Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Sunscreen Song (for Therapeutic Parents)

This is my version of the Sunscreen Song.  It is a compilation of advice on therapeutic parenting from people far wiser than I and to whom I give thanks.  It has not yet been put to music.

Ladies and Gentlemen, if I could offer you only one tip, it would be Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.  The small stuff, when sweated, turns into big stuff and there is enough of that around.

Close supervision is hard but worth it; don’t set your children up to fail because they will and then they will feel like failures.

Baked beans on toast, pizzas from the freezer, baked potatoes: none of these will kill you but they will buy you more time with your children.

Stop trying to control everything, but know when you have to take control because if you don’t your child will feel lost.

Come in from left field occasionally.  Surprise yourself and your children.  Have fun. Sing.  Dance.

Don’t take the bait, you will only get reeled in.  Never forget which one of you is the child and which the adult.

Know when to walk away.

Listen to yourself and try not to be a nag, it closes children’s ears.

Create family traditions, they are the glue which sticks you all together.  Have fun.

Don’t ignore or exclude but do the opposite.  If ignoring and excluding worked, your children would be the best behaved children around.

Don’t project too far into the future or it may cloud the present.  The race is long.

Try and sort your regrets about your own life, from your hopes for your child’s life: they are different things.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your children.  Get to know them.  One day you’ll miss them.

Value every achievement, no matter how small it may look.

Some mysteries are best left unsolved.  Don’t try to be Sherlock Holmes.

Try not to lose sight of who you are.  Get a babysitter.

Be kind to yourself and remember tomorrow is a new day.

And trust me on this: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.



Who Do You Think You Are: Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

Growing up with a strong sense of identity is in some ways like being gifted with a golden ticket and yet it is something which largely goes unnoticed by those of us lucky to have it. I had never questioned my own identity, probably because I had never had the need to.  I grew up in a provincial town, surrounded by people who looked like I looked and who lived much like we lived and within a family strong on stories and history and resemblances.  I never had cause to feel anything other than included.

Now I have my own children I see things a bit differently.  In our family unit of four, only our children share a blood tie.  They look alike, but not remarkably and although it is often said that they resemble my husband Rob and I, they don’t really.  This is where stories of identity start.  And once started they grow and change until they take on a life of their own and it becomes difficult to see the truth amongst the myths.

I have become grumpy with most popular media coverage of adoption and now stick mainly to the hard, academic stuff.  I sense a popular unease with adoptive parents and we are fruitful ground for myth-making as we don’t often have the opportunity to tell our own story.  We are not quite the real thing, we jealously guard secrets and use adoption as a weapon against the alien genes.  If a tragedy has befallen a child, the media will be quick to point out if that child was adopted, as though this might make a difference to the sense of loss felt by the parent, or worse still, provide a reasonable basis for suspicion.

‘Red Dust Road’ by Jackie Kay is different.  For a start, she likes and loves her adoptive parents and she writes about them with a beautiful affection.  They are white, Scottish communists, who went to watch ‘Death of Salesman’ on their first date.  They are no strangers to feeling different and how they ever found each other is a miracle in itself.  But Jackie who has a duel Scottish and Nigerian heritage not only feels different but looks different too.  She shows how identity is so often something which others seek to thrust upon us.  She is racially abused in the street, at school and at university.  Each incident is rooted both in the frailty of the attacker’s identity and their resulting need to assign an identity to her.

Through their songs and traditions, the Kays knit together a family.  They pass down a great deal of themselves; their values and beliefs and their love of holidays, stories and music.  They also pass down a conviction that their children deserve no less than a clear place in the world.  It is this which sets the foundation from which Jackie Kay can begin the journey towards finding and taking control of her identity.

Most of us live with a level of untruth about who we are because we have confidence in the basic facts. The myths and stories are a nice bit of added colour and decoration and are none the less bonding for that.  For Jackie, so much of this myth goes to the heart of who she is.   Many adopted children dream big dreams about their birth parents and Jackie was no different. In finding that they were not at all as she had imagined them left her having to grieve for the myths and come to terms with the reality.  And it was heartbreaking that the giving up of a child had not only damaged Jackie, leaving her with the ‘windy place’, a feeling of being alone, but had also profoundly damaged her birth parents lives as well.

The process of discarding and piecing together fragments of identity, the highs and lows, the drama and the sadness is so honestly described and the book ends with a strong sense that the journey continues and may never reach conclusion.

I would urge anyone who is touched by adoption to read Jackie Kay’s book.  It doesn’t run away from the complexities and yet it has a light touch and a lot of love and fun.  I leant it to a friend of mine recently, who has much in common with Jackie Kay. She wrote to me ‘I really,really enjoyed reading it and I identified with Jackie’s childhood in lots of ways.  It has been really wonderful for me in terms of my identity’.  We can all learn a lot from Jackie Kay, not least those of us who think we know who we are.

Life Story Work: Taking Control

There are two types of adoptive parents; those who effortlessly weave their child’s birth family into their own (‘Good Parents’) and those who do not (‘Bad Parents’).

‘Good Parents’ have books of photographs of birth family members around the home for all to see, they chat effortlessly about their child’s pre-adoption life and are emotionally intelligent and well-balanced people.

‘Bad Parents’ are secretive, jealous and do not act in the best interests of their child.  In fact they are damaging their child for life by adding to shame and taking away from identity.  They probably have unresolved attachment issues themselves.

At our adoption training it was made very clear which we should be and to illustrate the point a lovely woman who had adopted a new born baby a year ago talked to us about how important it was to be a ‘Good Parent’.  She had pictures of her baby’s birth family around her home and that is where they were going to stay.  That settled it: I was certainly going to be a ‘Good Parent’.

Wind forward twelve months and my physically and emotional scarred, soon to be adopted son Jamie was visited by a student Social Worker, whom he had met once before.  She showed him his new Life Story Book.  It contained pictures of his birth family, the house they had lived in and some narrative on his life from birth to the present day.  Jamie would not sit still or look at the pictures.  He shouted and threw things.  The Social Worker went home and we never saw her again.  We were left trying to pick up the pieces. For days after this Jamie was highly distressed and virtually uncontrollable.  Nevertheless we persisted.  As advised we put the Life Story Book on a prominent book shelf, where it would be seen many times a day.  I would often ask with a note of fake excitement ‘Jamie shall we sit down together and look through your Life Story Book?’. He would run away and hide.  I tried to casually drop bits and pieces into conversations.  They always resulted in a meltdown.  Meltdown is not what anyone needs in those early months of an adoption when the focus should be on establishing feelings of safety and bonding.  And at that time Jamie was grieving hard for the foster family he had just left behind.  It was all too much too soon.

Back in those days I was inexperienced and tired.  But eventually I began to realise that the Life Story Book was a object of fear and that maybe this ‘Good Parent vs Bad Parent’ thing was not as simple as I had been led to believe.

On the advice on one particular Social Worker in whom I have an enormous amount of trust, we put the book away.  And we decided to give Jamie a rest, a break from having to think about the past, as this is what he seemed to be trying to tell us he wanted. It was as though a weight had been immediately lifted.  Jamie was no longer under imminent danger of Life Story Hijack.

Very slowly and in his own time, he began to talk.  One evening, as I was tucking him into bed he shared with me his memories of an horrific event.  He drew me into his world, urging me to believe him.  I knew it was a key moment and it is one I shall never ever forget.  He taught me a lot that night about fear and trauma and the very complex feelings and emotions around being harmed by those who should protect you.

Then he started to open up on car journeys.  The theme was usually kidnap.  Could they put a ladder up against our house at night and come into my room and take me?  Would you hear them?  What would you do?  Would you fight them?  Then there were other more complex questions; are they in prison, why not, how can someone who does that to children not be in prison?

From that we moved on to the complexities of his large and complicated birth family tree.  He has difficulties understanding it even now.  There was no hope he was going to manage it at 5 or 6 years old when he struggled to get his head around even the basics of family relationships.

I have learnt to be guided in the most part by Jamie.  When he’s asked questions we’ve talked sometimes briefly, sometimes at great length and most times I’ve given him a little bit more information to assimilate. Twelve months ago this process led to me referring to his Form E and some photographs which were taken by the police.  He asked to see it all.  I sat with him at the kitchen table and we read every word.  The following day he asked if he could show the documents to his teacher.  I am grateful to her for agreeing to do this.  Again, once he had been allowed to share and explore at his own pace more weight was lifted.

This has taken eight years so far.  Jamie has seen all the information we have.  But there is still plenty more work to do. Jamie’s voice has been absolutely key to the process so far;  sometimes that voice is acted out through behaviours which have to be unpicked and sometimes it rings with clarity but it has always been strong and brave.  Now that he is older he says that he doesn’t want his Life Story Book on show but he knows where it is.  He doesn’t want pictures of his birth family on display in our home either.  They are his birth family members and some of them are his abusers too.

I came under pressure particularly in the early days and at times felt I was misrepresented as the ‘Bad Parent’.  Perhaps I am lucky that Jamie has such a strong voice or maybe I have chosen to tune into it and listen and trust.  I could of course be doing it all wrong. Either way, I’m confident now that the process we’ve followed is the right one for us. I’ve taken control: sometimes mum does know best.


Do you have a bottomless supply of energy and patience, particularly from 4 o’clock onwards?

Are you well-organised and yet spontaneous and able to think on your feet?

Do you believe chairs and sitting in them to be over-rated?

Are you physically strong, thick-skinned and able to deal with some degree of public humiliation?

Are you startlingly assertive and yet also non-competitive (ie do the words ‘donkey’ and ‘nativity’ give you a warm feeling?).

Are you a self-starter and a sticker atter, good at mazes and labyrinths?

Are you able to withstand bad and sickly poetry (with much overuse of the word ‘heart’)?

Do you enjoy drinking overstewed tea and eating Nice biscuits (fingers) in windowless conference rooms?

Are you happy to let yourself go for a few years? (this post may preclude shopping in actual shops for some time)

Do you carry a child-shaped hole in your soul?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to all the above, then you are wanted and needed by children in this country now.  Please contact Adoption and Fostering Recruitment at your local social services department.


Facebook and Adoption – Lessons Learnt

I am used to proclamations of dramatic proportions when I am trying to get ready for an evening out.  This time it was a bit different.

‘Will you love me no matter what I do?’ asked my son Jamie looking sullen.

‘Of course,’ I replied, ‘no matter what’.

‘Even if say I killed lots of people.’

‘Yes, even if you did that.  Is there something you need to tell me?’

He looked into the distance, ‘no, no I don’t think so.’

Just as I was leaving to go out, he insisted that I take my mobile phone with me.  I thought to myself ’how sweet, he’s worried about me.’

We arrived at the village hall, which is what passes for a great entertainment venue here in Mudtropolis and as it is in the land of no signal, eight texts immediately downloaded to my mobile phone.  Six are from Jamie.  I didn’t have chance to read them all in detail but the general gist was ‘sorry my mum you are sticking with me for the hell I have put you through you may wish you were not my mum but you are …….’  I assumed he was experiencing a sudden and unusual flush of guilt for past incidents and again thought to myself ‘how lovely, maybe we are turning a corner’.  It is only on the way back home that I read the texts properly and nearly fell over, ‘this thing called FACEBOOK I can use as a guest and I used you email address and now I know I am in big trouble and I really really think I should have a big consequence’.  I won’t repeat the word that I said at that point.

I ran into the house, switched on my laptop and watched open-mouthed as ten and tens of emails downloaded which were all entitled ‘FACEBOOK’.  Then I felt sick.

It is worth saying a bit about why I had such a strong reaction to something which is so widely used.  Our children are our children as a result of a closed UK adoption, an adoption which took place in a court well-away from where we live, in order to keep all our identities secure.  Apart from the usual considerations (not wanting to be tracked down by violent birth family members chief amongst them) some of our details had been leaked by an agency which should have known better.  So we have all lived under a certain amount of fear and vigilance.  Jamie in particular has nightmares about being taken.

Jamie is eleven and has been asking to use Facebook for about twelve months.  Although Facebook’s own policy dictates that children must be at least 13 to use it’s services, absolutely all Jamie’s friends use it, I am the only mean stricty mother and I am preventing him from experiencing untold levels of happiness (the same is also said of Black Ops, certificate 18 on X-Box).

I like to think of myself as an open-minded, modern kind of parent and so I had explained in the past why using Facebook at his age, irrespective of the other issues is not appropriate and how, when the time is right, I will set up his Facebook profile with him.  I had encouraged other parents to echo what I was saying in his presence.  I was pleased with myself.  He appeared to understand and accept.

Here’s where I went wrong.  I had left Jamie alone with our main computer and my laptop.  There were parental controls on the computer, but they didn’t include Facebook.  Jamie ‘borrowed’ my email address from my laptop, which I had left open and on.  This allowed him to set up his profile which included his real name, the name of the village we live in, the name of his school, his date of birth and his mobile phone number.  None of this information had any security settings whatsoever.  He made twenty five friends and searched for a birth family member.  He did all this in thirty minutes.

Rob and I spent an hour deleting Jamie’s profile and even now I can’t be sure that some of his information isn’t out there forever.  Thanks to my twitter friends, I was linked to the CEOP website which contains lots of useful information about keeping safe on the internet.  I’ve read it.  I sat Jamie down with it too.  And we had a long talk about it over tea which I hope has gone some way to help him understand.  But whether he’s accepted it is another matter and that’s why we’ve had to wise up.

For now I’ve told Jamie that when he is thirteen, we will look at the Facebook issue again.  He wants more than anything to be just like his friends and when he insists that all his friends are using Facebook, he is not so far off the mark.  I would estimate that 80 – 90% of them are and some are younger than him.  And from what I saw, many aren’t by any means using it safely.  I can understand why Jamie might wish I could be like the majority of parents.  But even if he was my natural-born, I wouldn’t be. 

Jamie’s foray into Facebook could have turned out much much worse than it did and I’m glad of the lesson it taught me.