Friday, 24 February 2012

Mission Possible: Infiltrating Parent/Toddler Groups

Our Social Worker confided in me that just prior to having her first child she moved house and into a small village. She explained how difficult it can be to join established groups of mums and she made it her daily task to find a playdate each day.  I took up this challenge when Katie came to join us and I still joke that I'm on a playdate mission.  Katie had lived her life until that point in a very busy foster carers house.  She was used to lots of children around and we were concerned that moving to a very quiet house with just the three of us would be an enormous culture shock for her.  We knew that it was vital that we had lots of playdates.

I am really lucky to have a wide group of friends who are fellow adopters.  I met my online group after being reunited with a friend from my toddler days thanks to the world of Facebook and Friends Reunited.  Ironically she was also an adopter and she introduced me to the group (The A Team!).  The A Team provided enormous support throughout our home study and continues to be a huge support for me, and hopefully I for them.  We meet up for a weekend, with our partners and children, at least once a year at a mid-point in the UK and have a wonderful time.  We hope that one day our children will take over the mantle of the group and maintain contact with each other.

Despite being a bit shy initially, I am quite a sociable person. I like people and I like to have a good chat.  I am fairly open and honest and, not very good at lying.  I have to admit that I'm also not particularly good at small talk.  I like a proper conversation.  One where you really connect with someone.  Of course I now know that, once you have a child, you only ever really get to participate in small talk mostly because you are interrupted every 30 seconds!  This remains a bit of a challenge for me but I'm getting there.

During our adoption home study I carefully researched all the different types of groups that were running in our local area.  I was also lucky to have several friends with children of a similar age to Katie which helped with some playdates and was also introduced, via work, to a lovely lady who adopted her son a month before Katie came to live with us.  We are now very close friends. 

What I didn't really take on board though was the groups of mothers who have formed via ante-natal classes.  They have shared history of their pregnancies and labours and often meet each other regularly.  I didn't really think through what I was going to say about why we were only joining groups at the point Katie was a toddler or what I would say when the labour story comparisons started.  

Katie and I initially went along to the weekly toddler group which ran in a local church. It was quite a large group in a large space.  I think we lasted 6 sessions before Katie said to me that she didn't like it there. Neither did I!  No-one ever really spoke to us after the first session. I tried initiating conversations with some of the other mothers there but no-one seemed particularly interested or friendly for that matter. The children mostly seemed to compete with each other for the toys. So we left.  As fast as we could.  And never went back.

I have been known to call that group The Twilight Zone.

Thankfully one of my close friends came to our rescue and invited us along to the toddler group that she attended in a nearby town.  The downside was that I wouldn't be meeting local mums but the upside was that I had an "in" into the group.  It was a much smaller group than the previous one and all the mums were friendly and welcoming.  Because the group was smaller, I was honest with everyone about Katie being adopted from the outset.  We were given a lovely welcome and I am so grateful to all the ladies in that group because we quickly became part of the group.  Katie loved playing with all the children there and many of us became friends outside of the group.  Katie started to be invited to birthday parties and play dates and also felt like she belonged.  I felt unfazed when the mums discussed and compared their labours stories and often joked that I was the lucky one because I still had functioning pelvic floor muscles!

Meeting other parents in the community is really important for any parent but particularly so for an adoptive parent. Adoptive parents have to hit the ground running.  By meeting other parents you gain access to insider knowledge of the best groups to join; where to sign up for classes; which pre-schools to go to.  It is so important to find people you can relate to; who you can share experiences with.  People who understand what it's like to have a child the same age as yours. You really need that on the difficult days! It's also important for learning parenting skills.  Sometimes you learn positive skills and sometimes you watch the parenting that you don't want to learn! It's important for your child to become embedded in the area you live in.  To make friends and play with other children.  I have likened this process to dating.  I am constantly trying to make connections with other mums and it almost feels like I'm asking them out on a date if I suggest getting the children together and meeting up for coffee! I get so nervous that I'll be turned down or people will think I'm pushy or weird or both!  I know I couldn't be so bold if I was single and looking for dates but I almost give myself the excuse to be bold because I'm doing it for Katie.  Actually in reality I'm doing it for both of us.  Now I'm a stay at home mum, I need those daily connections to keep me sane.

When Katie started pre-school it started to get a lot easier.  The mums of the children who play together seem to come together and I made friends with the mum of Katie's best friend.  This friendship has been a real blessing for us.  We now have a weekly play date at a local soft play area and I have, on occasion, met up with her ante-natal group at the same venue. I do still feel a bit of an interloper at this group though.  We have become friendly with other mums who are at soft play the same times as us and I now have developed a skill of disappearing to the toilet, or getting the teas in, when the labour stories start. I do now have a basic labour story in my head (which is actually Katie's real labour story - I just wasn't there!), in case I ever need to use it, but so far I've not done that.  Like I said I'm not a great liar.  I'm generally either honest or I subtly extricate myself from the situation.  Thankfully no-one has ever been laying-in-wait for me on my return to give them the lowdown on Katie's birth.  We now also have a regular playdate after gymnastics with some of the other children in the class.  Katie is my partner in crime in organising this and we've slowly added to the numbers of who is joining us.

Now we are going through the adoption process for a second time I will need to think about toddler groups again.  Thankfully Katie's best friends mum has a younger daughter of 14 months, so the chances are we'll have second children around the same age.  Katie will have started big school by the time our second daughter joins us and I suspect it will be fairly obvious to the other parents at the school gates that we've adopted when another child suddenly joins us.  I'm more clued up now about the local groups that are running and which activities I'd like to participate in.  I am more confident about when I tell our story now.  I find just asking lots of questions of other people can nicely deflect any questions direct towards me.  People actually like to talk about themselves for the most part so this is fairly easy to do.  I tell some people that Katie is adopted.  I trust my instincts and generally get a sense of who I can tell and who I don't want to tell.  I am always mindful that, whilst this is my story, it is also Katie's story and she may not want people to know she is adopted as she gets older.  People have been generally very positive when I tell them though.  They are curious and ask questions but, aside from some of the comments I discussed in my last blog on the topic of "The Silly Things People Say About Adoption", are very accepting.

My advice to anyone starting out as an adoptive parent, 
who is wanting to join toddler groups is:

1) See if you have a friend with a child of a similar age whose group you can join.

2) Have a story clear in your mind that you are happy to share when labour stories are discussed. Do you want to invent a labour story; tell people that your son/daughter is adopted or; find a way of moving away from the discussion for a while.

3) Don't be shy. Just dive in there and ask for playdates.  Some will work out and some won't.  It gets easier the more you do it. Honest!

4) If you don't feel comfortable with a parent/toddler group then try another one.

Infiltrating Parent/Toddler groups is Mission Possible I promise you! 

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Things People Say About Adoption!

Having gone through 15 years of infertility and now an adoptive parent, and being a person who is quite open about both of these things, I have come to realise that people can be incredibly supportive and yet also say some incredibly silly, and rather hurtful things about infertility and adoption.  I don't think people usually mean to offend but through ignorance, or simply not thinking their statement through, they can leave a legacy of hurt.  In forum-land we call them DHAC's the "Don't Have A Clue" brigade.  They are the people who haven't always learned the skill of engaging their brain before opening their mouths.  I wouldn't necessarily call myself a forthright woman but I will challenge such comments when they are made for the sake of infertile women and adoptive parents worldwide.  The aim of this blog entry is to highlight some of the statements that people make to adopters.  Thanks to the internet I have a wide network of friends who are adoptive parents so I canvassed their opinions to ascertain some of the worst, and most hurtful, comments that they have received.  I have kept all the statements anonymous and have included some of the internal and external responses that my sources have made.

"Why was she taken into care?"  
"None of your sodding business."   

People make a lot of assumptions.  We all do it.  We pigeon-hole people in a nanosecond of meeting them.  It's part of our genetic make-up.  People make a lot of assumptions about adoption.  The most common one seems to be that the children are relinquished or "given up" for adoption by their birth parents. "How could someone give up their child?" is a statement that both I and the majority of my adoptive friends have heard.  "People shouldn't keep having children if they are just going to keep giving them away to Social Services" was a statement said to a friend.  This is actually an extremely rare situation.  Out of all the adopters that I know, only one child was relinquished.  The other children were taken into care by Social Services for various reasons. (Councils refer record number of children into care) The days of young and/or unwed mothers being forced to give up their children for adoption are thankfully over.  Adopting a baby is another rare occurance. This is partly because there are very few babies available to be adopted and partly due to the length of time it currently takes for a child to be released for adoption.

In my experience other children are the most curious about Katie's adoption and they tend to ask the most difficult questions. I think they are more difficult because it's harder to explain to them why I won't answer their questions.  I have to explain that it's not fair on Katie to tell other people why she was adopted, until she understands that for herself.  People shouldn't really know her story before she does.  That's her story to share as she sees fit.

"You're not their real mum then...."
"No I'm just a carboard cut out!!"

This is really it's a question of using the correct terminology.  No I'm not her "birth mum" but I am her mum.  Katie says that I am "the best little mummy ever".  What more confirmation do I need?

"Do you know anything about his/her REAL mum?" 
"Of course we bloody do, we aren't taking a lucky dip"

There are two issues in the above statement that need addressing.  The first is a delicate one.  Adoptive children have birth parents and adoptive parents.  As adoptive parents we are not seeking to villify birth parents or nullify their existence.   Katie's birth parents will always have a place in her life, be it an emotional place or, in time, a physical place.  As an adoptive parent however I am Katie's mum.  I will be the mum who raises her and takes care of her.  I am a real mum.  Secondly we are given as much information about the birth parents as Social Services can give us when we are matched with a child.  This enables adopters to decide if the issues that the child may face during their life are ones that they feel equipped to help with. Of course, as with any child be they birth or adopted, you can never predict the things that will happen during their lives and how these events may alter the course of their life (and yours).

"Do you love her as much as you would your OWN child?"

Firstly: She is my child!!  One of the most hurtful, and thought proking, statements ever said to me was "I don't think I could ever adopt now I've had my own child, I'd know the difference".  My response was "How do you know?".  Neither of us have had that experience.  I don't know if it feels different to love a birth child.  I don't think it is possible to love a child more than I love Katie but I have no comparison.  The friends that I have who do have both a birth child and an adoptive child have said that they feel no difference in the love they have for those children.  I did feel particularly sad for a person I met recently however who was adopted in the 1960s after her adoptive parents experienced multiple pregnancy loss.  Her adoptive mother then went on to have two birth children.  This lady was then told that she was no longer wanted.  Although she remained within her adoptive family she was not treated in the same way as her siblings, and this remains the case until this day.  This breaks my heart for her.

"What is she going to call you?"

My absolute favourite comment in answer to this statement came from a friend of mine "ummmmmmmm he called me poo face once when he was going through a poo phase".  I am more understanding of this question if I'm honest.  If you haven't been through the lengthy preparation for becoming an adopter then you may well wonder about this.  Children are generally very well prepared for adoption by their Foster Carers however.  Katie was amazingly well prepared and knew we were Mummy and Daddy from the book we had prepared for her and called us Mummy and Daddy from our first meeting.  It would be really confusing if the children called us by our forenames and then had to switch.

"He is a very lucky boy."
"No, actually he's not lucky at all to have 
experienced all he has in his little life."

I have to say, this is one of those throwaway statements that I have heard alot since Katie joined us.  My friend, who is quoted above, is right.  In what way are children lucky to have experienced the things that they have in their lives?  The damage that has been caused that they will often spend their lives overcoming.  No they are not lucky but hopefully, now that they have been adopted, they will be able to live the sort of life all children deserve to have.  We are the lucky ones to have such wonderful and amazing children in our lives. I am certainly very lucky to be a mum. I never thought I would be.

"Now you've got one you'll fall pregnant"

I've actually lost count of how many times this statement has been made to me. It's actually incredibly dismissive of my daughter and implies that she is second best.  I have to admit that my reply is generally "Actually I've had 10 miscarriages.  My problem isn't getting pregnant, it's staying pregnant".  One of the things that Social Services discuss with you during the adoption process is contraception.  We are not encouraged to be trying to conceive.  I know of one adoptive parent who had a surprise pregnancy after adopting her daughter but she's the only one I know of.  I don't think that it is even a statisically correct statement.  If it were then I would have had a birth child after a) booking a wonderful holiday; b) forgetting about trying to conceive; c) positive thinking; d) eating all the right foods or even e) buying a totally impractical child-unfriendly car! Of course some people do have a birth child after adopting. I would imagine that this statement originates from the days when medical investigations into infertility were very limited, or non-existent, and people did manage to conceive in time after adopting a child.  Nowadays the majority of people have lots of medical investigations before being labled "infertile". 

"Do you still wish you could have your OWN child'"

A very short answer to this, which follows on nicely from the last paragraph. I do have my own child.  Do I wish I could have a birth child?  Actually no, not now.  I do wonder how it might feel to have a child kicking inside you or how painful it actually is to give birth.  I wish I could have been Katie's mum since she was born and that I could have given her the start in life that I would have planned for her.  I feel that I was meant to be a parent through adoption and my experiences of infertility and miscarriages prepared me for how important and special a job it is to be a parent.  I am incredibly blessed and we are excited that we are doing it all again although rather worryingly a friend of mine was asked "so why do you need to do it again'? you've adopted once".

 "Does she know she's adopted?"

This isn't really a DHAC comment but it is insensitive and quite a personal question.  In previous generations children who were adopted often didn't find out until their 18th birthday or even by happenstance when they found their birth certificate.  Nowadays this issue is discussed with potential adopters and we are encouraged to be as open as possible about the fact that our children are adopted.  Obviously the information given to our children is age appropriate and will broaden as they get older. The majority of adopters have some form of contact with their child's birth family in the form of letterbox contact or direct contact with their birth relatives i.e. siblings or grand parents or aunts and uncles so they have a greater understanding of their birth family.  From a personal perspective Katie knows that she is adopted and that she has a "tummy Mummy and Daddy".  She asks questions and we do our best to answer them.  Someone close to me said that they didn't agree with children knowing about being adopted and that they felt it screwed them up more.  Does having your questions answered really screw you up more than finding out your whole identity is based on a lie I wonder?  In all honesty however we can only be guided by current thinking and research.  I am sure that Katie will have some tough questions during her life and may face some difficult emotions about her circumstances but I do feel it's important for her to know her personal story so she knows her identity.  For Katie, however, she will never have a shock memory of finding out she was adopted because it is something she has grown up knowing.

"You should only be able to adopt if you can't have children"

I genuinely cannot believe that these words actually passed someone's lips.  Thousands of children are waiting in the care system to be adopted and there are so many people who would make excellent parents for them.  Sadly the majority of adopters are people who are unable to have children together for one reason or another.  I myself was in that category.  Adoption wasn't in my frame of reference until we experienced infertility.  How amazing would it be if adoption was considered an option for more people?  Some celebrities have made the issue more mainstream, although not always for the right reasons, but many people are put off because of the incredibly intrusive process and long waiting times. (DoE - Breaking down barriers to adoption).  Maybe more awareness should be raised as part of PSHE in schools?

"Why do you get adoption leave, it's not as if you need to recover from the birth"

Ultimately adoption leave is for a totally different reason than maternity leave, although bonding is a huge part of both types of leave.  No we don't have the physical aspects to recover from (although it's hard to describe how physically and emotionally draining the introduction period is) but the children have a huge amount of adjustment to do.  Their whole world changes in a matter of weeks.  Can you imagine how you would cope with such changes? Having a carer at home for at least a year is considered essential for helping a child bond and adjust to the change in their circumstances and ensure that they understand who their primary carers are.  I've now been home with Katie for nearly 2 years and am glad that I took the decision not to return to work because she is benefitting so much from being with me.  You can't just move a child and put them into daycare.  The confusion would be enormous!

Some other quotes that I think are great!

"On our very 1st visit to A&E when asked if DS was delivered normally, I stumped the nurse by tetlling her I wasn't there!"
    "If people ask me if DS looks like his dad (coz he's nothing like me) I tell 
them that I don't know his dad - stumps them!"

In reply to me telling a friend of a friend that from 2013 adopted children will get the same priority as Looked After Children in the school system...."That's not fair! Why should your daughter get priority over mine?" "Ummmm because she's had a much tougher start in life and needs all the help she can get....."

And Finally......

On a final note, here is a statement made to a lovely friend of mine who adopted a beautiful little girl with Downs Syndrome.  She and her husband made this decision after they had a birth child with Downs Syndrome and felt that they wanted him to have a sibling who was just like him:
"was that unplanned or unlucky"

There are no words to describe how unacceptable it is to say this to someone!