Be My Parent describes life story work as this:
"Life story work helps children separated from their birth families make sense of their past experiences from birth. Some children may be too young to remember or understand what has happened in their lives. Children in care often experience many changes of social workers and carers and, as a result, information about their past and heritage may be missing, lost or forgotten.
A life story 'book' is usually prepared with the child by a social worker, foster carer and/or adoptive parent or permanent foster carer. The book includes the recording of significant information and events for a child to refer to when they are older or as they grow up, such as a description of their birth family, where they were born, significant people in their lives, and their care history."
A lovely Social Worker had been drafted in to write Katie's Life Story Book and we helped as much as possible by sending photographs and providing information of Katie's life since she joined us. Grandma very kindly provided lots of information about Katie's life from birth and prior to becoming part of our family. Katie loved the book we made her when she first met us and she was very excited that she would be receiving a book all about her and her story so far. We were really positive about it. We have always answered her questions - even the ones that are asked in the middle of a shopping centre at full volume. We are honest about her story. We don't tell her anything untrue but have never said a negative word about either of her birth parents. I have a lot of compassion for both her birth parents and this is reflected in my answers. She has seen pictures of her birth family and we have discussed with her the basic reasons for her adoption in 4 year old terms. We felt confident that she would be OK to see her book and we asked her Social Worker to read the book to her on the day she arrived armed with the book.
Over the past few weeks I have been thinking that this was a BIG MISTAKE! Not just because of the book but because of the big changes that Katie is currently going through leaving pre-school and starting infant school. Was this the best time to bring this into the equation as well?
The book is great and I have no issue with what is written or how it is written for the long term. I don't feel that it is written for a 4 year old though and both Daddy and I wanted to stop the Social Worker from reading the book to her once she had started. Why didn't we stop her? Isn't it amazing how that dynamic between us and a Social Worker over-rides our parental logic? We thought (probably naively) that the Social Worker would read the book to her in the way a 4 year old could understand. The way we would. But she didn't. She read it to her word for word. Every last detail including her full birth name and the reasons she had to be adopted. Several weeks on I am still finding it difficult to articulate how I feel about Katie's reaction (and mine) to the book. I have a strong reaction to Katie having easy access to her birth name in these days of social networking sites. It's not that we would try and stop her contacting her birth parents, should that arise, but we just don't want that contact to happen in an unsupported way.
For several weeks after reading the book Katie queried the fact that we had changed her middle name and said she wanted to go back to her original name. We talked about the fact that Katie had helped decide on her new middle name and I said to her that her Birth Mother gave her her first name and we gave her her middle name. She seems content with that now.
The second thing that happened was that Katie started wetting herself during the day. This had stopped some time ago but we had about 6 weeks of wetting. I think this was partly due to her feeling unsettled by leaving her friends at pre-school and partly from reading the book. We seem to have finally resolved that issue this week and she has been dry all week again.
We have been experiencing a lot more angry behaviour. It's hard to tell how much of this is just the fact that she is 4 and this attitude seems fairly common amongst her peer group at the moment. She's definitely been challenging our rules more and we've had to tighten her boundaries again to help her through this phase. This seems to be helping her calm down a bit.
At first she was really excited about her book and wanted to show everyone and read it all the time. Daddy and I decided that we wouldn't actually read the book to her again, as we were feeling worried by this point, but would answer any questions that arose from her looking at the book. We didn't want her to feel that the book was out of bounds or wrong in some way so it was left easily available for her to pick it up and flick through. She asked to show the book to some of her friends who come to our house for tea and during the holidays regularly. I asked the older of the girls not to read the book aloud but to ask Katie to tell her the story. This was fine until they came to a picture of Katie's Birth Mother and Katie got quite angry and refused to tell the girl who the picture was of. I asked Katie if she wanted to put the book away and she said that she did. The book went away on the shelf in the dining room and she hasn't asked to see it since.
She has asked questions since. She has asked why she can't be with her Birth Mother and she has found a renewed interest in playing with her baby dolls. They came with us everywhere for many weeks and she packed a bag for them every time we went out. She talks a lot about being a mother and tells me what her children are up to. I wonder if this is some sort of healing play therapy for her? Her Life Story Book went into a lot of detail about how babies need to be cared for and she has asked me many questions about this section of the book. I get the feeling that she is righting the wrong in her mind somehow. Over the past week the babies have been replaced by her toy dogs and she has a bed full of soft dogs at the moment. This has coincided with her being dry. I do wonder if these two issues are linked somehow? Has she emotionally ingested the book and moved on somehow now?
I know this will be an ongoing topic of conversation in our house. It has raised a bigger question for me however and that is how much we take at face value the advice we are given by Social Workers and how much we should trust our parental instincts. We have followed the current thinking about adoption and told Katie that she is adopted so that she will never remember being told about it (it helps that she was older when adopted so she remembers living with Grandma). We are open with her and answer her questions as much as possible. Several people have queried with me whether it is in a child's best interest for them to be aware that they are adopted and whether this keeps pulling off the scab on a wound. I don't know is the answer to this. We have been guided by our Social Workers and from things we have read about adoption. I suspect it varies from child to child and how they emotionally cope and their resilience and past experiences. I do wonder though whether we should have given Katie her book just yet or whether we should have held off for a while. I definitely think we should have read it first. What were we thinking? I have asked for a copy of the slide with her birth name on and plan to remove that information from her book until she is old enough to manage that information. This goes against the advice of Katie's Social Worker who wasn't happy with us for doing this. In fact, she was quite scathing and I think she thinks that we don't want Katie to know this information. This is not the case but we want to ensure that she can handle that information appropriately when it is given to her and not the first day she gets a Facebook account when she is older. We will definitely be giving everything more thought in the future and not just going along with current thinking. I am feeling a bit like a puppet and am trying to work out how I feel about some of this stuff so that we can work out how we handle some of this stuff in the future.
I am not naive enough to think that this information will never upset Katie. I'd like to protect her from that but she will revisit this over and over and over throughout her life - of that I have no doubt. Maybe it is better that she starts to process some of this now so that she slowly makes sense of it all as she grows up. Is it fair to expect a 4 year old to have to carry the weight of this information though? She's just a baby still. She needs protecting and that is our job. I worry that we didn't protect her enough on this issue. Parents are supposed to protect their children.
I wish I had a crystal ball to know what the best thing to do is. I am sure I will re-read what I have written here and want to challenge my own thoughts and emotions on this. For the moment I will just leave it here and see how we all feel as time goes by.
It's funny but I've just read a blog post by Sally Donnovan on the same subject and realise that she has come to the same conclusion as me. We are taking control of this subject and trusting our own instincts (and Katie's) about how to move forward with this subject.