The Love

There’s a wonderful piece of advice about adoption floating around on the internet. I don’t think it’s something that is discussed enough by the professionals during adoption prep – it certainly seems to be a bit of a secret. The motto is this – and I am aware it is borrowed from elsewhere – Fake it til you make it. Most of us are not blessed with love at first sight, and without the hormone rush associated with birth, the genetic connection, the 9 months of fantasy about a particular little person, you’re not necessarily going to fall in love with your adopted little one straight away.

For us, it was almost necessary that we didn’t – we were “only” fostering her to start with anyway, so you’re told you need to hold back, just in case. Because Baby Side Mullet was so young we didn’t worry about calling each other “mummy” in front of her, but maybe if she was older we would have had to hold back on that too, to really make the distance clear. I think that would have been really hard.

I’m not really someone who holds back their emotions. I cry a lot. I love a lot, and the idea of keeping a bit of love in reserve wasn’t something I could really imagine. Having said that, as much as I wanted to let it all loose from the moment we met baby, it wasn’t really like that. My brain kept some shutters down all of its own accord. At every stage there was something that could go wrong and take her back from us, and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t let go of the fear. Even now, when we are days away from applying for the adoption order, I’m pretty sure there’s one more shutter still down. Just in case.

The shutters come up at unpredictable times. I think I said before – after the placement order, there was no rush of emotion, more a slow burn. In the early days me and the wife would compare notes in the evening and try to be brutally honest with each other. How close to total love are you? I’m a 7/10. I’m a 9. The numbers have ticked upwards at strange times. Just walking down the corridor to sit her in her high chair, it’s like a hand reaches down from the sky and touches you, and suddenly you have to gulp back a big bit of love that might smother you. And after that it doesn’t go away. I know that lots of people have the feeling in the early days of being an “unpaid babysitter” and I can totally empathise! Especially when you don’t know all the tips and tricks and things that make your baby tick yet. Some of the early nights I cried and cried because I knew the foster carer could have settled her much more easily than I could at that stage. But you just have to put your big girl pants on and keep moving forwards. At first, you feel affection, you feel a compassion, you feel an obligation to look after and protect this little person. And it’s important not to feel guilty for not being totally in love with them from day one. You don’t even know them yet! As someone wise on mumsnet said, the kill-a-bear love comes later. And it really does come. You don’t have to work on it or worry about it. I can’t wait to see how I feel this time next year. I can’t imagine how amazing it will be once we have the adoption order in our sweaty hands.

 

*disclaimer – all these feelings are mine and opinions are mine and mumsnet’s! your experience may and probably will be different. please write about it.

The Timeline

One of the things I could never get enough of pre-approval was other people’s experience of the adoption timeline. Of course, they are all different, and subject to the whims of the authorities (damn it, 5 month DBS check!) but it does help to see that people come out the other end of the process at some point.

In the spirit of joining in, here’s ours.

August 2014 – Having been together a few years and just been married, our talk about children starts to crystallise. We embark on a series of debates over what the path we will choose should be.

January 2015 – We settle on adoption, quite firmly. I was in the bath when wife walked in and said she was sure, was I?

March 2015 – I make a call to a VA* that I have rather arbitrarily decided is the one for us. A dragon lady answers and has a fit about how many stairs are in our house. Of all the things to focus on, she’s really fixed on the three flights of stairs and how they may not be compatible with children. Ever.

Later March 2015 – I go bonkers researching other people’s experiences, buy all the books, realise that even if they’re only 3 years old they are hopelessly out of date (Re. B & Re. BS was very fresh and the number of children coming up for adoption had plummeted). Spend a lot of time on forums online and suddenly have an epiphany that an LA* would be a much better bet for us. Ring one about an hour away who seem to have things a lot more together than our most local council. Repeatedly check whether my 31 stairs will be an issue. They will not.

April 2015 – We attend an information evening in a dingy room in a scary part of town. Despite this, there is a quiver of excitement in the air and we request an initial home visit from a social worker.

May 2015 – Initial visit. Lots of paperwork. It’s like being in school again. I love it. The wife lets me do all of it. She seems pleased about it. I imagine if we had been at school together she would have copied my homework.

June 2015 – Attend the one day initial training course. It’s quite boring as I have already studied the shit out of this phase. But it’s nice to see some other people at the same stage as us – and to realise that even though we are “the lesbians” we are definitely not the weirdest people in the room.

July 2015 ish – Start stage two of the approval process; the “home study” part. It’s not official Stage two because our DBS checks, submitted early April, are still not back, but our social worker is aware she has a time limit – not just because of the legal guidelines, but because she’s pregnant and off on leave from the end of October! – so she is determined to get all the work done we can.

September 2015 – Attend the three day training course. Feels like a million years since the last one, but this one has a lot more going on. There are only five couples there though and it can feel quite sparse at times when we are playing the inevitable team games. Our DBS checks came through shortly after this – there was a query about whether we would be allowed to attend without them, but it seems there’s no hard and fast rule. Anyway, we were all clear!

November 2015 – Approval panel and saying goodbye to our social worker! She handed over to another SW who had just arrived back from maternity leave. All these babies..! We respected and trusted both SW though so actually it didn’t feel scary. New SW made an immediate effort to get to know us and what we were looking for, and we never felt abandoned.

Dec 2015 – Silence

Jan 2016 – Silence

Feb 2016 – Silence

March 2016 – Silence. We went on holiday, to try and tempt fate. No luck.

April 2016 – Silence

May 2016 – Silence. Another mini holiday. It rained.

June 2016 – I cave and summon our SW to visit us. We think it must be us. We think we must have been rejected a million times by children’s SWs. She smiles a smile that says she’s done this a million times before, and tells us that there really is just nothing going on. They have a grand total of five children looking for homes and all of them are outside our criteria. We sigh and smile and decide to knuckle down for another six months.

Late June 2016 – We’ve knuckled down for all of two weeks when we get an EMAIL about a potential FtA match. An EMAIL! If I wasn’t so obsessive about checking them it could have sat there for ages! We have a read of it (one A4 page, with a total of 3 lines dedicated to Baby Side-Mullet, the rest concerning her birth parents), and decide that there’s not one reason to say no.

Very Early July 2016 – Intros are scheduled, my boss gets a bit of a shock (not that much, I did warn him, but he’d started to think it was never going to happen) and we meet baby for the first time as we meet the foster carer to discuss her schedule and what we will need to buy. Then we wait a week, meet baby again, and bring her home four days later.

August 2016 – Court hearing for placement order goes sour. Terror.

September 2016 – Court hearing part two goes without a hitch. Terror was for nothing.

October 2016 – Here we are, having just been given a date for the placement to become an adoptive one. It’s very soon.

Nov 2016  – Estimated date of application for adoption order. Woohoo!

 

 

*LA = Local Authority, so your local council, or a neighbouring one. Often have very little advertising and terribly overworked staff, but are on the frontline of children’s social care and are the ones who “have” the children to be placed for adoption.

VA = voluntary agency, like Barnados. Often large, well run, shiny, BUT they tend to place the children the LA have been unable to place.

The Matching Panel

Yesterday was our matching panel- finally! I’d read a lot about what happens at panel, and gobbled up other people’s stories about what questions they were asked, and how nervous they were.. But again, for us, like the placement order, it was almost anti climactic. (Is that a word?) We have baby side-mullet living with us already. We are used to her presence and everything revolves around her. Everything you’re taught, everything you read on mumsnet, tells you that attachment is king, and that funneling is the way to go. Our own experience and our gut tells us the same. So baby hasn’t been left alone with anyone yet, and won’t be for the foreseeable future. My dad has taken her for a walk in her buggy once or twice, but always from a base where we are, and within easy dashing distance of us. He’s the only person she won’t weep at the sight of (that’s another story).
So the obvious answer for an important meeting like this, where we are both obliged to attend, is to bring babysitting grandad with us and have him sit outside the room with the baby.
I am prepared for the general populice to raise their eyebrows at this kind of “coddling”. I am prepared for my family to tentatively suggest we might be overprotective and that we could leave her at my parents’ house for the few hours we would be at panel, an hour’s drive away. What I was not prepared for was our social workers being so confused about us bringing her with us. They had the good sense not to comment directly but you could feel the unspoken surprise. Guys. You’re the ones who programme us toward attachment parenting, who ask us to do the research. We’re the ones with the clingy baby that we are besotted with. Do the maths.
Once we were in the inner sanctum at the LA offices, it was fine, baby had her lunch and everyone was charmed by her. Panel even asked to see her, after they had approved us, which was nice. I suppose it really is, as one of them said, the “cream” of the job. This is the good part. There must be so many bad parts, I suppose it’s nice to physically see a happy squidgy baby that you’ve played a part in giving a home.
Panel itself was not frightening. Subconsciously we knew we had leverage. We know this baby better than anyone else, and we know she’s in the best place. She doesn’t need to move again and there was no reason for them to say no. What did happen, though, was that panel asked us questions that they actually WANTED to know the answers to. It felt like a proper conversation, not a perfunctory interview. They haven’t done many FtA placements before – maybe 2, I think? – and it had been very evident to us throughout. They wanted to know how to make it better, what they had missed, what we felt had been inconvenient or incorrect. Before baby side mullet, I would have been quite polite. This time, I didn’t hold back. Neither did the wife – although she was never inclined to polite demurral anyway. We really want to help them help other people who are going to go through this. It doesn’t have to be all arse-about-tit. They could rearrange their contact system, their medical appointment system, and still operate within the legal guidelines. They got quite excited about us volunteering information about our experience – and we are supposed to be speaking at a FtA event for them soon. It’s already been cancelled once due to lack of interest which I find terrible. Even with the messy bits, this is absolutely the best thing for the child, and from a selfish point of view, for us too. If we’d gone through the normal system, we wouldn’t even have met baby yet! And she’s what it’s all about.

The System

I had in mind what I next wanted to write about – something benign like “the Groups” (and I will get to the groups, because there is a lot to say about them. My wife attended her first baby playgroup this morning and swears she’s never been anywhere more competitive and nerve wracking in her life. And she’s a black belt in karate.)
But in the last week I’ve been thinking a lot about the trust issues that I touched on before. The relationship we (as adopters) have with the people inside the system (for ease, let’s call them all social workers.) There’ve been a few news stories recently about social care and the lack of funding in the area – I don’t know how well publicised these stories are, because I usually have alerts on my newsfeed for things like that (geek) so I get notifications to them when they’re published.
One that has been playing on my mind was a statement made by one of the high ups in the Family Courts. There were figures in there – pre 2009, approximately 6500 children a year were taken into care. This year, it was around 15000. The increase is about 20% a year. And of course, there hasn’t been a 20% annual staff increase, nor has there been a 20% annual funding increase. There have been cuts.*  Suddenly I imagined what that would feel like in the office where I work (worked.. work? worked? Maternity leave is a funny thing) where we produce furniture for high end retailers. Sometimes there are lulls, sometimes there are busy times. The busy times are hard, we’re all rushed off our feet, things fall through the cracks as we try to focus on the most important items. But then there is a lull, and we tidy up, and we pick up our metaphorical dropped balls, and we generally try and do our jobs really well. And so on. If the busy times start being the norm, we hire another person.
Having a workload which is going up astronomically, with no end in sight, would be shite. It would be tempered, briefly, by a fat pay rise, but ultimately, you can only do what you can do. Even if you’re working to the best of your ability, managing your time like a champ – you can only do so much.
So for a social worker in 2009, which is not very long ago, taking on a full time job, DOING a full time job, what must that job feel like now? It’s not hard to see why they can seem so scatty, why emails go unanswered, why some of the cut and paste in your PAR is so obvious. And that’s a social worker who was a hard worker to start with. Not everyone is. Maybe there’s someone at your workplace you can model this on in your head. Imagine giving them 20% more to do, no more money, year on year. In my head, this ends in extended sick leave, ignoring deadlines, poor client service. I can certainly see this is happening to people within our council – and I can’t find it in me to blame them. It’s not like the job was an easy one to start with, really. It must be emotionally gruelling even on a good day. Nothing about adoption is easy. Even as we are ecstatic about our baby and her placement order, somewhere her birth mother is grieving. I may never meet her, but the social workers have. Our child’s social worker may have seen her in a happy home with us, but she will also carry the memory of the unhappy home before it. She is on the front line. She sees terrible things. I know that I couldn’t do that work. Surely we should be grateful to these people for doing this job at all, rather than taking it for granted that they can pick up the pieces after their job has been completely blown up?
Sometimes, it’s hard to trust that they care about you, that they have put any effort into your case at all. We have had paperwork ignored and medical meetings delayed with minimum excuse. You can get quite worked up about it. The whole process stretches out almost endlessly with meetings only being held on a monthly basis. But, as I say to my wife, we have to try and see it from their side. They are cogs in a system that is failing both them and us. It is terrible, and it is deplorable, but as Justice Munby* stated – he cannot and will not ask people who are already working to their maximum capability to work “harder”. It is not their fault. There needs to be a strategy. Something needs to give.

 

*All of this information has been through my baby brain, so don’t quote me without doing your own research first!

The Routine

Shudder. The routine. You can’t say this in my house without getting eyebrows raised in your direction. I adhered so religiously to the a4 piece of paper with “routine” scrawled across it when baby first arrived, that on week three when my wife failed to offer her a nap at the appropriate time, it was me who had the meltdown (and the baby, it turns out, was ready to ditch the nap anyway).

When we first met her, the foster carer reeled off her daily schedule as I tried to write it all down fast enough. Bottle every 2 hours, food three times a day (weaning), naps at regular intervals, bedtime 10pm.. hang on, what? 10pm?? Our horror shone through and this was one thing we did resolve to change pretty swiftly, despite all the exhortation of the adoption handbook to keep it all the same. We did keep the vast majority of it the same for the first few days, and we made sure to wash our clothes in the detergent she was used to, keep her toys the same etc.

The thing is, the baby’s not stupid. She knows that our house is not the same place as the house she spent the first six months of her life in. She knows we’re not the same people she spent that time with. And she’s not the same either, she’s growing in leaps and bounds. So she decided to change things up almost immediately. So we were ahdering to an out-of-date plan. You put her down for a nap, she’s hungry. You feed her, she’s sleepy. The decision we made then was to let her lead the way for a while, so I just watched her like a hawk, to try and get to see her signals for hunger, sleepiness, etc. (All the while, obviously, I’m terrified. But eventually that fades, and the vigilance over watching her signals fades too, as she becomes so much more familiar to me and with me.) And eventually, after a week shut in the house with the cot, a bottle and a bowl of food always on hand, I realised she was on a pretty regular schedule again – three meals a day, three naps a day. So simple! She woke up twice at night for a bottle – but in the last week she’s started sleeping through one of the usual appointments so we spend a little bit more time sleeping ourselves too.

Generally in life, I like a routine. I like knowing what to expect. I like knowing when baby will eat and when she will sleep. A couple of times (I am embarrassed to admit I am not immune to a spot of baby brain), I have forgotten a nap or a meal is due.Baby is very happy to remind me. Every now and then, she likes to spice things up by refusing to eat, or spending an hour repeatedly rolling over and crowing in her cot, rather than snoozing.   My wife, I think, feels it’s a lesson for me and will teach me to loosen up. Maybe.

The Uncertainty – Part 2

The other thing about FtA is the medical side. Usually by the time a child gets a placement order and a profile and starts being put into the Family Finders’ files, they also have a big fat medical file with lots of reports and reviews. They’ll have had a dedicated medical, and their foster carer will have been interrogated about their development. There will be notes from the Health Visitors and notes from the hospital where they were born, and you, as the prospective adopter, will have access to it all. Full disclosure.

When you interrupt the established tick-tock of the administrative process to move the child on early, it doesn’t really affect the existing rhythm of these reports. They will still be made, but not until they really have to be, which is right around time of placement order. So by then, you’ll have had this child with you for months. You don’t get to hand them back if something unsavoury turns up. (And frankly, if you’re that sort of person you probably shouldn’t be adopting as unsavoury is usually part of the deal). Not to mention, as you’re only technically a foster carer, you won’t be allowed access to several of them anyway.

If you have a good social worker (SW), s/he may tip you the wink about certain things in the medical file that you aren’t allowed to see. That’s if there IS a medical file to be found at that point. Our little one was presented as a typed A4 page of notes for us to read – only 3 lines of them were about her, the rest were about her parents. Of the 3 lines, one was her initial health report and it read “at birth, responded to light”. We were asked to consider her based on this level of information. She was by this time just shy of 6 months old and had not yet had another formal medical assessment. There was very little information to be had. We knew this was likely with this kind of placement, don’t get me wrong, but it’s still shocking to be on the receiving end of. We had decided to go ahead before we had seen any of the information – our personal decision was not to reject or pass on any child presented to us because of a lack of information. I wouldn’t have blamed anyone for doing otherwise though (more fool them, baby side-mullet is an excellent baby).

Now that we have her living with us, now that we have the placement order and are hurtling toward the adoption order, there is still more uncertainty about the future. About her development, about her size, about her intellect. As far as we can tell, she’s blasting through everyone’s reservations about her and she’s coming on beautifully – but you find yourself hyper alert to every new thing she does – is that normal? Or every little thing someone else’s baby does that she doesn’t do – is she abnormal? Is it her genes? Is it her experiences in utero? Is it just because some babies do different things at different times? I’m told it’s good to just relax and enjoy the baby stage, and I am trying, but these things do rattle around your mind sometimes. I guess that’s just parenthood though!

The Uncertainty – Part 1

This is probably the most pertinent topic when talking about FtA (or Foster-to-Adopt). Bit of background for the uninitiated – it’s basically a loophole allowing the early placement of a child with you, the prospective adopter, at a stage where usually they would still be with a registered foster carer, awaiting the outcome of a court hearing. Part of David Cameron’s drive to speed up the adoption process and the length of time children spend moving through it, it means that even though the courts still average six months to progress a child through to the point of a “placement order”, the child themselves can, in certain situations, be moved onto their hopeful forever home in advance. Legally, however, the child is not freed for adoption until the placement order is issued. In the interim period, the prospective adopters act as foster carers, just with none of the training.

The key to a successful FtA placement is trust – trust that your social worker is really, really sure a placement order will be issued; trust in you that you are capable of handling the pressures without cracking; trust in the system that the right decision will be reached.

The idea is so new that councils can count the number of FtA placements they’ve made on their fingers. The legislation available on the government website could be written on the back of a stamp. Lots of things are open to interpretations – for example, training. I have done a LOT of reading and chatting online to other people in similar placements, and it seems some local authorities (LAs, for short) will put their FtA parents through rigorous foster care training, as well as the usual six months of the adoption assessment. Some are made to sit two approval panel meetings, one for adoption and one for fostering. Ours was more of a “well, no, we don’t think you need any more training, we’ll just tell you what to do as you go” kind of LA. I would hazard a guess that it hadn’t even occurred to them that they ought to be giving us extra training. Fortunately, the foster carer we took baby Side-Mullet from was on the ball and gave us a full run down of what she did, and what she’d been told in her training. We told our social worker what we had discovered and she told us she was writing a crib sheet for next time she had to do this!

Along with the uncertainty surrounding what kind of training we needed, came the uncertainty of what the LA’s legal team could achieve. Baby’s birth parents had existing contact arrangements with the foster carer. They had had three hour long slots assigned to them each week since baby’s birth. Technically, they would be entitled to continue these up until the placement order – and since technically we were only acting as foster carers at the time we took on care of baby, and no placement order had been issued, contact – as far as all my research had suggested- would continue. We were introduced to our baby with some selling points, which retrospectively seem to have been neither researched nor thought through. (The LA were/are mostly wonderful, but this was definitely a low point) One point was that they were sure legal could reduce contact to once a week and then probably just stop it. This would have been great, not just in terms of bonding with our baby and emotionally dealing with things, but practically, in terms of journey times (each contact was a 3 hour round trip). However, within about a day of us agreeing to the placement we were told that legal had rolled over and refused to change things until the placement order was issued. I’m not sure they’d even been asked beforehand. Our first contact appointment was less than 24 hours after we brought baby home, and it was the last thing we needed!

Similarly, we were pitched a date for placement order which was blasted out of the water by totally unforeseen appeals from the birth parents’ solicitors. Somehow no-one knew it was coming or had even anticipated it. Seems hard to believe given the same thing has happened to everyone I’ve ever spoken to who had a child via this type of placement. The hard part is when you’re told all the optimistic stuff by your own LA, and you start hoping for the best instead of steeling yourself for the worst!

When our little one’s placement order was issued, we felt less a sense of celebration than a sense of relief. The uncertainty doesn’t all lift at once, it seems to seep out slowly like air from a tyre. Gradually you realise you are thinking about the future with a bit more detail. You’re buying clothes a size larger, looking at how old they’ll need to be before they appreciate Disneyland, sending a photo of the baby to your grandparents. I think the brain gets accustomed to watching its back, and speaking personally, I don’t think the fog will fully lift until after we get the final Adoption Order in our hands.

The uncertainty surrounding the issuing of the placement order is something that comes in waves, something that will wake you in the night to gnaw at you with its “what-ifs”. And then you wake up and you look at this little person and you realise you can’t hold back on your love toward them, because that wouldn’t be right or fair. The deal is that you have the uncertainty so that they don’t have to.