That familiar feeling
I've talked over the last few days about the period of 'transition', where we got to know our children and moved them slowly and sensitively from their respective foster families to our own home. If you've missed these posts, part 1 is here and part 2 here.
The first few days of the transition week with our son were spent collecting him from his foster home and getting to know him as we spent time around the area where he had been living. As is often the case, this was also the same area where he had lived with his birth parents.
We had a conversation with our social worker prior to meeting our son for the first time about where best to meet him and subsequently where would be safe to take him. That's described elsewhere too.
As part of that conversation we learnt that neither of our sons birth parents remained in the area. As far as everyone was concerned that was a good thing. Not least as it gave us freedom of movement around the area during those days when we would be forced to remain close to the foster home.
We were advised of a couple of locations we should avoid, in order that more recent distressing memories would not be awakened for our son, otherwise we felt we had freedom of movement around the town.
In those first few days we spent much of our time in various spots that were either new to our son or were familiar to him purely through his experiences with his foster parents. That was until we visited some local gardens.
We actually hadn't intended to go there. However, visiting a local attraction our son had said he was hungry and asked if he could have a hot dog. I knew there was a burger and hot dog stall in the gardens so we walked there.
As we entered the gardens our son became quieter, much less chatty than he had been earlier and much less vociferous about his wanting something to eat. By the time we had walked halfway along the path from the gardens' entrance to the food concession our son was clearly becoming distressed.
"What's wrong, " J asked.
"I don't like it here, can we go somewhere else?" The little boy asked. quietly.
"Of course," J replied. We moved quickly, taking him to the nearest exit and locating a bus stop where we could sit quietly for a moment and evaluate what had happened and what to do next.
Our son sat next to me and held my hand for a few moments. "Are you OK?" I asked. "We can go and find something to eat somewhere else."
After a little hesitation he replied. "This is where Mummy and Daddy came and had a fight. They hit each other here." The memory must have been well over a year old, but it remained with him very clearly,
"We don't ever have to come here again," I said.
He nodded. "I don't want to, can we go somewhere else?" He asked again.
Our son's distress was relatively short lived, relieved considerably by our locating a drive through fast food restaurant nearby, where he could sit in the safety of the car and enjoy his burger.
That situation was replayed in differing forms on many occasions over the following three years.
At the beach where he retold the story of being attacked by his mother for getting her dress dirty. Upon recognising a particular chain of shops, outside one of which he remembered being left in his pushchair. Shying away from situations where parents shouted at their children in any location and becoming uncomfortable whenever we were near a public house playing loud music or with people drinking out on the street.
As time has gone on these memories and the fears that accompany them have faded for our son. Locations are no longer important, but other stimuli still hold a fear that he can sometimes elucidate, sometimes not.
He likes potatoes, but will not touch new potatoes, remembering how he was at some point force fed them. If he hears a police siren he will flinch, frightened momentarily. When I've asked him why he can't tell me, he doesn't know, he just instinctively fears the sound.
The word 'instinctive' is one that I've become to respect over the years since we adopted our son and even more so since we adopted our daughter.
The experiences our children had very early in their lives have left instinctive reactions, primarily fears, in them that can show themselves at any time with the most unlikely stimuli.
Our daughter was removed from her birth mother before her first birthday. We were always hopeful that she would have little or no recollection of what happened during that earlier period.
A little while after she had come to live with us I was sitting with her one afternoon looking through a picture book. It was one in which each page had a number of pictures of various items, enabling the child to choose their favourite from the options on display.
One of the pages showed different types of home. Our daughter pointed at a painting of a block of flats. "Owie," she said, the word she used for something painful.
We turned the page to one where there were drawings of people undertaking different jobs. Again she pointed. "Owie," she said, this time indicating a window cleaner working at an open window.
Later that evening I looked through our daughter's records again, searching the social work reports for a snippet of information I had half forgotten. There amongst the records was the report from the police called to a domestic dispute between our little girl's birth parents, reporting that during it the baby, one a few months old, had been held out of a third storey window.
The lesson we have learnt from these experiences has been an important one. We never now make assumptions about our children's reactions to situations.
With your own birth child, predicting their reaction to a situation is, I assume, relatively straight forward. At least the knowledge a birth parent has of their own child's history allows an educated guess.
With an adopted child that isn't possible. We accumulate information and experience daily. That helps us when dealing with new situations, but you never know when something, often out of the blue, will trigger an unexpected reaction.
Dealing with those, helping our children understand, make sense of and positively manage their emotions at those points is, I think, one of the most important parts of our job.