Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Angry Adoptive Parents and The Virtual Headteacher

Several years ago the county in which I live appointed a Virtual Headteacher.  She was a real person and her role was to work on behalf of those children who can find it difficult to access mainstream education; disabled children, children with learning difficulties and children from cultural and ethnic minorities.  As an experienced Headteacher she knew something about the needs of these children.  But buried in her job description was a baffling reference to another group: adopted children. 

‘But why would these children require any special attention?’ she thought to herself.  And so with our Post Adoption Support Social Worker she advertised for adoptive parents to join her for a meeting and to share with her any difficulties they and their children may have experienced in school.  I don’t think she expected to learn a great deal.

The meeting was held on a Tuesday morning, in a conference room in a small rural town, thirty miles from the small rural town in which I live.  I arrived five minutes before the starting time and struggled to park.  When I found the conference room there were few seats left.  People continued to stream in.  More chairs were brought.  The tea urn was refilled.  The biscuit plate was replenished.  Then as the last few parents came in looking flustered from school runs and long journeys, notebooks and pens were fished out from handbags. These people had come prepared.  When the Virtual Head Teacher came into the room there was a feeling of what I could only describe a barely contained and yet polite kind of pent up frustration and anger. 

The Headteacher started proceedings by telling us about her long teaching career and then about her new role, which she had only recently taken on and had been established by the then Labour government.  She opened up the floor and a few nervous parents started to explain why school is so difficult for their children.  They talked about inappropriate behaviour systems which shame the already shamed, exclusions which exclude the already abandoned and teachers who refuse to understand the impacts of early trauma, tagging these children as ‘controlling’, ‘lacking in focus’, ‘disruptive’ and ‘unteachable’.

She was I have to say, not the most humble person and what followed was not pretty.  She uttered the words (which I cringe as I write),

‘All children are like that aren’t they?’

There were gasps from around the room and a long, long, painful silence.  The Virtual Headteacher shuffled in her chair and fished her pendant out from her cleavage.  The Social Workers looked on with not a great deal of surprise (‘enough rope’ I thought to myself).

Then a very eloquent man spoke up.

‘Our children have come from the care system.  They were in the care system because most of them had been neglected or abused or both.  They have suffered loss, they have suffered fear, loneliness violence, hunger and cold, some have suffered severe pain.  Raising these children is the biggest challenge which many of us will ever have faced,’ (we all nod in agreement) ‘and most of us would consider ourselves professional parents’ (we nod again, more vigorously) ‘not only do we struggle to parent our children, we have to fight an education system which does not meet the needs of our children, which shows little understanding of attachment disorder and early trauma and you have just demonstrated that in front of all of us’.

His braveness was astonishing.  I felt like applauding. 

Barely a second after he finished someone else joined in and then another and another.  There was account after account of jaw-dropping struggle against schools and systems and bureaucracies, heartbreaking stories of children failing, parents being blamed, difficult situations being made worse and many children being excluded from school altogether.  The speakers struggled to voice their experiences through their emotions.  I spoke of my own experience which resulted in months of searching for a school which had some appreciation of attachment and trauma.  I found one eventually, an excellent village school in a different county, half an hour’s drive from our home.  The difference in our son is remarkable, but the travelling and the dislocation from our local community come at some personal cost.

Battling the education system whether that be the SEN process or a teacher in a local school, feels like just that, an arduous and lonely battle and it is fought by those who can ill afford the energy and the time that the battle requires.

I have no doubt that the Virtual Headteacher felt overwhelmed by the parents and their stories that day.  But I will give her credit for listening to us.  She enabled a project to start in our county, a project which seeks to award adopted children similar rights to those given to children in care.  It has been rolled out across our county and my son’s new secondary school is about to use it for him and the other adopted children in his year.  It is not perfect, but it is a good start and at least it allows our children, with the agreement of their parents to be flagged as potentially having additional and different needs.

I will blog about the project in more detail in my posting next week.  Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Life Seen Through Adoption Glasses

The day we brought our two children home, I put on a thick pair of Adoption Glasses and have not taken them off since.  Adoption Glasses make the world look different.  Some things that previously appeared big and important are now small and insignificant.  Other things that were previously innocuous are now loaded with meaning.

Adoption Glasses are both a blessing and a curse.  A whole other side of life is suddenly in focus and marvellous.  But they can get heavy and bring on grumpiness and the complexities they reveal can become burdensome.

There are variations on Adoption Glasses, such as Autism Glasses and Infertility Glasses and they all perform a similar function and you cannot choose whether or not to wear them.

My particular Adoption Glasses are fashioned from parenting children who have experienced neglect and abuse.  Here are some of the ways that wearing Adoption Glasses have changed the way I see the world:

1.  Previously innocent films such as ‘Elf’ and ‘Stuart Little’ are vehicles for propagating society’s evil myths about adoption and make real adopters look like attention seeking drama kings and queens.  I could also make a very unpopular point about certain celebrities and adoption, but I am not brave enough. 

2.  ‘Neighbours’ is no longer twenty minutes of brain-holiday a day, it is in reality the carrier of ridiculous storylines about adoption and brings on bouts of high blood pressure.

3.  Uber-mothers move amongst us.  They have horns and their teeth are chiselled into points.  They aim to herd the children of the glasses wearers into ‘special schools’ or ‘exclusion zones’, reserving mainstream schools for the sole use of ‘good and deserving children’.  They seek to gather followers, including teachers, through advanced mind control.  They use parent’s evenings and play dates as their weapons.

4.  Some of life’s noble leisure pursuits are an actual waste of time.  Melting down broken crayons into a ‘crayon cake’ and sugarcraft for example will never become important enough when your home smells of urine and someone has crapped behind the climbing frame.

5.  Beware social situations containing mothers of well-balanced and high achieving children, especially where alcohol is present. 

6.  Some intelligent people are actually quite stupid and vice versa.  Emotional intelligence is more easily spotted when wearing the Adoption Glasses.  Likewise it is easy to spot that anyone uttering the words ’they should be alright by now’ is an ignoramus and should not be working in the fields of either child health or education.

7.  ‘Naughty’ children are usually children in distress.  Education can be their life raft.  I would like to lend my Adoption Glasses to others, including some politicians and journalists.  I think it would help them.

8.  Perspective is everything.

‘Why be Happy when You Can be Normal?’ by Jeanette Winterson, an adoptive mother’s reading.

I love Jeanette Winterson’s writing and her novels are amongst my favourites, but I was reluctant to read her latest book ‘Why be Happy When You Can be Normal?’ her memoir of her experiences of being adopted.  Since becoming an adoptive mother eight years ago I have been put off accounts of adoption, written and televised.  Adoptive mothers are often cast in a very poor light.  They are cold, spoilt, middle-class women, raising other people’s babies in loveless homes or shadowy figures, barely in existence, the ‘unnatural’ parent.  And the natural conclusion, the endpoint of adoption is the rosy reunion with the birth or ‘natural’ mother, when the story is completed and all ends are neatly tied up.

I have read enough of Jeanette Winterson’s work to know that I wasn’t going to find a positive role model in her adoptive mother, Mrs Winterson.  She is a woman who is unable to mother, to give herself over to the love of a child.  She has bricked herself and her husband and child into a frightful little world of her own making, no light enters.  The outside world burgeoning with sin and bad influences pushes to get in.

More than having birth children even, an adopted child is a surprise package, a lucky dip of a life and there are many wonders and delights that are revealed in the process of bonding with them and in loving and nurturing them.  They drag us out of our comfortable places and keep us in step with the modern world.  Mrs Winterson could not grow, could not give in to another way of being and her daughter with her love of literature and gift for writing was dealt with as a threat.  Jeanette also exhibited something which was looked upon as even more dangerous: love and a desire for happiness and fulfilment.  It is this which ultimately brings about Mrs Winterson’s bleakest question, ‘Why be happy when you can be normal?’ which gives the book its title.

It is Jeanette Winterson’s reflections in later life on the damage which was done to her as a result, not only of her mistreatment by her adoptive parents, but also as a direct consequence of the severed bond with her birth mother which really struck a chord with me.  Many parents of adopted children will know that to find someone, anyone, who understands the damage done by broken attachments is to stumble upon a rare person indeed.  And to read the words of someone who has experienced, felt and really researched and reflected on that experience was like shining a bright light into my own experiences of mothering my children.  Just as Jeanette Winterson recounts, my own children report of hearing voices in their heads, not imagined voices but a real voices, which tell them they are unlovable, bad through and through.  Sometimes the voices will tell them that unpleasant things will happen to Rob and I and that the security we claim to give them is false.  In all the literature about attachment I have read, in all the courses I have been on, I have never come across an account or an explanation of that experience.  And the journey that she goes on to deal with that particular demon is brave and extraordinary. 

The reunion between Jeanette and her birth mother comes towards the end of the book.  It is not the usual fare that is served up and I wondered as I read it how difficult it had been to write about the reality of a reunion, pre-loaded as it is with the expected ways of feeling and behaving.  I also thought again about what reunions mean for modern adoptive families like ours, where genes are tangled with experiences of harm and neglect and real feelings of fear.

More than anything, the book is honest and stripped of ‘the pink mists’ which usually sweeten accounts of adoption.  Jeanette Winterson writes that ‘we need better stories for stories around adoption’.   She is right and she has gone a way to filling the gap.  I am writing my own as well about an adoptive mother who is I hope both happy and normal.

Kirstie’s Handmade Britain – and the point being made is?

I like Kirstie Allsopp.  I like her dresses and her glossy dark hair and I like her kitchen.  Location, Location, Location would just be a dull show about deluded wannabees without her sharp humour (‘so Tabitha and Henry, you have a budget of £500k, you’ve viewed 750 properties, you’re living in a cardboard box, about to give birth to triplets and you don’t like this wonderful Cornish beach front property. FOR GOD’S SAKE WHY?).  

I have enjoyed watching Kirstie trying out different crafts.  Just as I don’t want a crash pad in Chelsea, I don’t myself want to knit a hairbrush cover but in my parallel and wholly imaginary world I knit my own lovely jumpers in colours of heather and I make church windows and give away handmade presents every Christmas. 

But I just don’t know what to make of Kirstie’s latest series for Channel 4, ‘Kirstie’s Handmade Britain’.  Each week she learns a craft such as quilting or flower arranging and then she enters a county show with the items she has made, with the express intention and some expectation of winning.  Yes, winning. 

Coming from a family of crafts people, I get how much skill these crafts require and how much time and single-mindedness they demand, especially at a competitive level.  I also think that these crafts, being considered as ‘female’ crafts are underrated and under-appreciated.  So in going out to win, I do not get the point Kirstie is trying to make. 

Are these crafts actually easier than they look so any reasonably practical person could dash off a winning item after minimal practise? In which case the crafts people are either a bit rubbish or are pulling the wool over our eyes. Or are these crafts as difficult as we know them to be but Kirstie is so bathed in wonderfulness that she doesn’t need the years of practise?  Either way, craftswomen and men are badly served by the series.  The cushion she made should not have won and I found myself feeling quite cross on behalf of the other competitors that it did.  And did she honestly expect to have any chance of competing against the flower arrangers? Maybe not, but she looked gutted that she didn’t get placed. ’Humility’ I wanted to say to her, just show a little bit. 

There has also been an underlying sense through the series that these crafts are being done by yokels, yokels with their silly out-dated ways and their ridiculous provincial country shows.  I think I’ve picked up a channel 4 smirk.  But maybe that’s just me being a bit oversensitive.

Structure and Supervision – Another Fresh Start

There has been shouting, swearing, trashing and bashing.  There have been tears, blame, exhaustion and then analysis and planning.  We are in the same old cycle that drives the four of us. The seeds of the cycle were sown eleven years ago in the filthy and violent household in which my son and daughter spent their early months and years.

God only knows where we find the energy, but Rob and I have dusted ourselves down again, diagnosed the immediate problem and realise that we know the solution because it’s the same old solution.  We’ve been avoiding putting it into practise because it needs an injection of energy and enthusiasm for family life that frankly it is sometimes difficult to muster.

So freedoms have been reigned in, privileges pared back and a strong, dependable structure has been laid down.  Close supervision is again the answer and Rob and I have again initiated our system for managing the weekends.  Rob will take out Child A to perhaps the cinema, I will take Child B for a cycle ride.  We will have lunch in our pairs and then meet for tea, after which we watch something on the television together.  Before bedtime we will announce the Sunday schedule.  Maybe Child A will cycle to the paper shop whilst Child B makes cakes.  We then might all go to the park with scooters.  Some supervised chores will take place, then tea, baths and reading.  

It kills me that we have to live like this.  I’m naturally a laissez-faire person, especially at the weekends.  But the structure and supervision work, every time.  Gradually there is less destruction, energy becomes smoother and less spiky and unpredictable and we start to repair and have fun.

For a long time I hung on to the hope that eventually I would be able to be a ‘normal’ parent, and that adoption would become a peripheral.  Each time I dust myself off and begin another fresh start, I feel a little stab of grief for the parent that I wanted to be.  But soon enough our children will settle down again and I will remember what I adore about our odd family and I will be flooded with love and admiration for them.  For now, we have just had our first weekend free of destruction and that’s a good start. 


Feeling Stuck in the Middle of National Adoption Week

I have been doing my bit for National Adoption Week because it is clearly a good thing.   So I have been to a local authority focus group, I’ve blogged and tweeted and I’ve been interviewed by our local BBC radio station.  So far so good.

Now it is never wise to voice concern about a generally accepted ‘good thing’.  But since my blog and my book are about honesty, here goes. 

Much as I believe I was honest in my radio interview I felt that the real truth was somehow out-of-bounds.  During the focus group, I could voice some of the difficulties but there was not the time and it was clearly not appropriate to talk about what really goes on in our house. So I followed the ‘well it’s very hard but it’s worth it’ line.  Which is true.  But it isn’t being honest.

So the honesty is this.  As I was listening to the radio interviewer leaving a message on my phone, saying what time the broadcast would be that evening, I was sat on my much-loved son, restraining him.  He had already smashed his head against his headboard several times, ripped it off his bed and smacked it into the wall.  As I was holding him down, I noticed the headboard had scrawled across it ‘Mum and Dad are not in control because they are useless’.  Then as he was shouting ‘f*** you, I f****** hate you, I’m going to make your whole life a f*****g misery, I will get you when you are asleep and give you black eyes ………….’ and so forth I had to adjust my position to prevent him pushing over furniture in reach and kicking me in the back. ‘AHHH AAHHHHH’ he shouted as if to the whole street ‘CALL THE POLICE MY MUMMY IS HURTING ME’. Then he started on the mind control. ‘So what are you going to do now, little mummy? Are you gonna ring daddy cos you can’t cope, are you gonna cry boo hoo cos no one is going to hear you, loser, idiot, stupid.’  I tried to shout to my younger child to bring me the phone, because actually, he was right, I did feel I could lose control and I did want to call on my husband for assistance.  When my daughter didn’t answer, my son looked deep into my eyes and laughed and laughed.

These situations don’t happen every day. And they might not happen for a year. But sometimes, when there is change to a new school for example, or another stress around, they do happen, perhaps every few days.  And Rob and I are fairly well-practised now so we know what to do and we know to look to the causes and to seek the help of our support worker.  But the help out there is pretty thin and 90% of those around me, including my son’s school have little appreciation of what his behaviour is really like. These events pile up and are cumulatively and deeply traumatising for us all.  And they are happening against a background of continuing conflict (‘time to get up now’, ”NO’, ‘it’s tea time’, ‘I’m not eating your stupid food, EVER’, ‘let’s do some reading together’, ‘I don’t want to read, especially with YOU. WHY DON’T YOU GO AND LIVE IN PAIN AND MISERY’)  And the conflict is pretty much an ongoing thing, with some quieter times in between.

Clearly it is difficult to voice this during adoption week because it would put people off coming forward to adopt.  That would be a bad thing.  But in not saying it am I doing an injustice to those people? Would I be guilty of mis-selling? I think I might be.  I have watched some of the television coverage this week and most of it has been balanced and searching.  But I can’t help noticing that many of the advocates for adoption are those who are relatively new to adoption, whose homes and minds are still in tact and who have younger children who have not endured quite so long in squalor, fearing for their own safety.  I express this very tentatively because those parents deserve a say because they have made a courageous decision and have a valid experience to talk about.  But I worry that those of us with more difficult experiences to tell of, who maybe have older children or siblings, or children with complex medical issues are not being given the opportunity to speak.  Clearly their stories would not sit easily within a PR campaign.

 I want more prospective adopters to come forward because I want more children to be given the chance of growing up in a stable and loving family and that is why I support National Adoption Week.  But only with real honesty can we hope to attract those who are fully prepared for the long haul.