might be deemed ‘not good enough’ to be adoptive parents.
  • Anger at people for withholding or limiting support for adopted children.
  • Empathy for birth parents who struggle with the chaos of their lives.
  • Sadness over our shared losses: the children, their birth parents and us.
  • Admiration for the remarkable people who find security despite traumatic experiences.
  • Hope that we can be a family that belongs somewhere, together.

Amidst all these emotions (and more) are important details and decisions. So, I started a Blue Notebook as a communication record, filled with dates, names, phone numbers, and notes of conversations and meetings related to the adoption process.

As I told the social workers: unlike many people beginning this journey, we are not in a hurry. Adoption thrives on preparation. After spending the last few years in books, blogs and forums, we are starting to branch out into telephone calls, meetings, and visits. Once we apply to an agency, we will join a preparation group and meet other prospective adopters. We will have home study visits with a social worker (or two), who simultaneously educates and evaluates us. Then, when we all agree we are ready, we go to panel to be approved (or rejected) as adoptive parents.

I genuinely hope this takes time. I want time to build my confidence as a therapeutic parent. I want time to make decisions about what sort of children hand-stitched dad and I are best suited for. I want time to build new relationships with experienced adopters, with our chosen agency, and with other new families. We need time to manage all of the big emotions that are stirred up in this process.