Within a matter of weeks Biff went from being a calm and happy child who rarely lost his temper to an incredibly angry little boy. It was a shock. We thought we had prepared Biff well for his new little brother. We’d involved him in the process from the very beginning, talking about how he felt, what he was looking forward to and what he was not. We asked his opinion on what he thought his brother would like in his room, he helped us choose some clothes, teddies and cup and plate set. Of course he got presents too!
It’s hard enough on birth families when a new baby arrives, I’ve heard the youngest child often regresses and feels jealous.. However at least a new baby sleeps a lot of the time and doesn’t move around. Having a 2 year old toddler suddenly thrust into your life is a completely different experience, and incredibly hard on the other child. Toddlers are demanding. Buster was into all of Biff’s toys, he ran around, wanted our full attention all the time, he was non-verbal so communicated through crying, screaming and grabbing.
In retrospect it was no shock that Biff lost his cool. We all struggled to adapt. It was a very tricky time as there was so much to balance. How do you manage the overwhelming emotional and physical needs of a newly placed child alongside an already placed, feeling usurped child? Biff started saying he hated us. He hated his new brother, he told us he wanted to go to live with his birth Mum. Every time he saw either of us cuddle or re assure Buster he said we didn’t love his as much as his new brother.
Biff started having tantrums, throwing things around his room, at us, screaming, refusing to go to school, refusing to join in with activities. He became bad tempered and surly. No amount of re assurance worked. He was simply furious.
Our prep course hadn’t dealt with how to prepare our first child for a new sibling AT ALL. We asked at the time and were given some ‘reading’ but that proved ineffective. It was a travesty that we hadn’t been given training and advice on how to support our first child. We had been bunged on the same prep course as first time adopters but our needs were vastly different.
The first glimmer of getting the old Biff back came about 8 months into the placement. My brother had moved to Paris and invited me over. We decided I should take Biff on my own. The second we got onto Eurostar the furrowed brow disappeared and I had my happy little boy back. We seriously re bonded that weekend. He was lavished with attention by me and his uncle, given lots of treats and exciting new experiences. That weekend changed a lot for us. It made Vic and I realise how rotten Biff had been feeling and that we needed to both take Biff out on his own with either one of us. He needed space from his brother and time to just be the centre of our world again.
The second child placed with us, Buster, was 20 months at the time of matching and we were to take him home aged 22 months.
Biff was initially very excited at the prospect of a little brother. We tried to get him involved in the process as much as possible. He chose his new brother’s plate and cup set , chose a bear, helped find things to decorate his room and even relinquished baby books from his shelves that he thought his new brother would like. He helped in the making of video and photo book for Buster and proudly showed him around the house on camera. We did a lot of talking and re assuring and explained how special Biff was and that he’d be a fantastic older brother.
Buster’s history was very different to Biff’s. He’d had a rockier start, his prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol and his subsequent hospitalisation at birth worried us. Buster still had twice weekly contact with his birth family and that was set to change to letterbox only. We wondered whether that would be an enormous wrench for him too.
Buster was in foster care from roughly two weeks and so had a firm attachment to his foster mother. She absolutely adored him (he’s an immense cutie) and they were very connected to one another.
Introductions with Buster didn’t go anywhere near as well as Biff’s had. Firstly Buster was ill. He only had a mild chest infection but as with all children, he’d regressed and needed the cuddles and reassurance from his foster mother. After a couple of great first days, things went downhill. Buster wasn’t interested in us and just wanted to be with his carer. He’d hide behind her when we arrived and screamed whenever she left the room. Looking back we often wonder whether this slightly botched introduction has affected Buster as he still has profound separation anxiety now. Perhaps we should have pushed back and taken longer over the introductions. It was discussed at the time but the SW felt elongating the process would do more harm than good.
So Buster arrived home in late May. Shell shocked and bewildered by the change, his first few weeks with us were fairly smooth running. He slept and ate well and we spent adoption leave time together as a family picnicking in the local park or playing in the garden.
All was well for those first few weeks but suddenly, out of the blue, Biff our eldest child, began to display disruptive and oppositional behaviour. The tantrums had begun…
Our decision to adopt again came out of both Vic and I coming from families with siblings and the realisation that Biff, who’s incredibly social, would love a brother or sister. We also had one room left in our three bedroomed terrace.
Things were going well with Biff, he had settled, I was feeling more confident as a parent, we had a good social network, we were thoroughly bonded and felt ready. He’d been in placement for almost three years when we made the call to the social worker saying we were ready to adopt again.
We had lots of worries and reservations; would adopting again disrupt our stable threesome and the equilibrium in the house? Would the children get on? Would we have a child with needs that meant Biff would lose out on our time and attention? Would there be contact differences that created a rift?
Although I think the system has improved now with some adoption agencies and local authorities, at the time we were vetted to be adopters again we had to endure EXCATLY the same prep course as before. We thought this was nuts. Our experiences as adopters accounted for very little and we were given the same handouts/training/workshops/reading as all the other newbies in the group. It was dull and frustrating because what we really wanted to know was how to prepare our first son, Biff, for the whirlwind of a new child in our home. We also wanted access to information and research into how differing levels of contact between adopted siblings could be managed. Our training was woefully inadequate, our questions on differing levels of contact went largely unanswered and the only concrete advice we found was through self-directed internet/book research.
The process was at least slightly swifter than before. Within 8 months we were at matching panel…
The biggest change to our lives as an adopted family came when we joined New Family Social. Set up by Andy Leary May in 2007 as a way of getting LGBT adopters to network, socialise and support one another.
Biff was around 16 months when we first found out about NFS and I wish we had joined sooner. We went to meet ups every first Sunday in a central London play area and soon we were part of an established network of adopters. It felt fantastic to hang out with other families who could relate to exactly how we had been feeling. I thought that the LGBT element of being a parent would be most prevalent in how I perceived who we would be socialising with and to that end I’d forayed into the South London Lesbian Mums Group (almost exclusively a birth mum group) but in fact it was the adoption part of being a parent that struck home as much as being a gay parent. We wanted to talk about contact issues, bonding and attachment.
The New Family Social Network has been an incredible source of support, advice and above all friendship. We now know dozens of adopted families locally and nationally. Our local friends feel like extended family members and our kids love playing together. We hang out together, help each other with child care, advice and even go on joint family holidays.
The annual national NFS camp happens each summer. Some 400 adoptive LGBT families all camp, play and have fun together. It is the closest thing to utopia I have ever experienced. Immense love, courageous children and parents and an understanding that all our families are a little bit different but ultimately fantastic!
Back to Work
After 8 months at home I had to make the decision of whether or not to return to my job as a primary school teacher. All along I’d sworn I’d NEVER return to education, that it was my dream to be a stay at home Mum (an ambition I’ve since discarded). However I shocked myself at how much I was itching to get back. Despite it being school (more kids!) I wanted to use my brain again; talk to adults I knew, be in a place where I was known and respected as a professional. I wanted to wear nice clothes again that didn’t have regurgitated puke marks on the shoulder. I wanted to be able to have a lunch break on my own and eat hot food, drink hot tea. I also wanted to earn money again. After twenty years of complete self-sufficiency it felt uncomfortable relying on Vicky’s resources as the leave pay dwindled. Not that Vicky begrudged what I was spending in any way; it was a pride and self-respect issue. I wanted to be able to buy a pair of jeans/shoes/earrings without feeling guilty.
Vicky and I chatted at length about the best options and child care. Eventually we came up with the grand plan of me requesting to work just two days per week and asking a local friend, who child minded, if she had any vacancies.
I was incredibly lucky. My headteacher assented to my request and I was to go back only two days per week for the foreseeable future. The child minder had space and we decided it best that Biff got to know her well before I was starting back. To this end we began child care 1 x morning a week to see how he got on.
The first morning we went for a cup of tea and a play at the child minders was fine as her house was a colourful jumble of toys, books and games. The following week the child minder insisted I spend only ten minutes settling Biff and then go out for half an hour. That was truly awful. Biff was beside himself when I left and I walked away sobbing. In the absence of a good network of friends with young children I had acted on the advice of the child minder that the “cold turkey” approach was best. I tried pointing out that Biff was adopted and I wanted to take things more slowly but she was adamant that in her 25 years of child minding experience, with children from all sorts of backgrounds, hers was the right approach. I wish I’d pushed back more. It didn’t feel like the right thing to do. In retrospect I’d have liked to spend more time settling Biff but she had other children in her care, she was an old friend and I really didn’t know of an alternative at the time. After the 5th or 6th drop off, Biff stopped screaming at the door when I left. He seemed to enjoy the space and the other children at the child minders. She had a huge back garden with a trampoline, slide and swings, when I picked Biff up he was often smiling and giggling.
Biff was only doing 1 morning a week for the first 2 months but by the time I went back to work he was able to move to 2 days a week fairly smoothly and even held onto his afternoon nap at the child minders house.
So I skipped back into teaching 2 days per week, enough to get my brain engaged and earn some money without the stress and paperwork attached to full time teaching. Surprisingly, it made me a better Mum. Those two days helped me re connect with my adult brain and by the time I saw Biff again I had truly missed him. I saw my non-working days at home with Biff as more golden. I played with him more, engaged with him more and saw our days together as opportunities to bond and have fun.
Almost all adoptions involve some form of contact with the birth family. Contact is often indirect “letterbox” contact where a member of the birth family; a parent, grandparent or sibling, writes a letter and you, the adopted family respond. Or it can be direct, face to face contact whereby you meet up with members of your child’s birth family.
When Vicky and I first learned about contact, especially direct contact, we were sceptical. We thought that direct contact would be a constant reminder for our child that he was adopted and I certainly felt worried and threatened by the prospect of maintaining direct contact with the birth family. Would it make our child feel insecure or different? Would it unsettle him? Would he prefer his birth family to us?
When Biff arrived there weren’t any contact arrangements in place. Initially we were overjoyed at this prospect because we felt we could just get on with family life without constant reminders that Biff was part of another family. However we now feel the opposite. As I sit and write this blog, with Biff now 7 years of age, I can say that NOT having contact has proved to be a real issue. We have a life story book with photos of Biff’s birth parents but that’s it and it really bothers him. Biff gets extremely upset that he doesn’t get any letterbox contact (Buster, his brother does and this has caused all manner of problems). Biff is desperate to know more about his birth family, desperate for questions to be answered about why he was adopted and he often gets tearful about not having any way of connecting with his birth family. Of course we have tried and tried to get contact but it has so far been impossible. Poor Biff, we try and bolster him in every way we can but nothing alleviates that sense of sadness he feels or that missing part of his identity.
On reflection I think that for the majority of children contact is incredibly important. Vic and I have learned to shelve our own worries and inhibitions about what contact may feel like for us and think more of what it means for our children and their needs to make connections with their birth families.
As I got into a routine with Biff, markers in our week made it more bearable. We started swimming on Tuesday mornings. I went in the pool with him and the close skin on skin contact and splashing/giggling combo with intense gazing into his baby blues whilst singing “There’s a worm at the bottom of the garden…” helped. We were beginning to bond and trust was forming. Vicky and I used to talk about our feelings for Biff in terms of a percentage in the early days. We would check in with how bonded we were feeling. I remember it creeping up over the first few months from a tentative 30% to a 90% just before Biff’s Birthday.
Playgroup at a children’s centre on Monday and Thursdays and meeting with a friend who’d just had a baby on Fridays gave the week a structure. I was beginning to feel more confident in my abilities as a parent. However I was bored. After years of working in a fairly stressful environment and using my brain I found it difficult to engage with the monotony of child care.
Someone asked me recently what I’d do differently if I had the time again, and my response was ~ do more of what you enjoy. Biff was quite small when we adopted him and able to sit happily in his pram for hours at a time. I thought taking him to singing monkeys/baby bouncing/diddi dancing was the way forward. I thought I was doing the right thing, on reflection, I think the right thing would have been downing better coffee in proper cafes and whisking him into London to visit exhibitions/galleries/buildings/events. Happier mum = happy kid.