Welcome to the second in my series on self-care. Every day this week – Self-Care Week –I’m examining a different aspect of self-care, specifically as it relates to adoptive parenting. (This series first ran in spring 2015.) I’ll be using the hashtag #selfcareweek on Twitter and Instagram and would love it if you’d join the conversation. If you missed it yesterday, part one (on sleep) is here.
Today’s topic is support, which is so vital to adoptive parents that proving you have it is a big part of the approval process. When we went through the process, several of our friends were interviewed, either in person or on the phone, not just to gather information on us but to see if they’d be up for helping us through the challenges. Our families went on a special one-day course for relatives of adopters, too. Yet the reality post-placement often looks very different from any documents given to the social workers.
Our support comes – in theory, at least – from four sources: family, friends, online, and ‘official’ support. I’ll run through each in turn in a moment, but first of all, let’s look at the reasons adoptive families need help.
Why it matters
Adoptive parenting is an extreme endurance event. It’s a 24/7 job, and even when our little treasures are at school for around 30 hours a week there is a higher than average chance of being phoned and asked to retrieve them for a misdemeanor of some kind, not to mention all the meetings with teachers, educational psychologists, behaviour support advisors, and whoever else is involved. We therefore need respite: time away from caring for our children to attend to our own wellbeing. Without it, we will be much less able to do a good job of therapeutic parenting, because our own mental health is impacted and our ability to self-regulate reduced.
In ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, Erica Pennington comments:
‘Without support, many families either struggle in isolation or become one of the adoptions that disrupt or break down before the child reaches adulthood, resulting in the child being returned to the care of the local authority – creating further trauma for the child and for the family who so wanted to love and care for that child. Finding appropriate support can mean the difference between a child thriving in a secure and loving family and a child potentially living their childhood in the care system, which while it does its best for the child, doesn’t offer the individual therapeutic family care these children need.
‘…Adoptive parents, along with foster carers, special guardians and kinship carers are caring for and parenting some of the most traumatised children placed from the care system. They need all the support they can get.’
The type of support you need will depend on the specifics of your situation, of course, but could include childcare, time with friends, specialist professional help of various kinds, and other adoptive parents to talk to (in person and/or online). Don’t forget that adoptive families are legally entitled to an assessment of support needs, and this should include support for parents as well as children (though getting parental support funded is a whole other issue).
And now to our sources of support.
Our primary support comes from my parents. They are incredible. Emergency childcare at the end of the phone? Yes. Household repairs where the children have broken door handles/toilet seats/gates/etc? Yes. Staying over at our house occasionally so we can have a night away without the children? Yes. They are the most dependable, unflappable part of our support network. I am an only child, so I have the advantage of there being no other grandchildren to make demands on their time. I try to make sure I supply them with flowers, chocolates and cakes at regular intervals to thank them for their marvellousness, and am careful not to be too demanding, but the kind of support they give us isn’t something we can adequately thank them for.
On Pete’s side, his parents are occasional childminders – maybe one afternoon every three months, something like that. They are reluctant to drive to our house (about 45 minutes away) though they are very much a several-times-a-week fixture in Pete’s sister’s childcare arrangements, for those are the wonderchildren. Moving swiftly on…
I am not the first adoptive parent to say that our circle of friends has changed since the children joined us. There are those friends who ‘get’ adoption and attachment, and those who don’t, and fairly soon you work out which is which and proceed accordingly.
Pete and I have never been especially outgoing, gregarious types, so we have a fairly small circle of friends, many of whom are long-term friends from school or university days and are scattered around the country/planet. Locally, we have a grand total of three friends who have babysat our children on one or more occasions. One of our goals for this year is to double that number so that we can have regular evenings out as part of our own self-care strategy without becoming a nuisance to just a couple of people.
We have found the business of finding people to ask a real challenge. We moved churches a few months after the girls were placed with us, wanting to find somewhere that suited us better as a family. After a year we were still struggling to make friends, because we were so preoccupied with meeting the girls’ needs on a Sunday morning (for which, read ‘taking them outside to run around and let off steam immediately after the service’) that we just didn’t have much opportunity for conversations. Church life has always been a major part of our social scene, so to be without it for a long period has been difficult.
In the last nine months things have improved as we have started to ask for help (not something that comes naturally to us in social situations) and to befriend other parents who have expressed an interest in looking after the girls for the occasional afternoon. Even if they don’t understand attachment, they’re willing to read a book and get stuck in trying to help us, which is about as much as we can ask of anyone, really. There are also a few other adoptive families at church, and another mum and I meet up every three weeks or so for a natter about how things are going. It’s lovely not to have to explain the whole attachment thing, or FASD, or how hard it is to get professional help… and it’s great to be able to help each other out with books and sources of information.[Update: we really tried with this one, but two years later we haven’t really broadened our circle of babysitters at all. We stopped going to church for six months because Sunday mornings just became so stressful. No-one there noticed for three months. We’ve recently started attending another church and are trying again but it is SO HARD to meet people in a meaningful way when you also need to give attention to very demanding children. I’ve also recently written this post about what to say when people ask how they can help.]
I love online support. I love the relative anonymity, the ease with which we can share similar concerns and experiences in the adoption community, and the sense of camararderie that I sense in our interactions. In the right places online, we are surrounded by others who ‘get it’, who live it, who empathise and advise and seek solutions alongside us. Twitter is my main source of online support, but I also use the Adoption UK forums and a couple of private Facebook groups for adoptive parents.
I spent a huge amount of time lurking on the forums before the girls were placed, scaring myself witless with all the tales being shared. Some of them I now see played out in our family, others I am waiting to experience when the girls are older, and (thankfully) some I think we might have dodged. The forums are great for group brainstorming about problems and researching issues you have now or want to prepare for.[Update: Twitter continues to be the best source of emotional support and advice, and a place where I can talk relatively freely about things without needing to explain all things adoption.]
It would be fair to say that our official support is patchy. There are adoptive parents’ support groups within our local authority, but none very local to us or very conveniently timed. The LA is good at running courses, most of which we attended during the approval/matching process. But we don’t feel there is much for us at the moment, either for the children or us as parents. I don’t even feel as though post-adoption support know quite how to help us as parents when we’ve read all the books, been on all the courses, and are just wearily enduring all the behaviour and meetings and extra stuff that is adoptive parenting.
My list would look something like this: some decent mental heath work for the kids, some proper gritty counsellors available on demand for us to offload, regular respite childcare or cash to arrange this ourselves, and a modest allowance to replace/fix all the stuff the kids break (doors they have kicked through, that sort of thing). And chocolate. Chocolate would help.
What we actually get is a bit of waffle about not having the funding and some ‘Have you tried doing X in their life story work?’ and then ‘Well, you’re doing everything right, it just takes time…’
I disagree. I takes time and hard work by all of us in the girls’ lives and the provision of specialist services like CAMHS, which basically comes down to cash. It shouldn’t, of course, but it does, every way you turn. And this is frustrating beyond measure, especially when you know that many, many adoptive parents are working reduced hours or have given up paid work entirely in order to meet the needs of children who were once in the care of the state.
It shouldn’t be too much to ask to be adequately supported. I really hope May and the Adoption Support Fund signal the beginning of a change, though I’m not holding my breath.[Update: we have changed local authorities since I first wrote this post, and things are decidedly not any better. We are now feeling actively harrassed by PAS, as I wrote in this recent post.]
What are your thoughts on the importance of support to your own self-care? Is it something you’re managing well or struggling to get enough of? Do you have sources of support other than those I’ve mentioned? Please share your comments below and join in the conversation on Twitter with the #selfcareweek hashtag.
Tomorrow, part three of the seven components of self-care: sports.
Support: further reading
When friends ask ‘What can I do to help?’
Adoption UK forums
NHS guide to post-adoption support
Post adoption support: a rapid response survey of local authorities in England (Government working paper)
It takes a village to raise a child: Adoption UK survey on adoption support
Information on the Adoption Support Fund