SallyDon's 2012 to 2013 posts

Did I mention I've written a book? - 24 April 2013

I have always written. As a small child I wrote about everything which happened in my tiny life; the day my parents bought a freezer, how much I enjoyed fish fingers, the fire in the chip shop at the end of our road. As a teenager I wrote at length about friends and boys and smoking and clothes and won a short story competition. In my twenties I droned on about how awesome the universe was and yet how dull my life. Then I stopped.

What got me writing again was finding myself on the outside of things. As I got older, everyone around me had babies. Everywhere I turned there were babies, everywhere I went people talked about babies, I would turn on the television and yes, you've guessed it, babies. Even 'Friends' were having babies, even 'Sex and the City' were spawning. My husband Rob and I, on the other hand, try as we might, did not have any babies.

To cut a long story short, we found ourselves adopting two children from the care system and that's when life really got interesting. We have grown to love our children very much, but because of the less than ideal early lives they have experienced, parenting them is not like parenting a healthy birth child. Writing became a way of dealing with heaps of challenges, many of which we have had to face alone.

My diaries started to take shape as a book when I came to realise that our lives, in a small way were epic. We were living family life in full colour, at full volume, at full speed. I made a few connections with other adopters and their family lives matched ours almost precisely. I began to hear over and over 'but no one understands our children', and 'we feel so isolated' and even 'it's as though our children are blamed for the way they are'. Our loud, colourful lives were not reflected in other people's lives, nor on the television, nor in the newspapers and were often not being given credence by educators and health professionals.

Over two and a half years I wrote an account of our little epic lives; the high points, the struggles, the sadness, the bizarre and the breakthroughs. Hard work and a bit of serendipity have resulted in the book being brought into reality by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and it will be available in July of this year. It is called 'No Matter What: an Adoptive Family's Story of Hope, Love and Healing'. This week I have been looking at the cover artwork and talking over the publicity. It is something I never imagined would happen and every step is a total joy.

More than anything I hope that those struggling with infertility, or those parenting or working with traumatised children, or indeed any children who don't fit the mould, will read my book and recognise something of their own experiences. I have worked hard to be truthful and honest, to strip away the gloss, and the sugar coating that adoption can sometimes be smothered in, and also to celebrate the joys and the rewards of parenting differently. And at the risk of coming over too worthy, I also hope that the book is a rollicking good read

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2012: A Slog but Lots of Lessons Learnt - 8 January 2012

If I had to summarise 2012 in a nutshell it would be this: a year of challenge and growth. Any year in the life of an adoptive family is coloured to some degree by traumas past, but this year, for us has been both difficult and pivotal. So this post, the last of 2012 is a look back at everything I have learnt this year; the little things which have given a sparkle of pleasure and the big stuff, which has helped keep this giant tanker of ours on the mountain road.

  1. Go to every training course, seminar, conference on offer. If it has 'attachment', 'trauma' or 'therapeutic' in its title and it is within a 45 mile radius, then go. You will come away refocused and will always learn something new. This is a profession and requires a professional attitude. Ok so it may not have many of the usual features of a profession such as money and recognition, but it requires ongoing training none the less.
  2. Take a risk and try something new. Margot Sunderland said 'try some art therapy with your child'. I did. It helped.
  3. Know when to shout 'ENOUGH'. Take control. Do what needs doing to keep family and soul together. It was Rob who forced us to stay at home one day, cancel school and reorganise life. I fought against him, but he was right. The trauma got scared and retreated, for a while.
  4. What suits one child, might not suit another. They are now both in different schools, in different systems, in different towns. But it works.
  5. Greasing a baking tray with butter and not oil, is much more effective in preventing the gluing of ones bread rolls to the 'non stick' surface.
  6. Seek help. Take what you can, from wherever you can get it. Don't forget that this is the Tour de France and not a time trial and so resting in between stages is allowed and necessary.
  7. In the giant scheme of things, school grades are not important. Children who are struggling to keep body and soul together at school, do not learn well. Success may be keeping your family together, not bathing in the glory of your child gaining 9 GCSEs to their musical accompaniment. N.B.This has been a hard learnt lesson for a head girly type mother like me (now in recovery).
  8. A static caravan holiday in France is just the job. Take the bikes AND the puncture repair kit.
  9. Don't overreact when money goes missing. If you leave it out they will take it. Get over it. Lock it away.
  10. They want to play with toys which are for younger children. Get over it. Let them. What would you prefer? Drug taking and over-sexualised behaviour?
  11. Don't sweat the small stuff. I'm sure I learnt this in 2011 as well, but it's a tricky one as sometimes the small stuff comes dressed in big stuff clothing. I was proud that when every window of the advent calendars was opened on December 2nd, I didn't shout, in fact I didn't care at all.
  12. Twitter is great. If you know where to find it, there is some brilliant, humorous, dark and light support out there. Sometimes one just needs to say to someone 'I've just found three months of mouldy packed lunches under the sofa' and not have anyone raise an eyebrow, but to laugh with you about it. You know who you are and I thank you all.
  13. Know who you can share the bad news with and who just doesn't want to hear it. Life's little challenges teach us who our rainy day and sunny day friends are. Just accept it.
  14. If you can find someone at your child's school who understands and gets attachment and developmental trauma then hang on to them, nurture them, lend them books, give them chocolates at Christmas.
  15. Yoga. During that hour and a half of stretching and breathing and lying down you can do precisely nothing else. You might as well let go of worries big and small. In fact have a little holiday from worry.
  16. Remember to switch off your phone during no. 15 above or a busy day of tweeting will catch up with you in excruciating fashion.

It is common to say 'I don't know where this year has gone, it's flown by.' I won't be found reflecting this sentiment. 2012 has been a long, hard slogfest, but the Donovans have all emerged, intact at the end of it. We are older and wiser, calmer, bendier and less likely to wet our pants on purpose. I for one will be raising a glass of prosecco with some good friends this evening and welcoming in 2013*.

*as I will be in bed by midnight, this will take place at the earlier time of 10.30.

And playing out this year one of my TV moments of 2012. It is a musical clip from The Graham Norton Show. Enjoy, like David Guetta.

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My Michael Douglas, Falling Down in Morrisons Moment - 19 November 2012

‘Have a lovely day. Mum loves you,’ I say kissing him on the pen mark on his cheek, which he had refused to wash off during the bath he’d refused to have the evening before.

‘Whatever,’ he replies, shrinking from my touch.

I had woken up promising myself I would be oh so positive this morning and would put aside the events of the previous evening. I had opened my daughter’s bedroom door to wake her up and been faced with a blackened, split banana on the carpet.

‘Jamie put that there,’ she said, ‘to get me into trouble.’

That’s the sort of thing which happens in our house.

At breakfast Jamie and Rose had competitively jousted about whose school served the ‘best’ school dinners.

‘We get fizzy juice,’ said Jamie.

‘Well we get Slush Puppy.’


‘We do,’ she stated, shooting Jamie a certain look which we call ‘the eyebrows’.

‘MUM, Rose just gave me the eyebrows.’

‘Just ignore it,’ I’d offered helplessly, my optimism diminishing.

‘And why does SHE get to choose tea just cos SHE has friends coming over and I never get to choose and I want fish and chips for tea on Saturday and I’d better get them or …….’

‘Ten pounds is missing from my wallet,’ said Rob, appearing from the bathroom.

We’d all eyed each other suspiciously.

‘I wonder how that could have happened,’ I had trotted out from a text-book when what I’d really wanted to say was ‘RIGHT EMPTY OUT YOUR POCKETS NOW!’.

I’d trudged upstairs to retrieve five one pound coins from my bedside table, which I had kept there for dinner money purposes. There were only three there. Jamie had then quickly and suspiciously offered to fill the dinner money hole with his own pocket-money. Plans of sock drawer searches and honey traps had flooded into my mind. Sensing my panic over the time and my anger over the money, Jamie had then refused to put on his shoes. We were precariously close to missing the school bus.

The ‘whatever’ stings me more than the previous evenings ‘I hate you’ but not as much as the ‘I’m going to kick you and watch you die’ of the week before.’

With children delivered to school bus stops, I laboriously gather up shopping bags and fester in a washy silence. When I arrive at Morrisons feeling bleak and angry I open my purse to find it has been cleared of change. I stand in a long, slow queue to buy a newspaper with a ten pound note so I can get a one pound coin with which to release a trolley which will not steer. I seethe with irritation.

Everything in Morrisons annoys me. The rolls of plastic bags are not kept by the loose vegetables where they are needed, but next to the already bagged bananas where they are not. A lady stops, mid-aisle to check her list at length, oblivious to me raging behind her. I wait patiently, then ask her politely to please move. An icy stare.

‘Don’t take me on today,’ I think.

I swing past the magazines looking for some light relief. ‘My secret pain’ says the well-known and wealthy presenter and ‘why I’m so unhappy with my body’ says a super-fit, gorgeous athlete. A loud, mocking, scoffing laugh sets itself free. People look at me. In expressing myself, to myself in a public place. I have crossed a line. Perhaps I am crazy. Or drunk. I might sweep the contents of the magazine shelf on to the floor and stamp on the fat celebrities and the thin celebrities and the suspected boob jobs and the fake tans. I might abandon my trolley and stride off into the distance. I am like Michael Douglas in Falling Down, the monster in me finally breaking free, bulked up by the sudden release of bottled-up frustrations. I could cause mayhem.

Instead I dutifully stand in line and pay for my shopping. I come home, eat a large bag of chocolate buttons and dance madly and alone in the kitchen.

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Ten things I thank our social worker for - 22 October 2012

She is called Mel and she pulled us back from the brink this summer.

As regular readers will be aware, the Donovan family have emerged from the perfect storm which threatened to derail our adopted family earlier this summer. There are many factors which led to our collective rescue and beckoned in this prolonged period of calm, the prime factor was our Social Worker, Mel. Here is a list of ten things which Mel did to pull us back from the brink of disaster:

1. She listened, for hours
2. She did not judge
3. She said 'I know how hard it is'
4. She said 'no one knows the measure of success when we parent children who have suffered early trauma'
5. She said 'you are doing a brilliant job'. I felt like less of a failure.
6. She insisted that we get some respite, from somewhere. We accepted a very generous offer from a family member, set aside our worries and recuperated for five, sleepy days. We emerged with more fight in us.
7. She booked me on to a therapeutic parenting course. Although I swallowed down tears for most of it, it helped me to refocus and it was a relief to be amongst people who know the reality of parenting a child of trauma
8. I can tell her anything and she doesn't flinch or judge
9. She always has constructive advice to offer, no matter how impossible the problem appears
10. She is always right.

Mel is one of the unsung heroes of social services. Not only did she prevent us from disintegrating into a human disaster area this summer, she saved the state a significant amount of money, more than enough to justify her salary.

Our family have emerged into an extended period of calm and happiness which proves that Mel was right about something else: traumatised children will kick back just as bonds strengthen and relationships deepen and if adoptive families can be helped to cling on during these stormy times, they may wake up to a beautiful day.

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Bringing Up Britain - Radio 4 discussion about adoption - 4 October 2012

An otherwise balanced discussion is thrown off kilter when it comes down to the hard realities of parenting adopted children. A slightly ranty post.

Last night, after two hours of wrestling with my adopted child over washing, teeth brushing and bedtime, I settled in to listen to Bringing Up Britain on Radio 4, with Mariella Frostrup and a panel of guests including Martin Narey, Nushra Mansuri (BASW), John Simmonds (BAAF) and Professor Julie Selwyn. The discussion mainly rolled on quite nicely and Martin Narey in particular did a good job of bringing the debate around to the realities of modern adoption.

So far so balanced.

And then Mariella started to make smirky statements along the lines of 'aren't we all a bit negative about adoption?' and chirpily announced that she knows loads of people who've been adopted and they are all fine, upstanding, well-balanced individuals. I listened to the shouting and banging coming from my own adopted son's bedroom and imagined her adopted friends, nice, metropolitan media types maybe, probably having been adopted as babies and thought 'what the ***** that got to do with it?' I thought she may have been picked up by one of the other panel members for this lazy, self-satisfied journalism but she wasn't. If she was, it wasn't broadcast. Instead we were treated to a cocktail of 'yes we are far too negative', 'only a small proportion of families struggle with their adopted children' and a chaser of 'all children are like this'. (These are not direct quotations but you get the gist. Players of Adoption Misinfo Bingo would have been close to a full house.)

Have we learnt nothing, have we not moved on in our knowledge and experience of child trauma in the past twenty years? The children who are put in care and subsequently adopted in the main have been neglected and abused, big time. And they don't just shed the harm done to them, like a cashmere wrap, it is a deeply woven into them. Many difficult behaviours they display are deeply socially, dinner party, unacceptable. Raising a damaged child is at the minimum a significant challenge and for many of us a hard, painful, lonely, nerve-jangling slog.

I was left wondering why the really tough issues around parenting adopted children were glossed over so stupendously in this programme (it is after all a programme about parenting). There is a natural tendency to look away from child abuse and its long term impact. It is difficult and makes us feel awkward. But sometimes we must look and examine, because it is the only way our children will get the support and understanding that they need. The over-riding reason for the gloss-job I suspect, is the need to recruit more adopters and the upcoming National Adoption Week. We musn't tell people what it's really like because then they might not want to adopt. We must instead gush and come over a bit sentimental and kitch. There is a danger of mis-selling here and it benefits no one.

I'm aware that I am probably part of a self-selecting group: adopters who struggle. Adopters who don't experience problems raising their children are more likely to get on with life and less likely to seek the solace of twitter, message boards and blogs like this. Have a look around though and there are lots and lots and lots of us. Mariella's friends are self-selecting too. I think there were nine or ten of them.

I don't ask for full technicolour, weeping and wailing over the travails of raising traumatised children, there are triumphs and joys along the way for many of us. But I'll let you into a little secret: you know how there are things which are no longer socially acceptable to say, politically incorrect things which jar? 'All children do that' is one of those.

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Are we nearly there yet? - 20 September 2012

The end of summer holidays

I have taken a break from blogging over the summer holidays. Frankly, just getting through the almost seven week holidayathon is as much as I can manage and in the time it takes to type in the password into my laptop a fight will have broken out, a child will have shut the cat in a drawer and another child will be stood over me screaming 'Mum mum mum mum mum'. So I have been digitally absent.

Hard though the holidays have been, I was fearing they would be catastrophic. I was dreading the swearing and shouting, the breaking and throwing, the fighting and arguing. Getting through a weekend of this is bad enough. Seven weeks is a serious endurance event, with no medals at the end.


At the end of the summer term, something quite magic happened. Son no. 1 received some painful and difficult therapy. He got into the car after the therapy session and remained pleasant for the entire journey to collect his sister from school. He was pleasant to his sister, he was calm and lovely all weekend. DH and I remained on edge, primed for the next fightathon. But son no. 1 coped well with the last week at school and was reported to be 'a joy to spend time with'. The holidays started, usually a flashpoint, and he remained calm and happy. I started to relax, a little. We went on holiday to France. There was lots of travelling involved, it was bound to be awful. But apart from a couple of incidents he was in the main part calm and happy. I read four novels. I haven't been able to read on holiday for eight years. DH and I relaxed a bit more.

We are now limping through the last few days before the start of the autumn term. We are both feeling under the weather with something vague and tiring. The past eighteen months have been very very hard and are catching up with us.

I don't know what the next year will bring and I'm not quite ready to think about it. But we've survived another summer holiday. Now surely it must be time to go back to school.

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'Don't give up on me' - 4 September 2012

A light at the end of the tunnel

'Mummy, can we stop at the Garden Centre on the way home from school? I want to buy daddy a can of coke with my own money.'

It was Friday afternoon and I was feeling myself tensing up in expectation of another brutal weekend of sabotage. When we got home my son, J, asked to use the computer and told me he was doing something secret and I was to keep out.

'I am making a Power Point presentation.'

Twenty minutes later he called me and asked me to sit in front of the screen.

'I've made this for you and dad.'

'SORRY' said the opening slide amongst animations of little people crying and banging their heads against rocks.

Then 'I KNOW IT'S BEEN DIFFICULT' above a man collapsed with exhaustion.

'PLEASE DON'T GIVE UP ON ME' said the final slide.

'J, me and daddy are never ever going to give up on you. We are your mum and dad forever.'

He looked at me with watery eyes.

'You've been pushing me and daddy so hard lately. I think maybe you've been testing to see if we will ring social services and ask them to take you away.'

'I don't mean to do it.'

'I know.'

We had a hug and I told him that it would be the end of my world if he ever left our family. Then we drank hot chocolate and watched an episode of Malcolm in the Middle together. We've been bonding over Malcolm in the Middle. J likes Dewey. I am Lois.

'I feel like I am coming out of a long, dark tunnel,' says J.

He lets me hold his hand.

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