Sisterly Love

Half-term always pops up just when I think we’re still starting a new school year.  My perpetual behind-the-times state is felt acutely during this break, because it also coincides with my youngest daughter’s birthday.  Must confess, I count on it to cull her invite list to something resembling manageable, she’s such a pleaser she never wants to leave anyone out. Once the birthday stuff is over (v. successful this year, thanks very much for asking), everyone starts to relax a little.

They’re in different schools now, my two, and the break is staggered. This gives us a great chance to let them enjoy not being in each other’s company for a bit. One visits Grandma for a few days, for example, then the other, in turn.  Together?  Never.  Not in a million.

There’s been a great deal of promotion lately about keeping siblings together in care and adoptive homes.  In principle, I agree.  Loaded four words, those, I know.  I really do agree.  I couldn’t imagine life without my two together.  And yet…

Both of my children know, after several years with us, that they find life much easier when their sibling isn’t around.  They carry such intense attention-needing scars from their early days that sharing their care-giver is, every single day, a source of great stress and, on occasion, unbearable.

A running family joke my eldest created a few years ago, and now oft repeated by both, goes ‘Mummy, daddy, I think I would have made a really good only child!’ The first time she said it a pause followed.  We didn’t quite know what to say.  Then her sister laughed.  ‘Me too!’  Then we all laughed.  It was funny because it was just so obvious.

Their father and I had our own mathematical version. In most families, 1 child + 1 child = 2 children. We had our own formula. Our family felt like: 1 child + 1 child = approximately 5 children (give or take .5).

Anyway, we are currently enjoying the company of our eldest, while her sister visits her grandma. In a day or so we’ll swap them over.  Grandma enjoys them enormously on their own and refuses to believe they are each part of the two-headed monster that appears when they are together.

It’s also obvious, to us, that their bond with each other is important.  And we spend enormous amounts of time and energy helping them nurture it. From time to time it’s good. Others?  Well.  Let’s just say it’s hard to appreciate its value a lot of the time.

At night, when they’re asleep, I imagine them as adults.  Sisters sharing an incredible past, overcoming difficulties, those vast leaky buckets of attention-neediness shrunk to a fraction of their former size.  They emerge as friends.  Well, I can still dream, can’t I?


Self, non-self and the chatterbox

In my pre-child days, I spent a lot of time pondering eastern philosophy.  Nowadays, there’s not so much spare mental energy around for the pondering, but many of the principles remain relevant. For example, Buddhism has a concept that, for most of us, is hard to get your head round.  In the ancient texts it’s called anatta (with a stress on the last ‘ah’) and, roughly translated, it means ‘non-self’.  Not in the annihilation sense, mind you, but to trigger contemplation of who or what is in there pulling the strings, if, indeed, there’s anyone at all.  Told you it was hard to get your head round.

One, tiny, aspect of this non-self concept helps me nearly every day as an adoptive parent.  It was once explained to me as ‘not me, not mine, not the self of me’.  When I find myself getting overly involved in my child’s massive mood swings and feel slightly (or thoroughly) crazy for a bit, remembering this helps.

I’m not this craziness, it wasn’t my trauma, it isn’t my anxiety, it isn’t something I need to own or hold onto by reacting to it.  And in the tiny bit of breathing space that evolves there is the freedom to let it live its own natural lifespan and disappear. When I’m mindful enough to see it in this way, it always disappears much faster than when I get sucked in. So I’m free to help my child not identify with it, and so on.

One of my daughters also gets stuck sometimes with the non-self thing, but for a different reason.  She gets anxious when she’s with people, but not interacting with them.  I’m not an expert on this, but I guess her thoughts go something like, ‘if you’re not acknowledging me, I’ve ceased to exist.’  When she was little, it happened almost constantly. She filled every available second of air time with talk, so we would talk to her, or buzzed around so energetically we talked at her to get her to calm down.  It guaranteed we were interacting with her most of the time she was awake. It took our attention away from her sibling who also needed it. It was exhausting.

Now that she’s older it rarely happens with me.  I used to say to her, mantra-like, ‘I still know you’re here and still love you even when you’re not talking.’  Eventually, it worked.  Sometimes, she still does it with her dad when he’s in switched-off mode (a state of which I remain perpetually jealous as I can rarely accomplish it myself).  At those times she senses he’s not completely there for a bit and the nonsense chatter begins.  It’s lessening, the longer she is with us and the more connected she feels. She has learned how to be a bit more content with herself and others, with or without interaction.  How can we be so sure that’s what’s going on?

Luckily, that’s where this therapeutic parenting lark comes in. We’ve got it wrong (a lot of the time) and got it right (some of the time).  But now, when the dust settles and we can empathetically ask what she was feeling or thinking, and she can have a really good go at telling us.  And so onward we  all grow.

Nestling in at The Open Nest

Saturday will be a big day.  It’s the ninth anniversary of the day we met our children. In our house that makes it Family Day.  The one day we can celebrate that no one gets wound up about, for some reason.  Unlike birthdays and adoption day and (the run up to) Christmas and heaven-help-me-don’t-get-started-on Mother’s Day. No one except me remembers it’s coming so I get full reign on what to do, they just sit back and enjoy. It’s fun and I’m already getting bubbles of anticipatory joy. This year we’ll be celebrating a day or two early, cause I’ll be away.  Given that they don’t notice the date, I fully expect to enjoy it just as much.

On Saturday I’m going to the first conference hosted by the most excellent charity The Open Nest.  If you haven’t heard about it and you’re in the UK, here’s the info.

open nest conference

A couple of months ago, we visited the Open Nest who accommodated us in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside. Here is a review of that visit.

What an amazing place.  Adoptive families need to plan their travel carefully – new places, new faces can cause our children’s anxiety to escalate and their behaviour to deteriorate. Sometimes, sadly, we stop travelling altogether when the judgemental stares or the odd broken thing or the fear of our non-stop noise getting to be too much. The Open Nest gave us none of that. Instead, we had space, lots and lots of it.  Indoors, a vast barn full of second-hand curios inviting endless exploration.  Taking a steaming outdoor bath in an old stable surrounded by candles. ‘Baths must have been like this for a princess a hundred years ago,’ my youngest gushed. Outdoors, miles of paths tempted even my technophile of a teen in and out of the woods.  Took a picnic lunch by the river and skipped dozens of stones.  Encountered sheep and goats along an old railway line. Toasted marshmallows over the coals before snuggling up in a vast double bed in our very own circus wonderland.

But most importantly Amanda, Jazz and their team gave us acceptance.  There was no need to apologize for the noise or odd quirks of behaviour we tend to carry with us.  No need to constantly shush and contain.  They gave us companionship and comradery and listened to bits of our story, while sharing bits of theirs in a way my children had never experienced before.   They met a delightful grown-up version of who they might one day be and liked her very, very much. ‘So a really cool adult can still have issues over food for the same reason as me?’

And for the parents, space to put their feet up while the kids play for a bit.  Knowing they’ll be safe with another adult who ‘gets’ them. When the inevitable crisis occurred (and, oh boy, it definitely did) it was met with calm, support and even more ladles-full of that delicious acceptance. 

The Open Nest, it’s a wonderful concept. Unique, as far as I know, in practise. And daring, to help adoptive families in ways no one has before. I hope it grows to include your family as it has ours.

Ever Decreasing Circles

When you start out on this adoption journey, the powerful people ask you to draw maps illustrating your Support Web, or somesuch device. Ours stretched over two sides of taped-together A4, two continents and three countries. It was far reaching and well-traveled,  mapping where we’d been and who we’d become close to during our pre-child days.

We were sort of thin on those near to us. No family close by. But reassured that the near ones were of the strong variety, built to last.  They would be our strength and refuge in the tough times and form part of that essential community needed to raise a child.

Shortly after our children were placed, one couple moved away.  Abroad.  Nevermind, still lots left, or so we thought.  Then another two couples, perhaps the most significant circles at the centre of our web, began to act strangely.  A phenomenon we’d never felt before.  We’d done years of extended child-minding for them. Sympathised through many three am phone calls about their troubles and marital strife. Became aware of a uni-directional flow.  Suddenly we had no excess energy to spare for them, and actually needed a bit of theirs in return.  In terms of support, these friendships lost their foundations and crumbled. Still polite enough, but…

Then we made lots of new acquaintances, mainly through the standing-around-in-groups stuff that one does with very small children; school gates, parent and toddler groups, the side of swimming pools, etc.  Our compliant two year old was amiable and her new pals had lots of older siblings for big sister to play with. One in particular, proved invaluable.

Gradually, though, those friendships sifted through the coarse mesh of my eldest’s lack of social skills.  She didn’t hurt anyone, she was just odd.  A bit quirky, way too loud and overly energetic for the gentle English roses they seem to grow round here. We were thrilled with her roughly 95%-of-the-time self-control rate, but the other 5% frightened them off. Worried their kiddies might catch something, they cast their sideways glances as if wondering, ‘where has that child been’. A few of them had obvious views-  their sense of self was bound up their well-produced offspring – they couldn’t seem to see the fruit of a stranger’s loins as desirable. We gave them a wide berth. For others, the connections started off well enough, and faded gradually as they got to know us.  So they, their children and the Golden Tickets to birthday parties and play dates (the most desirable objects in the world when you are 5) disappeared off the radar.

We began to discover which ones had sticking power.  The real deal. Those counted amongst blessings. The young’uns whose parents had good senses of both social responsibility and humour.   We felt the web grow a bit, it was getting stronger and it felt good.  We noticed that the strongest friendships came from those whose lives had been harder than the norm.  They were patient and could see beyond they noise and jitters to the child underneath. They could celebrate my child’s successes without a twitch of competitiveness, seeing in her eyes how approval meant far, far more than it would to her peers.

So if I could go back to the beginning, and with my magic View Master and spot the best threads for my Support Web what would I see?  Those who don’t harbour the belief that their own children are perfect, those who don’t regard popularity as an invaluable commodity, those who don’t consider others less fortunate or skilful than themselves as inferior beings.  Those who do try to teach their children to be inclusive of others and who gently correct their own child’s forays into bullying or inequality or intentionally hurting another child.

This week we lost another ring on the web.  One I thought would be there for a long, long time. They’d become more distant for a while now, but I didn’t spot the signs.  Hardest on my youngest, as she was great mates with their child, who started the continental drift.  But this week there were one too many ‘leave ‘em out’ episodes to ignore.  She brought up the word frienemy. Apt here, as they let her down at a time she might have really needed them.  Thankfully, I was there to catch her.

Families with children who have a background of trauma are hard work.  Sometimes friends get tired, too. So how does it end?  We’ve been down this path before.  Adults carry on diplomatically playing friends. But we silently recognize the gaping hole in our support web and try not to think too many what ifs.  So today I’ve indulged in self-wallowing.  A bit. Most unattractive.  Tomorrow I’ll get on with the task of rewriting my emergency contacts lists.

I shall, like spider-mum I take up my spinneret and try to re-string my childrens’ safety web, holding and holding them until a replacement ring appears and grows.  It will. She’ll be fine.  They’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine.  Now if only I were Charlotte and could broadcast to the whole world just how TERRIFIC they are.

charlotte's web

P.S.  Next morning, in car, en route to school and apropos of nothing.  ‘I’m changing mum.  I mean I really feel different.  I used to be really quiet at school but now I’m getting stronger and more confident.  I really like this new me.’  J

How Long Does it Take a Teenager to Ripen?

I’ve a bump on my forehead. It’s a perfect rectangle, about 3 cm long and half as wide. My head uncannily found itself between the door and wall of my daughter’s bedroom, just as she decided to slam it shut. With both feet.

There was a loud ummmph from me, a surprising splash of blood and Wes Craven-style screams from my teenager. Eighteen hours later the headache is fading and I’m sure I’ll live.

A couple of days ago I took to social media to note that we’d had two weeks of okayish school. I’m guessing now a mini-storm was already brewing.

Today’s big trigger – a shower. Not the one accompanying the amazing pyrotechnic display we watched in last night’s sky.lightning

It was just an ordinary shower. I’d been patient, or so I thought. Five days seemed long enough to ripen, especially in the late summer heat we’d been enjoying. I gently probed with curiosity the wisdom of neglecting one’s body in the ultra-appearance led world of secondary school girls. But then the inevitable NO was followed by a few ill-judged comments from me. All justified by the need to get her UP and CLEAN, right?

Um, well, no. I was intensely short-sighted and didn’t see that showering, right now, would be a big deal for her. I forgot that scheduling in a morning shower was new territory for her – up until last week she was a member of a seriously competitive sports team and showered at least four times a week post-training, and had done for years. Last week, after months of inner struggle, she’d decided to give it all up. I’m fairly certain she feels pretty crap about it.

Then there was increased anxiety about the okayish school. Showering would get in the way of her taking the (optional) early bus. The mystery of the early bus and her sudden and uncharacteristic keenness to arrive at school early had been perplexing us all week. Why and just what did she get up to? Hmmm. No manner of curious and empathetic questioning has opened that door. Yet.

This morning, sleepy and grumpy and for a few crucial minutes a thoroughly lousy therapeutic parent, I missed the triggers and unwisely pushed the before-school shower.

So there was no school at all, in fact, for any of us today. Little sis shrieked in horror at the grisly scene and took ages to calm. ‘Phone daddy,’ I managed to mutter in my slightly concussive shock, and she did. My work-bound, ever-calm husband managed to hold the phone very near to his ear lest his train riding neighbours hear her sobs. He cooed and soothed her, bless him.

All three of us needed a stay close together and reconnect day. We managed with one at my side and one in her room, being checked on at regular intervals. Trays of soothing, mum-delivered food, pjs, books and gentle documentaries on the laptop tucked up side-by-side. Early evening brought the sobs and sorries. Have phoned the post-adoption support team who are hugely sympathetic and will ring back on Monday. Tomorrow, thankfully, is the weekend and we start the task of repair. She feels like rubbish, poor thing, and has really scared herself. We’ll get through it.   If this had happened a couple of years ago we might not’ve. But now we’ve got a pretty good tool kit to work with and a shared language around trauma and stress and impulse control.

Late afternoon, when I’m sure I’m road worthy, I drive her little sis to dance class. Ever tuned to Radio Four (omg Mum, don’t you ever listen to anything else?) the radio calmly lulls us with a discussion, probably recorded a few days ago, regarding the ideal methods for ripening late summer veg. Some must be picked early, big storms on the way. She’s listening and resists her inner urge for Kiss FM and Heart. We share a joke about letting her sister ripen a bit more next time before picking  her for a shower. We both laugh. Yep, we’ll be okay.