These are words that I’m sure we’ve all heard many times from well-meaning friends and family. We know they’re trying to reassure, to be kind and that, really, they mean, “Don’t worry, you’ve got this, you’re doing a good job.” But that’s often not how the words are heard. For me, I always hear them as, “Don’t make such a fuss; you’re over thinking things; the problem must be you, if you’re finding this so hard.”
My other personal favourite is that phrase, said with a head tilt and empathic tone, “It must be so hard to figure out what’s related to them being adopted and what’s just them being two/four/six.”
It always stings, even though I know it comes from a kind curiosity and wanting to be helpful. I know they care, that they just wish I wasn’t finding it so hard. But again I hear it as, “You don’t know the difference because you’ve never done this before; it’s this hard for everyone, so knuckle down and get on with it without making such a fuss.”
I guess I can try to change my perception of what they’re saying, but I know that on one level I am hearing the truth of what they mean, even if they don’t mean to say it it consciously. Unless you really know, unless you’ve lived it 25/7, you just cannot understand what parenting a traumatised child with attachment difficulties is like.
Four years in and I still hear both phrases quite a lot. And the second one sometimes from other adopters too, but less so these days. In the early days of our support group we used to ponder together those questions – is this adoption, or is it being two? We happened to all be pretty new parents and we were struggling a bit to find our feet, to find our confidence and trust our instincts.
Looking back on it now, with all I’ve learned and experienced, I wish I could go back in a time machine and offer new-parent-me some advice. I’d say, “No, you aren’t over thinking it or reading too much into this. Yes, this is likely early- trauma related. Yes this is incredibly hard and no, it’s not normal. But don’t worry, you can do it.”
With the benefit of having had some excellent therapeutic support and learning much more than from my daughter’s pathetically thin CPR about the truth of her first year, I feel confident to say (inside my head, if not really ever out loud) “No, this isn’t just being six.”
Now that I know she wasn’t given anything to eat or drink for 17 hours when she was 6 months, I understand why she gets into a utter panic if water or snacks aren’t immediately available. Now I know that she had two further foster care placements than were detailed in her CPR, I understand why almost any change of location is so terrifying for her. Now I know that aged under one she was put in a taxi, on her own, to go to a very inappropriate and frightening contact situation, I understand why she gets panicky in cars and is desperate for one of us to ride in the back with her.
I wish with all my heart that I had understood all this earlier; had been given more confidence and insight by the social workers about how we could adapt ourselves to her complex needs. It wasn’t ‘terrible twos’ or ‘tantrums’, or just being the version of two that every parent deals with. It was fear, shock, anger, trauma.
It was, and still is, adoption.