It was my favourite night of the week, formally known as ‘sweetie night’ (during my childhood) and currently referred to as ‘wine night’, signalling the start of our weekend Friday had arrived! Having just dished up an early tea for the kids I stood in the kitchen chatting to them about their days at school, when out of the blue (mid spoonful of Spag Bol) my youngest (aged 5) suddenly blurted out ‘I want to talk about my life story’. Momentarily taken aback, my teenage daughter noisily clinked her knife and fork whilst her eyes bulged out of her head in surprise and my eldest son stifled a nervous laugh. Composing myself quickly I felt a sudden burst of pride that he had found the words to be able to articulate how he was feeling at such a young age; as whilst I’ve been doing Life Story work with him since the day dot, this was the very first time he had initiated the conversation.
“I tell you what, why don’t I get Daddy to set up all the films from when you were little?” I suggested. This idea was met with a chorus of cheers from all three of my children and twenty minutes later we were huddled together under a duvet with a family sized bag of sweets. My kids often stare at me in disbelief when I tell them that sweets were an absolute treat when I was a child. During the week my brother and I would have to abstain from sugary temptations as they were considered a ‘luxury’ until Friday rolled around and we would find ourselves eagerly waiting by the door for our Dad to return from work. Every week he would produce two white paper bags containing traditional sweets such as Lemon Sherbets and Strawberry Bon Bons and every week without fail there would be something different to try. Even now while writing this, I find myself smiling at what I would consider to be one of my fondest childhood memories.
Going back to the task in hand, snuggled up with the kids we waited with anticipation for the first clip to kick in. It’s important to note when doing this type of activity starting with the ‘here and now’ reaffirms your child’s place in your family and gives a sense of belonging and security. So with this in mind we started with the most recent footage from Christmas. As we trawled back through the films my children squealed with delight as on screen they got smaller and smaller; as it wasn’t just my youngest child’s moments that we had stored and viewed with this impromptu movie night. We talked and laughed and cooed through the clips until we reached the very first film we took of our youngest child.
“And this is when you joined our family” I announced. He sat quietly in thought for a moment before responding “and before that I was in my Tummy Mummy’s tummy?”
“that’s right” I say
“You couldn’t have babies in your tummy could you Mummy?” he continued
“No, my body didn’t work like other peoples” I explained.
“And that’s why you have a big scar” he said poking me in the stomach (for some reason he sees the scar left by an operation as a visual reminder of my ‘tummy not working’). “it is, and that’s why we are so lucky to have you all” I say giving him a big squeeze.
he momentarily mulled it over before saying, “can I have another sweetie now?” indicating that the conversation was over….for now.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept of Life Story, it is a term enshrined within Fostering and Adoption and quite simply involves sharing with a child their journey to permanency, whether you are a social worker, foster carer or in our case adoptive parents. Whilst there is a statutory duty of the placing Local Authority to provide a Life Story Book as a tool for adoptive parents, I have seen with my own eyes that the quality of these books vary significantly and some people like myself are never even issued with one.
I often use the analogy of a puzzle when trying to explain the purpose of Life Story work. Imagine a large jigsaw puzzle which once complete will form an image of yourself. Each experience we gain along the way represents a piece of the puzzle and as we fill in the gaps it shapes us as people and forms part of our identity. Adopted children are quite simply missing some of the pieces and as parents (or others) we need to help them fill in as many gaps as possible by sensitively sharing information from their past. This work is ongoing through the years, not a one off conversation to tick it off the list as done; it also takes on many forms and in my case definitely does not involve handing my children a dodgy book which looks as if its been cut and pasted from reports with very little thought!
Over the years, I have been privileged to have seen a number of Life Story books. Decorated with very small children in mind, upon further investigation my jaw has quite literally been left hanging at the level of information that is being shared on the pages. Life story work for my children has been a very gradual journey guided by them according to their age and maturity, not an immediate full and frank disclosure of the life choices of their birth families. The dialogue between my son and I (above) really is as simplistic as it needs to be for him whilst he is this young, and as he grows we will continue to build on his story in more depth filling in more pieces of the missing puzzle as we go. The first time I initiated this work with him was when he was about three and by this time he already had a very clear understanding that he was adopted. Choosing to use a scrap book of pictures that I had collected whilst he was in Foster Care with us, I opened the first page and started to read aloud the words I had written. Immediately, much to my surprise he clamped his hands over his ears. Determined not to give up at the first hurdle I say out loud “I know you can’t hear me right now but if you could, I wonder if you would prefer to read the words yourself?” Taking his hands away he looked me in the eye and said “I just want to look at the pictures”. The words at that time were simply too painful for him to hear so at his request we sat quietly flicking through the pages together and during this time he only asked one question…… ‘what was her name?’.
Now I know some people are not comfortable with the terminology ‘Tummy Mummy’ but for me whilst they are little and do not understand the facts of life it’s been a great way of explaining to them that they did not grow in my tummy. As things have changed with my daughter now older we have naturally shifted the terminology to ‘birth parents’ or sometimes (by choice) she refers to them by their first names. Recently I had a conversation with a friend about our figures and who we take after in our family. My daughter who was sat in the room suddenly pipes up with “well who will I take after?” I could tell by her eyes that she was winding me up (we enjoy a bit of banter). ‘You’re mocking me aren’t you?’ I said in my best Buzz Lightyear voice.
‘Who me?’ she said feigning shock
‘Count yourself lucky young lady that you’re going to avoid the family chin on my side and the belly that’s gone and got me!’ I joked moving my chin into a position to make my best bullfrog impression. In quick response she performed her number one party trick of wiggling her ears…..seriously the girl has skills! Despite the banter, not wanting to avoid her question I seized the opportunity to tell her about the day we met her birth parents and which physical attributes I hoped that she would inherit.
I hold my hands up, talking about the children’s birth families was tough stuff in the beginning. In particular every time my daughter asked a question I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach. Feelings of jealousy crept in and as ridiculous as it may sound the fear that some day I may be rejected in their favour plagued me; I’m sure I’m not the only one nor will I be the last. The stronger our bond grew the less I wanted to consider the prospect of sharing her and if I’m honest, I just wanted to claim her as my very own! Its a difficult thing this adoption malarkey when you start to think about it because in one breath you are being told the importance of attachments and acceptance and in the other you are being asked to continually remind you and your children that you are different.
My paradigm shift came when we embarked upon our fostering career and began working with families directly. Witnessing first hand the tragic consequences of drug addiction, poor mental health and domestic violence; I found myself truly empathising with some of the young women I worked with, and coming to the stark realisation that (in some cases) this truly could happen to any family and not necessarily the more deprived families in our society.
Fostering opened up a unique opportunity for me to discuss with my children some of the reasons why children come into care, and explain to them the battles that some families face. Instead of playing ‘Mum’s and Dad’s’ my daughter started to play ‘contact centres’ this involved dropping her younger brother off to the play pen aka ‘ the contact centre’ shutting him in with a bag and walking away. Admittedly this may sound strange to some but this is what she saw me do with different children every day for years and she was merely communicating her experiences via her play.
It was when I attended a ‘wish you well’ final contact with one of my foster babies and their birth mother that I realised just how non threatening she was. Pale and fragile from addiction the pain of saying goodbye to her baby was etched over her face. At the end of the session she collapsed on me sobbing and thanked me for caring for her baby and for a moment I held her and shared in her pain. Scooping up the baby and their bag for the very last time I turned to leave the contact centre and it wasn’t until I reached the safe confines of my car that I allowed my tears to fall.
There it was, my moment, my very own puzzle piece that slotted in and shaped me as a parent. With continued practice I started to become comfortable with my children’s stories and in particular talk about their birth families openly and positively (when appropriate). I shared in their pain as they processed their sadness and most importantly of all reminded them of how a sad story transpired into a story of great happiness. My fear of rejection gradually melted away as being open and honest with my kids infinitely brought us closer together as a family.
Woven into children’s Life Stories is the impact of trauma and in order to explain this I want to take you back thirty odd years to my most traumatic childhood experience. It was ‘sweetie night’ and a miniature version of myself stood with outstretched arms as my dad produced a traditional white paper bag full of large peppermints. Greedily popping one in my mouth it was one of those that didn’t appear to shrink no matter how hard I sucked. Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity of bag number two I attempted to swallow, quickly realising my error as the sweet lodged itself firmly in my windpipe. My eyes bulged and my skin rapidly turned a tinge of blue in front of my shocked parents. Had my Dad not acted as fast as he did I’m pretty convinced I would not be here to tell the tale. Dangling me by my legs over the sink he quite literally walloped the life out of (or into) me whilst my Mum shouted like a lunatic in the background.
Even to this day I am unsure which bits I am recollecting from my own memories and which are taken from the story shared by my parents. What I can tell you is that this experience has stayed with my body forever. As an adult there are times when sucking boiled sweets can trigger an uncomfortable feeling which instantly makes me crunch it beneath my teeth, sometimes this feeling is so overwhelming I have to take it out of my mouth and put it in the bin. On a few occasion’s I have had a flash back bizarrely enough not triggered by sweets but by sinks and the noise something makes when it hits the metal. It takes me back to the moment the sweet flew out of my mouth and hit the stainless steel. Anyone who knows me really well will be able to tell you how long it takes me to swallow even the tiniest of tablets and just how neurotic I was about chopping my children’s food into tiny pieces whilst they were small.
I revisited my trauma years later more significantly when my best friends baby choked on a lump of melon skin. As my panic stricken friend handed me her baby whilst she called for an ambulance all my First Aid skills went out of the window completely. Forgetting all about chest thrusts, I chose to hit her child’s back repeatedly. I remember the member of the Ambulance service saying to my friend (over the phone) ‘can she stop hitting her so we can see if she’s breathing’ but I wasn’t really there as for a split second I took on the role of my Dad. Ignoring her words I continued until to my overwhelming relief, I heard the sound of the end of the melon hitting the floor.
Sharing this experience with you may appear random to some however it is my way of understanding and explaining emotional triggers and responses in children who have experienced early trauma. I find myself curious as to how I would have felt if my parents had not shared this part of my life story with me. The likelihood is that I would still have the same overwhelming feelings and flash backs, I just wouldn’t be able to understand why. Sadly this is the case for many adopted and fostered children and I remain mindful that sometimes it’s not always possible to complete all of the missing puzzle pieces.
Every day in my field, I face stark reminders of the importance of life story work and promoting healthy identities within our children. Sadly this is quite often through the lens of negative outcomes. My motivation for this blog is to promote awareness of the importance of this work and give Adoptive families the strength and the confidence to take this journey with their children.
Whilst life story work may seem like you are inflicting unnecessary pain on yourselves and your children, burying the past really isn’t the answer. I have absolutely no regrets about helping my children to work through their losses, especially when I compare it to the prospect of watching them process the pain in full force when they are adults.
This journey is long and it may be a bumpy ride, so buckle up and prepare for some turbulence; always remember in the case of an emergency to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others (if you’ve never flown this might be lost on you).
My hope is that you arrive at ‘destination teenager’ like I have….. with one less thing to worry about!