What children go to school to learn v. What my adopted child needs to learn

Two weeks ago we made the (brave? crazy? insane?) decision to withdraw Spiderboy from Reception and begin homeschooling him. There were lots of things that led us to this decision, but the main reason was that he was not emotionally ready for school.

Spiderboy has missed out on a lot of the building blocks that a baby needs to develop into a physically, mentally, emotionally healthy child. He’s a bit like a brick wall, but the bricklayer skipped some bricks on the bottom layers.

While he’s been doing really well academically at school, he doesn’t have the solid emotional foundation to be building on, and we were starting to see the cracks. Now, we don’t hate school at all, and I loved the school we were at. But there are things that Spiderboy hasn’t yet learnt, which the rest of his peers already knew when they started school. Homeschooling is his chance to catch up.

How to spell v. How to play

Most children who start school have spent four years prior playing and being played with. They’ve cracked the shape sorter cube years ago. They’re pretty expert when it comes to making a game with bits of plastic. Play is so important in the brain development and the critical thinking skills of young children.

And yet, in Spiderboy’s first years he didn’t have ready access to age appropriate toys, and he didn’t have anybody teach him how to play. When he came home he really didn’t know how to play with toys and we’ve had to go right back to basics with simple, ‘baby’ toys. (Anybody who thinks play is instinctive in children has clearly never met a children who hasn’t been taught to play!)

Last week Spiderboy spent a whole day playing with Lego. It wasn’t a complicated building project, he simply took the Lego figures apart and put them back together again – over and over again. But I couldn’t have been prouder if he’d spelt pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis (I had to Google ‘longest word in English’!) We are literally taking a break from school to spend more time playing, and it is absolutely the right thing for my son.

How to have friends v. How to have family

Most children who start school have spent four years prior belonging to a family. They have a secure base where they are loved, accepted and protected. And from that base they can go out to explore the world with confidence.

Spiderboy has spent more of his life without a family than with one. He’s suffered mistreatment at the hands of his first family, and great loss when leaving his foster family. Family is a tricky and painful concept for Spiderboy.

All of the skills needed to be a good friend are first learned by being part of a family. And so giving Spiderboy a chance to catch up on learning what that means is only going to help him understand what it means to be a friend. It’s really intensive, concentrated time with his mum (like most newborns get to have) and more time with his brother while we try to grow that into a healthy, loving relationship. Since finishing school Spiderboy has been much more open to nurture and affection – in fact he’s begun asking for cuddles, which he never did before.

How to respect authority v. How to respect himself

School is a great chance for children to begin learning how to respect authority, and it gets them ready for life in the big wide world with bosses, politicians and the like.

But for a child who has experienced the neglect and insecurity that Spiderboy has, there is often a great sense of shame attached to those early experiences. Spiderboy has very little self confidence – not in the cute, shy way a lot of his peers do, but in an overwhelmed-with-toxic-shame-because-I-wasn’t-good-enough-for-my-first-family-or-my-foster-family-so-why-would-anybody-want-me sort of way.

Homeschooling is giving us the chance to work on this in a way that school can’t. Filling our days with unconditional love and gospel truths is going to do more good than a day of learning to put up his hand and address adults correctly.

How to express what’s in their heads in written words v. How to express what’s in his heart in any words

Being able to recognise and name feelings is a pretty crucial life skill. Even more so if your heart is full of feelings that are too big for you. Spiderboy has experienced things a child his age should never have to experience. He is full of very big feelings without any tools to know how to express them.

In the past this has led to very violent meltdowns and I have felt genuinely afraid for my own safety, as well as his.

Since leaving school, Spiderboy has started to tell me that he feels like he’s “going to wreck things”. This is a HUGE step for us! He can actually spot when he’s becoming overwhelmed, and he’s learnt a way to express it! Now we have a wrecking box full of newspaper that he can wreck.

Would he have learnt to do this while at school? Maybe. Maybe not. But I am certain that having one-to-one help as he learns to process his big feelings is much more helpful than a day at school learning to write sentences in a class of 29 other children.

How to be independent v. How to be dependent

By the age of four, most children have the basic building blocks, the secure base and the tools they need to venture out into the world and gain a bit of independence.

On the other hand, Spiderboy has been taught by his early experiences that he needs to look after himself, he needs to keep himself safe, he can’t be vulnerable in front of other people. This leads to the exhausting task of hypervigilance.

School (rightly) encourages children to develop their independence in healthy ways. But what Spiderboy needs first is to unpick his whole world view, learn to depend on other people and, only then, will he be ready to learn healthy independence.

Since leaving school we’ve had a lot more cuddles, a lot more carrying, a lot more ‘babying’. But until he has learnt to be a baby, can we expect him to learn to be a 5 year old, a 15 year old, a 25 year old?

Our days now are filled with picnics on the beach, picnics in the park, picnics in the woods, picnics at the allotment. They involve lots of cuddles, lots of talking, lots of mud.

Is it hard work? YES. Is it good fun? YES.

Will we go back to school? Never say never. But for today this is right, and tomorrow we shall see.

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Confession of a Mummy by adoption…

7233048434_f9c0099a23_o.jpgWhen somebody has a baby, my first reaction is an overwhelming flood of grief. My heart aches, my stomach feels heavy and empty at the same time. My ears burn and my head spins.

Not because I am not happy for them – I am absolutely delighted, and so excited to meet the new arrival, and so relieved that everything went smoothly.

And it’s not because I regret how my own journey to parenthood has gone. I am grateful to God for those years of infertility – for how I learnt more to lean on him, for how the journey brought me the long way round to just the right moment when my path would cross with these wonderful little boys and they would become mine. I would not swap my boys for 10 babies from my own body.

It’s just that every time I hear that news, the memory of the feelings I had when it was painful, when I was bitter, wash over me. I don’t know if that will ever not happen. So I brace myself, I grit my teeth and I pray.

And the feeling passes, it always does. Then I give myself a little shake, dust off the self-pity and go shopping for baby clothes.

But please bear with me, while I wait for it to pass; because I am truly happy, but it is not easy.

Photo: Flickr user Harald Groven 2012

Ssssshhh…

I’m just going to whisper this, to whoever is out there and might see it.

This week, I’ve actually felt, normal!

Normal

Yesterday, I stopped for a moment and looked around: I was cooking tea in the kitchen and my children were playing. Together. In a different room.

And then I realised that, for about a week, we haven’t had any “adoption” problems! Yes, our boys have fought with each other. Yes, they’ve called me names and answered me back. Yes, I’ve lost my temper and been too short with them. But that’s normal!

Now I know that they are not magically “cured” of attachment issues and anxiety. I know their early experiences haven’t vanished. It’s just that, little step by little step they are learning to trust us and relax. I think they feel safe. I think they feel loved. I didn’t see the little steps we took, but now I can look back and see how far we’ve come.

And yes, I also know that trauma is going to rear it’s ugly head sometime soon. We will take steps backwards. But, just for now, it feels like it’s not there. It feels like we’re “normal”.

Let’s not have the “what is normal anyway?” debate. I know all families are different and nobody feels like they’re normal…

The point is: we are making progress, and it’s wonderful.

All You Need to Know Before You Start School

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In preparation for next month, we bought this book for Spiderboy, it’s a lovely book and has a section on how to dress yourself, what to remember to do when you’ve been to the toilet, shapes, colours, numbers, letters etc.

I don’t want to boast too much (actually I do), but Spiderboy knows it all. He can write and read basic words. He is intellectually bright, and he is physically very capable.

But he’s not ready for September. And it got me thinking, what does he need to know before he starts school? If I could write my own version, it would go something like this:

  1. You are loved. Unconditionally. I will always be thinking of you when you’re at school. I will always be loving you, and missing you. And I will always be there to collect you after.
  2. You are special. You are clever and kind and talented. But none of that matters because what makes you most special is that you are mine. And so whatever you do at school, you will always be the most important, most special boy to me.
  3. You are safe. Because of number 1 and number 2, I would never leave you somewhere that you weren’t safe. Your teachers do not want to hurt you, they don’t want to take you away. I trust them, so you can too.
  4. You are strong. The world has not been kind to you. Maybe no one else in your class will be able to understand this. But you know that life isn’t fair. And you are a stronger, braver person because of that.

The other children in Spiderboy’s class may not be able to fasten buttons, or write their names, but I’m pretty sure they won’t have trouble with the above. But for my beautiful boy, these things do not come naturally. Early life experiences have taught him quite the opposite. And yet, in two weeks he goes, ready or not.

If I could only help him start to believe these things before then, none of the other stuff matters. He may look to be at an advantage to the other children in his class. But buttons and letters are much easier to learn than trust and a sense of self worth.

Why being a Mum is like being on the West End…

From a very young age I’ve always had a strong sense that I was made for the stage. Ever since first watching Mary Poppins, Calamity Jane and The Sound of Music, I’ve dreamt of being in musicals. The trouble is I can’t sing, or dance. Or act. I hate public speaking…

It’s kind of like my genetics and my destiny forgot to communicate…

Anyhoo, being a mum is much more fun! And here are some of the ways that being a mum is very much like being in a musical:

  • We now constantly narrate what we are doing in song. Whether it’s eating bananas, walking round the shops, having a shower… somehow the moment we got children we had a song for every occasion!
  • It’s OK to spontaneously sing in public. And we do. A lot. In the supermarket, in the park, in a queue. Singing is a great distraction. Spider-Man, Christmas songs, old hymns, Madness. You name it, we sing it.
  • Dancing too. That is not only acceptable, it’s also sometimes necessary.
  • Whatever I do, I have an audience. Showering, weeing, making a cup of tea, sorting the recycling. There are always eyes on me. And they are always waiting to be entertained.
  • Life is a lot more dramatic. whether we’re buying milk, posting a letter, brushing teeth… there is drama to be found and exploited. Raining? Not raining? Too tired? Too hungry? Back to front undies? We never miss an opportunity to be dramatic.
  • Wherever I go, people scream my name. Granted, it’s always the same two people. And yes, it’s not quite screaming fans, but still…

Why I hate fun.

I used to love fun. It used to be fun.

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Image: flickr user Anders Sandberg (2008)

But then we adopted two children with early life trauma, and now fun is, well, not so fun!

Yesterday our church held a family fun day. We spent a lot of time preparing the boys for it, explaining what would happen and when. They were already familiar with the people running it, and the venue. We made sure that I didn’t have any responsibilities on the day, and my husband only had half an hour bouncy castle duty. We didn’t go early to set up as we would normally have done. We were all set.

The boys loved it! We had so much fun! We discovered Spiderboy has an aptitude for archery, and Batboy for Splat-the-Rat(!) We let them lead our activities so they felt comfortable and enjoyed themselves. We stayed close so they could see, and touch if needed, us at all times. We even split up for some of the time and both boys got some one-to-one time so that they knew their needs were being met, and that they were constantly being thought of.

When it was time to go, Batboy said “well that was fun.” and Spiderboy said “when can we go back?” It had all gone so well and the boys were so calm that my husband decided to stay and help clear away for a little bit. I drove the boys home and they chattered about everything they had done.

Sounds fun, right?

Woohoo for fun!

Except, the moment we stepped back into our house, BAM! Meltdown Central. I quickly rang husband to come home too. And then, with occasional, short breaks, Spiderboy screamed, shouted, spat, raged, punched, kicked (no biting – small victory!) for four hours. We took turns to hold him and reassure him, we took turns to lose our tempers, we took turns to try and keep Batboy calm (only one short meltdown there!)

The thing is, when children experience, trauma, neglect or abuse in their early years, their little brains flood with cortisol (stress hormone). This activates survival mode, sometimes called fight or flight. The amygdala is the part of the brain linked to our emotions. An infant has not yet learnt to regulate their emotions, and so in those early years the amygdala is more vulnerable. While most infants are taught to regulate their feelings from birth by parents cuddling, rocking, soothing; children who are abused or neglected in those early years don’t learn this skill. And so instead of their amygdala learning, it is constantly being flooded with cortisol. This overstimulation leads to the amygdala becoming overactive, which leads to hypervigilance whereby anything and everything should be considered a threat.

I’m not a scientist, so feel free to correct any of my attempt at a scientific explanation. but what I am an expert in is my children. So let me explain what this looks like:

We went to a familiar place with familiar people. But it isn’t our safe home, and it isn’t just our safe family. And so Spiderboy is already overstimulated and hypervigilant. His amygdala is activated and his brain is flooded with cortisol. In other words, his brain is in panic mode.

There are people and things that are not normally there. We do things we don’t normally do. Cortisol level increasing. Now Spiderboy is able to enjoy the day seemingly like any other child. But even when he feels happy or excited, his brain is still pumping out cortisol. Remember, he wasn’t taught as an infant that he can control his emotions, and so his brain responds to any and every feeling with – PANIC!

And so over the two hours we spend there, his amygdala is working away up there. New smells, new sounds, new sights. All of these things could be dangerous, and why wouldn’t they be? Everything needs to be checked, assessed and then held in mind in order for Spiderboy to keep himself safe. Amazingly, he manages to do this, participate in all the activities, and remember most of his social graces at the same time.

Now by the time we get home, Spiderboy’s brain has been switched to panic mode for two hours. He is exhausted from assessing all potential dangers. And so as he steps through the door into his safe place, he no longer holds all of that inside his little body. The anxiety and the excitement burst out in fists, and kicks and shouts – how else is it supposed to get out?

And so for two hours of fun, we had four hours of rage, and then fallout into the next day too. Now let me ask you this – is fun really so fun anymore?

So please excuse me if I no longer say “Woohoo for fun!” But instead grit my teeth, don my body armour and try to be as boring as possible.

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Image: flickr user jon hayes (2007)

 

How do you know…?

In the Disney film Enchanted, the main character Giselle sings a song called That’s How You Know. It’s really good. She’s explaining to Robert that he has to romance his love everyday so she knows he loves her. By the end of the film, she realises that love isn’t about romantic gestures, it’s about mutual respect, trust and commitment. She also learns that it isn’t quite so clear cut as finding ‘the one’.

While we were waiting to be matched, I was very conscious that our children were ‘out there’ somewhere and we needed to find them. I was also aware that there were a lot of children who fitted our criteria, and who we could love for the rest of our lives. We weren’t looking for ‘the one(s)’, we knew whoever we ended up with would become our own. We knew once we found our children, we would love them wholeheartedly. We would commit to them, no matter what. That is how we would know.

The question was, which ones should we commit to.

We kept our criteria broad, mostly to improve our chances of a quick match! Before we were approved, we decided that we would say yes to the first offer we had, unless there were any serious red flags. We also agreed with our social worker that we would leave the search to her. She knew our criteria, she knew us, and she knew the system. She could also be led much more by her head than we could. However, once we were approved, we had to set up a Link Maker account so that she could look on our behalf. This was lethal. Once we were on the website, how could we not look?!

We looked at every profile we could find on there. We imagined them as ours, in our house, with our family, in our arms. We talked about how their names would sound with ours. We wondered how we would manage certain health or development issues. We considered if we could actually take three, or four… We flagged up several profiles for our social worker to look at and pursue for us. We also started to get messages from childrens’ social workers.

There were a lot of children who fitted our criteria, who we could have loved forever. There were some profiles we preferred based on little things – names, ages, hair colour. How else are you supposed to choose between them?! Our social worker followed several leads for us, all very different profiles, all very real possibilities. At one point we were in the top two for some sisters who we were very keen on. They went with the other couple because we were too white. I sobbed in the M6 toll service station for a while after that phone call. It was a ruthless, brutal process. 

One day in the summer holidays, when we were decorating the loft, our social worker rang to say that a family finder wanted us for two little boys. She gave us some details and asked if we would like to read their CPRs. I felt numb. We were completely blindsided as we hadn’t seen them on Link Maker, and at this point we had several profiles in our minds that were at different stages of being explored. Our social worker explained to us that if we decided to meet with the family finder and social worker, she would have to suspend all of our other inquiries. It felt like a big step, to cut off all those other options.

That same day we received the CPRs and read them on the loft floor while my in-laws carried on decorating. It was hard to take in all of the nitty gritty details they don’t include in the Link Maker profiles. We’d never read a CPR before, and it was a strange experience. We decided straight away that we would pursue these little boys as far as we could. The professionals thought we were the right match, and we knew we could care for them and love them. We were excited because we might have found ourchildren. Would we have felt like this if it was a different CPR? I don’t know. Probably.

The more likely to happen it seemed, the more certain we became that we wanted it to. We looked at their photos all the time. We talked about what they might like. We decorated their room and imagined them in it. The social workers chose to give us these boys, and so we chose to love them.

How did we know? I don’t think we did. How do we know? I know because I think about them every waking moment.  When they are afraid or hurt and need their Mum, I know. When the punch and kick and bite me, when they spit and swear at me, I know. When they wake me up, when they cuddle me, when they set the table, when they ignore me, I know.

I know they are mine, I know that I love them because I choose to. Sometimes it’s easy. As I write this, Spiderboy is playing X-Box with his Dad. I keep stopping to watch him. He is just about perfect in every way. His little knees sticking out of his shorts, his gorgeous eyes magnified by his glasses, his blonde hair combed over to the side, his voice and his fingernails and the way he keeps rocking on his chair and driving his Dad mad. I keep welling up when I look at him because Iam overwhelmed with feelings of love.

But sometimes it’s not so easy. Sometimes he presses all my buttons on purpose. Sometimes his pain and trauma spill out of him, and it causes me pain too. Sometimes I’m just too tired to play, or to answer questions, or to say the same thing. Again. These are the times I really know. Every time I choose to sacrifice my own comfort, wants, happiness, safety for the sake of my boys, I know they are mine. I wouldn’t do it if they weren’t.

I suppose the moment we ‘knew’, was the moment in matching panel when they said yes. We left the room and I cried. I knew then that I was a Mum. And I knew I had the best little boys in the whole world.

This is just a recreation of me coming out of matching panel.

Everybody wants to live happily ever after
Everybody wants to know their true love is true…

His heart will be yours forever
Something everyday will show
That’s how you know…

That’s how you know it’s true.

 

Why I made my boys shift rubble…

Before the boys arrived, we ripped up the patio in our back garden to lay a lawn. At our local tip, you can only dispose of 10 bags of rubble a year. Once we’d used our quota we had piles of rubble left lying around. We’re planning to have a BBQ to celebrate our Adoption Day, it’s given us a focus to finish clearing the garden and so this morning we all got out there together. I dug up the weeds, my husband mowed the lawn and the boys moved the rubble into big sacks ready for the tip.

It may sound a little bit like child labour, but let me assure you that they enjoyed themselves! (Lifting and smashing rocks – what little boy wouldn’t enjoy that!)

Here’s 5 reasons why I made my boys shift rubble…

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Not the actual rubble…

1. It gets them outdoors

When the weather is nice, we love to be outside. We don’t have a massive garden, and so footballs often go over the fence. Strong as my boys are, I’m not sure they could get the rubble over!

2. It’s good exercise

Physical exercise is good for the health, good for the mind, and good for getting kids to sleep. They love to show off their strength, so when it comes to rubble, the bigger the better!

3. It’s a goal-oriented task

Having a goal gives them a chance to practice their concentration – they focus on the task for a lot longer when they’ve got something to aim for. It also gives them opportunities to succeed, even at something small, which boosts their low self esteem.

4. It teaches them social responsibility

When all of the family are working together, each with different jobs, it teaches them what it means to be part of a community. It also gives them a sense of responsibility for the family home.

5. The rubble is really in the way…

The rubble has been there for a while, and having two boys who will move it for us is really useful!

Image: Flickr user Derek Bridges (2012)

 

Heaven v. Disneyland

We have a new favourite song as a family at the moment. It’s called Home in Heaven by Slugs and Bugs and we sing it at the tops of our voices wherever we’re driving. I find it really encouraging personally, and it’s something I really want my boys to trust in.

I’ve got a home in heaven,

And my Lord will be there too.

I’ve got a home in heaven,

He is making all things new!

It’s based on Revelation 21, a passage that speaks about a time to come when God will remake this broken world.

There will be no more death, for He has made it so,

No more pain, tears or sorrow.

Write this down, He says these words are true,

He is making all things new!

It is a massive promise, from a God with a track record of promise keeping. As Christians it is a hope that we cling to. That one day there will be an end to suffering and to sin. That the world will be made perfect, and so will His people. The way it was meant to be.

But how easily I doubt God’s Word! disney

It feels like at the moment, everybody is going to Disneyland, Florida – my most favourite place in the world. And then the grumblings start deep in my soul. If only we had more money… if only we prioritised family holidays abroad… it’s not fair… grumble grumble grumble. And before long I find myself believing that a fortnight holiday to Consumer Central will satisfy me. The truth is, I’ve been there before. 5 times.

How many times do I need to go before I am satisfied? Or maybe, just maybe, I will never be satisfied. C.S. Lewis once wrote  “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” How true! And yet how easily I forget!

Do I really, deep down in my heart, trust that the world God has promised for His people will be a disappointment? Do I actually believe that Disneyland is better than the New Creation? I know in my head that this is not the case. But how easily my heart forgets and yearns after worldly pleasures that cannot offer lasting satisfaction. I was made for another world. A world where I live in perfect relationship with my Maker, and perfect relationship with His world and His people. I long for that Home in Heaven. And while I wait I will keep pointing myself and my sons to a place that is better than Disneyland.

At times like this, all I can do is cry out with John (the writer of Revelation) “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Mother knows best…

At the start of the adoption process we were very keen to take all the help and advice we could. We were aware that a lot of people are experts in this area, and we are not. We attended a lot of training courses and tried to absorb as much wisdom as possible.

Even after our boys arrived, we would ring or email our social worker often to ask advice and check in. It felt wrong to make decisions or do ‘parenting’ without permission.

When we were first matched with our boys, we were told that the Family Finder thought we were just the right fit, we were flattered. (We’ve since found out that she’d only met our boys twice at this point, so we’re not sure how she knew that.) Despite concerns that we are Christians, and that we didn’t want to send our children to nursery, their social worker agreed that we were the best parents for them.

When we first met our boys’ social worker, we were keen to glean as much information as possible. She was obviously going to be the expert on our boys(!!!) One questions we asked at that first meeting was who are their favourite superheroes. She confidently told us Hulk and Iron Man. Then we met the foster carers and we started to doubt if the social worker knew our boys that much! The foster carer told us that their favourites were Spiderman and Batman! At this point we had already ordered our introduction toys – Hulk Bear and Iron Bear. Grrrr.

And now, six months in, we are at a very different point in our journey. We have asked for some extra support to help us manage the boys’ anxieties, big feelings and the resulting CPV. For a long time our (agency) social worker has been trying to arrange a meeting with the LA to review the Adoption Support Plan and apply to the Adoption Support Fund.

Suddenly, the same people who picked us as the best parents for these children no longer think we are capable of knowing what they need. It’s our fault because we are too intense and should have sent them to nursery. There isn’t a problem because the foster carer (who didn’t ‘believe’ in attachment issues) never felt there was.

Fortunately, through we our agency we have access to CFAS and were able to have a consultation with a therapist. Just as I was beginning to doubt myself we met with a lovely lady who talked everything through with us and reassured us that we were doing the right things to help our boys, and that we were right to ask for support.2242240802_8aaa5f0845_o.jpg

It was a wonderful meeting for another reason too. It taught me to have confidence in myself as their Mum. I know my boys better than any social worker ever will, I am their Mum. Yes, we need expert advice and input at times, and we are so thankful for our wonderful social worker and all of her help. But there is a certain intuition that comes with the unconditional love of a mother for her child. And no social worker will ever have that.

Image: Flickr user Malay Maniar (2008)