Parenting in the Shadow of Family History
I’m always interested in the family background of the friends I have and the people I meet. I’m curious about what their childhood was like and what constitutes a happy family life. One thing I’ve discovered is that I’ve yet to meet a person who has had a perfect childhood. I’ve met people who have experienced physical and sexual abuse, neglect; alcoholism and other addictions; there is often sibling rivalries that have created deep wounds about not being good enough; families where the mental health of a family member has deeply affected everyone else; people who have cared for parents; families where parents have stayed together for the children but hated each other. The subtle messages that we absorb from our families about our self worth and what family life is like live with us forever. It’s left me wondering what is a perfect childhood and who are the people who have experienced one? Often it’s not until we can completely separate ourselves from our parents and see our parents as people, not just parents, that we can see the family histories that have influenced them and subsequently us. This understanding is important for us to take on the responsibility of our own mental well-being and our healing and also our role as parents. We cannot change the experiences we’ve had and there is a point we reach where staying in blame prevents us healing.
As generations have changed so have parenting techniques and expectations. It is only in recent decades that parenting has become a word that stands alone as a noun and a methodology just in time for the Facebook generations where. I grew up in the shadow of what we might call the Victorian era of parenting. Very much a “spare the rod, spare the child” and “children should be seen and not heard” ethos. Punishment was the expected consequence of any wrongdoing and natural consequences might have been something we learned for ourselves but they weren’t a part of a formalised parenting plan. Adults were to be respected at all times irrespective of how well they behaved towards us and adults were always right and not to be argued with. Social Services was an entity reserved only for the most serious of parenting crimes and emotional abuse was not recognised at all. The concept of stranger danger really was that of the strange man who lived down the road rather than the recognition that most harm was actually done within the family home.
Often when we become parents we bring the hope that we will be different than our own parents. We generally have vaguely formed ideas about the easy parts of parenting and how lovely they might be. We might visualise ourselves as patient, loving, fair, understanding and kind in all circumstances. We imagine family days out and family holidays where we all create memories to last for a lifetime. We have no real idea just how much all the fragility we carry inside can be triggered. How easily all the cultural expectations we might carry about being respected as a parent can rise up in the face of rudeness, perceived disrespect or aggression. My generation certainly weren’t brought up with the concept of seeing all behaviour as a form of communication. There was acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. I doubt that many of us give much serious thought to these things until we faced with these issues on a sustained basis and most likely are struggling as parents. Then we realise that we have to try and unlearn everything we thought we knew about being a parent and often unpick the impact of our own childhoods and our expectations as parents.
For the average parent, parenting a child who has had the perfect start in life, who meets developmental targets and responds to life in fairly typical ways there will still be times when we are triggered and respond in ways that don’t fit the ideal we carried in our visions of being a parent. We can’t protect our children from life and how our responses and reactions might impact on our children. Most of us just do the best we can every day. Not many parents deliberately seek to harm their children, but most parents parent on instinct rather than by following a specific methodology like Therapeutic Parenting or PACE for example. It’s only when we realise that how we are parenting isn’t working that we stop and start to question what’s going wrong. This realisation generally comes after we might blame our children for their behaviour before we really understand that everything that has happened and all the experiences our child has had, even in the womb, are interlinked with their response to the world. If we then take into consideration parenting a child who is neuro-diverse and/or adopted whose reactions to life are often not neurotypical we begin to realise just how love isn’t enough and we start our journey as parents very ill equipped to know how best to help and parent our children. By the time our lives have escalated and we are in crisis very often we then have to wait many years to get the help we all need. We do what we can on our own; trying desperately to understand how best to manage whilst sadly realising that all our own reactions are being triggered by all the history we carry from our own childhoods. This can lead to families breaking down and the huge amount of sadness; blame, recrimination and damage that leaves with everyone involved.
Over the years I’ve realised that as adopters we were not prepared for the experiences, situations and feelings we might encounter as parents. Here in the UK when we did our training on our preparation course 12 years ago we discussed scenarios that might occur and behaviours we might experience in an abstract way. We had a lovely adopter who came to speak to us and told us how wonderful life was with vague reference to some challenges. In the medical report we received for Katie there was reference to her potentially having FASD but that it said that it might just mean she’d need some extra support in school. Once we had completed our introductions and Katie came to live with us we had follow up visits from our Social Worker. Once we had legally adopted Katie those visits stopped and we were left to our own devices. I don’t feel we had any real idea of the huge complexities about adoption and the brain damage that comes with FASD. At that point FASD was a vague possibility that had been mostly negated because she was reaching age related development milestones.
Over the years we began to realise how little we knew. I instinctively began to realise that traditional parenting techniques and expectations needed to be reevaluated. I struggled to get support within the education system and it took many years to start to process of diagnosing and trying to understand just what was going on for Katie. By then we had also adopted Pip. We had inadvertently added to the children’s developmental trauma by realising a dream of rebuilding our house, which involved a temporary house move. We lost both TCM’s parents during that time, which involved a long period of caring for his mum who had Alzheimer’s. There was a lengthy court process to be able to manage her finances and sell her home, all the while trying to build a house and living in a much smaller environment. We experienced financial struggles during the house build and enormous stress as a result. TCM developed mental health problems and was struggling to cope and I was trying to hold it all together holding on by a very thin thread.
All of these experiences would have been challenging enough for a neurotypical family but for us it added challenges and layers onto children who were already struggling in ways we were only just starting to realise. As parents in that situation, through very little fault of our own, we weren’t as emotionally available as we needed to be. I needed time alone to process my emotions but I couldn’t get that time because I was holding the fort and managing a lot of very big issues. There were times when I felt angry and resentful and didn’t react in ways that I might have done if I was regulated. I have shouted in exasperation at relentlessly challenging behaviours. Katie was struggling to cope in herself as she grew older and the diagnoses she was yet to receive at that point were affecting her in school. She tried hard to mask at school and the fallout was then felt at home where she felt able to express herself. Then started the very lengthy process of trying to help her, whilst still trying to manage all the other situations.
The reality is all this could happen to anyone. Life happens whether our children are adopted or not but for children who are adopted all of these events can be triggering for their early trauma. Life can be triggering for all our early trauma which is why, as we grow older, we often start to realise that we revisit experiences over and over again, often from different angles, before we can heal from them. All that family history we carry with us impacts on our responses and reactions, our expectations and our own mental health. We might not get the emotional space we need to withdraw and process whilst also parenting and how we express our emotions can be misunderstood by those around us. Our emotional withdrawal or outward expressions of frustration and confusion whilst we process might be very confusing for our children who are looking to us for predictability in order to feel safe. Add onto that a marriage breakdown as a result of all the different stresses and a worldwide pandemic, yet another house move as a result of the divorce and I find myself trying to work out how to pick up the pieces and understand just how best to help the children.
Within all this I have learned how to parent very differently. I embrace therapeutic parenting and now PACE. It helps and I would encourage any adopter (or regular parent for that matter) to learn these methodologies to help them parent more consciously. This fits my spiritual outlook on life better too although there are times I have to tweak the methods to meet the responses my children have to barriers and experiences. I have had to explore all my parenting expectations and personal history to try and let go of my own ego responses to behaviours that I find very challenging. I have explored my early experiences and those of my parents and their parents to understand who I am and the ways in which I react to life. I have had to learn how to shut down the normal reactions someone might have to being hit and screamed at to present a calm and regulated outward impression. I am still wondering what long term impact that might have on me but I am doing the best I can. We are still very much in a crisis situation but I am managing it better. I try and remember that my children are expressing their own pain and confusion and that I can hold space for that and not jump in with both feet to rescue them.
We now have support from our Post Adoption Social Worker, CAMHS and education. It’s not enough by any stretch of the imagination and it’s a bit too late but there is some hope that more support is coming and I can help the children to rebalance and settle and that I can help them have interventions to help them understand themselves better. I can’t cure FASD, ASD and ADHD but I can try and understand the developmental trauma it seems we all carry and try and help my children understand and heal. I will continue to support them throughout their lives to understand the circumstances that led to their adoption and wherever that journey takes us all. I don’t yet know where we’re headed and how it will all pan out but I do know that I’m much more conscious as a parent about what I bring to the table and how my experiences impact on me and ultimately my family. That’s really all I can do. I continue to fight every day for my children to get the help they need whilst realising that I don’t think it’s really available. We’ve had so many support plans go wrong due to funding issues, illnesses and the pandemic that I carry a cynicism inside me now that I wish I didn’t have to carry. It has made me realise that I am all things to everybody whether I like it or not and somehow I have to wrap my head around what that means and how I can manage that. The support system is badly flawed and underfunded. All I can do is my best and hope for the best.