I can’t remember when I first came across the term ‘Gotcha Day’ in relation to adoption, but I remember my reaction was one of instinctive, unfiltered hate. I’m not holding back here. Adoption is such a complicated thing, involving so much loss and so many ethical tensions, that the whole idea of ‘Gotcha Day’ is like finding an injury that’s stubbornly refusing to heal – perhaps one that’s a bit septic and inflamed – and ramming a great big triumphalist fist right through it.
Part of my loathing is because ‘Gotcha Day’ is all about the adopters. The children don’t seem to figure, except as an object. Separated from everything you’ve ever known? Scared about these new people you’re going to live with? Not sure whether they’re going to let you eat your favourite foods or sleep with the fluffy toy rabbit that has been the one constant for you through all those changes of foster placement? Worried about whether you’re ever going to see your siblings or your grandparents again? Well, stop whining, because we’ve got what we want. Gotcha! And if you’re a birth parent – well, tough. You had your chance, Gotcha Day seems to say, and they’re ours now. Look what you could have won!
Aside from all the greedy grabbiness, the other thing I can’t quite wrap my head around is the idea that the transition from foster care to adoptive family is a simple act, a single event. There’s a pervasive myth that adoption offers a happy-ever-after solution to the problem of children who need homes and adults who want children. Like Paddington Bear with his marmalade sandwiches, the child rocks up, you’re told to look after it, and hey presto, you’re a family. One couple on our prep course planned to take their children on an instant trip to Disneyland. Someone I talked to just before introductions couldn’t understand why I wasn’t going straight back to work. After all, children are adaptable, aren’t they? They’ll cope. Just stick them in school, or nursery if they’re still young, and get on with your life as before, just with this new additional trophy that you can show off. Gotcha!
In reality, those first few weeks and months of placement were the toughest time I’ve ever lived through, and I was a competent adult with a pretty well-honed capacity for resilience. I can’t imagine what it would be like from the other side, as a bewildered small child who’d had no say in the matter. So here are all the things I wish I’d known before placement, to help bust the myths and give you an insight into life as a newly-formed adoptive family.
- You will worry that people think you’re a kidnapper. Seriously. You’re not used to your child, your child definitely isn’t used to you, and everything will feel so odd at first that you’ll be convinced that people will think the toddler you’re trying to wrangle into a car seat isn’t actually yours People who’ve become parents the conventional way can unfold pushchairs with practised ease and change nappies one-handed. You’ll still be struggling. It took me months to get out of feeling like a hapless rookie.
- It will be exhausting. As a new adopter, you have to practice ‘funnelling’ – meeting all your child’s needs yourself in order to build their attachment to you, and not letting anyone help with bathtime, meals, bedtime stories, soothing bumps and grazes, helping down from slides, anything. You have to keep things simple, and introduce new people and places very gradually. For the first few weeks, it should be just you. It is knackering beyond belief and there will be times when you want to curl into a ball and sob. If there is anything at all that you can outsource – laundry, shopping, cleaning – then do.
- Keep everything very, very simple. I remember the first day after the Husband went back to work. I got the paints out and thought we’d spend hours creating beautiful works of art. In reality it all lasted half an hour. HALF AN HOUR. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except our painting session started at eight in the morning. I remember the day stretching ahead of us and not having a clue how we’d fill it. In the end, we made noses out of Play-Doh, and in the midst of this the Health Visitor turned up and must have wondered why I looked like Gonzo from the Muppets. After that, I made lists of things we could do, so I didn’t run out of ideas.
- The physical demands on you will be huge. Keeping your child active and occupied, going out for walks, playing in the park … it will all add an extra layer of tiredness and you will need to flo in a corner occasionally. You’ll get an extra work-out if your child is of an age to be picked up and carried. Most parents are able to build up their muscles slowly: you can’t. If you’ve installed stairgates, you’ll get an extra treat, as it’s often easier to hurdle over them than unfasten them. This is great for toning your core. I lost two stones in the first six weeks after the Dude moved in, despite all the cake I was hoovering down to help with the funnelling-induced exhaustion.
- You will feel lonelier than you’ve ever felt before. This is especially so if you work in a busy environment. I went from talking to over 150 people in an average working day to just the Husband and the Dude. Funnelling cuts you off, too. I hadn’t been prepared for how hard I’d find this and how much my sense of identify would change. Social media – including adoption support groups – will be a lifeline.
- You will feel judged by absolutely everyone you meet. Adoption made me realise how much parents – and, in particular, mothers – are judged by other people (in particular, other parents, and unfortunately, other mothers). I remember the first time we braved a toddler group. You know those wildlife documentaries where a pride of lionesses spot a new lioness and her cub, and you can see them deciding whether to welcome them in, or eat them? That’s what it was like. It was the kind of toddler group where everyone else’s child is on water and rice cakes. The Dude was firmly wedded to orange squash and Custard Creams. I even got told off by a very solemn little boy for not knowing the words to ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’. Total inadequate, obviously.
- You will be incredibly grateful for people’s kindness. Lovely people brought us casseroles and cake. One of my best friends made robots out of cardboard boxes with the Dude when it was my birthday, so I could have a couple of hours of much-needed sleep, and then came over for the whole day a few weeks later when I was floored with a virus and the Husband couldn’t take a day off work. You will want to hug everyone who holds open a door or brings you a coffee. Really.
- People will say ‘oh, but all children do that’, and you’ll want to explode. Yes, all two-year olds are demanding. Yes, all pre-schoolers can throw diva strops when they’re not allowed to control everything around them. But the reasons behind this behaviour can be completely different. Your two-year old might be grizzly and needy because he’s tired, or can’t have another snack, or wants a cuddle and is trying to get your attention. A newly-placed two-year old might be grizzly and needy because they’re scared, because everything around them is new, and they’re sad about the people they don’t see any more and don’t know how else to express it. Same behaviour, different reasons. That means I need to handle my two-year old in a different way. Trust me that I know what I’m doing.
- You’ll find out who your friends are. Trust me. You really will. Some people will be utterly brilliant. Others will melt away. Some people will find the idea of adoption absolutely fascinating but will shrink from the reality of a traumatised child. You can’t necessarily predict who they’ll be.
- You will cry when your social worker visits, at least once. Real snotty tears. Lots of people assume you’ll want to get rid of your social worker as soon as possible, because social workers are associated in the popular mind with nosiness and interference. If your social worker is a good one, they’ll be a lifeline in those first few months. For me, the tough point was about three weeks in. Don’t be ashamed. It’s bloody hard.
- Don’t expect to feel instant love. People will want you to say you do. They’ll want magical moments with sparkles and unicorns. That’s not how it works. Love will creep up on you, gradually, but don’t beat yourself up if it takes a while. Adoption isn’t a heart-warming story; it’s a major life change with far-reaching implications for everyone involved. So don’t punish yourself if you find it difficult. And remember that post-adoption depression is a thing, and get help if you need it.
- Your child will amaze you. In the midst of all this disorientation, there will be moments when you’ll be struck by how brave and resilient this small person is. Children who’ve been through difficult early life experiences have to have a huge amount of courage to survive and keep themselves together. For me, the real lump-in-throat moment was overhearing the Dude in his cot one night, listing the toys who kept him company. Bear. Bear. Tractor. Bear. He needed to know who was there so he could check they’d still be there in the morning. Moments like this will punch you in the guts and remind you how important it is to give a child security and stability.