Digging up the past

My dad died 7 weeks after the girls were placed with us, 3 days before Christmas. I’m glad he met them, and although he rarely demonstrated much emotion, he seemed genuinely pleased for us.

H and I agreed what we would tell the girls: that Grandpa had become a star. Squeak was 3 and Bubble was 5. Squeak patted my arm. Bubble asked when tea was going to be.

On clear nights the girls sometimes point to the sky and ask ‘is that Grandpa?’.

We buried his ashes in a plot between my mum’s parents and her grandparents. Mum was clear what she wanted in a headstone, and it didn’t include a vase. Over the last year at her request I’ve staked two pots of heather by the headstone, as well as putting the obligatory wreath there at Christmas. But this week, which happens to be both the 30th anniversary of my Grandpa’s death, and what would have been my parents’ 52nd wedding anniversary, she decided she wanted me to sink a jar into the grave for some daffodils.

It was with some trepidation that I set off for the cemetary this morning. I had not enjoyed staking the heathers in, but at least they were at the side of the grave. The jar was going to have to go in the middle, and that meant digging directly over the box containing my father’s ashes. I delayed: I cleaned my grandparents’ headstone, I weeded my great grandparents’ grave. I arranged daffodils in their vases. I paced up and down. I re-arranged the daffodils.

Finally, I dug. A few suprised worms wriggled away through the rich, moist earth. The hole wasn’t deep enough for the jar. I dug again. CLANG! Metal hit metal. I jumped back. I must have hit the plaque on the box. Oh. My. God. For a surreal second I considered digging up the box. In the next moment the jar was in the ground, earth replaced, water poured in, followed by daffodils. I stood back and contemplated what had just run through my mind.

13 months previously I had been the one who had placed the box in the grave. It had struck me then what a lovely box it was. Solid. Square. Hard wood, with a brass plaque in the centre of the lid. Dad would have approved. It seemed a shame to be burying it. Maybe I just wanted to see it again. Maybe I wanted to feel close to him again. Perhaps I was reacting to just having finished ‘The Book Thief’, the story of a foster child in Nazi Germany, narrated by Death.

It has occasionally struck me over the last year that I haven’t given myself time to grieve. Sometimes I convince myself I’m doing really well, and don’t need to grieve. Most of the time I like to believe I’m too busy being a mummy who also has a fairly demanding job to afford the time to grieve. Today showed me I need to make the time. And I need to do it not only for me, but for our girls. They’ve lost their birth parents and their foster carers. To truly empathise with their feelings of loss I need to get in touch with my feelings, however hard that may be.

Squeak, come out of the drawer robe!

It’s been a funny old week. It started with Squeak’s birthday. After a weekend of small celebrations with sisters, and then other family, we went out for tea with one of Squeak’s schoolfriends. It was absolutely fabulous to see older sister Bubble looking after the schoolfriend. It is a side of her we rarely see.

On Tuesday Squeak got stuck in the ‘drawer robe’ (her version of wardrobe). She had decided to climb in as obviously neither mummy had responded quickly enough to her request for trousers. Much hilarity later, and Squeak was safely rescued. We go to Granny’s for tea on Tuesdays. This week Bubble read her school book to her. I overheard a little snippet: ‘The people who writed this book really know how to draw cows, don’t they Granny?’ ‘That’s a goat, dear.’

Wednesday brought Bubble’s second foray into Rainbows. She loved it, and returned clutching cards and daffodils for us. Wednesday was also the day I discovered that the Head Teacher of the girls’ school did not know that the Pupil Premium Plus existed! The school is very good, and the Head, in particular, is fantastic. We were shocked she had no idea about the PP+. She invited us to a meeting on Friday.

Thursday was tricky. We had both had difficult days at work. H was awash in homeless issues, and I was drowning in paperwork. I returned home to a very grumpy and hyper Bubble. Calm approaches just didn’t work. One early bedtime later, and we heaved sighs of relief into the merlot.

Friday was heralded by Bubble telling us she had her ‘good head on’. Thank goodness. H and I met up with the Head Teacher and educated her about the PP+. She was mortified she didn’t know about it. We agreed that Bubble would have an hours home tuition a week with a Teaching Assistant, and that Squeak’s dance classes will be paid for by the PP+. Result! We’ve also asked that some of the funding is used to train staff in attachment issues.

And so to the weekend. The girls have giggled their way through hiding Mothers’ Day cards and gifts they have made at school. It will be amazing if they find them again on Sunday! And so, as my old primary school teacher used to say, ‘ONWARDS!’

It’s nice to be important…..

Our Social Worker was lovely. Let’s call her Lovely Social Worker. She was very experienced, had humour, a no-nonsense approach, and offered penetrating insight. She was also extremely skilled in assessment, particularly in proffering follow up questions to wishy-washy first answers. Most importantly, she was supportive and positive about our application. We both liked her. Thank goodness we did. She is the person who knows more about either of us than anyone else in the world. It was our relationship with her that helped us get through the assessment and matching processes, the intro week, and the first few months of placement.

Sadly, our first experience of adoption Social Workers wasn’t so positive. H and I had just made the telephone referral, huddled in my Mazda mx5 (now long gone, sadly swopped for a family-friendly tractor) in a car park outside H’s work. We were so excited. Our adoption journey was beginning.

The very next day I received a telephone call from an adoption team manager. Let’s call her Ranting Manager. I spent the next 20 minutes standing in pouring rain outside my office listening to the woman talk at me. Why had I asked if it was legal for both of us to adopt? Were we not committed? Was H a lodger or a partner? On and on, a tirade of insults. And all because the local authority’s website had quoted old legislation about gay couples not being able to adopt together. We had therefore asked the worker taking our referral if one of us had to be the named person. Ranting Manager did not listen, she talked over me, and even suggested that we needed counselling to decide if we wanted to adopt!

The next morning H rang Ranting Manager, pointed out the exact location of the inaccurate web page, and finally convinced the woman to send us out the application forms.

Months later, having been steered through the assessment process by our Lovely Social Worker, we met our girls’ Social Worker. She was visiting to assess whether we would be a good match. We immediately took to her. She was direct and warm. ‘What do you want to know about them?’ she asked. ‘Everything!’ We replied. It was nearly 90 minutes later that she stopped talking. We felt as if we had met them!

We met Ranting Manager again at the information sharing meeting. She was there to chair it. My heart sank. H squeezed my hand. Be calm, the squeeze conveyed. 20 minutes later all was going well. Information was flowing. Then Ranting Manager looked at us and said: ‘if you want to know the effects of abuse, look on the internet’.

Time stopped. I looked at H. She was stunned. I looked at Lovely Social Worker. She raised her eyes heavenwards. Ranting Manager had, supposedly, read the reports on our application. She therefore knew that between us we had over 25 years experience working in the ‘caring professions’. My thought processes ran through a number of fairly unpleasant scenarios. Just then, beautiful, brilliant H asked the foster carer another question from our list, and the moment passed.

It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice. If ever there was a woman in the right job, its Lovely Social Worker. Sadly, she’s retired. If ever there was a woman in the wrong job, it’s Ranting Manager. Sadly, she’s still working.

Food glorious food!

And so, dear readers, we tackle some meaty issues.

‘Meat! They love meat!’ we were advised by the girls’ foster carers. A shiver ran through me. I am vegetarian. ‘And McDonalds.’

Oh. Oh dear.

I do most of the cooking in our home. When we were getting to know each other I asked my partner, H, what sorts of things she had for dinner. Chocolate and chardonnay she replied.

She wasn’t kidding.

Soon after we met I managed to wean H off the C and C diet, and subjected her to all sorts of exotica: lentil mush, chick pea casserole, butter bean whip (ok, I made up that last one). You get the picture: I gradually introduced her to the delights of vegetarianism. She ate, she coped, and eventually she liked. In our ‘courting days’ (I love that phrase), she even attempted to produce veggie meals. Made more from love than any raw culinary talent, we named them ‘potato volcano’ (veggie sausages arranged lava-like on a cone of potato); mushroom stroganoff (not bad actually); and potato frittata. These glorious offerings were served up with love and candlelight. Mostly when at hers we ate out.

Moving on a few years, when Bubble and Squeak came to live with us they had a very limited range of tastes. Their likes appeared to extend to beans and sausages from a tin. Chicken nuggets. And chips. And…. well that’s it really. Having previously persuaded my partner to extend her palate, I naively thought I wouldn’t have much trouble introducing the girls to other foods.

How wrong I was.

Vegetables were ‘urgh’. Baked potatoes were ‘yuck’. Pasta equally so. We carried on, slowly introducing new foods, with the gaps between sausages and beans getting bigger.

I got the girls to help make food. The very first thing we made was a trifle. They adored helping, and loved all the constituent parts. When it was in their bowls at teatime though, they looked aghast. Both stirred it round and round until it turned to an unappealing grey mush. We threw it away. They could not cope with foods that weren’t separated from each other. They had the same problem with macaroni cheese, pasta sauces with vegetables, and anything ‘mixed up’.

Both girls needed repeated reassurance that there would be another meal, and that they would not be hungry. Whenever a meal finished they wanted to know when the next meal or snack was. Their anxieties escalated – and still do – when we go out. They need to know when and where we will be eating. To relieve their anxieties we stick to routines for meals and snacks, and reassure them that there will always be food. I occasionally open all the kitchen cupboards, and show the girls how much food we have. I get them involved in food shopping, and they help unpack bags and store it away.

Bubble’s mealtime behaviours included banging cutlery repeatedly, eating really slowly; stufing her mouth so full of food she couldn’t chew, and looked as if she was going to be sick; shouting ‘no no no’, which escalated to uncontrollable screaming; and refusing to eat. Squeak didn’t exhibit these behaviours, but wasn’t too keen to try new foods, and wanted to copy her big sister, so would often refuse foods.

The Cherry Tomato Incident will never be forgotten. It took Squeak 10 minutes to eat half a cherry tomato. I believe it to be a world record. Her range of facial expressions was truly amazing, and very funny. 2 weeks later she loved ’em.

When preparing meals I was bombarded with questions and comments every 2 minutes: ‘what is it?’ And then: ‘yuck! I don’t want that.’ ‘How many minutes?’ ‘What’s for pudding?’ ‘When is it ready?’ ‘I’m hungry.’ ‘I’m hungry.’ ‘I’m hungry.’

Mealtimes became a chore and we began to dread them. The emotional temperature around them was awful. We needed help. Social Workers advised us to let the girls help themselves to their portions, and only expect them to eat three quarters. Not suprisingly the girls took miniscule portions, and left the vegetables till last, thinking they could leave them. So we did something the Social Workers didn’t want us to do, and told the girls that they would only get pudding if they ate at least three quarters including all their vegetables. And we refused to engage in extended discussions about the food being eaten.

Slowly, oh so slowly, things began to turn around. It felt horrible saying ‘we’re not discussing this anymore’ after we had set the boundaries at mealtimes, as in every other area of their lives we encourage the girls to communicate. And it was almost impossible to carry out this strategy if any other adult was sharing our meal. Whoever it was seemed unable not to say ‘oh, you are doing well Bubble!’ after a forkful of food had taken 10 minutes to swallow. But we stuck fast to our plan, we worked as a team, and were determined to overcome the issues.

It’s not perfect now. But it’s a lot better. The girls eat lots of different foods. Bubbles’ behaviours at mealtimes have reduced. Their anxieties have lessened. We’re still working on it, and will be for a very long time.

And, yes, very occasionally, they get to go to McDonalds.

Wouldn’ it be loverly?

In which we explore the joys and trials of being the subject of assessment.

I was on a mandatory risk assessment training course today -for my job, rather than fun or any particular hobby. (Just thought I’d clarify that – unnecessary perhaps, but, we don’t know each other, do we?) We were asked ‘what would you want an assesssor to know about you?’ I grinned inwardly (leastways, I hope my face retained its usual inscrutable demeanour), as I heard my colleagues offer various suggestions. My likes, family support, my care needs, health issues etc. Oh! It sounded so lovely, so relevant, so brief.

Nobody said ‘I’d like to be asked how often I have sex’. Nobody offered ‘please contact my exes and ask why we split up’. Nobody thought the issue of fire blankets particularly imperative, nor were they clamouring to be asked to attend medicals with a GP who didn’t know his hips from his waist. (No, I’m not being polite: that was actually the problem.) Equally amazingly, nobody requested that they write 500 words for a panel of strangers about the challenges they would face as gay parents. No shout outs for attachment style psychological testing either.

All very strange. My colleagues did not want hoops to jump through, hurdles to surmount, boxes to tick. They just wanted a worker to listen, to assess, to provide. In the words of Miss Doolittle ‘wouldn’t it be loverly’.

Our Social Worker was loverly, but that’s for another post……