Monday, 12 December 2016

Wear and Tear

Talking to a wise woman today, and we got to thinking about how – when you are stretched as tight as you can be, hanging on by fingertips and toetips, straining to provide the super-structure that your child needs to cope – it doesn’t take much for others to knock bits off you. A comment, intended or otherwise, makes a chip in my paintwork when I don’t have a free hand to protect myself. And the tiny hurts build up, and twinge in the night, when I lie awake, feeling them fresh once I can finally lay down my child and relax my grip. 

I’m calling it the “By-Now” Syndrome. Aren’t they able to do that by themselves By Now? Can’t they do after-school club By Now? Haven’t they given up drinking from a bottle By Now? Can’t you leave them in the evenings By Now? All laced with a heavy dose of judgement, which if I shine a light on it, is at once saying “they’ve made so much progress with you” and “you’re doing it wrong”. Um, they’ve made the progress because I do it this way. If I stopped now, we could all watch the pieces fall…

The By-Now Syndrome is especially hurtful from people I thought understood just how much effort, preparation, and support it takes, to make Cupcake look like she’s doing things with almost ease. It is so much easier to think that love makes everything all better, or that time heals all wounds, or that because a child seems to be coping with things they couldn’t before, then the past has disappeared just as if a re-set button has been pressed. It is a lot harder to hold different truths in balance: the damage and pain will always be there; the differences in neurological patterns will always be there; the deep, deep need for more support will always be there; and at the same time, yes, they are doing better, there is healing, there is hope, there are reasons to celebrate the successes.

I seem to have hit a point, a few years in, where the By-Now syndrome is having a real flare-up. There is a definite overtone of head-tilting “you’re being over-protective” to some of the communications from school, or even occasional family members.

A massive cup of hot chocolate and a thank you to my wise woman (she from the first paragraph) who invited me to re-frame “over-protective” into “protective”. That word I can live with, proudly, no matter how many scrapes I get in my appearance.

Monday, 10 October 2016

A green bough in my heart

Yesterday, I spent the day among trees, hundreds and hundreds of them in every shade from deep green to yellow. Autumn in the woods is an unparalleled time, especially on those jewel days when the sky is bright blue and the sun so warm you end up shrugging off coats and hats to play in the leaves.

In the evening, I read this proverb "If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come". Can we keep that bough green and springing, all the time? Is that even possible, or desirable? I believe there are seasons of growth, and seasons that should be fallow, but setting that aside for a bit, lately times have been a bit bleak and it is definitely right to think about what would bring life back into our hearts.

What feeds me? I don't mean what I chew (endlessly) in the evenings and snatched moments, trying to stave off exhaustion or anxiety. It took me much longer than it should have done to remember what used to nourish the light in my eyes. After a lot of pen-sucking and head-scratching, I have two lists of "survival kits" now and I'm going to try and use both of them. One is for Everyday, and one is for Investment-days (and those things need money or time saved up to achieve, so can only happen at intervals).

Everyday Survival Kit
- oil-burner/diffuser. I have aromatherapy oils, I love them, I have a brilliant no-flame diffuser that I can leave safely around a small child, and yet I only use it occasionally. It needs to come out more.
- teapot. Instead of a hasty cup of tea gulped here and there, inevitably the last bit drunk cold and more out of duty, once a day I am going to try and have a pot of tea, on a tray, with a decent cup. People can join me, but I am going to make drinking the cup of tea the central activity.
- armchair. My most comfy chair is (deliberately) placed away from the television, so when I curl up in it, I can't be watching TV as well, I have to accept the quiet and stillness. I need to use it more in the evenings.
- outside. I have promised myself a walk around the neighbourhood after school drop-off (on the days I'm not sprinting for the office). I need the ten minutes to move myself from mum to working-me, and to breathe.
- cleaning my bedroom. I have become excellent at putting myself, and my own environment, last. The child is thriving (thank the Lord!) but she takes all my energy, love and thought. Her bed and playspaces etc are in far better condition than mine. Time to make my room lighter, cleaner and fresher too.
- reminders. Some times of the month/year are tougher than others physically or emotionally. I have set up regular reminders to look out for these, and a stock of helpful remedies in the store cupboard.
- nutrition - a commitment to make sure that I get the right things to eat, instead of taking the lazy option (toast or pasta!). A slow-cooker, some vitamin top-up pills, and a new water bottle to remind me I need to drink it too.
- making. I used to sew, paint, write almost every day. It's been a looooooong time. I need to find much smaller projects, that can bring the creative making back in these years of less time and energy!

- a massage (can you imagine the sheer indulgence of selfish time and money involved? Shocking!) Quarterly, or as one wise friend put it "with every change of season"
- learning new things. I don't have much mental resource for this, but can't let it go either. My new thing for this month/season is going to a mindfulness class, free and available for people with caring responsibilities. I have so nearly cancelled, but I hope I'm going to make it.

I'm sure these kits are going to change over time, more things will be needed, some things won't be right any more, but they are a start. I hope you get to build your own kits too. It's world mental health day today and this year's theme is "Psychological First Aid" - a good reminder to take care of ourselves in emergencies, but also to do perhaps the harder job of taking precious minutes to take care of ourselves every day, and keep that green bough alive.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Too Big To Carry

You know all those people who said I was "making a rod for my own back" blah blah blah when my strategy for helping Cupcake calm down or manage wobbles was always to cuddle her or pick her up? Well, they can still bog right off, but it has to be said the inevitable has happened: she grew. A lot. And is definitely too long and heavy to carry very far these days. My spatial awareness (and biceps) do not stretch to carrying her on my shoulders. Ho hum, what to do when she needs to be close, and we need to get somewhere?

A side issue was bubbling along, which was my massive BMI need to get moving and burn off some restless energy. "Getting outside for a walk" just doesn't have the same restorative qualities when instead of being able to stride and stomp along until you're puce, you have to grit your teeth and amble along at the speed of a reluctant and endlessly curious pre-schooler, who bless her, has one weak leg due to CP. Agh.

What to do, what to do? Well, it turns out, wheels are the answer. When venturing on holiday to a well-known woodland holiday chain earlier this year, we tried an adult tricycle with a second seat on it big enough for another adult (the duet cycle). In all honesty, this was a bit more adapted than we actually needed, particularly since the front two-wheeled part could be detached and used as a wheelchair. Nonetheless we had a ball careering around the place, with Cupcake waving regally at all the poor saps who had to pedal their own bikes, and me burning off some frustration and burning up my thigh muscles at the same time. Ever since, I have been contemplating, and googling, and doing my sums on the back of envelopes.

Eventually we took the plunge and have bought our own version: we call it Little Zoom. We bought it from the lovely folks at Mission Cycles and we have had it less than a week but already LOVE it. It has taken some getting used to (our first ride was under adult supervision from my brother-in-law, who actually understands what happens when you change gear, and why. Mysteries indeed) but we are well away now, and Cupcake sings her own special "Faster Faster" song every time we set off. Teddy is tied on to the back with a ribbon just in case he decides to plunge into traffic, and Cupcake has her own bell in the back which she is tickled pink by. The rear seat is really designed for 2 small children and can take up to 60kg, but we have fiddled with the harness(es) and rigged it so Cupcake can sit in the centre by herself. She has over 40kg to go before she hits the weight limit, although I'm pretty sure I'm well over what the main saddle should be bearing! It's great to get us out together - she is at the same level as me so she can chat to me and reach to touch me, and I know she's safe right behind me (I was not at all convinced by the tag-along trailers as I could vividly see she would panic - and so would I probably!)

So, basically, my point here is that all exhausted self-neglecting adopters with anxious children could do a lot worse than save their sanity by investing in a Little Zoom of their own!

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again...

The super-discerning among you will have spotted from the title that I'm a huge Fred Astaire fan. It has particularly come to mind lately, as I never think of myself as having good levels of perseverance. Oh dear. So where does that leave me when trying to teach, and model, a bit of resilience? A bit of willingness to keep trying when the early results are not great? 

I can talk the talk, as Cupcake recently demonstrated to me. I was making a really impressive botch of something on my sewing machine, and was about to blow. Cupcake slunk up beside me and stroked my arm. I told her I was in a bit of a bad mood because I'd made a mistake. She just laughed and said "That's OK Mummy, everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is to try again." I stared for a minute, listening to my words in her mouth, and my grumpiness seemed utterly ridiculous. "You're right," I said, picking her up. "Let's have a cuddle and I'll try again in a minute."

This newly opened mind has been deeply tested over the past few weeks and months. Unfortunately Cupcake has not been at all well, and there have been lots of doctors and hospitals and tests. We have a diagnosis now, and one of the aspects of the treatment plan is that she needs to be on an extra-low salt diet, pretty much for always. I don't know if you have ever looked but salt is everywhere. We already never had processed meals or takeaways, never had bakery stuff like sausage rolls. Where else to look to cut out more? Flipping everywhere. Newly out of reach foods include: cheddar (and almost all other cheese, soft or hard); sausages (Cupcake is almost in mourning); bread... Eep. Life without sandwiches. Or wraps, or pittas, or crumpets.

Time to dust off the cookery books and get experimenting. We already made bread occasionally, more for the fun of the process than the outcome. Was salt essential to bread? I was about to find out.

Version 1: Giant Fail

This is the Cottage Loaf from the Lakeland Bread Book. If you ever need a prop for a production of the Jack and Beanstalk, this would be excellent for the giant's table. You'll need strong jaws to eat it through. 

No matter what I adjusted (rise time, cooking time) I ended up with giant bland loaves that were OK-ish on day 1, but by day 2 were distinctly claggy to chew. Our bread consumption went right down - a fairly clear indicator that even toasted, this was not going to be our long-term loaf.

Version 2: Milked Dry

This is the Milk Loaf from the BBC food recipes online. I thought I'd try a loaf made with milk instead of water. The lack of salt had so far made for a fairly flavourless offering - I was optimistic that maybe milk would help. Hmmm. 

Well, it was less sticky to chew, and it had a bit more flavour, but neither of us was rushing for another slice. And this was fresh-baked bread, the house filled with yummy yeasty warm smells. We should have been ripping into it with glee. But we weren't.

Version 3: Fast and Fabulous

In the library, I came upon this book: Five Minute Bread. I was fairly depressed by this stage, at the lack of return for quite a lot of effort and time, in mixing, kneading and waiting for rises. I borrowed the book, full of scepticism. It reckoned you needed a couple of bits of kit - a bread stone to bake on, and a peel/paddle for transferring dough to stone, as it's very wet and floppy before baking. I had neither. I put the dough on a sheet of baking parchment, and slid that onto a hot thick baking tray to cook it.

Look at this beauty! It tastes, if anything, better than it looks. We race through the loaves. And here's the really good bit - you mix it all up (genuinely in the promised 5 minutes, including weighing) and you bake a bit as you need, keeping the rest of the mix In The Fridge All Week. So instead of a new loaf needing to either be a) de-frosted from last week's baking, or b) mixed, kneaded, risen and baked from scratch, ready about 4 hours after you were hungry, with this you just grab another bit from the fridge and about an hour later it's cooked and fabulous and fresh. Have I mentioned there is No Kneading? No? Well there isn't. Seriously, this is possibly witchcraft.

So, perseverance paid off. I feel proud of the loaf, but more proud of Cupcake and myself - we hung in there, we didn't complain when we ate some really bad bread (I never knew that could exist), and we made something good. You can insert your own metaphors wherever you like in this post.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016


This post has been drifting around my head for weeks, but it wasn't until someone else gave me the word "scaffolding" that I was able to start to make sense of it. It all starts with someone telling me how well cupcake is doing, and how proud of her I must be. Both those things are true. But they often, not always, but often come with an undertone of "And now we can all relax and you can lighten up and stop worrying." Um. Except the reason we are coping better (some days) and cupcake is making definite progress coping with school (most days), is the massive shift I make to how I parent her and protect her.

I read that in the special needs world, the vocabulary they use for this is "scaffolding" - the superstructure we build around children, to create an environment in which they can cope. All parents have things they do to make life easier for their children, especially very young children. Perhaps you make sure you always have their favourite cup or soft toy, perhaps you adjust the timing of activities around meals and naps so the routine gives them stability. But more than likely, these kinds of concerns and efforts start to taper as your child grows older. It was a sobering experience to realise that, in all likelihood, I will not be tapering off the structures I build for cupcake. As she ventures out into the wider world of school and early friendships (or at least, regular encounters with other children...) she needs more of that protection, not less.

We do things in a certain way, in terms of tone of voice, words used, doing things together, not forcing decisions or the pressure of choosing. We actively use regression, encouraging some baby-type time for more nurturing when emotions are running high. We rock (lord, do we rock) and I'm always looking for more rhythmic fun things to do, to help cupcake learn how it feels to regulate her body and feelings herself. (By the way, the teeterpopper is great for this.) I have just donated my old, comfy, massive bed, and bought a much smaller one - entirely so that I can fit an upholstered rocking chair into my bedroom and rock my child when she can't sleep. It took me ages to find one that is the right shape for me to do this cradling a nearly-five year old, as their legs tend to be a tad longer than allowed for in traditional "nursing chairs".

Designing the scaffolding is a matter of trial and error, testing out recommendations from other adoptive parents, medical or psychological professionals, books, online forums, and occasionally just mad ideas that occur by accident (who knew that sucking an ice cube can help reduce anxiety?). Rescue remedy chewy stars have also been deployed regularly, so that cupcake calls them "magic sweets". We have one each when all the other mechanisms are not getting us any closer to being able to leave the house with our emotions more or less in balance. As I get more practised at keeping all the scaffolding in place, we both look a little more like we're coping. In fact, I am doing everything I was always doing (and more) but I am better at  making it invisible to the outside eye.

And all the while, I am hoping like crazy that the scaffolding doesn't collapse, that it will be enough, that these supports will be temporary, like a stake allowing the trunk of a tree to grow strong without being beaten down by the weather.

My deepest hope is that one day I will be able to gently release the stakes, and she will stand tall and free from all the fears that closed her in.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Two days left

I am not quite sure how it happened, since it has been looming on my horizon for months, but somehow it has slunk up on me and <boo!> it's only two days until school starts.

Hardly earth-shattering, but it is for our little world. For this is cupcake's first ever "first day of school" and we both need a very deep breath and a tight hold on each other's hand. It has been an extremely rocky build-up over the past few weeks. With my adoptive-parent-sleuth hat on, I eventually unpicked it all and realised cupcake was convinced that when she started a new school, she would have to start another new family. After all, that's what happened the last time she left a nursery - a week later, she moved from foster care to me. All of her known people, places, smells and routines were gone at a stroke. Of course I had reams of notes to try and re-create laundry smells and daily patterns, but it's just building a handrail over a huge hole, isn't it? Better than not having something to cling to, but hardly the same.

I am stunned at how much she remembers of that as a sequence, given how tiny she was. But it was definitely what she was thinking. When I did a bit of artless wondering out loud, "I'm wondering whether these big feelings inside are because you're worried when you start big school, other things will change too? And I'm wondering whether we need to remember together that this will always be your home, and I will always be your mum?" Her eyes screwed up tight and she asked me whether Miss X, her new teacher, was going to be her new mummy. So much hurt and fear inside such a small, worried head. She has been clinging onto me like those woolly monkeys you see wrapped onto their mums. If she had a tail, that would be holding on to me too.

I think she half-believes me that we're stuck with each other for good. But it's the one and only reason I am looking forward to term starting - then I will be able to prove to her that we come home again. In the meantime, she is too anxious to want to leave the house at all. Or sometimes she wants to try, so we head out for a walk, but the panic kicks in when we get to the bend in the road and she can't look back and see our house any more. No amount of rocking, stroking, soothing and singing can do more than damp down the fears for a bit.

The absolute last thing she wants for these next two days are escapades or special treats. She needs everything the same, no excitement (because that feels too close to fear), and days that are as close to completely predictable as I can manage. And I can do that, and I can soothe her and carry her fifty times a day if she needs it. But it makes me hurt for her, for yet another way that she's showing me her world inside is so different to what you'd wish for any child. I have to believe that every day is another tiny fragment of building her a new foundation, even if I can't see yet how to put them together.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Clouds on the horizon

No, not those ones (although I am very glad that last week's temperatures have dropped far enough that I can no longer fry eggs on the kitchen floor). Emotional clouds that, if this were a cartoon, would spell out "SCHOOL" in white fluffy letters. Sigh.

Cupcake goes to nursery three mornings per week. Settling in was wobbly but moderately OK, and she's been very steady there since the autumn. But, uh-oh, here comes school. I was trying to focus on the fact that the school has been unbelievably sensitive and brilliant in their advance planning, so it feels like a good nurturing place. 

And I'm sure it is. But Cupcake has given me a little flash of how hard the change is going to be for her. Her keyworker has been on holiday for two weeks and got back today. The first week she was away, Cupcake had a series of big falls, every single session. She's not the world's most co-ordinated child, but this was unusual and I put it down to hyper-anxiety about her keyworker's absence. The second week she told me she didn't feel well a lot, and said she didn't like nursery any more. She was superficially calm but asked for me often during the sessions, which hasn't happened in a long time.

It all really came out today, I'm guessing in a rush of relief that her keyworker was back today. She didn't want me to go at drop-off (so I didn't until she was OK), and I've just rung to check on her. She has needed lots of cuddles and has been talking a lot to her keyworker about "mummy come back soon?" and "mummy got lost?" As I wrote this down, I realise some of this is quoting directly from one of her books (Bedtime Billy Bear). I know this doesn't mean these aren't real fears for her though, even if they're coming out through someone else's words. Gulp. 

It's down to me to show her I can carry these fears with her, and slowly carry them for her when she'll let me, but I just need a little time on my own now to cry a bit - life should not be this scary or hard when you are three.