Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Five Cinderellas of 2013

This year has been a bumper year for me  in terms of page views (relatively speaking!) but, by way of a round-up, here are 5 posts from 2013 that, for whatever reason, never really went to the ball.

1.  Some More Successes
I started the year with a round-up of the boys' recent successes - sort of a words-only version of the snapshots that other people post of their children's achievements. I could never resist the urge to boast about them just a little bit!

2. Dubious Expertise
Here I let off a little steam about the plethora of 'experts' that invade your life when you become a parent.

3. Little Lives Big Issues
Reflecting on NB's final contact with birth family.

4.  In the Minds of the Children
The difficulties of explaining fostering and adoption to our children's peers in a way that will inform but not terrify them!

5. Love and Money
Who'd have thought it? The one day I go into a Beautician's and someone says something that sets me off on one! Thoughts on the relationship between doing something for the love of it, and the need to put food on the table.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Children's Tsar Wastes Breath About Smacking

Children's Commissioner
Dr Maggie Atkinson

Children's 'Tsar' Maggie Atkinson has said in an interview with the Independent that she believes that smacking should be made illegal. Unfortunately she has once again squandered an opportunity to win round those who didn't already agree with her by totally failing to employ any sensible arguments to back up her opinion.

Whatever views one holds on the great smacking debate, I would hope that we could all agree that we expect the holder of such a high-profile post as Children's Commissioner (funded, of course, by public money) to be able to defend a point of view with more than emotive language, a middle-class sense of outrage, an apparent belief that all rational people must surely agree, and an implication that anybody who thinks differently is tantamount to a child abuser.

Let's take a quick look at some of the main points she makes:

“Personally, having been a teacher, and never having had an issue where I’d need to use physical punishment, I believe we should move to ban it”

This is irrelevant. Schools are not at all the same places as homes. Teachers do not bear the final and ultimate responsibility for raising children - parents do. Teachers have recourse to a higher authority when facing disciplinary problems and, as a last resort, the child can be excluded from school and the discipline problem removed forever. Parents do not have this luxury. Teachers spend a few hours each day with large groups of children, punctuated by regular breaks and evenings and weekends off in an environment where there are lots of other adults around. Having been both a teacher and a parent, I know that these two situations are in no way comparable. Oh, and teachers are allowed to use 'reasonable force' in managing extreme situations, so the myth of no contact hardly applies.

 “Because in law you are forbidden from striking another adult, and from physically chastising your pets, but somehow there is a loophole around the fact that you can physically chastise your child."

This is a common argument used by anti-smacking proponents - it's not ok to hit an adult so it shouldn't be ok to hit a child. But it's a flawed argument. There are many, many things that we do to children that are not usually appropriate to do to an adult - spoon feeding, bathing, nappy changing, making them sleep and play in cages (cots and playpens), making them wear reins or hold our hands, keeping them in detention at school, making them sit in disgrace on a naughty step - the list goes on and on. We treat children differently from adults because they are different. Children are not miniature adults and it is the responsibility of the adults around them (specifically their parents) to keep them safe, care for them, educate them and train them until they are able to function independently. Whether physical chastisement should be a part of that is a matter of opinion, but this particular argument does nothing to advance the debate.

And on the issue of physical violence not being acceptable among adults, I'd love to know what Dr Atkinson would do if she found an intruder in her home and she happened to have a heavy frying pan in her hand. Even among adults, we accept that under certain circumstances, physical action can be acceptable and even necessary.

“It’s a moral  issue. The morals are that, taken to its extreme, physical chastisement is actually physical abuse and I have never understood where you can draw the line between one and the other."

This one makes me crazy. Anything, if taken to extreme, can be abuse. I encourage my son to drink water but if I held him down and poured it into his mouth, that would be abuse. I think I know where to draw the line. I allow my son certain freedoms. But if I allowed him total freedom so that I did not prevent him from being put in danger, then that would be abuse. Maybe Dr Atkinson doesn't know where to draw the line, but parents have to find that balance every single day of their children's lives. Why should they find the line between physical chastisement and abuse any harder to find than, say, the line between encouraging healthy eating and force feeding? Laws already exist to define abuse and punish those who are guilty of it. Banning smacking because some people abuse their children is like banning beer because some people abuse alcohol.

“Better by far that you are taught not to need to use physical strength against a weaker human being.”

Parents turn their physical strength to their advantage all the time when dealing with children. We carry them where we want them to go, lift them into their cots, high chairs etc. even when they protest, hold them in a vice-like grip while the doctors stick them with vaccination needles, pull them from danger and so on and so on. What's the difference between using your physical strength in those ways, and using it in a disciplinary context? Clearly there are certain circumstances where it is acceptable and even desirable for parents to take advantage of their physical strength, and those who say that physical chastisement is not one of those circumstances need to do more to explain why.

How can anybody hope to persuade or convince others of the validity of their views when the standard of debate is so appallingly low? The BBC website report on this same article states: "The NSPCC has said evidence is building that smacking is "ineffective and harmful to children". Well, if there is so much evidence, then why doesn't the Children's Commissioner use some of it to back up her opinions? Either the evidence doesn't exist, or Dr Atkinson is not interested in it.

And why should she be interested? Far too many of those appointed to positions like Dr Atkinson's seem to live in a sheltered world where everybody basically holds the same views, and anybody who doesn't is considered ignorant. Opinions are regularly presented as self-evident facts with nothing to support them except emotive rhetoric.

The comments below the BBC article pretty accurately demonstrate how effective Maggie Atkinson's comments have been in winning over doubters. At the time I checked there were 55 comments, overwhelmingly disagreeing with a ban on smacking. Of the few that agreed that smacking should be illegal, almost every one relied on the tiresome illogic that smacking children leads to violent adults. This is not only patently untrue, but rather insulting to millions of adults who received the odd smack as a child and yet have managed to live lives unpunctuated by acts of random violence and subsequent lengthy prison sentences.

For me, the smacking debate is not really about smacking. It's about how far the government should be able to reach into people's homes and private lives with their legislation. As a person with growing libertarian tendencies, I'd prefer less government in my house, but I do understand that sometimes legislation is needed to protect from a well-evidenced threat. Hence I didn't object to the ban on smoking in public places.

But if the government is going to legislate about what goes on in an individual's home then the legislation should be based on strong evidence that has been well-established and debated (not just personal distaste for the choices and lifestyles of others) and there needs to be a consensus that education alone will not achieve positive results. The debate over smacking is rarely, if ever, dignified with actual research evidence to support either viewpoint. 

Such legislation also needs to be enforceable. Passing legislation that is effectively unenforceable cheapens the whole body of the law, and encourages the attitude that the law only matters if you get caught breaking it. We already have laws to protect children from physical abuse and we are clearly unable to fully enforce these as recent high-profile cases have demonstrated. How will it add to our ability to protect children from abuse to have law enforcement bodies prosecuting and criminalising parents for giving their kids a smack on the back of the hand?

If the Children's Commissioner truly wants to see a ban on smacking, and is at all interested in convincing people of her point of view, then she needs to get serious about presenting a well-informed and properly evidenced argument. Otherwise, she is just blowing hot air in the faces of people who already agree with everything she says, while provoking everyone else to become even more entrenched in their opposition.

Come on Dr Atkinson - surely you can do better than this.

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Year Worth Remembering

This has been a life-changing year for us. I thought I'd summarise some of the highlights, momentous occasions and special little moments by picking out some of our Facebook statuses from over the past 12 months(ish!):

4 December 2012
Adoption panel approves of me - it's all good!

23 January
NB has had a 'good self-esteem' week, doing really well in his Speech Therapy assessment yesterday and even better in his SOGS today! At last, he got the flippin' spoon in the cup! Scored 6-12 months ahead on 4 out of 8 areas :-)

29 January
Once, in Tesco, OB saw a toy rocket. He calls it "pocket". Every time we go to Tesco he shouts "Pocket! Pocket!" all the way round the shop. Today I relented and bought him the rocket. I may be a soft touch, but as I watch him playing with it now, opening the doors and moving the little men around, I don't care a bit!

26 February
I love that OB calls me Mummy. Mind you, when he says it 200 times in 30 minutes, it does start to lose a little of its charm!

2 March
The boys are playing a game we'll call 'tig'. It involves putting all of the place mats on the floor and then jumping up and down shouting "Tig! Tig!"

10 March
For a Mothers Day gift to myself, I should have taken us all to McDonalds for our tea. This would have avoided the inevitable wailing and cries of "No like it!" that accompany any meal I actually make from scratch myself! Sigh.

12 March
April 9th, me and OB are finally getting our day in court! (Although we won't actually be there - just a judge and a few other legal types). How very appropriate, just a few days short of our 2-year anniversary together :-)

17 March
NB has just sneezed with a mouthful of porridge. Carnage!

22 March
Went to get NB up from his nap today and his tank top was all pushed down round his waist with the v-neck stretched to 3 times its usual size. As I write this, OB is looking at me with a custard beard. I think both the boys need a little more input into their self-care skills :-)

9 April
Thrilled beyond measure to be able to change OB's online designation to MS - my son! Happy Adoption Day to us!

12 April
I just picked up the keys for my new house!

23 April
NB is going to get a new Mummy.  I've broached the subject and he seems quite pleased at the idea. OB, on the other hand, did look a bit disappointed when I told him he's stuck with the Mummy he's already got!

3 May
About to meet NB's new Mummy. Nervous!

11 May
Dear City fans . . . it has just dawned on me that I have managed to arrange OB's Adoption Celebration Party on the same day as the FA Cup Final! Sorry about that - it wasn't done on purpose, honestly!

13 May
Well, the legal processes, special events and celebrations are all over. Today feels like the first day of the rest of our lives :-)

20 May
The builders are in at the new house. Big bits of it are already missing! :-)

27 May
NB woke up this morning and said "poorly tummy" with a very sad look on his face. Then he came downstairs and scoffed two bowls of Cheerios and a packet of raisins!

7 June
Just booked the flights for our summer trip! :-)

12 June
You know you're mentally getting ready to move house when lovely and useful household items take on the new and more sinister identity of 'piles of junk that will need to be packed'!

15 June
Have just reactivated my personal Twitter account and tweeted for the first time in two years!

21 June
First day of NB's introductions.  Butterflies.

26 June
Packed our bags and printed off the maps. Ready to go for phase 2 of intros!

8 July
I have internet. And a new address and phone number.

22 July
OB is quite excited about visiting Mamy and Papy. He's hoping that it'll be Christmas like it was last time :-D

11 August
Had an email from NB's new mummy today - he is getting on splendidly and has treated her to a couple of excellent meltdowns. Now, there's progress!! :-)

16 August
I have fitted a carpet and hung a blind (much to my own amazement!). The nursery is finished and I am ready to work again!

25 August
Today, OB and I baked our first cake in the new house. While it was cooking we went out and did a spot of gardening and disturbed a toad! #newwoman #livingthedream

5 September
Off we go! OB's first day at Playgroup - the doors opened and he ran straight in without so much as a backward glance!

14 September
OB spending his first night in his new big-boy bedroom :-)

20 September
Today, five months after I signed on the dotted line, I have moved the last bits of furniture over to the new house. I am officially moved in!

30 September
Got absolutely none of my jobs done tonight. But that's ok because I spent 2 hours chatting to NB's new Mummy on skype instead! :-)

25 October
New baby is here! We'll call him Little Boy - LB. OB's response? "Look Mummy! He's got a mouth!"

27 October
First night in OB's big boy bed (at last!). He was suitably excited, asking to go to bed for at least an hour before bedtime.

11 November
We're going to see NB on Saturday! EXCITED!

16 November
Great day. Took 3 hours to get home. Exhausted! NB looks great and was an absolute sweetie :-)

25 November
This is the first night in weeks that OB's not come sneaking downstairs seconds after I put him to bed. Hooray! Now let's see if we can get through the night without the 2am face-slap wake-up call!

26 November
OB's first swimming lesson.  Plenty of crying.

13 December
It's Christmas tomorrow at our house! Spent all evening wrapping and decorating!

25 December
Merry Christmas everybody - our first as Mummy and son.

Monday, December 23, 2013

While Shepherds Watched

For a while now, certain songs have been forbidden in our house. Any attempt of mine to break into, say, 'Twinkle Twinkle' or 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' has been met by cries of, "No! That's Playgroup's song! You can't sing it!" This has been particularly awkward when OB has accompanied me to choir rehearsals and got quite vocal about our rendition of Away in a Manger.

It must be Nativity season!

I've been to the Nativity at my son's Playgroup quite a few times now. Various of my friends' children have graced the stage as innkeepers, sheep or whatever over the years, and of course last year, NB had his starring role as a shepherd. Every year it is the same simple, tried and tested format - as the teacher says, five weeks to prepare, five minutes to perform! But they do a marvellous job with this motley collection of 2-4 year olds, and there are always mince pies and other cakes afterwards.

Funnily enough, OB was also a shepherd, and he actually was wearing the same costume that NB wore last year.  I positioned myself near the back with the camera so that I could stand up on a chair and try to get some photos (both photos and videos were allowed, along with a heartfelt plea that parents would not post images of other people's children on the internet - I hope they were listening!).

I'm not sure what I was really expecting. OB had sung a few words from the songs in the house when he thought I wasn't listening, but I hadn't heard him sing any of them all the way through. A rendition of Baa Baa Black Sheep I heard about a week before the Nativity performance went something like, "Baa baa black sheep, full full bags, full full master, full full dame" so I didn't hold out high hopes for total accuracy on the day.

He was brilliant.

I genuinely couldn't believe it. He stayed by his chair, stood up and sat down when told to, went off to the manger to see the baby Jesus when instructed, and sang every single word of every single song. I was so shocked to see how competently he joined in with it all that I almost forgot to take photos!

And there was something else that was brilliant about it too. My son's extended family couldn't be there for his first nativity as they live hundreds of miles away. The only family member available to turn up to see him was me.  And yet he had no less than six other people in the audience that day who had come to the Playgroup Nativity just to see him do his shepherd thing. It is good to approach our first Christmas as mummy and son knowing that my little boy will lack nothing that love can provide for him.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Secret Santa

Our Weekly Adoption Shout Out (WASO) online group is doing a Secret Santa guest post shareathon for Christmas this year, so today's post is a guest post from fellow WASO blogger Getting There - my first ever guest post on this blog!


So in case you haven’t realised yet, Christmas is coming...

Here in my house, we could tell that Christmas was on its way as soon as the half term holiday was over, and big boy started shouting (he’d say singing) random snatches of Christmas songs. Since he went back after his week’s holiday things have been different... presently he keeps telling me he painted a box green and red.

The school (Foundation stage) show came and caused controversy... ‘what did that letter mean, that we couldn’t video it or take photographs during it? Why not?’  On the whole the show was wonderful, the message was given and... my boy was skilfully managed, both through what he had to do, and also disappearing at the end, so everyone could take photographs.

The Church nativity has been held, with one small shepherd not quite managing what he should do, going in and out of the scenes at will... but nevertheless, the nativity happened and as is said every year ‘wasn’t it wonderful’, ‘the best yet’ and lots of carols were sung.

The presents are brought and wrapped (mostly). The cards are written (mostly). The what are we doing when, is sorted (mostly). The we have to keep the grandparents happy plan has been put into place... it only involves me cooking for 14 people on one day! The tree is decorated, and has been declared pretty by those that matter...or at least one small boy.

And the excitement is building in big boy... he knows now that Christmas means presents. He also knows it means Father Christmas, which isn’t so great – as people keep telling him, if he doesn’t behave he won’t get any presents (which I gently correct with – if you try to behave well you will still get presents...trying is enough).

Christmas is coming, the excitement is building, and we have plans in place. Plans that include walks, outside spaces and calm. I don’t really want to curl up under a duvet (at least not totally), because I love this season, with all its nonsense and joy and hope. And all the way through our wilderness years, we hoped every Christmas that this would be our last without children... we’ve had two Christmas’s with just one boy, and our family has grown again. Come Christmas eve here, the Christmas Elf who checks that we are at home will be delivering 4 sets of pyjamas before reporting back to Father Christmas, we will be hanging out 4 stockings (in the living room, he is not allowed upstairs) and some of us will be watching a Christmas movie, until sleep takes over.

Merry Christmas everyone, I hope you all find joy in some way, however your Christmas comes. And for those who are living for January, remember that too will come. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas Comes but Twice a Year!

We had Christmas at our house today! Yes, I know we're early but because we will be flying to my parents for the actual day and the luggage allowance doesn't really accommodate taking all of OB's presents with us, we have become a two-Christmas family.

This is the second Christmas I've had with OB, but it's the first Christmas where it's just been the two of us and, to be honest, I really felt that today. We made it special - I was up late last night festooning the living room with decorations, wrapping presents and placing them under the tree. But there's no denying the fact that the present-opening was all done before 9am and, although OB was happy with his presents, I really missed the oohing and aahing and general excitement that is generated by just having a few more people around.

The odd thing about having Christmas not on Christmas Day is that, obviously, nobody else is having Christmas. There is no special movie on the TV or Queen's Speech or any of the other things we take for granted at Christmas, even if we don't pay much attention to them. Of course, we had special food, but OB doesn't really care about that (he declared the roast dinner I had made "dirty" and only ate the lamb and the pigs in blankets!). He wasn't even bothered by his mince pie, and he usually loves those.

Thankfully, I had arranged to go round to a friend's house and do a present exchange with their children, so we had tea there and there was plenty of excitement between the three of them when it came to opening presents. I loved watching them together comparing their presents and saying how cool they were and for a moment it did make me feel a bit sad that OB is an only child.

So, I've resolved to plan a bit better next year for our English Christmas and try to create something that is unique for the two of us and not just a quieter re-creation of the proper Christmas, which we will be doing brilliantly in France on the 25th with all of my family anyway. There, OB will get all the excitement and the people to share it all with, so I'm not really worried he's missing out. We'll find something different to call our English Christmas, and try to invest it with a meaning and set of traditions all its own for a Mum and her boy to share together.

Merry sort-of-Christmas everybody!

Saturday, December 7, 2013


I'm a rejecter. Seriously. I do my very best to make a habit of rejecting all kinds of truisms, inevitabilities and givens.

Like the 'terrible twos' for instance. OB has just finished the twos, and parts of last year were hard work to be honest. And the threes have started off in pretty much the same vein - many good things, some hard things. But I'm not blaming it on the 'terrible twos' or the 'terrible threes' for that matter. To do so feels like a cop out.

Yes, two-year-olds often tantrum and display challenging behaviours. Does that mean I can just shrug my shoulders and say, "Oh, he's two!" whenever it happens? After all, everyone knows about the 'terrible twos' - it's inevitable isn't it?

I feel similarly about 'teenage rebellion' - the 'Kevin' syndrome - which is also, apparently, bound to happen, practically unavoidable and just something to grit your teeth over until you can get to the other side.

Except it isn't unavoidable is it? I know teenagers who, in the main, speak respectfully to their parents, discuss the things that are troubling them, ask for help with things and do things together as a family. I'm not saying they are perfect and never do anything a bit naughty, just that they aren't quite in line with the awful caricature.

For me, once we accept something undesirable as inevitable, then it is far more likely to be so. Low expectations lead to low outcomes. Putting my son's wilder moments down to 'terrible twos' allows me to stop focusing on my child, to stop trying to work out what's actually happening, to stop training and helping and boundary setting. It allows me to shrug my shoulders and effectively do nothing. Putting any future teenage difficulties down to 'teenage rebellion' will have a similar effect of letting us both off the hook. And don't get me started on 'boys will be boys'!

It's not that I think that by challenging these things, they won't happen at all. I'm not such an optimist! And I've been around an awful lot of children. I know better. I just have an instinctive desire to push away all those so-called inevitabilities that seemed to have my son's life mapped out from beginning to end, and especially those associated with having been in care, and being adopted. None of these things are immutable laws of physics (and we know ye cannae change those!). So I reject them and instead decide that we'll work together towards something different. And if we meet tantrums, rebellions, or adoption-related issues along the way, we'll do our best to see them for what they are, find a way through and get the support we need.

Terrible twos? Rejected. Teenage rebellion? Rejected. Because he's adopted he's bound to have x/y/z? Rejected! Rejected! Rejected!


Written for this week's #WASO, on the theme of 'Rejection'.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Fruity, Fruity, Fruity!

And so we plough on through the fruit section of Mary Berry's Baking Bible. Feeling buoyed up after the success of the Apricot and Cranberry Fruit Cake recently, I eagerly turned the page, only to find a recipe for Rich Fruit Cake, which Mary describes as suitable for "Christmas, birthdays and all special occasions".

Oh dear. A Christmas cake. My first instinct was to skip straight over it and go onto the intriguingly-named Quick Boiled Fruit Cake on the next page. There's such a sense of tradition, history and mythology surrounding the perfect Christmas cake.  Everyone has a mum or grandma that makes the definitive version. In fact my own Mum used to weigh down the Christmas table every year with a rich, dark, fruity, boozy creation the size of a small tanker. It was wonderful. Was I ready to make my first ever Christmas cake?

And if I was, what would I do with it? We won't be spending Christmas at home, and even if we were, I'm not sure how much headway OB and I would be able to make through what was clearly going to be a big, big cake.

In the end though, I was persuaded to go through with it by a friend who said she'd be delighted to have it as a Christmas present.  Brave I thought, considering she'd have no way of knowing if it was even edible until she cut into it on Christmas Day in the presence of her entire family!

So, I went shopping. I needed more dried fruit than I have ever seen in one place before. Even my very biggest mixing bowl was barely large enough to contain the mixture and I had to buy a new, bigger cake tin to cook it in.  And the time it takes! Four to five hours slowly baking away. Somewhere near the end of cooking I thought once again how nice it would be to actually have a skewer rather than just poking away at the thing with a butter knife and trying to decide whether what came out could count as 'clean'.

Of course, I can't taste it, but I think it's ok. Possibly the very edges have just slightly caught - there was a faint smell of singed currants, although it was hard to tell through the fog of brandy fumes!  It was only after I'd finished the bake that a discussion with a friend triggered a long-buried memory about how my Mum used to do it. The whole time I was carefully double-lining the tin with baking parchment, I was troubled by a feeling that string should be involved. Surely my Mum used to do something with string, didn't she? Well yes, she did. She used to wrap the whole tin in a sort of baking parchment 'coat', all tied up with string, to protect the edges of the cake. It rose way above the sides of the tin to protect the top too.

I wish I'd remembered this before I put it in the oven!

Honestly, the whole thing was such an effort, and I was so pleased to give it its first feed and wrap it in the baking parchment and foil and hand it over to its new owner that I completely forgot to take a photo of the finished cake!  And we'll have to wait until well after Christmas for a verdict on the taste, although I have high hopes that regular feeding with brandy will cover up any little flavour issues.

Not to worry though, as I do have a finished photo of the aforementioned Quick Boiled Fruit Cake that I also baked this week.

Not a looker is it!

This was a very strange recipe (well, to me anyway) which involved simmering the dried fruit in a mixture of condensed milk and butter. I double-checked the recipe, but for me there seemed to be far too little liquid in the pan for any real simmering to take place. We achieved something more like a squelchy gloopy fruit effect. On reflection, perhaps I should have worked harder to get a smooth finish to the surface of the cake before I put it in the oven.

Ah well, you live and learn!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Now We Are Three!

Oh dear, my baby is no longer a baby! Yes, OB has turned three and already I'm missing being able to say "He's only two!" when he's doing something crazy while we're out in public. Ah well. Time is linear and there's not much we can do about it I suppose.

We marked the occasion with all the usual trimmings: presents, cake, party, meltdowns! Well, not so many meltdowns to be honest, but combining birthday excitement with a heavy cold was always going to be a bit tricky. OB's interests remain pretty constant.  He's still heavily into his guitar and drums but we did a Rock Star Party last year, so this year I went with another favourite: space rockets, which he has loved ever since becoming engrossed in Wallace and Gromit's 'A Grand Day Out' for the first time nearly a year ago now.

The cake this year was a massive
chocolate brownie - so easy to make
and decorate!
I didn't go mad with the theme, but we had an astronaut den, black cups and plates with space stickers on them, a flying saucer-making table, rocket fruit kebabs and of course a rocket-shaped birthday cake.

Games were themed as well. We played musical statues, but the statues were all space-themed, and we played a move to the music game, pretending to be comets, planets, astronauts on the moon and so on.  With ten lively toddlers in the house, it was worth the effort to keep their energy focused on games instead of tearing around the place madly!

Another favourite at the moment is Peppa Pig. Since we got the TalkTalk box and discovered that we can have Peppa Pig on Play All at any time of day, I've had to impose TV viewing restrictions for the first time ever! So there was a Peppa Pig theme to the presents with a fairground playset (including a train - most favourite so far!).

I also went for a selfish present and bought him some Lego. I know, I know he's probably too young for it yet, but I have very fond memories of playing with Lego as a child, and I'm always looking for something I can play alongside him that won't have me crying tears of boredom after ten minutes. OB always wants me there when he's playing, but I'm never allowed to actually touch any of his toys without express permission - he's very territorial. I'm hoping that he'll let me sit with him and build some things while he builds his own things (as long as I let him have the pieces he wants!). Lack of bases was always my frustration when I was a child, so I bought four large bases and glued them to the top of an old, battered IKEA Lack side table to make a giant building base. I'm very excited about it, even if OB doesn't really get what it's all about yet! Here's to many more years of Lego fun!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Romania Under My Skin

When I met Gheorghe at the euphemistically entitled Baby Clinic, he was three years old and, visually anyway, did not really fit the stereotype of the Romanian 'orphan'. He was a chubby little boy, with blond curls and blue eyes - not the skinny, shaven-headed image I had picked up from TV documentaries at all.

However, after only a few seconds, it was apparent that, despite his looks, Gheorghe was every bit as hurt and damaged as those children I had seen on my TV screen, rocking in metal cots, staring through empty eyes. At three years old he simply sat there, unresponsive on the rug where we had placed him. He didn't respond to our voices or turn his head to look around.  He didn't speak or even walk.

We had sought out the only oasis of shade in the patch of scrubby grassland at the back of the clinic, and it was uncomfortably close to the charred remains of the week's burned rubbish, complete with still intact syringes littered around the edges of the fire-scorched grass. Perhaps we would have been better inside, but with afternoon temperatures in the high 30s, the unventilated 'nurseries' upstairs were unbearably hot for our English sensibilities.

Our purpose at the clinic was simple: to play with the children and talk to them. We were visiting Romania for two weeks in the high summer of 2001 to run some summer activities in the mornings at an orphanage just outside the city but, in the afternoons, we had the opportunity to visit the baby clinic and do what little we could with the babies and toddlers there.

The clinic was a two-story building with a dual function.  The downstairs was indeed a clinic, or perhaps more of a detached hospital unit for sick children. We were never allowed in there, but we saw doctors and nurses and all the paraphernalia of ill-health through the windows. Upstairs was a different story. Here were tiny children who were not sick, just abandoned. Perhaps they had once been sick, brought to the clinics or hospitals anonymously by parents who could not afford the bribes necessary to get proper medical care for them, but then they had never been collected. They were waiting in a sort of halfway house until they were old enough to move onto an orphanage.

In all my visits to orphanages (more properly called 'placement centres') during my times in Romania, this was closest to what I had seen on TV over a decade earlier. The babies and toddlers lived upstairs in three, large, well-lit rooms consisting only of row upon row of metal cots with bare mattresses and sometimes a blanket or sheet. Our Romanian contact (later my good friend) explained to us that the children were rarely played with or spoken to and lacked stimulation and human contact. After years of working with abandoned children and learning about their attachment disorders, she was anxious to do what she could to bring some kind of nurturing input into the early lives of these little ones. What we were able to do was little enough, goodness knows, but we struggled through our heartbreak and the almost overwhelming sense of the futility of it all to offer what we could - a kind face, a smile, some songs, modest toys and cuddles, even if only for a few hours.

Not the clinic we visited - but it looks exactly the same

Gheorghe, we were told, had arrived at the clinic both walking and talking. In over a year there, all of these skills had faded away, leaving just this empty shell of a child rooted to the spot in front of us. We wondered about the women who were employed to care for these children. How could things be so bad? We were told that the place was under-staffed and that the women who cared for the children upstairs had no medical or educational training. They were appallingly underpaid and sometimes not paid at all.  They had children at home that they sometimes couldn't feed. When aid packages would arrive filled with clothes, toys or shoes for the clinic babies, these desperate mothers would take the things for their own children. Behind every tragedy, just another tragedy.

I have never, ever forgotten the faces of the children we worked with at the baby clinic during those two weeks, even though I never saw any of them again or visited that place again, despite many more visits to that city, and two years living there. I walked past it many times, but access was no longer allowed; the children were re-classified or moved on and there was no way for NGOs to find them or even know what was happening to them.

All I have of them are memories and blurred photographs, but meeting them irrevocably changed my life, setting me on a path that even I could not see the end of when I began. They got under my skin. Romania got under my skin and I've never really been able to get it out.

I am very aware that much has been written and said about Romania and its orphanages. I am also aware that this is a period of the country's history that many of its residents are anxious to move away from and put behind them. My intention here is not to re-open a painful wound. This is the first of what is to be a series of blog posts describing how the time I spent in Romania has changed me and changed my life, my opinions and views about many things. Some background is necessary to put all of that in context. The situation for children in care in Romania has changed a great deal since my first visit in 2001 - development of fostering means that babies are no longer held in the clinic I visited, and everywhere, orphanages are being closed as alternative solutions to the problems of children in care that all countries face are being sought.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Guardians

Of all the many professionals involved in the lives of children in care, the court-appointed Guardian, or Guardian ad Litem is, in my experience, the most shadowy and insubstantial. Ostensibly, their role is to represent the child's best interests from a welfare point of view, as opposed to the child's solicitor who will represent them from a legal point of view. The Guardian should become familiar with the child's case, interview relevant parties and ascertain and express the child's wishes to court, advising the courts on the actions that should be taken in the best interests of the child.

During my adoption process and nearly three years of fostering, I have had direct or indirect contact with four different Guardians. These experiences have not exactly given me confidence that the role is being fulfilled as competently as it could or should be.

The Sniffy Guardian

I met OB's Guardian on a number of occasions. Our first meeting did not get us off to a good start. On arriving at my house, he expressed something approaching horror about the estate where I was living, recounting a story of a previous visit to the area when "a bunch of feral kids" had been hanging about on the street.  Feral kids. Great language for someone appointed and paid to put the best interests of often troubled children at the heart of the social care process. It became clear that he had mentally categorised me towards the lowest end of the social strata based on the location of my house, which I found irritating, partly because my decision to live in a low income area was motivated by the low pay I was getting for caring for looked after children (whereas he was obviously receiving a salary that enabled him to live in a much more exclusive environment!) and partly because I really detest that sort of prejudice, especially coming from somebody who purports to know better.

At the end of our first meeting, he stood on my doorstep, sniffed, and commented that he supposed that I should really decide whether I wanted to carry on living there or try to find the money to rent somewhere "better". I wasn't actually renting at the time and, honestly, it was a pretty nice house.  It was all I could do to resist the urge to drag him back in the house and show him my certificates with a 'beat that!' look on my face! When I mentioned his name to social workers, I got a lot of knowing looks and expressions that indicated they'd love to say things but couldn't.  It was only after he stopped doing the job that I started to hear about everyone else's universal low opinion of the man.  And what was his new job? Yes, he was promoted to head of the service. You couldn't make it up!

The Invisible Guardian

I cared for NB for 18 months.  During this time he went from a Section 20 (voluntarily in care), through a full care order, to adoption. In all that time, which included many, many court dates, I never met his Guardian. The only contact I had with her was one phone call that she made to me the week before everybody was due in court to get the freeing order for his adoption. She chit-chatted for a while, asking me about how things were going and then, out of the blue, asked me if I'd consider keeping him as his Special Guardian. What?! This is the person appointed to ensure that the child's best interests are at the heart of the process and, without ever meeting the child, she decides to offer him over to a carer she couldn't identify in a line up. I said no. Special Guardianship is designed for children for whom adoption is not a suitable option and where contact with birth families will be maintained. It is usually used for older children, to provide the option of a more stable and secure setting than long-term foster care. From a foster carer's point of view, it can be a tricky option as social services support may be vastly reduced, and financial support moves to a needs-related, means-tested system rather than the regular stipend a foster carer gets. For a child like NB, not yet three years old, it seemed like a poor second option to adoption. I never heard from that Guardian again. NB's social worker knew nothing about the conversation beforehand and was horrified that it had even taken place.

The Demanding Guardian

I only had LB for just over two weeks, but that was plenty of time for the Guardian to get their nose into things. Towards the end of the second week I received a phone call from my social worker to say that the Guardian had decided that LB should be having daily contacts with his mummy and would the foster carer facilitate that in her own home?  No, the foster carer would not.  Last time the foster carer allowed a birth mum into her own home, she ended up having to move house. I fail to see what part of the Guardian's role of representing the child's interests and wishes to the court gives them the purview to interfere in the contact arrangements that are being made for the child to the point of expecting foster carers to use their homes as contact centres without any kind of social services or contact officer support. In the end, LB was back with his mummy within four days of that request being made so my offer to facilitate extra contacts in a neutral venue was never taken up.

The Perplexing Guardian

A few days after LB moved on, I was offered another placement which was quickly withdrawn when my social worker realised that I was going on holiday over Christmas. This was a baby who was in the process of moving on to an adoptive placement and was already settled in a successful foster placement. Unfortunately, the current carers were going on holiday over Christmas week, and the Guardian had decided that the child couldn't possibly go with them as there might be important appointments for the child to attend relating to the adoption, and missing them due to holidays might delay the process. Yeah, because social services is all about having the important meetings during Christmas Week! The Guardian didn't want the child to have the disruption of going to respite care for the week so, to minimise that disruption, they had decided . . . wait for it . . . to uproot the child completely and put them into a new foster placement for the last few weeks before their adoption.

This last example troubles me particularly. I can see that the Guardian is trying to consider only the interests of the child in this scenario (albeit in a way that I find somewhat strange) but the fact is that there are other things that have to be considered. Foster carers are entitled to have access to respite care in order to take family holidays. We are entitled to it. And yet, both myself and this other foster family were being denied work in this scenario because the Guardian's interpretation of the best interests of the child meant that the child could neither go on the holiday, nor be placed in respite for one week.

I have had only two weeks of work in nearly six months. If Guardians are going to start refusing to place children because the foster carer is due a holiday, then it could be another two months before I get another placement. The fact is that if decisions are made that make it impossible for foster carers to get work, or unreasonable demands are continually placed on them when they do have work, then they are going to have to stop being foster carers. And how easy will it be to promote the best interests of the children when there are no carers for the children?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Cranberry and Apricot Fruit Cake

And so we've finally arrived at the dreaded 'Fruit Section' of Mary Berry's Baking Bible. Why dreaded? Well, I don't really see myself as a big lover of fruit cakes and I've never made one, so I've tended to view ploughing through this part of the book with some trepidation, fearing weeks and weeks of expensive cakes that basically taste the same.

So I'll say it up front - this cake was delicious! I mean, I didn't just tolerate it, I really, really enjoyed it, and it went down very well on the two occasions I served it up to other people. Mary Berry promised that, like all fruit cakes (apparently) it improves with age. Well, we didn't let it get particularly old at all, but I can attest to the fact that on the first day it was tasty but very crumbly, on the second day less crumbly, and by third day, it was slicing perfectly and tasting divine.  And on the fourth day it was all gone!

It was, by my standards, an expensive cake though.  And a huge one. In fact the fruits alone were far too heavy for OB to make any impact on with his wooden spoon (he resorted to flicking the top layer all over the kitchen), and the whole mix wouldn't fit into my largest tin so I had to make an overspill cake - shame! The recipe called for 12oz of dried apricots as well as cranberries, pineapple and raisins and I think I could have halved the recipe and still made a decent-sized cake. I was particularly nervous as I really, really hate dried apricots and I'm by no means a fan of pineapple either, but in the end, the individual textures and flavours blended together so that there were no unpleasant apricot-filled moments for me to endure.

Our overspill cake :-)

My only difficulty with it all, as usual, was actually getting the bake right. I don't know whether it's because of my oven or what, but I find it extremely difficult to know when any cake is done, and about the only thing I know for sure is that if the top looks absolutely perfect, then the sides and bottom are going to be a tiny bit burnt. This time was no exception. Beautiful golden-brown top, sides just pulling away from the parchment, skewer (well, butter knife!) coming out clean, fruit at the edges ever-so-slightly singed.

Despite this though, it is with optimism that I consider moving onto the rest of the fruit section. I'm sure that the revolting glace cherry will feature somewhere, but I will endure it! And anyway, I've had a peek at some of the recipes later in the book (many of which I have previously seen massacred by contestants on GBBO) and I've decided that the fruit cake section will be a breeze in comparison!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Two Boys

Just a little pic of the boys' big day out last Saturday :)

We found this Night Garden ride at the shopping centre in Birmingham where we met up.  It's just like the one at our local shopping centre - just like old times :)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

B is for Birmingham!

Yes, another 'B' stop on our A-Z Tour! So, already I'm proving myself typically incapable of quite making the idea live up to the reality - only two letters in and already A wasn't really an A, and there have been two Bs!

But I think I might be forgiven as yesterday's day trip to Brum was for a very special reason - to meet up with NB and his new mummy for the first time since he moved on to her back at the end of June.

I didn't tell OB until the night before, and I think even that was too early! He was up until nearly 11pm, getting out of bed at least seven times, although he insisted that it wasn't because he was excited about seeing NB. I had told him because I wanted to make a last-minute trip to the shops to buy a present for NB. OB chose a Toby tram that makes a lot of noise (sorry new mummy!) but when we got home he predictably repented of his good intentions and insisted that he was keeping it. Thankfully, I had bought a spare gift just in case.

But in the end I needn't have worried. Despite setting off horrendously late (a whole 'car needs oil' fiasco, coupled with OB's reluctance to co-operate with anything after so little sleep) we made it to the appointed meeting place, and OB walked straight up to NB and handed over the Toby toy. It was an instant hit and a great distraction from the potentially awkward initial meeting. Within minutes, the boys had disappeared into the bowels of the indoor play centre, laughing and chasing each other, NB clutching the new toy in his hand as he climbed up the nets and whizzed down the slides, leaving the two mummies to catch up and drink coffee.

Oh how we laughed!

Playtime was followed by a long lunch in the Harvester next door. The boys insisted on sitting next to each other and making mischief throughout. We left the waitress a pretty decent tip - fairly sure they were glad to see the back of us when we finally left! Then we took a little walk around the shopping centre, stopping off at Clarke's to buy NB some new boots - new mummy was so impressed with OB's that she decided to get NB a matching pair!

Matching shoes! Guess which ones are new!

So, how is NB? Well, he's doing wonderfully. He is taller and his hair is longer. His face looks a bit chubbier, but that might just be his longer hair. His speech is coming on and he demonstrated his ever-improving technical skills by using the Duplo present he had brought for OB to build some really impressive 'things that look like things'. OB is still very much at the tower building stage!

Most pleasingly, despite clearly being excited and happy to see us, there was no sense that he'd rather be with us. He deferred to his mummy in everything, asking her for a drink, not me, letting her put his coat on, not me. He did let me take his scarf off though, and towards the end of our time, I did get a lovely cuddle. There were no tears from anybody and all in all it just felt like a lovely playdate - two mummies out and about with their two sons.

In fact, we were so happy with how it went that we're planning a skype date in the near future, and possibly an overnight trip to their house sometime in the New Year. Like somebody said, perhaps they will have a relationship like far-away cousins. I hope so.

Rather ambitiously, after we said goodbye to NB and his mummy, we then headed across Birmingham with nothing more than a couple of maps printed off Google to meet up with a school friend of mine that I haven't seen in, well, going on for 20 years. That's the wonder of Facebook! This was an unexpected treat organised just the day before, and it was a real pleasure to see her, meet her husband and one of her sons, and hear about her incredibly nerdy job (which totally sounds like a job I'd love!) - she basically collects and analyses statistical data and then tells large organisations what they should be doing differently.  Seriously, I have long wished for a job where I could fly in, tell everyone what to do, and then leave without actually having to do any of it myself! Ah well!

The journey home was a bit tiresome - traffic on the M6 and by then I was getting so tired that I really needed to take it easy on the motorway. We made it home shortly before 10 and I managed to transfer OB straight into bed. Perfect!

I don't know how NB is getting on today, but we haven't really had any fallout, other than the expected grumpy tiredness. OB hasn't said much about it until just before bedtime when he declared NB to be his 'best friend'! Sweet!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Carrot Cake

I love carrot cake.  I love everything about it, including the idea that I might just be squeezing in one of my elusive five-a-day by eating several slices. It interests me that, in the centuries before sugar was readily available as a sweetener, carrot was one of the ingredients that fulfilled this function.

No major mishaps making this (for a change!) except that I inadvertently used pecans instead of walnuts (which was probably an improvement as far as I'm concerned anyway). It went down really well with my guests, and the topping was lovely.

But . . . this recipe uses oil instead of butter for the fat. I've tried and tried but I just can't get used to it. I'm not sure whether it's the absence of buttery taste, or the presence of oily taste (which I can always, always detect in every oil-based recipe I've ever made) but I just don't like the flavour or the texture of oil-based cakes.

Sorry Mary, but this one wasn't a hit with me. I made another carrot cake a few weeks ago using some recipe I'd found on the internet which was much nicer. But I have learned a good lesson - in future I think I'll always substitute pecans for walnuts!

In the meantime, if anyone has tips for making an oil-based cake that doesn't taste of oil and have an oily texture then I'd love to hear them - please comment!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Cage Life

Not my house . . . sadly!
So, at my old house, when I had the two boys together, I had no less than four self-closing safety gates in operation at one time.  Yes.  Four solid barriers to be negotiated every time I wanted to go from the kitchen up to the bedroom with a massive load of laundry. This might seem incredibly over the top, but NB had a habit of eating things that weren't food and I wanted to be able to go to the toilet occasionally without having to dial 999 every time I came back down the stairs.

I had one on each door of the playroom (one to the kitchen, one to the hall), one at the bottom of the stairs and one at the top.  The top of the stairs one was the first to go as I pretty soon realised that it was more hazardous having it there than not. It is no easy task carrying two heavy toddlers downstairs when you have to open the gate with two fingers of one hand and step carefully over the bottom rim while every muscle in your upper body is practically popping out of your skin.  In the end I decided that the boys were never, ever upstairs without me anyway so what was the point?

The next one to go was the one between the playroom and the hall.  Basically, the boys needed more space for charging about, and up and down the hall was perfect.  Of course that meant that the handy under-stairs storage space had to be emptied out of all its junk.  That was a fun afternoon.  And it only took one experience of the children locking me out of the house, and one of OB escaping and running off down the street, to get me into new safety habits around securing the front door!

I knew I'd never be able to remove the last two though.  NB, in particular, was a rooter and a messer. It was apparently physically impossible for him to look at a closed cupboard, drawer, box or laundry basket without being overwhelmed by the urge to open and empty (and usually throw about as well).  I dread to think what would have happened if he ever got into the kitchen! The advent of his big-boy bed was the start of several nights of room-trashing, culminating in the spectacular feat of pulling over an entire chest of drawers onto himself.

Also, there is a sort of slightly mean parents-only amusement at watching the uninitiated trying to negotiate their way past your unfamiliar safety gates. Even when you have your own safety gates, it seems that this experience is completely non-transferable to other peoples! So, yeah, it's a small thing, but I won't deny that I had a little inner smile every time I got my sad little revenge for all the stair gates that had frustrated me during all those years of being a non-parent!

(By the way, when I was looking round for pictures of safety gates on the internet for use in this post, I noticed that all of them showed Mums effortlessly negotiating the gates with smiles on their faces and an adorable little one nestled on their hip like the one below.  I feel I need to say that this was most emphatically NOT my experience!)

Still, when we moved into the new house, and NB had moved on, I decided to see if we could do without safety gates.  And so far, it has been fine!  I can't tell you what bliss it is to move completely unfettered between kitchen and playroom carrying something spillable in each hand.  Simple pleasures!

OB is only interested in two doors in the kitchen: the door to the cupboard with the breakfast items (he has taken to getting his own breakfast - I am not fighting it!) and the door to the fridge.  I'm not wishing to give the impression that he's obsessed by food but, well, I think his actions speak for themselves!

However, recently, I've been having to re-think our safety gate situation because of the removal of another of our cages: OB's cot.  We started out the great big-boy bed adventure surprisingly well, but within a few nights, he was exploring the potential freedoms of a bed with no sides. This evening, he's been downstairs three times after I put him to bed, which is not so terrible I suppose, as long as he's walking down the stairs and not falling down them!

At first I put a safety gate at the top of the stairs, but this was problematic.  I have two landings - his bedroom is on one landing and mine on the other.  I want him to be able to get from his room to mine if he needs to, but allowing this meant that the safety gate had to be fitted in such an awkward place that we gave up on it after just one day, fearing injury to life and limb.

So I tried putting one on his bedroom door, intending to prop it open after I had gone to bed so that he could get out in the morning if he needed to.  Shortly after I put him to bed with the newly-positioned gate, I had to go upstairs to investigate an immense banging noise.  OB was kicking the gate down.  He was doing quite a good job of it.  We gave up on that.

So, the safety gates are back in the spare room, and I am left with only my (apparently not very impressive) powers of persuasion to keep OB in his bed at night.

Mind you, his old cot is still there in his room as a reminder of the threat of last resort!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

B is for . . . Blackpool! (Again!)

Yes, for part two of our alphabetical tour, we really did go back to Blackpool again . . . in the freezing cold rain . . . during rush hour . . . in half term!  And if I'm honest, most of it was every bit as excruciating as you might imagine!  In fact, it was such hard work that I didn't even get around to getting my camera out of the bag so there aren't even any pictures to document the event.

Of course, we knew it would be busy and that there would be queues but we were totally unprepared for the extent of it all.  Let's just say that we were sitting in traffic waiting to actually get to the start of the lights for longer than it took us to see the whole thing twice last time we went. And once we finally made it onto the promenade, progress was so unbelievably slow that we literally got out of the car and walked the kids along the pavement faster than my Mum could drive.  We kept having to stop and wait for her to catch up!

Of course, you don't want to drive too quickly through the lights.  I find that a gentle 10-15 mph is the perfect speed for getting a good view without having your glance linger long enough to notice how tacky and knackered-looking some of it really is.  At the speed we were going last week though, we sometimes found ourselves staring at the same small section of lights for as long as 15 minutes.  Yeah, it definitely loses its allure when you have to look at it for that long!

OB did very well, but after over two hours trapped in the car he started to get pretty frustrated.  We pulled over and got all the prams out and loaded the children into them (I think about two cars actually went past us during all that time!) and walked along for a bit to stretch our legs while my Mum continued to creep through the traffic. This was actually quite fun.  The wind was exhilarating after so long breathing each other's air, and OB got to have a close-up view of the horses and carriages at the side of the road. We bought coffees and fresh hot doughnuts at the side of the road and used them to warm up our frozen fingers and then, when we reached a spot where the traffic seemed to be moving more freely, we all piled back into the car.

By this time it was getting late, and OB was pretty tired.  He did, however, perk up considerably when we got to the roundabout with the rocket ship and astronauts on it - definitely his favourite bit and totally vindicates my decision to have a rocket-ship themed birthday party later this month!

It wasn't all bad though.  Before we headed to the lights, we stopped to get fish and chips to eat in the car (an essential part of the illuminations experience!) and, honestly, it was one of the best fish and chips I have ever eaten.  Almost made the whole thing worthwhile!

Monday, November 4, 2013

It's National Adoption Week

A phrase I've heard many times since I started fostering and then adopted is "Oh, I'd love to do that but I couldn't because . . . . " Alternatively I also hear a lot of, "We looked into doing that but . . . "  It seems that there are untold numbers of people out there who like the idea of fostering and adoption but for some reason have decided it isn't for them.

And fair enough I say.  For many, many people, deciding not to foster or adopt is exactly the right thing to do.  Getting a child isn't like getting a puppy (and we all know that they're not just for Christmas!).  I don't think it takes a 'special kind of person' to foster or adopt - if it does, I'm in trouble! - but I think it takes a particular set of 'right' circumstances.  The right time does not come around often, and for some families, it does not come at all.

Right now there is a lot of work going on to dispel some of the myths about who can adopt.  In fact I've been privileged to have my story published on The Adoption Social as a demonstration that being single is no barrier to adoption.  But I wonder if these barriers are really the root reasons why people don't adopt, or is there something deeper?

The vast majority of adopters that I have met both online and in real life have been people who were previously childless and, in many cases, have turned to adoption after years of battling with infertility.  I meet very few who have adopted to add to their family, rather than adopting to create a family.  There is no criticism implied here.  I am among those adopters who were previously childless, and I have had my own fertility ups and downs, so I definitely count myself among that number even if I didn't come to adoption in quite the same way.  

The down side of this, as I see it, is that the idea persists in our social consciousness that adoption is really only about childless couples.  Maybe you've heard something like this before: "How awful that children are languishing in care homes when there are couples desperate for children but they can't have them."  Recent chatter from the government about setting and monitoring adoption targets have really done little to dispel this.

A Romanian 'orphan' once challenged me about my regular visits to her country to help run a summer camp for abandoned children. Upon realising that I didn't have children of my own she said, "So if you had your own children you wouldn't come here to us any more . . . you'd stay at home with them?"  I was stung by her comment, not least because she was probably right.  After years of annual visits, and two years living in the country, I haven't actually been to Romania since I started fostering. If we allow the adoption story always to be one of childless couples creating a family, then we imply that if you already have a family, adoption is not relevant to you.  Adoption becomes what happens when the first choice doesn't work out.

Perhaps the majority of adopters will always be couples that were previously childless because these are the ones who been forced to really wrestle with the whole concept of what it means to 'have children'. Many, reaching the end of fertility treatment and IVF cycles, decide that adoption is not for them. For those who pursue adoption, the completion of a lengthy and eye-opening pre-adoption approval process pretty much knocks any selfish motive out of the ball park. While others might imagine that adoption 'cures' infertility, 'saves' abandoned children and blots out the past, we know different. 

Adoption, in the end, becomes more about the children's needs and less about an adult's dreams. It ceases to be a second-best or a last resort. Adoptive parenting is not equivalent to birth parenting - one is not a replacement for the other. It's not better or worse - just different. For many adoptive parents, these are discoveries that are made at the end of a long, difficult road that started in one place and ended up somewhere wildly different. Along the way, they are forced to confront that oft-unspoken fear of raising someone else's child, loving a baby you didn't conceive and bear. They confront it and overcome it. Couples who can conceive their own children rarely take even a few steps down this road. Most never really have to consider whether they could truly open their home to another person's child, and parent them, and love them unconditionally. I wonder if this is the real barrier for many people - that deep down they can't imagine how a stranger would slot into their existing lives and families.

If so, then there's no shame to it. I could never have imagined that I could love a child I didn't conceive, carry and bear as much as I love OB. I adopted the easy way - loved first and adopted later. I didn't go into it blind, meeting my child for the first time only a few days before they were due to come and live with me forever. Even now I'm not sure I'd have the guts to do that. I have deep respect for every adoptive parent who has made that journey, who has seen a single photo among hundreds of others and known that they could be parents to that child.

I wonder what the situation for looked after children in this country would be if we could all see them through the eyes of a prospective adopter? What would happen if, as a society, we pulled together to ensure that every child who needed one had a stable, permanent, loving family to call their own through long-term fostering, adoption or special guardianship? If we stepped away from the idea that adoption is just something for those who can't have 'their own children'? If we understood that looked after children are not just 'other' people, far away, but are living among us, mixing with our kids in schools and dance classes, and playgrounds, and we all carry a responsibility for what happens to them, just as we are all affected if it all goes wrong? If we considered adoption not as a replacement for birth children, but as an act of loving compassion from one human being to another?

During National Adoption Week, it is my hope and prayer that those who have never been forced to admit the idea of adoption into their minds would choose to explore it voluntarily and consider not starting, but completing their family through adoption. Please consider it, not to fulfil your own hopes and dreams, but to change the life of a child you don't know yet. Let's make adoption about the needs of children, not the needs of adults.  Let's hear the King say, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

Sunday, November 3, 2013

An Epic Mini Series

If OB's life was being serialised as a BBC drama mini series, the events of this week would surely merit a significant chunk of one of the episodes.  No, we haven't had high drama of the ilk of, say, court dates or celebration hearings, but rather a series of small but nonetheless epic events, milestones and changes to manage.

Of course, most significant has been the arrival of LB (who is settling in very nicely by the way).  OB has mostly taken this very much in his stride.  He loves having the baby around and is quite fascinated by him, bringing him toys, rocking him rather energetically in the bouncing chair, putting blankets (lots and lots of blankets!) on him and just generally being a nuisance getting involved! LB has been the recipient of lots of heartfelt kisses, cuddles, bear hugs and drumming attempts.  The drumming thing will have to stop but the rest of it is quite cute.

There has been something of a reaction of course - I wouldn't expect it otherwise. OB has been agitating for attention and generally being a bit more lively and 'frog in a box' than usual, tearing round the house, touching everything, moving things and generally messing with stuff, which can get quite wearing.  We have had a few wailing tanties and shouting sessions, but no more than usual really - these have been escalating for a while now but I'm hoping it's a phase! He has also been asking for cuddles a lot, as well as asking me to give him his bedtime milk "like a baby".  I've gone along with that and we've had some delicious cuddly bedtimes as a result.

There a few things the baby isn't allowed to have.  At first OB wasn't keen for the baby to use his old pram, but we managed to get over that one. There was also a problem with using OB's wipes on the baby's bottom, which we solved by buying a different brand so we can keep them separate.  Other than that, LB is so small and non-demanding that he doesn't really impinge on OB's daily doings all that much.

A few hours after LB arrived, my parents also arrived, so we have had a crazy week of fun, games, trips out, lots of food and altered routines.  OB has, of course, loved the whole thing! It does him so much good to have the additional attention that it's definitely worth it as a trade-off for the occasional moments of over-excitedness.

As if all that wasn't enough, this week finally heralded the arrival of the Big Boy Bed.  We chose it on Saturday, bought it and built it on Sunday.  It is a full-sized single cabin bed and really sturdy so I can sit on it or even lie on it without fear of collapsing it.  OB, after weeks of anticipation, was suitably excited and thrilled by its arrival and has been dragging people upstairs to admire it.  His quilt cover has a rocket ship on it that matches the rug I had previously bought and, overall, I'm pleased that it looks like a proper little boy's room without being too themed and faddy.

When I moved NB into his big boy bed, we had night after night of destruction and carnage as he just couldn't stop himself from getting out of bed and emptying every drawer, shelf and cupboard in the place, culminating in one awful night when he pulled the chest of drawers over on himself, so I was slightly dreading the thought of putting OB in a bed without bars!  I needn't have worried though.  He has experimented with getting out of bed, but mainly he seems to content to just knock on his bedroom door a bit (he can't open it himself) or stand at the end of the bed shouting me.  Only once has he made his way downstairs (when I had his Christmas present out in the lounge of course!), and then he went straight back to bed without a fuss. Finally we can ditch the monitor as now he can come and get me in the morning instead of just yelling from his room.  It's all good.

With all this going on, I'd have thought the toilet training (which we still haven't totally conquered) would have been a disaster, but we've actually had the best week ever, with several consecutive dry days, even though our routine has been all over the place and we've been out and about a lot.  I'm very proud of my virtually-dry-in-the-day son!

Some of these changes are hard enough for me to accept with any level of equilibrium, never mind OB, but he seems to be coping wonderfully.  My parents left us today so now I have to manage the routines of the two children by myself for the first time.  I hope I adapt as well as OB!

*edit* Oh yes, and we had OB's first up-close-and-personal encounter with fireworks last night - just a small display in the garden - and he loved it! Phew!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

October 31st

The other day I heard Graham Norton express shock and amazement that the young singing girl he was interviewing on his show had never done trick or treating! Really! How shocking! James Corden  then chimed in with his story about how his 'very religious' parents wouldn't let him do Halloween. Apparently they sat in the dark in a back room when trick or treaters came round.

James Corden is only 5 years younger than me. Graham Norton is in his 50s. Where were these people living that trick or treating was the norm when they were kids? Because where I was living nobody (and I mean absolutely nobody) went trick or treating. I never did it, or even dressed up or paid any sort of lip service to Halloween, and neither did any of my friends. We had heard of Halloween of course, but it was just a blip on the way to the much more exciting Bonfire Night.

Halloween just wasn't a 'thing' when we were kids. It seems to have come from nowhere in the last few years, and spending figures bear that out - a decade ago we spent £12 million on Halloween. This year, spending is predicted to top £300 million.

Personally, I can't stand any of it. For a start, it sits uncomfortably with my religious beliefs and while people will cite a variety of different accounts of the 'tradition' or 'origins' of Halloween in order to support/disagree with my reservations on religious grounds, I'm not moved by any of them. Rather like the modern celebrations of Easter and Christmas, the current incarnation of Halloween is so unbelievably far removed from any mists of time origins as to make those origins pretty irrelevant. I heartily doubt that any of the kids knocking on my door tonight will have the faintest interest in All Hallows Eve or Samhain.

Secondly, unlike Christmas, Easter or even Valentines which, while also being horribly commercialised, at least purport to celebrate something worthwhile, I struggle to find any redeeming feature of Halloween. I just don't get where the 'fun' is in any of it. Call me an old killjoy, but I really don't like the unpleasant, gory costumes. Most people wouldn't let their kids watch horror movies or films with excessive violence in them, but suddenly at Halloween it does kids no harm to walk around made up as though an axe has been put through their head. Our local garden centre put up a Halloween display in September, right by the entrance, replacing the cute models of animals with a smoke-filled graveyard scene complete with ghoulish corpse reaching out of the grave. OB was mortified.

Neither am I keen on kids extorting sweets out of strangers. The whole purpose of Halloween seems to be to gather and eat as many sweets as possible until our teeth actually fall out of our heads. On special days and celebrations like birthdays, I let OB go a bit overboard on the sweets and treats, of course I do. But those are days with a specific reason to celebrate and special food is often a part of that celebration.  What's the reason for Halloween?  Why do special rules apply on that day? I'm often told that Halloween is not a celebration of evil, so what is it a celebration of?  And if it isn't a celebration of anything, then it's just an excuse to eat massive piles of sweets for no real reason.  Don't get me wrong, I'm as partial as the next person to a massive pile of sweets, but we can probably drop all the paraphernalia that goes with it then!

So, yes, there's all that. But actually the main reason I avoid it is because so many people work so hard to make it impossible to avoid. I'm not 'against' Halloween, but I don't like it and I don't want to do it. Perhaps it's a rebellious streak in me that doesn't like being told what to do. Graham Norton's shock that there might exist a person that has never done trick or treating embodies it all for me. Somewhere, someone, or a group of people, have decided that this is what we all do at this time of year, and if you don't do it then it's a shocking thing. You are denying your children an essential part of their childhood. You are spoiling their fun. You are raising them as freaks. Sometime in the future, when they are famous comedians, they will gently mock you on national TV.

A friend of mine was once harangued at the school gates because her son had told another child that there was no such thing as the tooth fairy. "It's your children I feel sorry for," said the other mother. "You're taking all the joy out of their childhood." Yeah, forget the nature walks, the family holidays, the birthdays and other celebrations, the games and cuddles and bike rides and film nights - if you don't also have the tooth fairy, it's all for nothing.

Well, I'm going to get this out there:  I have never done trick or treating and I feel fine about it.  I hope my son will never do it either. We won't be doing Halloween at our house and neither will we be having the tooth fairy. I doubt we'll be paying much attention to Santa either - if I'm spending hundreds of pounds on Christmas presents then I'm not giving the credit to a fictional beardie! I hope my son will have fun, excitement, mystery and joy in his childhood. I hope I can still provide this without the addition of plastic pumpkins and zombie costumes.

If you're doing Halloween tonight, I really do hope that you have a great time together as a family. Times are hard and it's nice to have an excuse to go a bit wild and forget reality for a while - I do get that. So, I hope you all stay safe, and have fun and don't get sick from eating too many sweets.

As for us, well, I was thinking about taking OB to an alternative Light Night party, but social services have suddenly come up with a load of last minute appointments meaning that we will be doing something LB-related at that time instead. So I expect we'll just spend our evening in a back room with the light off. If it was good enough for James Corden . . .