Adoptive parent Leah recognises she initially struggled to bond with her adopted son Billy, then aged two, and her transition to parenthood was anything but smooth.

Leah would regularly count down the hours until her husband Ryan was due home from work and she would then be straight-out-the-door as soon as he arrived – not returning until Billy was in bed.

But a year on the art psychotherapist has a strong, loving bond with Billy and wants other adoptive parents, struggling at the start of their journey, to know they’re not alone.

“I’ve packed Billy’s* book bag ready for him to take to nursery tomorrow. He sleeps soundly tucked up in bed as I tidy his bedtime books away and pick bits of Lego off the floor. I cannot imagine my evening is much different to every other mother out there. 

I wanted to write something to mark our first year together. Something to describe the journey we have been on and the distance we have covered from when we first met him at his foster carer’s.  While it feels like time has passed so quickly it also strangely feels like it was a million years ago.  It feels like I am thinking of a different child, not the child, my child, whose snotty nose I wiped for the hundredth time today. I feel like a different person. I’m a changed person.

Everything felt so unnatural knowing that in 10 days time this little guy would be living with us permanently

He sat in his high chair smiling at us as we walked in. He was an inquisitive two-and-a-half-year-old, a little shy perhaps but confident enough in himself to greet us. He said ‘its mummy and daddy’ when he was asked who we were. I smiled, I engaged with him but all the time being thrown that I wasn’t feeling the feelings I wanted to feel.  Everything felt so unnatural knowing that in 10 days time this little guy would be living with us permanently. I watched him as he played and remember how babyish the nape of his neck looked. My husband was already besotted and beamed at being called ‘daddy’.

Our first visit was an hour long and I was ready to go when the time was up. Each day our time together increased. We learned from his lovely foster carer how he likes his baths and his routines.  Six days later he made his first visit to our house, his new home. He ate here and then we would return him for bed, only to pick him up again in the morning. I brought some of his toys back with me on each visit and then, on the ninth evening, I brought all his belongings home. We left key pieces for him to pack in the morning, like his toothbrush, to symbolise the fact that he was moving.  And here he was.

It was important to us that he didn’t feel like we were taking him away from his foster carer so we made a conscious effort to make sure she visited every other day, at first. I didn’t want him to feel abandoned by her because he loved her so much. I couldn’t imagine how terrifying it would be for someone so little to be moving in with essentially strangers. Her visits decreased over time and the attachment and understanding towards us slowly transferred. We now see her for a cuppa every couple of months. He looks forward to her visits and gets on with his life when she goes.

 I felt emotions I never knew existed within me. I felt so much anger at times that I scared myself

We didn’t celebrate when he moved in. We battened down the hatches and learned to live with one another. At first we played ‘happy families’ and then the meltdowns started and we all just survived. I felt emotions I never knew existed within me. I felt so much anger at times that I scared myself. I didn’t know what I was doing, what was ‘normal’ for a two-year-old - or even if I liked the parental responsibility I had committed to. I felt lied to by everyone who had children because they never told me how hard it would be and I felt foolish for spending the last five years childless and unhappy when I should have been out enjoying the luxury of time and lack of responsibility.

I looked at him and saw other people’s faces in him. I thought of all the other people who loved him and knew they would be thinking of him. I watched the clock for the return of my husband from work and would immediately be out-the-door once he was home. I would then spend my time running round the local park, clearing my head and getting the space I needed and wouldn’t return until he was in bed.  

We don’t have family near so we didn’t have a break. Our friends with children were able to empathise with certain behaviours which helped us to understand what was developmental and what was emotional. My mother stayed for a week about a month after he moved in and she saw our struggles. That recognition in itself was helpful but she also carried some of the weight which gave me some space and a new perspective. She was able to see a scared little boy. I had been so overwhelmed I hadn’t been able to see him with such clarity. My husband and I were very united over this period as we were the only ones that really understood how challenging it was. While we appreciated all the best wishes from family and friends we knew that most had no idea of the complexities of adoption but saw what we had done as our happy ever after.

 Slowly, slowly, I learned to love him

Time is a great healer. I learned to see his defiance as a way to gain control because he felt so powerless. His meltdowns I met with compassion and patience. He learned to trust us and slowly started to feel safe. I found that really listening to him and voicing how hard it must be for him gave him recognition and in that, a space where he was then able to just be instead of having to fight all the time.  

Slowly, slowly, I learned to love him. I feel bad that it wasn’t instant. I look back and see all the mistakes I made and wish I’d known better but I don’t think that is any different from any other mother out there getting to know their child. He calls me ‘my mummy’ now and I feel like I own it.  It’s not just a name like it was in the beginning. 

Now three-years-old, he has already been the greatest teacher I have ever met. He has taught me so much about myself, about humanity and compassion. I know every hair on his head and when I look into his eyes I just see someone who loves and trusts me. It still is difficult at times and I know we will face many more challenges as he grows but I do honestly believe that we are going to be ok. 

Both my husband and I are better people for knowing him and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

* Billy is a pseudonym 

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