Bringing a second child into your family is tricky and if your family is made up by way of adoption, well, it just makes things that bit more complicated. I am not by any means saying that natural families don’t have issues with expanding the family but when your family is expanded by way of traumatic (yes, that word again) life changing events rather than (what I imagine to be) the joyful moment of childbirth it kind of sticks. These adopted children will always feel a sense of insecurity and I would go as far as to say that all of them will feel like this, it took me a long time to realise this but the truth is why wouldn’t they?
With one child it’s simpler to work on creating those secure attachments and life can be enjoyed, you can build the trust, you can concentrate your efforts solely and get through the tough times together with no added complications. Then comes along child number two. Suddenly life is as complicated and confusing as it’s going to get. You need to create a bond with your second child but yet maintain a good bond with your first child but then you have to consider that your first child still needs that concentrated effort of attention but your second child needs it just as much or actually more and the more one needs it the more the other needs it. Even thinking about it sends my head into a spin.
I have come to the conclusion that a lot of the time one child is going to feel like their nose has been put out of joint. The squabbles and bids for my attention are never ending. I might sound bitter, I am not. What I am is stretched to my limits. Whatever my moves are with one child I have to make sure I have the other child in mind, ready to spring into quick-witted action, I have to be forward thinking. If anyone has ever met me, I think they would agree that quick-witted or forward thinking would not be the first words you would use to describe me. I am a thinker, I like to take my time to mull something over, I am not really very good at being one step ahead unless I have already learned previously from a similiar mistake and I guess that’s the important thing, learning from the mistakes.
Take for instance the other day. Girl came home from school and Boy laid into her as he does most days. Whatever she picks up he wants, ‘it’s mine (whether it is or isn’t), I want it’. If she sits down he shouts ‘my chair, me sit there’. Resigned, Girl slipped to her room quietly with the excuse she was going to the toilet. After twenty minutes I went to check on her and she was sitting playing snap with herself on the floor, looking utterly miserable. I tried to talk to her but she was stubborn that she was not going to say she was sad about Boy picking on her again so I suggested she find her Guess Who game and I would play that with her (while I cooked the dinner I hasten to add). To cut a long story short (because it really is dull), Boy soon sniffed out that Girl was having ‘Fun with Mummy’ and he was not. Much squawking later Girl is happy but Boy is not and refuses to eat his dinner, he suddenly has tummy ache, leg ache and mouth ache (and Mummy has a headache Boy dearest). In hindsight I could have picked a game for us all to play but Girl looked so sad I thought she needed some special attention but by doing that I put Boy’s nose out of joint. What do I do? Is there ever a point of mummy coming out champion of everything?
It’s not just Boy being mean to Girl, we do get the opposite where Girl has tried to push herself into whatever activity Boy is doing. She calls it sharing but differently to boy it’s more sly. Boy will just shout his desires, ‘mine, I want it’ but Girl pushes herself into Boy’s space so eventually he is pushed out of the activity altogether, comic reading, brushing the dog, playing on the ride-on motorbike etc.
Our (new) family therapist told us to consider that in parenting terms having one adopted child is the equivalent of having two children, just in sheer input and extra measures we have to take. In my words I would say adopted children have extra needs, not necessarily special needs, just extra needs. They have been to the dark side, they need to know they won’t be there again and every move towards the sibling is a small rejection for them, I think that’s important to understand.
I hear so many adopters excited by the prospect of a second adoption, frustrated at having to wait the two years required by most adoption authorities and possibly more excited than when they adopted the first child. I have been there myself. The grim reality is, it’s bloody hard work parenting two very needy children and juggling all the different sized balls that come with adoption but by golly I must be a glutton for punishment because I actually love it. Honestly at times I have felt like I haven’t liked it very much, that the incessant demands for my attention have been overwhelming but I would not change a thing. The moments when you get it right I am sure feel a million times better because those cuddles and smiles, moments of relaxation are fought so hard for.
Life is never simple with adopted children. At the moment Girl is coping pretty well with everything and Boy is not. Weekends are still fraught and from the moment we woke up on Saturday morning this weekend Boy has been grumpy, mean, spiteful, uncooperative and stubborn. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that though he loves his older sister he also feels threatened by her or not actually by her but having to share the attention he gets throughout the week. It’s something he will learn to cope with as he grows older, it’s so hard for any two year old to share attention (adopted or not) but still pretty exhausting for mummy and daddy.
Life has been interesting with Girl in that she has been quite a different child recently. She has returned to school with no real difficulties, she is not particularly enjoying it, grumbles about having to go, gets upset with the playground politics and we have had some slightly difficult behaviour but she does seem to be trying very hard to control her impulses and share her anxieties which is just brilliant. We have learned the signals, we know the usual triggers and I think we deal with and understand the behaviours pretty well now.
However, today we have had contact with Girl’s older sisters, it’s the first we have had for a while and the behaviour this afternoon after a relatively calm weekend has been manic. We had a few warning signs of anxiety before going to bed and after her bedtime story she told me ‘My tummy feels funny and wants to do something but I don’t know what’. Earlier in the year this would have been a surefire start to some pretty horrendous bedtime behaviour, she wouldn’t have accepted me telling her that if she goes to sleep she will feel better, she would have fought me. This surely signals a step forward but on past record I also know that it takes a couple of days for Girl to process how she feels about contact and ‘fight it out’. It will be interesting to see how it plays out this week. I am hoping that it is not the straw that breaks the camels back. She is stressed with school, we know that but as I said she is coping but any extra stress could tip her over the edge and that’s the problem, stress is going to come by the bucket load in the next few months.
We do have more contact lined up at the weekend. Girl’s Grandad’s chemotherapy is not providing any quality of life and he is very poorly, his days are sadly numbered so we will be coping with that extra stress on top of normal every day life. The every day life that includes a trip abroad with a boy who we have realised does not like holidays and then the countdown to Christmas begins. (Yes, that in itself is stressful to Girl). So we are going to have to be very, very resilient and forward thinking in the coming months.
Two days ago we received postbox contact from Girl’s birth mum. I opened it hesitantly, I normally like to give it a once over first to prepare my mind for the discussions that may follow but Girl fetched the post and was eager for me to open everything, she seemed to instinctively know there was something interesting in the big brown envelope.
I have always thought I understood the importance of being honest and open about adoption with Girl, right from the beginning it has been something we have talked about with her, offered information and answered questions. We have embraced contact with her birth family, direct and postbox. We bought children’s books explaining adoption, ones that emphasise that families are different, ones that give her sense of belonging - in fact you name it we brought it. We have tried to let the need for information be led by Girl but with the issue of direct contact that has not always been possible, sometimes it has been led by circumstance more than by Girl’s needs.
The postbox envelope we received contained a letter and an envelope of photos and we observed that birth mum looks a lot like Girl’s eldest sister. Girl declared that she would like birth mum to come and live with us which I took in my stride, she always says something like that, I don’t believe it to have any meaning other than she is a kind girl.
I left the letter out on the table and this morning she took the photos out again and her first question was ‘mummy was the names of the two ladies that couldn’t look after me Janet & Josephine*?’. I was a little taken aback by this, it is quite wrong but also the names she said were of her two young cousins – one of whom does share the same name as birth mum. She then went on to tell me a little story about how she chose us, she went looking for a nice house to live in and chose this one. I have heard this story before, it’s clearly how she likes to think things worked out for her and I do correct her (age appropriately of course) but it just adds to her confusion.
Since postbox we have slightly gone back to some habits that we haven’t seen much of lately, major fidgeting, unable to get her words out properly or make a comprehensible sentence, an inability to do things for herself and a certain slowness in activities, nothing major but a definite difference.
Some people are of the opinion that contact is not a good idea, I am not one of those people. Some people and particularly older adoptees I have spoken to think it’s ‘wonderful’ (that’s a word that is used often though I am not sure it’s very appropriate). The older adoptees I spoke to came from am an age where they stumbled upon the fact they were adopted, or had the fact given to them on their 18th birthday (can you just imagine the impact of that?). So all in all I believe honesty is a good policy but I have a million doubts and questions about the way we approach talking about adoption and maybe in a way it could be compared to any mum questioning whether they are doing right by their child.
So I am thinking aloud now, I’m not sure there are any right or wrong answers but it would be good to hear your thoughts though. Is there a good age to start talking about adoption? Is it better to wait until they are old enough to understand completely rather than having them concoct wonderful little fantasies that you have to correct with a dimmer reality? Does Girl’s development delay have an impact on her ability to understand her circumstances and her relationship with people? Are we doing more harm than good by being too open and forward with information at such a young age? Is it too stressful to talk about different mothers; birth mothers, foster mothers, adopted mothers? How can Girl possibly be expected to understand that adopted mother means forever and come to think of it what is Girl’s understanding of forever when counting to 100 can ‘take forever’, getting to the seaside ‘takes forever’? That sort of forever is definitely finite.
We protect our children as much as we can, try to retain their innocence. Do we chat to our children about money worries, death, famine, war? Probably not but adoption is amongst the most stressful situations for a child to cope with and yet we are pushing (however gently) information at them at a tender age and I am beginning to think it’s too much and too complex for them to understand. What are we hoping to achieve by showing a five year old pictures of a woman she has never met (in Girl’s case) and reading her a letter that means so very little?
I decided to have a little ‘experiment’, I asked Girl what she thought some words meant, I told her there was no wrong answer just to tell me what she thought. I asked her what the word Sister or Brother meant and her answer after struggling for a little while was that she did not know. I asked her what she thought forever meant, she did not know. I asked her what she thought adopted meant and she said being born. We looked up the definition of Sister in the dictionary together
(sstr)n.1. A female having the same parents as another or one parent in common with another.
She said she did not really understand what that mean, I explained that she shared the same birth or tummy parents as her older sisters and that she shared the same adopted parents as her brother. I got a blank look in return and that’s probably my point, a lot of what we are telling our children is just words to them that they have no hope of understanding yet so why stress them out with it?
I have come to the conclusion that Girl is not capable of understanding the complexities or actually come to think of it the simple parts of adoption. She is interested when a letter comes and does ask questions, she has older siblings placed elsewhere that she seems to love though I guess it’s a very different relationship to siblings that would have been placed together. She has a lot of friends that were also adopted, we encouraged this to normalise adoption for her, so that she wasn’t ‘different’ but to Girl actually it’s just a word that she does not understand, something that she know’s she is but means nothing.
Would it be unethical to hold back letters from the birth parents until a time she could appreciate and undertsand them better? I definitely don’t want to hide stuff away but if she is too young to understand it why ‘worry’ her with it? Am I wrong to want to let my Girl enjoy an innocent childhood, one where she doesn’t have to think too much about her place in the world? To me her place in the world at the moment should be simple, we are her mummy and daddy and here is where she belongs. End of. No complicated interruptions thank you, let my Girl enjoy her childhood.
*Obviously I changed the names!
I love this song by Jamie Cullum and particularly at the moment it seems to ring true because these really are the days.
These are the times of love and meaning
Ice of the heart melted away and found the light
These are the days of endless dreaming
Troubles of life are floating away like a bird in flight
Cheesy? Maybe, but we are about halfway through the school holidays and our days have been delightful, joyous even. Girl is relaxed and happy, she is not stressing about reading and writing or the politics of school friendship (you know what I mean, so and so doesn’t want to be my best friend anymore, so and so said I couldn’t go to her party, the boys wouldn’t let me play their game). Instead Girl has enjoyed her days playing with her cousins who are over from America for a few weeks and her brother, their friendship is unconditional.
Girl has coped with holidays, late nights, trips out, lack of routine, social workers, a visit to the paediatrician and has remarkably even spent some time playing on her own in her room. Girl has never liked playing in her room on her own, she needs to be close by to one of us; she has always struggled to create her own play and she has mostly needed some prompting on what to do or how to do it so for her to suddenly take herself off to her room for a few hours to play with toys is quite extraordinary and all this has come about since school finished for the summer.
On Sunday we went out for the day and Girl was walking in front of me with her Daddy, every now and again she would turn round and give me the biggest most genuine smile I have ever seen, enough to bring a happy tear to my eye.
These are the days to cherish and remember forever, the days to get us through the bad times with a lot of hope.