Friday, March 28, 2014

The No-Fun Mum

Currently I'm going through a phase of being The No-Fun Mum. These phases come and go, usually linked to how button-pushing OB is being at any given time and how tired I am. Currently, with the combination of a long-lasting, heavy cold and, no doubt, the loss of all the fun of Mamy and Papy's recent visit, OB's button-pushing is at an all-time high. We're pretty full on with the tiredness too as Baby Girl still feeds late at night and very early in the morning, and OB seems to think that 5.45am is a perfectly fine time to get up and be full of beans.

No-Fun Mum is:

  • short on patience
  • intolerant of incessant chatter and noise
  • overwhelmed by the many things that need to be done
  • sick of repeating herself
  • frustrated at having her attempts to return to Fun Mum thwarted by challenging behaviour
  • short on the mental energy needed to think up fun things to do
  • unwilling to sit on the floor and play cars endlessly
  • tired of nearly all her conversations being administrative or disciplinary in nature
  • alarmed by how frequently she says "No!" and "Stop!"
  • even more alarmed by how frequently these instructions are ignored
  • irritated when OB is hideously tired all afternoon and evening because he got up so ridiculously early again
  • not the mum I wanted to be

Still, the weather forecast for the weekend is apparently good so here's hoping for some cobweb-blowing outdoor days in the garden and out on long walks to revive Fun Mum. I know she's in there!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Scrutiny and the Dirty T-Shirt

Today was my annual review. Like everything else concerning social services, this involved a positive orgy of meetings, form filling, checks and double checks before today's appearance in front of a panel of no less than eight people.

I wasn't nervous about it. I tend to assume that anything seriously wrong might have come up before now. Can't really see them flagging up some serious cause for concern and then just leaving it until the annual review!

So, forms and reports were all submitted and, apart from starting nearly 30 minutes late, everything was going swimmingly until suddenly one of the panel members mentioned that a contact supervisor had reported that I once took LB to contact in a dirty t-shirt.

Really? Considering the day-in day-out nature of the job, the level of care I need to deliver, the many meetings I have to attend and forms I have to fill in, the number of professionals I work with weekly and the fact that I've successfully moved a child onto an adoptive placement in the past year, was this review really going to be a conversation about whether I might have sent a 3-month-old to contact in a less-than-pristine t-shirt over four months ago?!

I needn't have worried. The panel member explained that she wanted to know how I had felt about this at the time, and how I had dealt with it with the person concerned. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no recollection of anything being said at the time (not that it wasn't said - just that I move on pretty quickly to the next thing in my head, forgetting stuff that's dealt with or inconsequential!), so actually the panel member found herself apologising to me for bringing it up and making me 'deal with it' in front of the whole panel!

So, in the end, it wasn't really an issue. In fact the panel member said that she was going to speak to the contact service to suggest that this kind of thing shouldn't be dealt with via reports to annual reviews. Indeed! And thankfully the rest of the reports were all very positive and each member of the panel had some very lovely things to say about my work, so I did leave encouraged and cheerful.

But the whole conversation served to remind me how much intense scrutiny I am under practically every day. For my review, reports were received from every social worker I have had contact with over the past year (three of mine, and seven of the children's), every contact supervisor for each child (at least four, maybe more) and the lead Health Visitor for each child (thankfully only one as my HV seeks out my name on new referrals and gets herself assigned to me!).

A minimum of 15 people writing reports about me that I will never see, to be scrutinised by a panel of people that has the annual task of deciding whether I will be allowed to continue as a foster carer. And one of them thinks it's necessary to mention that at one contact out of many, a child's t-shirt was not up to her preferred hygiene standards, despite the fact that there would have been a clean set of clothes in the change bag and it's not, you know, out of the realms of possibility that a 3-month-old might, say, have puked up in the car on the way (I can't imagine what other sort of 'dirt' might be on a baby's t-shirt!). I wonder what she thought the outcome of making that comment would be?

And who do I get to write a report on? Social workers and contact supervisors can be (and are) routinely late to, or absent from arranged appointments, they can fail to communicate vital information, they can disappear on holiday for weeks on end without letting me know, and even leave altogether without saying anything. They can be disrespectful, lazy and disorganised. They can forget and lose important information, and turn up at my house without vital paperwork necessitating time-consuming repeat visits. They can inform me of LAC reviews and other important meetings with less than one-hour's notice. They can change contact times and locations with virtually no notice, or be so late in arranging contacts that I have to move heaven and earth to get us there. They can send me no work for so long that I'm wondering how we'll feed ourselves, and then send children with virtually no history and fail to give me the most basic and necessary information about them. I could go on.

I don't get to write reports or contribute much of anything really. My only recourse is to make an official complaint about a named individual. It would be like clearing a beach by removing grains of sand one by one. Exhausting and ineffective.

So instead, I will have a little moan to my supervising social worker next time I see her and increase my vigilance levels regarding the cleanliness of t-shirts!

Here's to my fourth year!

Monday, March 24, 2014


Baby Girl has a referral to opthalmology. It was the Health Visitor that first raised the alarm at her height/weight check prior to her 8-week assessment. It seemed that she wasn't fixing and tracking properly. When she saw the GP for her immunisations and the assessment itself just over a week later, the GP confirmed that everything did not seem to be as it should be.

At first I was shocked. Baby Girl has always been remarkably alert. Even at a few days old, her eyes were open far more than a lot of other newborns I have seen. People commented on it. "How alert she is. She's really having a good look at everything." This idea that Baby Girl was always 'having a good look' must have sunk in over the weeks to the extent that I never really paid any attention to what she was looking at or, indeed, whether she was really looking at anything in particular.

Once I'd got over that first reaction, a lot of things suddenly slotted into place. Like the fact that Baby Girl wasn't really doing much in the way of smiling yet, she didn't pay any attention to her baby gym or the baby DVD I sometimes played her. I started really paying attention to her 'looking' and soon realised that while she appeared to be looking into my face, in reality she was often staring at a fixed point somewhere over my shoulder.

Then the amateur assessing started. I watched to see whether she reacted to the light being switched on or sudden sunshine (she did) and whether she flinched when I waved my hand suddenly right in front of her face (not so much). I started wafting things around in front of her eyes to try to get her to fix her gaze on them and track them as they moved. Nothing. And yet, remarkably, several times I am convinced I've seen her fixing and tracking at a greater distance.

I don't really know much about the development of a baby's vision, except that they start off only seeing nearby things and develop their distance vision later. I don't know whether we're looking at a vision problem here or a developmental one. I don't know whether it might all sort itself out with time. I keep hoping it will, waving my hand about in front of her face daily, looking for something different from yesterday.

But today I had another realisation. I met a friend's 4-week old daughter for the first time. The first thing I noticed straight away was that this newer baby is actually taller and bigger in every way than Baby Girl. Now I know why people keep remarking on how little she is!

The second thing I noticed was how, even at this young age, my friend's baby was so engaged in eye contact with whoever was holding her, smiling, looking, responding. Reality hit as it suddenly came crashing down on me that Baby Girl is not like this at all. There was this clear focus and engagement with my face, and then with the face that appeared over my shoulder as someone else came to take a look. I get none of that from Baby Girl. I was struck by just how much more interactive and engaging it is to look into the face of a baby that is clearly looking right back at you. I realised that, lacking this response from her, I was probably robbing Baby Girl of the face time that she still needs, even if she can't appreciate it with her eyes.

I choked up.

When we came home, I sat down with Baby Girl on my knee and spent about 15 minutes making noises at her and stroking her, enjoying her smiles in response. We need to find better ways of connecting, of communicating. I have work to do.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Proper Way to Make a Sponge

When I was a young child my grandmother taught me how to make a victoria sponge the proper old-fashioned way. It was just the basic 4 4 4 2 recipe, but the secret was, apparently, all in the use of the verbs and the utensils. Cream the butter and sugar with a fork, beat in the eggs, fold in the flour with a wooden spoon.

Her sponge cakes were awesome, light, moist and delicious. She would make only a single layer cake - none of the overtly decadent buttercream filling. Then she would spread a thin layer of jam over the top and sprinkle on a generous helping of dessicated coconut. Sometimes, for special occasions, the topping would be plain icing, again with the coconut. 

My other grandma, my nanna, was all about the scones. Best scones I've ever tasted. She always served up something yummy and cakey when we visited. I was a particular fan of battenberg too, but it's the scones I remember. She would ask if I wanted margarine on them or "best butter". I had little idea what the difference was to be honest, but one of them had "best" in the name, so that's what I always went for!

I have never successfully made a scone, but I carried on the sponge cake making into my adulthood, although mine have never been as luscious as I remember my grandma's being, however much I creamed, beat and folded.

Once OB was old enough to stand beside me in the kitchen, I made a conscious decision to learn to bake properly - not just sponges, but scones, pastries and everything else in the book. In fact I asked for Mary Berry's Baking Bible for Christmas and pledged to work through it recipe by recipe - the results of some of my attempts are scattered through this blog (see the tag on the top menu). 

I'm not the most domesticated person in the world, to say the least, but I really wanted OB to have those warm childhood memories that I treasure - standing in the kitchen beside my grandmothers and my mum too, stirring, mixing and, most importantly, licking!

And despite all the recipes that Mary Berry has offered up, that basic 4 4 4 and 2 sponge cake is still my go-to recipe. It's simple, I nearly always have the ingredients in the cupboard and it's so easy to scale up and down, not to mention that it can easily be re-invented as cupcakes, made into a pudding with the addition of jam or syrup, or layered up for a lavish celebration cake. So this is the recipe I have chosen for #WASO's recipe week.

These days I usually take the easy way out and mix the ingredients with an electric mixer using the all-in-one method, but for the sake of nostalgia, here is the recipe as my grandmother taught me:

4oz self raising flour
4oz butter
4oz sugar
2 eggs

Cream together the butter and sugar using a fork until smooth and creamy and then beat in the eggs. Add the sieved flour little by little, folding in with a wooden spoon. Pour the mix into a greased cake tin and bake for 15 minutes at gas mark 4 followed by 20 mins at gas mark 3. 

I have literally no idea what actual temperatures those old gas mark measurements equate to which is probably why my sponges never come out quite as good these days!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

More Haste

Much of the talk around adoption these days seems to be around reducing waiting times and increasing the speed of the process both for adopters and children who are waiting.

Children who are waiting - now there's a loaded phrase. I suppose from some perspectives, many looked-after children are waiting. They are waiting for others to have meetings, make decisions, take action. They wait for appointments and medicals and contacts. They are in a strange limbo-land.

But to reduce all of this activity to the one word 'waiting', or even worse, 'languishing', is to ignore the purpose of this in-between time. It implies that this time spent 'waiting' is unnecessary, pointless even; that there is no value to it; that we could just cut out the middle man, so to speak.

Let me use Baby Girl as an example. She was brought into care at 3-days-old. A classic case of a child whom 'everybody knows' is going to be adopted. But here's our first hurdle. Nobody, in fact, knows what will happen to Baby Girl. Everybody knows what they think should happen, and of course her care plan is heading towards an adoption route, but while social workers and other professionals might influence and guide the decision, the ultimate pronouncement is made in a court of law, only after due process has been followed. Could that process be clearer, faster, more efficient? Probably. But it must be followed nonetheless.

However, anticipating the probable outcome of court proceedings, our LA are twin-tracking Baby Girl, carrying out the necessary procedures with birth family while at the same time making appointments for pre-adoption medicals, and beginning initial searches for matching.

Everybody feels that it would be better to get this done sooner rather than later, and on one level I don't disagree. But I worry that, in the long run, more haste is less speed. Before she was born, Baby Girl was housed in an extremely inhospitable environment, the possible effects of which are still unknown. There are medical tests which cannot be carried out with accuracy until she is much older. So she is a child who 'might have ...'. Although there are early concerns over some aspects of her development, we won't know if she is meeting her milestones until we get to them. So again, she 'might have ...'.

When I think about prospective adopters filling in their matching sheets, making agonising decisions about whether they would be able to manage this medical condition or that life event, I wonder whether the combination of Baby Girl's 'might haves' could just complicate her right out of the picture. There must be plenty of prospective adopters who have indicated that they would like a child of her age, but once you start adding in the 'might have' medical conditions and developmental issues, that must narrow the field considerably.

There's a massive element of uncertainty when adopting a very young baby. More so, sometimes, than in adopting an older child. It isn't so simple as the assumption that the younger the child, the less complicated the situation, the less damage, the fewer memories, the fewer long-term effects. Children are not taken into care without reason. Baby Girl was not taken into care for no reason. Even though she had not been born, she still experienced abuse and neglect. The emotional and physical toll of this neglect will not be known for months and years. This is true of all traumatised children, but if you adopt a four-year-old, you can at least expect to know if they are blind or deaf, or if they suffer from cerebral palsy, or if they are HIV+ for instance.

So, for Baby Girl, a list of 'might haves' will narrow the field of prospective adopters considerably. Some of these 'might haves' are very, very serious. And yet there is still the distinct possibility that, given a little time and the proper tests, we will be able to confirm that she doesn't actually have these things at all.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that, as the weeks pass, other concerns will come to the fore. Perhaps developmental milestones will be missed. Concerns will be raised. Notes will be made and observations called for. She is so very young right now that it is impossible to know whether some of the worrying things we are seeing are signs of serious problems, or slight delays that will sort themselves out with time.

The truth is that, at this point, any prospective adopter has absolutely no idea what they are getting if they adopt Baby Girl. Of course, no birth parent knows what they are getting either, but the chances are that a birth parent will not have spent nine months of pregnancy endangering the life of their unborn child. For Baby Girl, the chances of her escaping all of that unscathed are so remote that it seems as though we are all waiting for the medical or developmental hammer to fall.

And I can't help thinking that if we just put the brakes on, just a little, we might give ourselves time to eliminate some of these uncertainties - certainly the ones that can be established by medical testing and investigation by specialists - so that the LA would properly know what sort of match they were looking for, and any prospective adopters would have a much better picture of the child they were being asked to consider. Baby Girl could still be adopted at under a year old and make someone's dreams come true.

Speed is not always of the essence. There is sometimes value in the 'waiting'.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Boy's Best Friend

Years ago, my friend and I liked to share a little dream. The two of us would be walking around a local countryside park, pushing our children along in prams. Those children would grow up to be best friends and we would share many a cup of coffee together while our children played.

It was a bittersweet dream at the time as neither of us looked likely to be having children any time soon, for different reasons. We would say it to each other during tough times, trying to manufacture hope. I've never asked my friend but I had a deep certainty that, at least on my part, this dream would never come true.

Now, more than ten years later, my friend is mum and stepmum to four wonderful children. When her daughter was born, we made sure to go up to that country park and push the pram around for all we were worth! A couple of years later, her son came along, and we did the same. I may not have been pushing my own pram, but I was genuinely delighted to have become 'aunty' to these two gorgeous little ones.

And now I have OB, and my own pram (although he's outgrown it now!). Sometimes, when we take our children out to the park, I choke up as I remember how we dreamed of such a simple thing without any real hope of realising the dream.

There is a 14 month age gap between my friend's little boy and OB. When they were younger, this was a big enough gap to make genuine friendship a little difficult to achieve, but as they get older, this gap seems to get smaller and smaller.

Last Friday, we all met up at my friend's house and baked bread. Then we shared a cup of coffee while our children played together.

Living the dream!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

5 Attributes That Were Missing From My Parenthood Job Description

At some point in the past, I decided to give up my old job and become a professional parent. I thought I had a fairly good idea of what that might entail and was sure I would be comfortable with the wakeful nights, the nappies, the mess (oh my goodness, the mess!), the restricted social life, the ever-present representatives of social services, the mountain of laundry, the rejection of lovingly-prepared meals, the tantrums, the cuddles, the tears and tiaras. And yes, all of that has seemed to go pretty much as I expected.

But before long I discovered that there was far more to this role than was ever hinted at on the job description. Here are just a few of the apparently necessary attributes for parenting that I wasn't warned about in advance:

1. Social Calendar Organiser

I have one of those calendars with a different column for each person. Mine is virtually empty. The children's columns, on the other hand, are a veritable cornucopia of appointments, playdates, activities, commitments and fun. And one of these children is only a few weeks old! It can only get worse! Keeping track of this ever-shifting timetable is a job in itself, not to mention that not one of the things that are written on there will ever actually happen unless, in a supreme administrative effort, I make them happen. Before I had children I never had a calendar, or even a diary. I could actually remember everything I was committed to in my own head. Ha! If only!

2.  Pack Horse

It's bad enough with a baby, or a toddler. But combine the two, and I'm seriously thinking that someone could make a killing if they invented buggy clips that worked on arms. I can regularly be seen struggling out of the house with several bags hanging over my shoulders, one arm looped through the baby's car seat, the hand of that arm trying to carry more things in such a way that they don't all drop onto the baby's face, the other hand free for restraining the toddler. Invariably, before we've reached the car, everything that is on my shoulders will have slipped down into the crooks of my elbows. This usually happens at the moment where, forgetting to turn sideways to make the exit, I crash the car seat into the front door frame and bring us all to a juddering halt.

I have this distant but delightful memory of a time when leaving the house meant simply picking up car keys and bag, donning coat and then, just, you know, getting into the car and driving away. It took two minutes. Now it takes twenty and elevates my blood pressure to dangerous proportions.

3.  Toy-dar

Since OB left the world of baby toys, his play weapons of choice have become ever more complex, with ever more accessories that must always be exactly where he wants them at any given moment of the day. Where's the Bob Builder? No, not that Bob Builder? That's the big Bob Builder! I want the little Bob Builder that goes in the Bob Builder Building Site. Where's the trailer for this lorry? Where's the ladder that goes with the farm? Where's the Playmobile giraffe's leg? Where's the tiny triangular lego brick that is sort of see-through? Where are the 200 things that I hid somewhere yesterday and now desperately need?

Thankfully, the toy-dar seems to develop with use. Yesterday I managed to find a set of lego car wheels under a pile of CBeebies magazines in just a few minutes. Unfortunately, I have yet to develop a dummy-dar. I bought Baby Girl five of these which she rarely uses. This is a good thing as now I only have one. When I ask OB if he knows where the dummies are, he will only reply that he didn't hide them. Hmmmm.

4. Fixer

And as the toys have got more complex, the possibilities for catastrophic breakage have become increasingly varied. I had never used super glue in my life before I became a parent. Now I have about 9 tubes of the stuff (used to be 10 but I accidentally got one stuck to the kitchen worktop in my old house). I am also a big fan of duct tape. Why can't toymakers just create things where the doors don't fall off every two minutes, or where the wings don't snap off, or where the rubber tyres can't 'accidentally' get pulled off and rolled over finger ends nearly necessitating a trip to A&E?

5.  Costumier

Of all the rude awakenings I have had since becoming a parent, this has been the rudest. I mean, seriously, how many fancy dress opportunities does a toddler need? Today was World Book Day, so apparently it's the law that all children everywhere dress as characters from books. I didn't get this memo pre-parenthood so it came as a bit of a shock to me when I found out about it on Tuesday. Two days is really not enough time for me to get my head around fancy dress!

I asked OB who he wanted to go as. To my very great relief, he chose the protagonist from "Edward Builds a Rocket". Why was I relieved? Because Edward WEARS NORMAL CLOTHES! HOORAY! I managed to find a suitable striped top and shorts and completed the ensemble with some safety goggles from the toy tool box. With amazing serendipity, we had recently created a small space rocket out of random boxes and egg cartons (another skill that isn't mentioned in the job description!) so he was even able to go with a rocket he had actually built himself.

I was pretty pleased with myself until we arrived and I saw that virtually all the other children had full-sized, shop-bought costumes. Is this something that all other parents just naturally do? Or is this another memo that I missed?! I'm familiar with the ease of costuming girls when all the shops are full of cheap-as-chips Disney Princess dresses, but even the boys were fully kitted out this morning, including a particularly impressive dinosaur.

Maybe if it was just once a year on World Book Day, that wouldn't be so bad, but no! It's all the time! Themed birthday parties, nativities, colour day at Playgroup . . . yes I know that only involves wearing clothes in a particular colour but sometimes I just don't have a purple t-shirt in the drawer!

Of course, it's obvious why they don't put any of these things (and many others I could have mentioned) on the job description - we'd run a mile if they did!

But then again, the job description really doesn't convey the utter awesomeness that is parenthood. Because beneath all the frustration, exhaustion, terror and incomprehension, the joy and the love and the wonder are always there. No matter how many times they tell you that, you won't really know it until you've done it.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Seeking Justice

Baby Girl is more than two months old now, and it seems that the older she gets, the more anxiously we all monitor her development, looking for things that aren't quite right, aren't quite going according to plan. At her 8-week assessment recently, concerns were raised, notes were made. We are all looking into the unknown.

I won't go into Baby Girl's history here because it's not my story to tell, but I'm sure most readers will know that there are only a limited number of reasons why a child might be removed from its mother as quickly as Baby Girl was.

So I have watched with interest this last week as a news story has emerged of a legal case where it is being alleged that a six-year-old girl is a victim of crime because her mother drank during pregnancy, leading to brain damage. Incidences of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome are on the rise, with a reported 313 cases in 2012-13.

I have struggled with this story. If the case is successful, apparently it could make drinking while pregnant a crime. I have seen a lot of internet chatter expressing full-throated support of such a move - not surprising perhaps among the adoption and fostering community, where many deal every day with the devastating effects of alcohol and drug abuse during pregnancy.

But for myself, I am unsure. I wonder how would such a thing be enforced? Many addicts do not routinely engage with health services during pregnancy, so how would anybody know what was going on until it was too late? What if the mother claims not to have known about the pregnancy for several months? And what of those who participate in, say, a champagne toast at a wedding? Are they to be placed on a par with those who persist in drinking regularly and heavily throughout pregnancy? I have never been pregnant, but even I know that drinking during pregnancy is highly frowned upon. All of my friends have avoided alcohol (and a host of other potentially dangerous things including soft cheese and pate - will we make eating those things illegal too?) throughout their pregnancy. There can hardly be anybody who does not know that drinking and pregnancy do not go together and yet some apparently persist in doing so anyway. Will a change in the law alter that? I'm not convinced that it will.

While I inwardly rage at the damage that has been done to some of the children I have cared for before they were even born, I also rage at the horrible disease that is addiction to drugs or alcohol or whatever. I have written before about the layers of tragedy that lie behind the lives of the children I care for. Trying to understand the overwhelming power of addiction and the way it eventually destroys every single part of a person's life leaves me torn between feeling anger at the birth mothers and feeling intense sympathy. There's no point talking about 'fault' or 'choices'. Some of these parents come from generations of families ruined by poverty, violence, addiction, crime, abuse. While I personally know people who have managed to break this cycle, the level of support that they need is enormous. For those for whom that support isn't available, the task looks insurmountable.

But who can fail to sympathise with the little girl who is the subject of this court case? She has been abused and damaged by the very person - the only person - who should have been nurturing her unborn form. If, by someone's deliberate action or inaction, we are injured, we expect to be able to seek redress through the legal system. Countless TV adverts inform me almost daily that if I so much as slip on a wet floor and twist my knee, I ought to be entitled to hefty compensation payments. Where is the compensation for these injured children?

If this little girl wins her case, I suspect that I will punch the air on her behalf, regardless. Our heads and our hearts long for justice for children such as these. However, I fear that criminalising pregnant women will not provide that justice. In fact, I fear that such justice may never be truly achievable in any meaningful way.