Saturday, August 19, 2017

Swimming Stories

It seems to have become an annual tradition for me to do a post-holiday account of my son's swimming progress (or lack of it!). His nearly four years of swimming lessons have been . . . well, I'd say a roller coaster but, in reality, the ride just plummeted from day one and has stayed pretty close to ground level through months and years of crying, refusals, terror and infinitesimally slow progress.

The annual summer trip to my parents' place with their lovely kidney-shaped swimming pool has provided a sort of snapshot of comparable progress year on year. I'm grateful for this, as seeing improvements each year, however tiny, has really been what kept me going with the lessons, despite his weekly begging to be allowed to stop them.

The first visit, he spent most of his pool time on the wide steps, pouring water in and out of various receptacles. In the years that followed, he got a tiny bit braver each time, but progress was slow, and we would start each visit a few steps back from where we ended the last one. Last year we had a momentous breakthrough when he suddenly decided that he would put his face under the water, and by the end of the trip he was dropping down until he was completely submerged. I had genuinely thought I would never see that happen.

This year, I think, will probably be the last of my annual swimming round ups. OB's actual swimming is, let's face it, still a pretty disorganised flail-with-forward-motion affair, but his progress in everything else has been nothing short of miraculous. We had jumping off the side in the deep end with nobody to catch him, swimming underwater, diving down to collect rockets and several ambitious attempts at underwater handstands. He spent so much time in the pool that his skin dried up and we had to grease him down every night!

Many times I have despaired that OB would never learn to swim. I have often considered giving up lessons. There have been tears and meltdowns and months and months with not so much as a beginners progress badge to cheer us. And swimming is not the only thing that we have struggled with together over the years, but the way he has overcome his fears in the water this last few weeks has given me hope that one day he'll conquer his other mountains too.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Horses and Zebras

I had cause to take Birdy to Urgent Care recently where I received quite the dressing down from the triage nurse who responded to my assertion that it was "exacerbation of asthma" by telling me that Birdy had a temperature and therefore it was probably only a minor chest infection, adding for good measure, "Just because she's got asthma doesn't mean you have to give her the inhaler every time she coughs."

I had followed Birdy's asthma plan to the letter that day, and the subsequent delay in treatment due to her being classed as not very urgent meant that by the time she was seen her SATs were 88. If you don't know what that means, suffice it to say that it's not good. She was admitted to hospital and eventually put on oxygen.

Apparently, the phrase "When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras" was coined by a medical professor in the late 1940s. The idea is that medics ought to consider the most obvious and likely causes of symptoms before looking at unusual illnesses and rare diseases. It makes complete sense.

Unless you live in the savanna.

In the savanna there are an awful lot of zebras. There aren't many horses. I'm pretty sure that people living in the savanna learn to expect zebras when they hear hoof beats.

At our house, we live in the savanna much of the time. Zebras are not at all unusual, and because we are exposed to them a lot, we have learned to expect them, and to quickly tell the difference between them and horses.

When I hear hoof beats, I know to keep an eye out for zebras. When Birdy does that particular cough, and her throat strains with every breath, I know to take her to hospital and say "exacerbation of asthma". It's not just a mild cough, it's zebras. When she starts to go a little red around her mouth, I ready the anti-histamine and epipen in case a severe allergic reaction is kicking off. Zebras.

Knowing that your children have been exposed to alcohol and drugs in the womb, have been neglected as infants and experienced all the myriad of other early losses, traumas and stressors common to so many looked after and adopted children . . . well, it makes you expect zebras.

With OB, the zebras are sneakier than with Birdy. They are often disguised as horses. Really naughty horses. Really anxious horses. Really oppositional horses. Really angry horses. But nonetheless, they are still zebras.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Extended Family

Sometimes I wonder whether it makes more sense to compare adopting a child to getting married, rather than to the usual way of becoming a parent.

Sure, we adopters don't stand up in public and make solemn vows, but there is a legal process involved. More than that, though, it's the way that adopting a child joins two previously unconnected families together in a long-term relationship of sorts.

I've never been married, so forgive me if I'm off the mark here, but it seems to me as though you don't just marry your partner - you also marry their extended family, their friendship group, their past and their future. It's the old cliche of "not so much losing a son as gaining a daughter" oft repeated by the father of the bride.

When I adopted Birdy and OB, I made a lifetime commitment to both of them. I also inextricably linked myself with two sets of, sometimes shadowy, extended families. I have never met the vast majority of them. In some ways I'm only guessing at the existence of most of them, assuming there are aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents on both sides, as well as the birth parents and siblings. And yet when birthdays, Christmases and celebration days roll around, they are in my mind, as I imagine our children are also in theirs.

Every so often, a member of these extended families will pop into reality, becoming more than a just a figure in my mind. Most recently, it has been Birdy's birth mum who, apparently, after all this time has asked the social worker to request adding photos as part of our letterbox agreement - that's a whole can of worms I'm skirting around right now. Before that it was OB's half siblings, needing an adopter, and before that Birdy's mum adding two more children to the mix. There was OB's grandma who went to great lengths to send one letterbox letter but then never sent another, and I can't forget the momentous day I saw OB's birth mum walking down the street not far away.

For most adopters there are also foster families, so recently in their children's past, and all the extended family network involved in that life too. It's a huge mesh of interconnected lives that can be challenging to explain to a young child who barely grasps the relationships involved in their immediate adoptive family.

I suppose there's an extent to which we, as adopters, choose our children, rather like a person chooses a spouse (although it's usually more of a blind date arrangement!). What we don't choose is the family they will, even indirectly, bring with them into our lives together. There's no option to walk off into the sunset. There are obligations to be met for the sake of the children involved and we adopters must navigate these murky waters to the best of our abilities, knowing that one day our children will hold us accountable for the decisions we made.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Past Lives

"In a world of shifting family relationships in which children increasingly grow up with a wide range of connections that are seen as normal we need to take stock of why our approach to children in care is different."
(from a family court judgement, 2014)

Kevin Williams, Chief Executive of The Fostering Network shared this quote at a recent conference and it has provided me with much food for thought.

It is undeniably true that many children today grow up within a range of complex family situations with step-parents, step-siblings, half-siblings and other relatives and family friends often woven into their lives. Many, many children are raised with more than one complete family involved in their care to a greater or lesser extent, and for many this means living in more than one home at a time, managing different routines, parenting styles, lifestyle choices and so on.

To glibly assume that this is effortlessly managed by these children would be over-stating it in my opinion, but nonetheless, there is an expectation in blended families that most children will maintain relationships with all family members unless there are pressing reasons against it. Everybody must find a way to manage it.

It is very tempting to make comparisons between these situations and the situations of children who have been taken into care. If children in blended families maintain all their relationships, why can't looked after children? In my experience, once a child arrives in foster care, they lose their connections with their friends and wider family members in one fell swoop. Contact services are stretched, so supervised contacts are reserved for closest family - parents and siblings; perhaps sometimes a particularly close grandparent - and a whole network of other important relationships becomes nothing more than a memory.

With each transition, the ties become even looser. If a child moves on to another foster placement, there seems to be no standard practice requiring any contact with the former carer. The child loses not only the foster family they might have lived with for months, but also all of the extended family and friends network of which they will have become a part.

At transition to adoption, more ties are cut. During intros, the adoptive family are unlikely to meet any of the people who are important to the child other than those who actually live in the home with them. The foster grandparents, aunties and uncles, the family friends and community relationships are no more than shadows to adoptive parents who have enough to contend with as they become an instant family. How can we expect them to consider the swimming teacher who took a special interest in the child, or the nursery worker who was their key worker and cried when they left, or the neighbour who often invited the child to 'help' them in their garden? In reality, they may not even know about these people, reliant as they are on what information they are given.

Instead, adoptive parents are given instructions about how they should continue contact with a child's most immediate birth relatives, and all other relationships are at risk of being left in the dust.

A child will carry memories of all of these people with each transition, even if they are unable to articulate just what it was that made each of these people so important to them. And yet in some cases, adoptive parents are warned against making any contact at all with former foster families in case it upsets or unsettles the child.

It's a heartbreaking situation, and Williams's quote holds out the tempting promise of a utopia where relationships from previous families are cherished and even maintained in perpetuity. And why not? If kids from broken relationships can manage it, why can't kids who have been brought into care?

And yet, we must be realistic. We must not pretend that children in blended families maintain these family ties effortlessly. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort from the adults and the children involved. It is not easy. And these ongoing relationships are usually happening in situations where none of the adults involved have been a proven danger to the children.

There are many ways in which the situation for children who have been taken into care is nothing at all like the situation of children in blended families. With looked after children, we may be talking about family members who harmed them, or who neglected them, or who looked on and couldn't help, or whose lives were chaotic making them unreliable in the extreme. We are talking about foster carers who may have fostered dozens of children making maintaining meaningful ongoing relationships with every one of them untenable in the long run. We are talking about adoptive parents trying to create new and lasting attachments from a standing start with children who are still aching from the dismantling of whatever attachments they may have held on to previously; children for whom the very sight of a person with a lanyard causes utter panic because they think they are about to be moved on once again.

It is not straightforward. I met many of OB's extended family network - more than most adoptive parents ever would. And yes, I feel for his paternal grandma and his aged great grandparents and his very young uncle, and his half siblings, all of whom had little or no control over the situation. Some of them will never see him again. I feel for OB who has lost every one of them. Some of them may have had the capacity to be a powerful force for good in his life, and yet to be in direct contact with any of them would catapult us into an unknowable situation. I am the one who has to make that decision and bear the weight of responsibility for it while being uncomfortably conscious that it is OB who will live with the consequences of what I decide. I weigh up the possibilities of him feeling as though he belongs in all his families, against the risk of him feeling as though he belongs in none of them.

In drawing my conclusions, I have precious little to go on except the often conflicting advice of professionals and other members of the adoption triangle, and my gut. And it's not enough. I can't rely on anecdotal evidence as each situation is virtually unique to the individuals involved, and it's hard to see how rigorous research could overcome the ethical considerations. I would like to see better lifestory work, more lifestory training for foster carers, and a more holistic approach to recognising and celebrating all the diversity of a child's relationships, but I don't know if that is really the whole answer. I do know that whatever the answer is, it needs to be based on more than ideology and wishful thinking.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Little Climber

Since before Birdy could even walk, she has been a climber. Stairs, chairs, tables, bookcases - all challenges to be surmounted in her eyes.

I've lost count of the number of times some wide-eyed person has alerted me in panicked tones to my daughter's presence atop a precarious summit. She would be laughing, fearless, while the adults around her fluttered and worried and attempted to coax her down without spooking her.

It's not that she has no sense of danger. She doesn't attempt to launch herself off high walls but waits for assistance. She approaches stairs with caution (although she did once tumble down half a flight), and shouts for help when she's stuck on the climbing wall at the park. I'm not nervous in that respect. Having said all of that, she's had her share of falls, and always has a crop of bruises on her shins.

At first I tried to stop her climbing, saying "No!" in very firm tones. "We don't climb." It was all water off a duck's back. We do, apparently, climb, and no amount of saying the opposite was going to make any difference.

So then I started trying to make the entire house a climb-free zone. It was impossible. There was simply no way to arrange the furniture such that it did not form an enormous obstacle course, and I've mainly given up on it. The only routines I've kept from that effort are to keep the safety gate to the kitchen closed (she uses the drawer handles to climb up onto the kitchen counter where the knives are), and to keep the dining chairs stored in another room (she uses them to climb onto the table, and from there to the other side of the kitchen counter where the knives are!).

In the end I decided that, since I could not stop her climbing, my best option was to teach her to get down again safely. It didn't take much education - she's a natural, and the extra padding of her nappy helps!

These days, she can often be found sitting on the very top of her Ikea kitchen, dangling her legs over the side while 'reading' her books, or balancing on top of her transporter truck ride-on trying to reach things she shouldn't reach, or standing on top of the slide shouting to the entire neighbourhood (that one still gives me the collywobbles to be honest).

I can't change Birdy. She's a climber. All I can do is help her to be a safer, more controlled climber and then be there if she falls. This is basically parenting as I see it.

Friday, June 23, 2017


I took you shoe shopping this week. Between you and all the others I've spent plenty of money in that small Clarks store over the years. In fact we visit so often that the shop assistants recognise us and always comment on how much you've grown. We are what you might call 'regulars'.

Somehow, I remember your shoes. The first pair of Crocs wellies, with handles, that we've had to replace with identical versions every winter since. The gorgeously cute red Converse that I just couldn't leave in the shop. You loved them, and so did I, but I soon got tired of tying and re-tying the laces.

The blue trainers with the planes on and the red trainers with the dinosaurs. The rubber sandals in varying sizes that you wear when we visit Mamy and Papy so you don't slip at the side of the pool. The sensible walking sandals that you insist on wearing with socks.

I remember the awful day when you first hit a size 10 and the Clarks assistant told me the array of cute shoes I was fixated by were no longer available to us. She showed us a shelf of boring school shoes. You were three years old. She rummaged around and we managed to find a pair of blue suede boots with lime green laces. They were so expensive but I wouldn't have you in black lace-ups at that age for anything.

Then there was the time when the shop assistant struggled up the stairs with a pile of boxes, only to tell me that the shoes in the first box were in the sale and were only £10. I told her to put the other boxes away figuring that even if I didn't really like the bargain pair, we'd need new ones in three months anyway.

Your first shoes were special. First shoes always are. We arranged to go for your first shoes on your first mum's birthday, making a day of it at the shopping centre. You were just turning 11 months old and had taken your first steps a couple of weeks previously. Your mum was proud, holding you on her knee while the shop assistants fussed and the support worker and I looked on. I remember those shoes - little navy blue crawlers with two velcro straps. You toddled about the shop while we all oohed and aahed. Then they took your 'first shoes' polaroid while you sat on your first mum's lap.

Just a few weeks later you went to live with your first mum again, everyone hoping for a happy ever after. When it all fell apart, you came back to me wearing red slippers. I don't know what happened to those little blue shoes.

This week we had a new first - your first football boots. And for the first time, the number stopped steadily rising, going instead from 13 to 1. You're getting a big boy now. I can see black lace-ups in our future.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Music Therapy

We have had three sessions of Music Therapy.

Our therapist, a little, sweet lady, arrives at our door each time loaded down with musical instruments of all sorts. The first week, OB pronounced the selection "baby instruments" and would barely touch them. A couple were tossed disdainfully to the floor. I had quite a few internal kittens because I know how much they cost.

The second week, undeterred, our sweet therapist arrived at the door with two djembes and a guitar. OB declared that drums are boring and he hates them. This despite the fact that he's had a drum kit since he was two and still enjoys a good thrash about on the junior kit I got him for his 5th birthday. He then proceeded to spend the first 10 minutes demanding sweets as he was starving. We managed to get on to a couple of games, mainly competitive, but some fun was had. The therapist called it a day after half an hour.

The third week, djembes again. More complaints of "Boring!" Also, lots of 'poo poo' talk. Also, a sly kick to my leg as he walked past, which the therapist saw. There was some talk of 'kind hands' and an assertion from her that it's never ok to hurt mummy. The backup is always welcome to be honest.

At some point, OB made a mean comment about me and the therapist responded by asking him to name things that I was good at. Let's just say that what followed was not a great self-esteem moment for me! I was asked to contribute some things that OB was good at (which was easy - there are loads of things) and eventually the therapist did get OB to grudgingly admit that I was good at cooking. This is patently untrue. I am a horrible cook. Not sure whether OB is deluded or was just making something up to get it over with!

Having said all of that though, we did play some games - making sounds of different animals on our djembes - the therapist sang silly songs and made us both laugh, and OB, despite insisting that he wasn't doing any of it, actually did all of it. We made it to 47 minutes.

As I helped her load the djembes into her tiny car, I felt compelled to apologise to the therapist for OB's rudeness. She didn't seem to know what I meant. "He's six!" she exclaimed. Now I wonder whether expecting my six-year-old not to say "It's boring" and "I'm not doing it" throughout the session means I'm setting unrealistic standards.

However, she also said that she is really impressed by OB, that he's doing really well and she thinks we have, and I quote, "a fantastic connection". It does make me wonder what her sessions with other children are like!

We have had three sessions of Music Therapy. We have nine more to go. When we started, I said I wanted to deepen the connection between me and OB, and bring a bit more fun and playfulness into our lives. Despite it all, I think we're doing that, and even if the effect only lasts for the length of the sessions, it's 12 hours (give or take) more than we would have had otherwise.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


I was talking to a friend this week who works on the pastoral team at a large local high school. A young girl from a neighbouring school was killed in the Manchester bombing on Monday. Some of the students at my friend's school had been in primary school with her, while others knew her socially or lived near to her. Some of the pupils and staff from his school had also been at the concert, and had thankfully escaped unharmed.

The terrible deaths of so many people at the Manchester Arena will have touched many communities around the country. Even for those of us who had no direct involvement, the shock of the events last Monday night still reverberates. Many of us have been to the Manchester Arena. Many more of us have attended some gig or other in our lifetimes. No doubt scores of schools and teachers around the country have been counselling, supporting and explaining in the wake of this horror.

My friend also told me about another boy at his school. The day before the Manchester bombing, this young lad had come home to find his dad dead on the floor. He was back in school on Monday, anxious to escape the house and get away from the trauma of it all. Again, the staff and students rallied round.

It reminded me, if I needed reminding, that trauma affects so many children in our schools in different ways. It can come as a result of a sudden event, like this young lad or those young people at the Arena, or it can build up over months and years of abuse or neglect or frightening experiences.

In the last week, the word 'trauma' has been spoken or written about many times. Broadcasters have discussed the effects of trauma with specialists, talked about how it is best managed, explained to us that what is needed in the early stages is a nurturing environment and openness, while some people will need extra support to begin one or two months later if they are still suffering the after effects once the initial shock has worn off.

I am glad to see these discussions taking place, and I am just as glad to see news articles and opinion pieces praising the teachers who have been there for hundreds of frightened, grieving kids all around the country. I'm sure none of them said anything like, "School is for education, it's not a counselling centre," or "It's my job to teach, not to be a therapist." I'm sure none of them said that.

So I have to wonder why, when so many children are entering the school gates daily with a huge dose of trauma in their backpacks, I've seen these words written in response to their trauma by teachers in blogs and on social media - "It's not my job". We are talking about children who have witnessed and experienced horrific domestic violence, or who have been left hungry many, many times, or who have been left alone, terrified for hour after hour, or who have been suddenly taken from their families, their homes and everything familiar to them at a moment's notice. We're talking about children so young that they don't have the communication skills to even engage in counselling to work through their trauma, children whose conscious memories may not even be able to recall the events that led to their bodies and minds repeatedly betraying them, children who find their hearts beating, ears ringing, sweat pouring at triggers they can't even identify.

Maybe it's harder to empathise with their experiences. As adults, we can all, perhaps, imagine ourselves in the place of someone who experiences a nasty car accident, or who is attacked on the street, or who is driven frantic over their missing child. Childhood neglect and abuse is perhaps more difficult to identify with. So maybe it's about empathy. Or maybe we just don't want to go there in our minds. We want a happy ending, where the trauma stops once the traumatic experience stops. Except we know it doesn't. The broadcasters and experts have told us that.

No adoptive parent, foster carer or guardian wants their child's teacher to be a counsellor, or a therapist. We understand that they are not trained for that - indeed, it is not their job - and amateur therapy is hardly desirable. What parents and carers of children who have experienced early loss and trauma want is simple: acknowledgement. Trauma is real, and its after effects are real, whether it happens at 2, 12 or 20, whether it comes as a sudden, traumatic event, or builds up over time through repeated actions or inactions. Let's make our schools a safe, nurturing place for all children who have experienced trauma. Who would not benefit from that?

Saturday, May 6, 2017


I took OB to see the school nurse this week. The appointment was triggered by the education team at the LA because it had come to their attention that OB was being electively home educated. To be honest, I was pleased the appointment was made, and happy to attend. I took him to have his hearing checked myself, and am planning to take him for a vision check in the near future. I don't want him to miss out on the health checks he would have received as a matter of course if he had been in school.

It's never really obvious what to expect at these sorts of appointments. The invitation letter had been characteristically terse and to the point, so it was tricky to prepare OB for an appointment that I felt sure would involve some scrutiny of him personally and therefore be well outside his comfort zone.

When we arrived at the clinic, there was nobody else there at all. The nurse bounded in, seeming very pleased to see us (it later transpired that hardly anyone turns up to these appointments!), and then stared at me for a moment before asking me if I was a foster carer. It turns out she had previously been a LAC Nurse.

It can be strange, and sometimes disconcerting, when two worlds collide but, as the appointment went on, I began to feel very glad that this person had not only met me before, but also clearly knew and understood some of the additional issues we face as an adoptive family.

The health check included the basic height and weight check that I had been expecting, but after that it mainly seemed to focus on behaviour. The nurse asked me a lot of questions about OB's behaviour, right in front of him, which I found pretty difficult to answer without getting into areas I didn't really want to bring up.

Added to that, both of the children were reacting as usual to me actually attempting to have a coherent conversation with someone other than them. At the point at which I was trying to explain how we had accessed post-adoption support (using as many acronyms as possible in the hopes that OB wouldn't cotton on!), Birdy was under the nurse's desk trying to steal things out of her bag, and OB was lying on the floor near me fake-laughing really loudly!

How grateful I was, at that point, to be speaking to somebody who already knew all the acronyms and to whom so much could just go unsaid. She didn't bat an eyelid at OB's antics, and put some video on her computer for Birdy to watch so that we could actually speak to each other. She understood my concerns at filling in the 2-page form about behavioural issues, and reassured me that my honest assessment would not trigger a deluge of inappropriate interventions.

As a home educator, whenever I attend any meeting with 'the authorities' I know that I am under scrutiny. I know that what we do is out of the norm, and that some are suspicious. I know that some children, sadly, do slip under the radar. This is why I make it my business to co-operate fully with the LA, to attend all the appointments, to be as open and honest as possible. I hope that in doing so, the difference between those who electively home educate, and those who just opt out and drift away will be reinforced in the minds of those whose job it is to keep their eyes open for signs of trouble.

However, I am also aware that this can come with a risk; that it exposes us to all sorts of 'authorities' who may have precious little understanding of the particular challenges that we sometimes face, and who have fairly extensive power to intervene in our lives. I mean, how would the average person react to the sight of a 'home educated' 6-year-old lying on the floor of the nurse's office making robot noises and emitting great guffaws of forced, fake laughter?

At that appointment, I was grateful for the 'crossover', grateful not to have to try to explain why I prioritise attachment over KS1 attainment descriptors, grateful not to be forced to go into personal details of my son's history while he was in the room with me. I was grateful to be with someone who just 'gets it'.

And, as a measure of how well she 'gets it', the nurse handed me a sheaf of leaflets as I left. These are guidance sheets produced by the local CAMHS to assist those parenting children who have experienced early trauma, abuse and neglect. They cover eating difficulties, attachment difficulties, empathy, stealing behaviours, lying behaviours and the importance of play. They are very, very good. It made me wonder why, as a LA foster carer, I had never seen them before!

Friday, April 21, 2017

It's Just Parenting

I read an article this week that re-ignited all my deep feelings about the ups and downs of my time as a foster carer. The writer, who is herself care-experienced, was expressing dismay at the desire of some foster carers to seek employment rights. Please do go and read it here - the views of those who have lived their lives in our care system need to be heard.

They need to be heard, even if they are just one side of the story, even if they upset us, even if they destroy our cherished notions of how the world works.

The basic premise of the article is that children need foster carers who will be there for them, who will make them part of their family, who see them as much more than a 'job' and who see their care as a joy, not a 'career'. I wholeheartedly agree. I couldn't agree more in fact.

I don't like to see hoardings advertising a 'career' in fostering either. Equally I'm not keen on those adverts that imply that having a spare room is basically the only asset you'll need as a foster carer. I can easily see that comments about foster carers needing holidays and 'rights' can sound heartless to young people who need security, nurture and, yes, love. But the truth is, while a child may just want a family, what the foster carer's agency expects from them is much more complex than that. Creating a family life for a child in care requires more than just basic parenting, however much we wish it could be otherwise.

This post is not going to be a list of the ways in which being a foster carer, and especially a short-term carer, is not at all like being a regular parent. I've already written that post - it's here . . . oh, and here as well. And I'm not going to write about all the ways in which a foster carer's agency can mistreat them, take them for granted and frustrate their every effort to be the family a child really needs. You can read about that here if you're in the mood, and in many other cries of frustration scattered around my blog archives.

I'm not going to write about that today because my mind is filled up by something that struck me when I read the article. This writer, a care-experienced person who presumably knows what it is like to live with a foster carer, thinks that fostering is basically just 'parenting'. I have thought about this a lot over the past day and have come to the conclusion that if any of the children I have fostered grows up to think that I was just 'parenting', and if my own adopted children think that all I do is 'parent', then I will be pretty happy with that.

I will be happy because it will mean that their memories of their childhoods are not populated with social worker visits, reviews and meetings. It will mean that they have forgotten, or never noticed, the daily logs, the training I went on, the supervisions and appraisals I had or the nights I spent reading books and articles about brain development, trauma, attachment, developmental delay, sensory processing and all of the other things you suddenly have to become an expert on so that you can do 'parenting' with children who have experienced such loss and trauma.

It will mean that they have not seen how carefully I minimised triggers, managed our environment or planned for our daily lives, our holidays and day trips so that they could be the source of good memories, rather than meltdown-fuelled catastrophes. It will mean that they don't remember how many emails and phone calls I had to make to get permission for them to come on that holiday with me, or how many times I advocated on their behalf with social workers, medical professionals, education professionals, or how many times I waited by the phone for news that would transform all of our lives.

I hope that it would also mean that they lived through a time where they lived with one family but visited another three or more times each week and managed to come out of it feeling as though they had two families and not no family. I hope that it would mean that they never saw the behind-the-scenes work that went into making this happen.

In short, I hope that it would mean that they have grown up believing themselves not to be 'damaged goods' who needed a 'therapist', but 'children' who needed 'parenting', for that is what they are. 

So yes, despite a huge part of me wanting to cry out to the heavens about the realities of being a foster carer, of welcoming children into your family, caring for them for a few weeks or months and then saying goodbye to them again, of giving your heart and soul to the children, and your life to the fostering agency, I find myself instead hoping that all the little ones that have been through my home will one day say, "It's just parenting."

Thursday, April 13, 2017

An Open Letter to the new President of the ADCS from a Foster Carer

Dear Alison Michalska,

I was interested to read that you recently gave your inaugural speech as incoming president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services. However, I was extremely disappointed to read some of the comments you made in which you seem to be saying that the concerns of foster carers, the volunteer backbone of children's social care, are "irritating" and that solutions proposed to some of the very real problems faced by foster carers are "slightly mad notions" and "nonsense".

I can only hope that it did not occur to you how patronising your tone might appear to many foster carers who would hear your speech or read accounts of it in press reports. While many of us struggle to earn the respect of the social workers we work alongside, it is so disheartening to see that somebody in your position of authority is able to speak of our concerns in such a dismissive way.

Like many other foster carers, I share your concerns about professionalising foster care. In over two decades of my working life, including many years spent as a teacher, I have never joined a union. I've never even considered it until now. Nobody knows better than foster carers that what we are trying to provide is a family for children who, for whatever reason, cannot live with their own. We work hard to achieve that, within the limitations created for us by safeguarding and health & safety considerations. I would not be willing to compromise this priority in any way.

And yet foster carers are becoming increasingly 'professional' in their approach whether we like it or not. It has become necessary. The role description provided to me by my LA includes the word 'professional' several times. As a short term carer for pre-school children I am expected to participate in a scheme of continuing 'professional' development with a minimum of five training events per year. I must interact with everyone from birth parents to paediatric consultants with a 'professional' approach. I must conduct myself 'professionally' at meetings and reviews. I have monthly supervisions and a 360 appraisal every year. I am told that I am a valued member of the team around the child.

Over the years I have worked hard to improve my knowledge and skills with regard to speech development (teaching myself Makaton along the way), neurological effects of early trauma and neglect, FASD, the effects of maternal drug abuse on a newborn baby, attachment, theraplay, sensory needs, joint hypermobility, therapeutic parenting and much more, all to meet the needs of different children in my care. I have attended training provided by my LA, paid for additional training out of my own pocket, read books and scholarly articles and interacted with hundreds of other foster carers and adopters in order to improve my practice. I can honestly assure you that my knowledge in these areas far outweighs that of my supervising social worker. Yes, not only am I 'professional', but I have also become a 'specialist'. The very things you are concerned about are already happening.

You find yourself "irritated" that proposals to improve the current situation for foster carers "take no account" of whether changes would improve the outcomes for children we care for. Perhaps I can explain. My local authority has spent a good deal of money training, supporting and developing me in my role as a foster carer. And yet now I find that I simply cannot pay the bills. As a single carer I cannot hold down a job while I foster as the demands of the fostering service on my time are simply too unpredictable to fit with other work. Three contacts per week during office hours? Meetings arranged at the last minute with mandatory attendance? Contacts changed at less than two hours' notice? Mandatory full days of training and no help with childcare? Children arriving into my home within an hour of the first phone call? My family and friends have told me that the thing they find most shocking about my role as a foster carer is the extent to which the LA dictates my whole life.

We would manage with the help of the benefits I am also able to claim if fostering wasn't so unpredictable. My LA has recruited far more pre-school carers than it needs so I can go weeks and months with no work. There is no retainer. There is no option for me to enquire whether another local agency needs my services. There is nothing to plug that gap. I have had to find paid employment. I am no longer fostering, although I stay on the books in the hope that I can return in the future. And this is how improving the situation for foster carers will improve the outcomes for children: it means that expensively-recruited, expensively-trained, experienced and skilled foster carers will be able to continue to foster.

Some time ago I read a lot of stories about the difficulties that 'hot-desking' was causing for social workers. A report by the Centre for Research on Children and Families detailed how hot-desking was adding to stress and uncertainty in what was already a stressful and uncertain role. Other stress-factors highlighted were removal of parking spaces near to offices, inefficient IT systems and noisy offices. The conclusion was that organisations should prioritise improving the workplace environment. And why? Because it stands to reason that social workers who don't feel valued, whose role is being made harder by inefficiencies and whose stress is increasing as a result will find it far more difficult to carry out their role to a high standard.

If this is true of social workers, why would it not be true of foster carers? And if hot-desking increases stress, then think what the possibility of having no work next month and no idea when you will work again can do to a person. Imagine how that stress is compounded when you have been up night after night with a withdrawing infant, or spent the early hours cleaning faeces from a child's bedroom wall.

Times have changed. The rosy, somewhat old-fashioned image of stay-at-home-mum or empty-nester foster carers providing bed and board to a child in need ought to be consigned to history, especially in the demanding and ever-changing role of short-term, emergency and therapeutic care. There is a huge shortfall of foster carers. Many children who come into foster care have complex and challenging needs which demand skilled care and a huge investment of time. I personally know many former teachers, nurses and members of other caring professions who see fostering as far more than just a nice thing to do with a spare bedroom. For us, it is a professional role motivated by love, compassion and a desire to see the very best outcomes for the children we care for. In foster care, as in social work, professionalism and compassion are not mutually exclusive.

As foster carers, we rely utterly on social workers for support and guidance both for ourselves and on behalf of the children we care for. It has saddened me to see the concerns of foster carers so publicly belittled and dismissed by somebody with such influence over social workers as you have in your role. I do not know if the solutions that have been proposed by many foster carers are the right ones, but I do know that much dissatisfaction is created by a sense that our role is not understood or fully valued by those we work with. The tone of your remarks has done nothing to assuage that concern.


Suddenly Mummy
A (former?) Foster Carer

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sensory Processing: After the Assessment Part 2

According to the occupational therapist, 'core strength' is, well, core. And OB doesn't have enough of it.

This was one of many things that came up during the assessment - you can read the rest in my first post about the results of the assessment  - but I thought it deserved more than a passing reference as it's a whole different kettle of fish from his sensory quirks.

Most of you will know that I have had OB on and off since he was a very small baby. He first came to me at four and a half months old. We had a rocky 'on and off' period after that before he came back to stay at 13 months. While this is wonderful in too many ways to list here, it does mean that sometimes I have a wave of self-doubt about his 'early childhood' which, after all, was mostly spent with me.

Core strength is one of those areas. I had read that poor core strength in children tends to be caused because they were left lying down too much as babies. Well, OB spent most of his babyhood with me, so I immediately felt the guilt rush in. Did I leave him lying down too much? Was he not rocked enough? I cast my mind back and felt awful about every moment he spent in his cot or on his back on his playmat. I bitterly regretted not trying harder with 'tummy time' despite it being such a trial for him.

However, the OT explained to me that core strength starts with neck strength; that from a child's earliest moments, each gentle movement, rock and sway lays the foundations for good neck strength, which in turn is the foundation for good core strength. If he was left lying around for prolonged periods in his first few weeks and months, not rocked enough, not cuddled or carried enough, then he wasn't developing his neck strength. It started in his first weeks and months. Including 18 weeks when I didn't even know him.

Core strength is the foundation on which limb strength and gross and fine motor skills are laid. No wonder tummy time for OB consisted of him repeatedly bashing his face on the carpet until I took pity on him and picked him up. Crawling builds core strength, but is difficult if you're not strong enough already. OB sat at 8 months, crawled at 9, stood at 10, walked at 11. As the OT said, why bother prolonging the crawling stage when standing is far less hard work.

None of this is the end of the world. OB can sit, walk, run, skip and, recently, hop and Heely. It's all good. What it means is that he has rotten seating posture, an erratic gait and a tendency to occasionally fall off things and over things. His balance isn't brilliant, which doesn't help with the bike riding. He absolutely looks the part at football and his dribbling skills are coming along, but if he has to kick the ball with any force, it's best to take cover as it could go in any direction! Thankfully, it doesn't tend to go too far. I suspect this is what also lies behind his decidedly pigeon-toed approach to walking and running.

If we weren't having the OT assessment anyway, most of this would probably never have come to light. I suspect OB would have gone on to live a long and happy life none the wiser, although a career as a Premiership footballer might have been out of the question. But, as we do now know, we'll set to work on the exercise sheet we've been given and see where it takes us. Probably not the Premiership still, but you never know!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Sensory Processing: After the Assessment

When I met for the first time with our post-adoption social worker, sensory processing was one of the first things she mentioned. In fact she felt it was so important to assess OB's ability to process sensory information that she made a referral to a specialist occupational therapist immediately, believing that other therapy would be futile unless we knew where we stood with this area.

Sensory processing is a term that refers to a person's ability to process the sensory information coming from the world around them in an organised manner. Sensory information can come through the well-known '5 senses' - touch, taste, smell, vision, hearing - and also through the less well-known senses such as proprioception (awareness of the relative position of parts of the body) and vestibular (awareness of the body's movement in space - balance, position etc.).

Most people have probably heard of sensory processing issues in relation to people with autistic spectrum disorders - being overwhelmed by noises, or by the feel of certain fabrics against the skin. Many children who have experienced early neglect and trauma also seem to experience sensory processing problems. The Attachment Trauma Network suggests that this may be related to the problems with the attachment cycle in infancy and early childhood.

Ideally, a child's primary caregiver acts to regulate the child in part through experiences such as rocking, stroking, singing and talking. A child who experiences neglect does not learn to regulate themselves and misses out on all of this predictable, regulating sensory input at the time when their brain ought to be developing the ability to process it. In fact, they may instead be exposed to unpredictable, frightening sensory input (e.g. shouting, prolonged hunger, rough handling) with nobody to help them make sense of it all.

OB's assessment threw up a few things. Firstly, that his core strength is poor. This has a number of implications for him, but I'll save that for another blog. Secondly is that he has sensory difficulties in every area of sensory perception, but some more than others. In particular, he is hyper-sensitive to auditory, vestibular and tactile sensations, but hypo-sensitive to proprioceptive input.

What does this mean? It means that while he is content to make a lot of noise of his own, partly to regulate himself, he isn't too keen on everybody else's noise, or sudden or loud noises. While he will enjoy a hug or a cuddle, he is too ticklish for many basic grooming activities, and isn't terribly keen on any touch that isn't on his terms. The OT actually suggested that our bathing problems might be down to the feeling of water (always tepid - hot/cold sensations are an issue too) running over his skin being unbearable to him. It means that predictable movement like swinging is lovely, but expecting him to cycle on a bumpy pavement will lead to meltdown. It means that he runs too much, skips too much, stiffens up randomly like a puppet when doing physical activity, pushes against things, crashes into things and always, always leans against me just that little bit too hard.

So, what do we do? OB will have a course of sensory therapy. We are waiting for this to start so I can't enlighten anybody as to what it might entail! He has also been prescribed a 'sensory diet'. This is a list of things to try at home that might help to give him the sensory input he craves in some areas, while modulating the overwhelming sensory input in others.

Although every child's 'sensory diet' is different, there are some common themes, and much of what is suggested on OB's are things I've noticed other parents talking about. Many of OB's recommendations are around providing him with the sensation of pressure on his body that he is seeking when he throws himself onto the sofa, or onto me, so carrying a weighted backpack, having a weighted lap bag on his knee while he sits at the table, using a weighted blanket, daily deep pressure massage of his fingers and hands. Others include considering the use of ear defenders, avoiding walking on bumpy and uneven surfaces and making the most of sensory input in everyday activities, such as using different textured sponges in the bath, and encouraging him to dry himself after the bath.

So far, so good. Now all I have to do is to persuade him to co-operate with any of these suggestions!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Fists of Fire

"Wouldn't it be great to have a super power!" I said, as playfully as I could muster. "If you could have any super power, what would you choose?"

"Angry power," replied OB, in a tense growl. "And fire would shoot out from my fists."

It was nearly 11pm and we were having, shall we say, a tricky bedtime. Hoping to diffuse things a little, I had tried out a 'flight of fancy' distraction technique I read in a book recently.

I suppose it sort of worked. He stopped jumping around and quietened enough to give me hope that Birdy wouldn't be woken up just yet. But as he spoke, he was half standing, half crouching on the bed with his arms tense at his sides and his fists of fire clenched so tightly that the knuckles were white. Poised to pounce.

We are all familiar with that rush of adrenaline that accompanies real or imagined danger. For people who have experienced trauma, it can come unbidden and unwelcome at unexpected moments. For some children whose early lives have been marked by trauma and loss it can seem like an almost constant state, triggering the fight/fright/freeze response time after time.

OB experiences all three of these responses depending on the situation. When we're out and about around lots of people, I know that what could easily be interpreted as timidity or even stubbornness is actually 'freeze' in action as he makes himself smaller and smaller, and more and more invisible.

Yesterday in the park, 'flight' took hold as OB's nemesis - a small dog - presented an unbearable threat by running around in our vicinity. Wonderfully, OB actually ran straight to me on that occasion, literally jumping off the ground as he reached me and trying to climb up me, legs wrapped around mine. On other occasions, he has run in any and all directions, towards me, away from me, into people, into obstacles, into the road. Cats, birds, loud and sudden noises and many other things have the same effect.

And of course, there's our old friend, 'fight'. Angry-man the Superhero with Fists of Fire. I know what to do with freeze and flight - lots of reassurance, calm talking, gentle demeanour, empathy, presence and so on. I know that Angry-man needs the same. He pops up at the most inappropriate times, and behaves in surprising ways but, right now, he is some sort of dystopian super hero, there to protect OB against an enemy or enemies unseen, a foe long left behind. He's a throwback.

This is the final paragraph. I'm struggling to write it because I'd like to round this off with a neat solution or a pearl of wisdom or a smart analogy and my mind is blank. The thing is, I like a neat ending. Sometimes there isn't one.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

God Botherers

I had an interesting social media conversation recently about faith, or no faith, and adoption. There have been a few church-related threads going on where people have been talking about fitting their adoptive families into their churches. This caused one person to wonder whether atheist adopters were quite rare in comparison to Christian ones.

There certainly are a lot of Christian adopters on social media - at least among the group of people I regularly converse with. I tend to know who they are because mostly they announce it in their profile. I do. And others announce other things they consider to be significant features of themselves - single mum, single dad, a particular job, LGBT, and, yes, sometimes atheist.

It was an interesting and respectful conversation. A few other atheists weighed in so I felt glad that the original wonderer didn't feel alone. It was good - adopters sharing experiences and thoughts about beliefs. Adoption is what has brought us together. In many ways some of us probably have very little else in common. And yet we have managed to form a respectful community where differences can be explained and discussed. Pretty mature of us, eh?!

There was only one comment that didn't fit for me. It was a comment made by a person I don't know, and who is not part of regular adoption community conversations I have taken part in - a person who follows one of the participants but is not known to any of the others.

It was this:

"When I was on the panel, I always had concerns about the god botherers."

It's not the phrase "god botherers" that concerned me. That's so ... whatever. Like 'Bible bashers' it rolls off the duck's back.

No, It was the "When I was on the panel..." part. What panel? An adoption panel? Have I basically just read that a person who has responsibility for making recommendations about whether someone is suitable to adopt has blanket suspicions about all "god botherers" for no other reason than that they are religious people?

I let it go. Because you do. Because there's no point getting into a row with someone you don't know at all on the internet. But I do wonder that it's apparently fine to just casually say something like that. And the commenter didn't retract the statement upon realising that I was, in fact, a "god botherer" myself. (Actually he followed it up with a comment about my "imaginary friend" - so old hat, heard it all before mate.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not offended. I didn't need to go to my 'safe space'. This is not a post about Christians being oppressed - I'm really not oppressed. This guy has an absolute right to think that what I believe is a load of old tosh and to say so on social media.

But when anybody lays themselves bare before an adoption panel, awaiting the judgement of strangers as to whether they might be permitted to become parents, they deserve a fair hearing based on their individual attributes, not coloured by anyone's blanket "concerns" about a particular characteristic they might happen to share with millions of others. I would hope we would all get that.

Friday, March 10, 2017

It's all gone quiet over here...

There has been a flurry of fostering-related activity here this week as my annual review is coming up next week. My supervising social worker called unexpectedly yesterday (statutory annual unannounced visit - tick!) to drop off the paperwork for me to sign.

There wasn't much of it. I've only fostered Birdy this year and that placement ended in August when the adoption order went through. None of the requested reports from other professionals have materialised, so there was only my social worker's report to read. Most of it is pretty much the same as last year's. And when I say "the same", I mean lifted word for word, complete with last year's dates. Then there's the paragraph that begins by talking about me, but ends with several sentences about a completely different fostering family. Cut and paste. Hey ho.

I signed it off anyway. I have a strong suspicion that these reports aren't always given the close attention they deserve and all end up in a filing cabinet somewhere. Let's see what the IRO says next week.

All of this has thrown into sharp relief how much quieter things have been around here since I asked for a six-month fostering break about six weeks ago. It's not so much the lack of social worker visits - she comes around once a month, so it's not so onerous. No, it's more the fact that I haven't spent a single moment of the past six weeks jumping when the phone rings, anxiously stretching my finances, and worrying about what will happen if the phone doesn't ring. I have been able to plan things. I have been in control about what will happen this week, next week, next month.

There is a new rhythm to our lives now. We're experiencing an ongoing period of adjustment. OB has voiced his disapproval about some aspects of it but I like this. I much prefer it when he uses words to express his disapproval! We seem to be settling into a routine that works for us for now.

It feels as though our lives belong to us again, and I can't deny that it's a good feeling.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

If I had a new Daddy...

The subject of OB's daddy comes up from time to time. He knows he had a first mummy before me. He knows her name and he's seen her picture. His first daddy is a bit more hazy. This is partly because it took him a lot longer to show any interest in his birth dad than his birth mum. It's also partly because his first daddy didn't show any interest in him either. He was a total no-show in his life, except for a 20 minute visit at the hospital shortly after he was born.

OB's six though now, and he notices a lot more, including how our family is the same as, and different to those of his friends. And so the other day, he asked why he doesn't have a daddy. We talked. I explained a few things. He seemed to understand, but still, he thinks he would quite like a daddy.

Apparently, a daddy would be useful for all sort of things. He would make the house "run a lot easier" because, for instance, he could take OB to things while I sat at home relaxing. Wouldn't I like that? Well, yes, as it happens, I would.

For the rest of the day, he thought of nothing else. He drew some pictures of our family, complete with hypothetical daddy, and asked me to save them so he could give them to new daddy when he appears in our lives. That evening, while skyping my parents, he confidently announced to them that we were "thinking of getting a new daddy".

And then this question about whether his new daddy would love him. I said of course he would. OB's response? "Why?"

What to answer? Maybe I overthink these things but the answers rarely seem straightforward to me. Perhaps I should say "Because all daddies love their children," but I think I'll be called out on that one. For all I see about how birth parents love their children (and in my experience they do) it's hard to make that case for a dad who saw his child once and thereafter steadfastly refused to accept that he was actually his dad, until a DNA test proved it. It's not a great track record in the dad department.

I was tempted by, "Because you're so lovely!", but then I wondered whether OB would get the impression that being loved depends on being lovely. No. He needs to know that I and other people in his life will love him no matter what.

In the end I went for, "Because I wouldn't let anybody be your daddy who didn't love you as much as I do." He went for it.

I'll be sure to update you on his continuing search for a daddy!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

After the Adoption Order - The Medical Stuff

Last month we had an appointment at Manchester Children's Hospital to see the Immunologist again about Birdy's allergies. It took us about an hour to drive there, through what seems like a perpetual rush hour these days, and more time to find a place to park, and then a very cold walk across campus to the right building. On arrival, I tried to check us in on the automatic machine in the foyer, but it didn't work.

This was my first inkling that something was wrong.

As we made our way to out-patients reception to try to check in again, I wondered about the confirmation of appointment letter I had tried and failed to find that morning. Had I actually been sent one? I had made the appointment using the choose and book website but, come to think of it, had I actually heard from the hospital?

We queued up for quite a while. Our appointment time came and went. Finally we got to the front of the queue and it was confirmed - there was no appointment.

There had been. The hospital had received the referral from the GP and written to me inviting me to choose and book. But then the hospital had got confused. The GP's letter said that Birdy had been seen at that clinic before. The hospital checked their records. No record of Birdy. So they wrote back to the GP suggesting she had made an error and cancelled the appointment. Nobody had thought to tell me.

I was not surprised, because I had predicted it. Birdy's first appointment at the hospital had been a year ago, in her old name, using her old NHS number. When a child is adopted, they receive a new NHS number and new records are started. It's a blank slate. It takes time for this new number to be issued, and time for the GP to make summaries of old records and append them to the new ones. So for a while, there is a limbo land.

It was during this limbo land time that I approached the GP for the referral. Prior to that appointment, I called the hospital immunology department myself, explained Birdy's situation and told them to expect the referral. I knew from the tone of voice of the person I spoke to that she didn't really grasp the significance of what I was trying to tell her. When I saw the GP, I explained it all to her very carefully. At that point Birdy was going under a new name but didn't have her new number.

Somewhere between that GP appointment and the referral being made, Birdy switched over to her new number. The referral obviously went off to the hospital with the new information and the confusion was complete.

Thankfully they still saw us, we got our allergy testing and added sesame to our list of foods to avoid. And if that was the end of it, I'd be happy. But, of course, it isn't.

Birdy has a moderately lengthy medical history. She has been seen by the GP, the asthma specialist nurse, the eczema specialist nurse and two different hospitals. At various times she has had prescriptions from all of these people. Most of these prescriptions need to be put on repeat, yet it has taken me repeated requests for each medicine to actually make that happen.

When her records switched over, it apparently threw all that for a loop again. I asked for a printout of her complete prescription list this week and three items were missing from it. One of these was her anti-histamine medication that we have to carry everywhere with us. The others were eczema creams. The receptionist said there was no record of her ever having been prescribed these things, despite the fact that they issued a repeat prescription on the anti-histamine at the end of last year. I now have to go back to the eczema clinic and the hospital and get some proof so that the GP will put them on repeat.

This is something that adoptive parents need to prepare themselves for. At no time, during the adoption process of either child was this explained to me. It didn't matter for OB as he had virtually no medical history anyway and the GP's surgery we were with then seemed to manage it fairly seamlessly. 

Birdy is a different matter though. For various reasons, it's important that an accurate medical history is carried through. For instance, the immunology consultant plans to call her into hospital when she is around four years old to do a supervised peanut challenge. This won't happen if she's disappeared off the system!

And we can't assume that everybody involved understands the procedure either. When I called my GP's surgery to tell them she'd been legally adopted and ask about procedure, the receptionist I spoke to offered to just change her name on the system. Let's be clear, that would link her new name (changed for security reasons!) to her old NHS number allowing anybody that can search that database to find her new name in a moment just from looking up her old NHS number - a number that her birth mum undoubtedly has a record of.

At least I know Birdy's medical history though! For people adopting a child who may be four or five years old, with a lengthy and now inaccessible medical history, this must be a minefield. Yes, it's been a bit of a slog for us, but six months down the line and it's mostly sorted out now - apart from those pesky repeat prescriptions!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Perfect Age Gap

There's quite a large age gap between me and my sister. It doesn't matter now, of course, when we are both rushing madly towards middle age (one of us six years nearer than the other of course!), but when we were children, well, six years was a long time.

So I had thought to myself that maybe when I had children, I'd try to have them a bit closer together. I imagined that with, say, a two-year age gap, they'd have interests and friends in common, play together without one having to come years down to the other's level, go to the same birthday parties and kids clubs. I thought that would be nice. 

When you adopt your children, it's not so straightforward. If you adopt a sibling group, you get what you're given in terms of age gaps. I know adopters who have children less than a year apart in age. And if, as I did, you adopt two completely separate children at different times, the agency is likely to insist on a minimum age gap - in our case, at least two years.

Having experienced a few different combinations of children over the last six years, I can see why. Having toddler boys nine months apart in age was a lot of fun, and yes, they did play together and were very close, but basically it was exhausting for me, and there was a lot of screaming and fighting too.

Later, with a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and a baby, I saw a different dynamic. The two older children were in competition the whole time. Any idea I had previously held that having children with similar interests would be lovely quickly went out of the window. For these two, similar interests meant similar needs, and therefore intense competition to have these needs fulfilled. Twinkle and OB never gelled at all. It was such hard work that, despite copious amounts of comfort eating, I actually lost weight.

This experience confirmed to me that I needed a decent-sized age gap between OB and any sibling. I began to understand that it was vital that other children living in our home had different needs from his. OB has never minded when I have taken time out to, say, feed a baby, but if I had to help Twinkle on the toilet I could bet my bottom dollar that he'd have a sudden urgent need for the toilet too - and vice versa. I can do things for other children, as long as they're not the same things that I'd be doing for OB.

Birdy and OB are just about exactly four years apart. Is it the perfect age gap? I don't know, but it really works for us. I had worried that the difference in age would be too much, that they would never play together and miss out on shared experiences. So far I am glad to have been proved wrong. Now that Birdy is fully ambulatory and into everything, they play together a surprising amount. As she still has a nap every afternoon, I can get some quality OB time in there too.

But more than that, Birdy's adventurous character has been a real boost to OB's more timid nature. She will have a go at anything, and OB finds it easier to pluck up the courage to attempt new things if he's 'helping' her or just 'going with' her. Last time we went to CentreParcs, OB was ready to throw himself down the water slides as long as he was 'just helping' Birdy. In previous years it's taken hours of patient work to get him to even try them.

Birdy has brought out a truly caring and compassionate side to OB's character too. He knows all the food she is allergic to, and looks on cafe menus for things she is safe to eat. He looks out for her, calling me if she is hurt. He is so willing to get on her level to play silly games that have them both roaring with laughter. I couldn't ask for more.

As for Birdy, well, she looks up to her older brother, seeks him out when she doesn't know where he is, and cries for him when he is not there. She copies everything he does (sometimes I wish she didn't!) and tries so hard to play his games. Today they were building marble runs together. She was thrilled with the run that OB made for her, and he was relatively calm when she later trashed it!

It's not prescriptive, I know. My children are not birth siblings, so they don't carry shared baggage from their early experiences, which helps us. Every family set up is different. Every child is different. But I think that, although I would never have planned it this way, our four-year age gap is working out just perfect for us.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Interrogation in the Supermarket

Years ago, back when I lived a carefree, non-parent life, I used to go about my days relatively unmolested. I could walk down the street and nobody would pay me any attention. I could spend as long as I liked (preferably not too long!) in the supermarket and nobody would speak to me. I quite liked it.

As soon as OB came into my life, all that changed. Having a gorgeous, wide-eyed, cheeky-looking toddler in the trolley seat apparently attracts all kinds of attention. There were comments about his cuteness - I appreciated all of those! - and questions. Lots and lots of questions. What's his name? How old is he? And, as he got older, does he go to nursery? To school? (He's very tall!) To be fair, these were far more innocuous than the questions I got asked at the Sure Start Centre tots group, which often centred around unpleasant-sounding birthing experiences. 

All of that was fine, though. OB was (and is) fabulous and I never minded answering questions about him or accepting compliments on his behalf.

Since I've had other children alongside OB though, I've noticed a major shift. I don't get asked questions any more. Suddenly, I'm invisible, and all the questions about the babies and toddlers are directed at OB.

Is this your sister?
What's her name?
Is she good?
Does she cry at night?
Does she share your toys?

And so on and so on. Poor OB. It's torture for him. Firstly, the answers to some of those questions are not always so straightforward. Is this your sister? Or brother? Until a few months ago, none of the children that have accompanied us to the supermarket have been OB's sisters or brothers. I used to step in to save his awkwardness but, to be honest, I would struggle to answer the question too. Do I lie? Or do I tell the truth and say "No" - an answer that really feels as though it requires further clarification that I'm not sure I want to give to the stranger in the supermarket.

Secondly, OB is shy around strangers. Actually, he's shy around people he knows. When we go to his best friend's house it takes him a while to work himself up to taking off his coat. He has a hard time answering people's questions. It puts him under pressure. If a stranger even asks him what his name is, he practically turns himself inside out. A supermarket interrogation is the last thing he needs.

And for some reason, so many of these curious strangers seem to take his non-response as a personal challenge. They keep going, determined to drag some answers out of him. I assume they're trying to show him they're friendly and establish some sort of connection but the longer it goes on, the more gnarled up OB gets. If he does answer, it's barely audible, which the interrogator takes as a signal to get him to repeat his answer over and over again, resulting in five more whispers and then one strangled shout. Cue the interrogator backing off in alarm.

So do I intervene and answer for him, thus giving everyone the impression that I'm an overbearing mother and that's why he's so shy? Or do I explain that he's shy and risk shaming him? Or do I just stand there and let it happen, hoping he'll 'toughen up'? (Hint: it won't be the last option!)

I've started ordering online!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Our Sensory OT Assessment

Last week, an Occupational Therapist came to carry out a sensory assessment on OB. I had little idea what to expect, which was worrying for me as OB needs a fair amount of preparation if he's going to deal with the arrival of a stranger in the house who actually wants to interact with him. When he goes to his best friend's house it takes him ten minutes to settle in enough to take his coat off. 

Several people I had spoken to described going to a therapy centre where the OT had watched their child use the equipment there and observed them. I knew this wasn't going to be the case with this meeting as there's no equipment at our house! So, just in case anyone reading this ever has something similar coming up and needs to prepare their LO, here's what happened for us . . . no guarantees it'll be the same for you!

When she arrived, OB was installed in front of the TV, working his way through a very crunchy bag of rice cakes. I know. Not his best look. But I wanted him relatively calm as he tends to work himself up waiting for things to happen. After a quick introduction and chat with me, she set about engaging a reluctant OB. 

She was brilliant. I don't know exactly what she did, even though I was right there in the room, but within 5 minutes my boy, who wouldn't even look at her when she arrived, was roaring at her like a dinosaur, joining in with tickling games, and attempting to throw a blanket over her head. She had him playing on the floor and jumping around and laughing as if she'd known him for years!

After about 10-15 minutes of that, we went into the adjoining room to talk, and he busied himself with the TV and occasionally peeping at us through the french windows. She took a history and asked questions about when he sat, crawled and walked. Not for the first time I felt grateful that, unlike so many adoptive parents, I was there for those milestones. We also talked about his general behaviour, areas that I was concerned about, his sleep patterns, reactions to noises, food habits, sensitivity to clothes and a few other things along those lines.

She told me that in the time she spent with him she could see there were some areas for concern, particularly regarding his core strength and stability, sensitivity to touch, and proprioceptive feedback. Apparently we should consider getting a footstool for when he sits at the dining table, some specially-shaped cutlery and a crawl tunnel. That's for starters. There will be more recommendations in her full report, which should be ready in about three weeks.

And that was pretty much it. She will be recommending a course of therapy (with the actual equipment this time!) as well as things for us to do at home no doubt, but the wheels turn slowly in post-adoption world, so the wisest course would be to prepare ourselves for a longish wait and be pleasantly surprised if things move quicker than we expected! 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Pause. Or maybe 'The End'.

This week I spoke to my fostering supervising social worker and asked her to take me off-list for a while . . . maybe a few months, maybe longer.

If you've been reading along, you'll know that I was expecting a placement of a newborn baby last week. It didn't happen. Just as I was packing up the car to set off to the hospital for the discharge planning meeting prior to bringing him home, a neonatal nurse phoned to check whether I'd been told that the placement was cancelled. I hadn't.

It turns out the social worker had managed to find a concurrent placement for the baby, which is really good news for him. For those of you not in the know, a concurrent placement is where a child is placed with prospective adopters who are also approved as foster carers. If he does end up going for adoption, he'll be able to stay with the family who have cared for him since he was a few days old. This is great for the child as it means fewer traumatic transitions.

So, I was pleased to hear about this plan for him. I was not pleased that nobody had mentioned to me that this was a plan they were actively pursuing. I was not pleased that this concurrent match had been decided in a meeting two days before his planned discharge from hospital, but not mentioned to me. I was not pleased that the social worker had asked me to go down to her workplace the day after that meeting to sign the placement paperwork for his prospective placement with me (so that I could give consent for his newborn hearing test) and still, she had not mentioned it to me.

I receive allowances from the agency to cover the costs of caring for the children I look after. These allowances begin when the child moves in and not before. At the social worker's request, I have visited this little one daily in hospital for a week, sometimes twice each day. At the hospital's request I have bought and provided clothes, nappies, bottles, dummies and cotton wool for him. I have fed him, rocked him, clothed him, changed him and given him his first bath. I have deliberately taken my children there to meet the baby they would soon welcome into their home, because I knew no different.

I will likely receive no recompense for my expenditure. I will definitely not be compensated for my time - a foster carer's time is given freely even when they do have a child living in their family. I can't even take the new bottles back to the shop as they were already in the steriliser when I got the call.

But worse than that, there has been no acknowledgement of my role as a human being in all of this. It's not the first time I have expected children that have not arrived, but this time I feel as though I have been led along and used. I don't regret a single moment I spent ensuring that this precious baby had extra cuddles and love while he was in hospital, but I feel frustrated that the real situation was not communicated to me.

Not for the first time I am reminded that, for some, foster carers are basically resources, like toasters. They come out of the cupboard when you need them, and once they've done what you wanted, you can forget about them. I get that this child's social worker was prioritising the child and he will be one of many children she is working hard for, but I saw her face-to-face the day after the decision was made and she still didn't say anything.

My supervising social worker was indignant on my behalf, urging me to at least claim mileage. I had to remind her that under the new rules no mileage allowance is given for individual journeys under six miles. I made the run between my house and the hospital maybe 20 times last week. None of those trips were six miles.

This comes at a time when allowances have been cut, retainers (such as they were) have been scrapped, mileage has been cut, routine replacement of equipment has ceased, I haven't had a child living here in four months and I don't know when the next one might come. Fostering has never been exactly financially rewarding, but now it's looking increasingly untenable.

And that's the conclusion I have come to after much soul-searching. Right now, I have to admit that continuing to be a full-time foster carer is financially untenable for our family at this time. And if it was just the finances I might soldier on, but it is also reaching the point where it is emotionally and practically untenable too. All the waiting by the phone, the uncertainty, the inability to plan, the frequency with which we just have to drop everything at someone's request, the difficulties we have planning trips abroad to visit family, the months that can go between placements. It's not just the effects of all this on me, but on my children and wider family too.

I have loved the children, loved being a foster carer. I am proud to tell people what I do. I look back on the last six years with a lot of joy, but I have been applying for other jobs for a while now, and I have been offered an exciting new role. Unlike fostering, I will receive a regular monthly salary that takes account of my time and my expertise. I will be able to plan ahead. I will have a regular (albeit flexible) working week. I will have a pension, an employment contract, employee rights and protections. And, most importantly, I will still be making a difference in children's lives.

I sincerely hope that I will be able to come back to fostering in the future, perhaps when our circumstances are a little more conducive to dealing with all the uncertainty. I sincerely hope so, but time will tell.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Best-Laid Plans

When you become a short-term foster carer there's a very real sense in which you hand over your life to Children's Social Care. This is even more apparent at the beginning and ending of a child's time with us, when the flurry of meetings and arrangements, often organised at the very last minute, seems to overwhelm normal life.

For just over a week now, we have been waiting for a new little one to join us. It's a bit of a complicated situation which I can't go into here really, but it means that from day to day, we are living with the uncertainty that our family life could radically change with just a few hours notice.

It began with phone calls. Lots of phone calls. And then I started preparing, getting out the baby equipment, washing tiny bedding and spare baby clothes, buying nappies, formula, wipes, more clothes, a new set of bottles and, most importantly, getting my two children mentally ready for the arrival of a needy, tiny baby.

Then there were delays, postponements, more waiting. The appointments I had cleared from last week's calendar were re-instated and I started working through next week's, wondering what I could cancel, rearrange or postpone.

Meanwhile, Birdy came down with a dose of winter vomiting. She managed her very first day at Playgroup, but the rest of her sessions that week had to be cancelled. Then the baby's social worker called: baby was alone in hospital. Could I visit?

So followed a time of reaching out to my support network. I couldn't take Birdy with me to the hospital as her illness would be a huge risk to the fragile babies in neonatal. My friends rallied round, my mum offered to fly over to help. We added daily hospital trips into our week's routine.

The contact centre phoned me, to give me a list of probable times and days for baby to visit with his family. It will be three times each week. None of the times are terribly convenient for us, and one of them clashes with the time I have to pick Birdy up from Playgroup. We negotiate a new time for that visit but the rest stand as they are because the service is busy and fostering means being flexible.

This weekend we are in limbo. It is highly possible that a decision will be made to discharge him from hospital any day now, but that can't happen until a Discharge Planning Meeting has been arranged. That can't be arranged until we know the date of discharge. It can't be arranged over the weekend because nobody is in the office to make the arrangements. I am mentally preparing for a phone call early next week asking me to get to the hospital in a few hours to meet professionals and bring baby home. I am wondering what I will do for childcare if I get that call.

I am not yet 'on the clock' with this baby, but I am already totally committed to him, time, energy, money and heart. I have cuddled him, rocked him, sung to him. I have taken photographs of him and shown them to my son, preparing him for the appearance of this little one in our home and our lives. We are a fostering family.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Return to Speech Therapy

Years ago, I got well-acquainted with the local Speech and Language Therapy service through NB, a little one I fostered who had no speech as he turned two, and not much more a year later, despite my best efforts. My memory of that experience is that it involved a lot of homework for me, and repeat visits to a group therapy session where NB steadfastly refused to say anything at all. We made some progress, but eventually he was adopted and it was out of our hands.

Our most recent visit has been for OB's benefit. I asked for the referral myself, partly because OB has turned six now and is still having trouble with 'r', 'w', 'l' and 'th', and also because he has developed a strange habit of stammering at the ends of his words. Since OB isn't at school I felt aware that nobody else was going to pick up on any potential problems except me, so I made the call.

We got off to an unpromising start. On the way there in the car, I was reminding OB of who we were going to see and why. I explained that the therapist was going to help us with some of the sounds he finds hard to say, like 'r'.

"Oh," he said, "Like this . . . 'r'?"

He said it perfectly. In the car. On the way to the Speech Therapist. Cue a load of eye rolling from me.

It is perhaps not surprising then that the Speech Therapist found no concerns with his sound production. In fact she said she wouldn't be concerned about those particular sounds until he reached seven anyway, and even then, they might decide not to take any action.

His stammer, though, was another story. Of course (of course!) he didn't replicate it at all in front of her (despite giving me two fine examples in the car on the way home) so she was having to go purely off what I was saying, but it seems as though this is an actual 'thing'. I'd assumed it was probably some sort of 'place-holding' noise he was making while he worked out what he was going to say next, and she did say it could be that, but then she threw around words like 'palilalia' and 'anxiety' and 'sensory feedback'.

We have an appointment pending to see an Occupational Therapist for a Sensory Integration Assessment, so the Speech Therapist advised us to bring it up there and see if anything comes of it.

In the meantime, I'm just going to have to get used to being regularly called "" and hearing random words in the middle of sentences being repeated over and over again. Apparently, I'm supposed to stay calm and ignore it, which will be no easy task for a person that needs all her mental strength to avoid finishing the sentences of slow-talkers for them!

Oh, and a little postscript . . .

During the lengthy process of asking OB questions and making notes about the way he pronounced his answers, the therapist saw fit to ask him about the best thing that had ever happened to him and . . . wait for it . . . the WORST thing that had ever happened to him!

Thankfully, OB came up with a memory about falling over at a friend's house and skinning his knee, but be aware professionals, don't ask a child a question like that unless you are fully prepared for the range of possible answers you may receive!