We were approved as adopters in 2013. Our birth son, Carl, was 5. We were all excited, elated and looking forward to welcoming another child into our family. Fast forward to May 2016 and there’s another adoption exchange event taking place in London.. After two and a half years it was becoming something of a downer to go to these events, I considered even skipping it altogether, thinking how such events use up so much of the day. I’m so pleased I didn’t.
My plan was to do a quick round, identify any potential matches, speak to appropriate social workers to make sure the children whose profiles I had taken might be placed in a family that already has a birth child, and get back in time to take my son to cricket practice. I’d been at the event for 10 minutes or so, working my way around, when Jane, who I knew from the South London Adoption Consortium, expressed delight at seeing me, she said “you must come with me! I have to introduce you to this family finder, she’s looking for precisely the right family for a child, I’ve been talking to her, I think you might be the right family!”
I was quickly introduced to a family finder with whom I spent the next hour and a half. We talked about Tom, she showed me his picture, said what her last visit had been like, she told me how he was really into Superman. All superheroes were amazing to him, but Superman was by far the best at that time. I started to have some pretty big feelings about this child, I asked what the chances really were of him coming to us, after all we’d been interviewed for likely placements three times before (3 hours per interview with family finders and social workers who always gave us a glowing report) and it had all come to nothing. All the children had been placed in families that didn’t already have a child; it didn’t seem to matter how suitable we had been considered or how well we were thought of.
This family finder said that she would call me within the next few days to let me know whether or not there was any chance for us. She gave me a photo to take with me and we parted company with a handshake. I was hopeful but afraid to invest too much into that feeling.
Within a week we had been contacted by the family finder and it was arranged that we would meet Tom’s social worker. During the meeting I gave the family finder a “worry eater” to help Tom with his big worries. His foster mum could write his worries down for him and pop them into the zipped mouth so he didn’t have to keep them silently within him. One of his quite legitimate concerns written inside was “who is this family I might be going to live with, what if they’re not nice?”
A week or so later we met with his foster parents and the next big date was the matching panel.
Matching and Introductions
The matching panel turned out to be a lively event. Before we entered there were raised voices and some battle of wills taking place within. To add to the tension, an Ofsted inspection was taking place so there was an extra person taking notes. We were seated among about 14 other people, including our social worker. There was a lawyer who insisted that we should agree that Tom would have direct contact with his birth mother when the time was right. She felt this an important point as it was written into the adoption order. Although at that time we thought this would be something of an ordeal to be endured, we agreed that we would support the decision if it was in Tom’s best interests to do so. Five years on we can hardly wait to get that to happen!
Our next visit to the Local Authority offices was to plan the two-week introductory period (almost like a military operation). Decisions were made about when we would go to see Tom, how long we would stay (incrementally longer each time), when we would be able to take him out on our own, what we would do, where we would go, how and when we would introduce him to our home, and then ultimately, when he would come and live with us for good.
This was a pretty intense introductory period where everyone involved was managing quite big feelings. Within the introduction period a day off was arranged when I took Carl to Bournemouth to meet with some friends. We had a lovely day together, the last day when we would be together as if he were an only child. Towards the end of the two weeks, Tom was in the arms of his foster mum asking why he was not allowed to stay with us. It must have been so confusing for him.
Tom’s foster family organised a farewell party for him. The foster parents, their daughters, their extended family, neighbours and friends had become attached to this little boy over the last year. His friends and teachers from nursery, who he would no longer see, also came, along with the respite foster carers who looked after Tom when his foster parents went on holiday. The little cat who was adopted by a neighbour after he was found in Tom’s foster parents’ garden came along too! All of these people attended his farewell party, there was a lot to take in, a lot to process and a lot for him to leave behind.
The day after his farewell party we collected him in the early afternoon of a late August day. We had taken much of his stuff the day before. We’d bought him a fun “trunki” to put the rest of his things in the following morning. We’d arranged with his foster family that we should collect him and leave quickly otherwise it might be too hard for them. He waved goodbye to the family he’d lived with for a year, and we made our way together to the train station.
The Early Days
The early days are hard to remember accurately now, there were easy times for sure, rageful times after a while, and tricky moments aplenty with both boys. We were lucky enough to have Zach Gomm as a parenting coach for the first year – it could have been disastrous without his input. We had a weekly call with him, and in between I made notes of all dilemmas we seemed to be facing as a family. We weren’t short of things to discuss and make plans for, we talked about how to deal with situations arising and what to say if something like this or that happened again. This support was invaluable in our first year.
Our charming, kind, generous and loving Carl had become a surly, non-communicative, sometimes withdrawn, sometimes confrontational, but certainly very unhappy boy. Tom felt unsettled, unwanted by his big brother, confused, angry and seeking his place in our family and in our home. Tom found it hard to communicate his feelings and did so physically when his words failed him. He wanted to conform, he wanted to rebel, he couldn’t keep still, he didn’t fit in, he didn’t feel safe, it was so hard for him. We could feel his internal conflict yet helping him or even being truly close to him seemed unattainable at times.
Carl loved going to the cinema, but Tom couldn’t settle for long enough to see a film all the way through, so we could only go if there were two adults present, one of us would have to leave half way through. Carl, aged 8, liked to watch certain things on TV which were a bit too violent for Tom, aged 4, so his TV viewing became restricted, suddenly he was having to put up with programmes on TV he considered too young for him. Tom was highly sensitive even to a “funny look” and Carl became fed up with the big reactions that were a daily occurrence in our home. All in all, Carl now found Tom annoying in every way, he no longer considered this adoption thing a good idea and once asked if we could “send him back”. We seriously wondered if we had made a big mistake, we felt guilty for the impact of our decision on Carl and worried about ever being able to make Tom feel safe and loved enough for him to feel ok in himself.
Tom started school after the October half term. With Zach’s support we got the school to agree reluctantly that we would start school very slowly, as Tom needed to trust that I would pick him up each day. We started with him attending for one hour in the morning for a couple of weeks, then an hour and a half and so on. The plan meant that by the summer term he would be able to tolerate being at school for a full day and would trust that I would be there to collect him at the end of the day. It worked well. The limited time at the outset allowed Tom to be relaxed enough for some meaningful friendships to begin, one in particular which is still going strong. During December, when the children were rehearsing the Christmas play, Tom was keen to be part of it, so his time in school increased more quickly than we had planned quite naturally because he wanted it. In the end, despite the protestations from the school when the idea of partial attendance was presented to them, the Deputy Head said he was very impressed with how this had eased the way and supported Tom in his school life and friendships. He said he would suggest to the Local Authority that all looked after children start in the school this way.
We had a big family get together at Christmas. It was here that Tom would meet all the family members that he had not yet met as well as those he had. There were going to be at least 28 people there, so with trepidation we drove to the hall armed with a back-up plan. I had separated enough food for two meals if Tom was too uncomfortable to stay. My mum lives close to the hall so if the need arose I would go to her home with Tom until the end of the day when we would drive home with Keith and Carl. Beforehand I had been informed that his younger cousins would be wearing Batman t-shirts and I had bought one for Tom who was still a superhero fan – his heroes included Spiderman and Batman now – so he loved his new t-shirt. On the way down in the car I told Tom that he didn’t have to stay if he didn’t feel comfortable, he could come up to me and ask to leave right away, I said “we love you and we’re there to look after you.” Within 10 minutes of running around with his cousins he ran up to me, saying “it’s great here and I want to stay”. That was a wonderful moment.
There were many appointments to attend in the early days from an ENT specialist, to a cardiologist, along with ongoing therapy sessions once a week for a time. Between school, appointments, swim classes and play time in the park with school friends, the months passed quickly.
In the summer we usually visit the south coast for a week to visit my brother and his family. We rented a place right on the coastal path, the only thing that separated the property from the beach. I drove down and the boys went on the train with Keith as neither like to travel in the car. By the time I arrived the boys were excitedly exploring this ‘new home’ as Tom called it. Carl said it was great to have someone to explore with and suddenly took on the role of being a big brother. He showed Tom how to skim stones on the sea’s surface, how to play crazy golf, how to do neat gymnastic moves on the beach trampolines and how to swing really high on the swings. It really did seem magical. Somehow, after 9 months of rejection Carl allowed their relationship to begin to blossom into something healthy, something good, something real.
Where We Are Now
Since that time, their relationship has gone from strength to strength, they are not always the best of friends but mostly they get on well and are close in their own way. I asked Carl what he likes doing most with Tom, he said playing in the garden and climbing the tree in the field. They both enjoy playing video games and sometimes play together. Carl recently showed Tom how to play chess, they still play games like top trumps, 21 and bananagrams. They usually have a big hug before Tom goes to bed, they are clearly very fond of each other. Carl is also proud of his ability to get through to Tom sometimes when he gets into a bad emotional state.
The boys have another big brother, Sam, who teaches abroad and stays with us in his school holidays. Sam goes running every day, plays a bit of basketball, does yoga and meditation – all with Tom in tow! If Sam is lying on his bed doing nothing at all, Tom wants to be there with him. Tom wants to replicate all the things Sam does, needless to say meditation is a challenge! He once screamed at us all “I’m getting inner peace”! Sam likes to cook, so Tom has become more interested in preparing food. Sam has mentioned that he would like to spend more time with Carl, but Tom won’t allow it. During his next visit we plan to have something exciting going on for Tom and his friends so that Sam and Carl get the opportunity to hang out for a while.
We recently moved into a house with a garden. Nearly five years ago Tom moved into our home, established before he came to us. This time he was part of the move, we all moved into our new home together, he really does seem to feel much more a part of this home. It’s brilliant to see the boys kicking a ball about in the garden or having a bounce on the trampoline.
Yesterday we were visited by Tom’s foster parents’ who we are very pleased to be in touch with regularly. Last year we went to their daughter’s wedding and were made to feel very welcome. Tom blithely believes he has a huge family and several homes. He’s beginning to understand that his foster family still love him dearly and he has a big place in their hearts.
While Tom is still an extremely vulnerable and anxious boy, we can see his confidence budding. He tells us when he’s feeling sad, it seems he’s starting to understand that we can be there with him whatever he’s feeling. He’s beginning to let us be there.