Monday 27 September 2010

Tangled Web

Yesterday, I told a man about my labour and birth experience with the twins. You know, the ones I adopted.

I know.

Here's what happened.

I'd had a pretty stonkingly bad morning. The babies had their MMR jabs a few days ago, and they have been feral ever since. They have been making their displeasure felt by throwing themselves around - arching their backs when picked up, then arching their backs even harder when put down. J and I call this 'silly bending' (as in: "baby L! No more silly bending!") and it's by far the toddleriest thing that they do. On a really bad day like yesterday (and today) they both do it at once, yelling at the top of their lungs, and sometimes add in an extra little crab-scuttle-move where they fling themselves backwards across the floor, balancing on just their head and toes. Fortunately, they aren't like this very often because when they are, nothing makes them happy. If they had their way, I would be simultaneously holding and not-holding both of them at once, using the magical octopus arms that they seem to think I possess. The closest I can come to this is to lie down on my back on the floor and let them clamber on and off me as they please. Yesterday, even that wasn't helping. I felt sad for them, obviously; they must have been feeling very messed up to be that cranky. However, I had given them food, sleep, hugs and drugs and what more can a mummy do to soothe their pain?

Mummy can go into town and get a coffee to soothe her own pain, that's what mummy can do. It wasn't totally selfish - they are usually happier once they are in the pram and moving, and that proved to be the case. We live really close to the centre of our town; it's only a ten minute walk and I invent excuses to do it most days. I was waiting to cross the road and a man approached me. As soon as he opened his mouth, I could tell he was not quite functioning on all cylinders. I think he was just a bit inebriated, although there may have been other substances involved. I don't know. He turned to talk to me. This happens all the time - the babies and I get a lot more than our fair share of attention, and a considerable portion of it seems to come from the disenfranchised.

"Are they twins?" he asked. This is a standard opener.
"Yes!" The obvious reply.
"And how old are they?" Another classic.
"Fourteen months", I said, expecting the next line would be something about how cute they were, and that he would then go on his way. Instead, he said:
"I have twins". Ahhh. This happens quite a bit too. People who either have twin children, or a twin sibling, go out of their way to tell me about it. I think I can understand this - it must be strange, having been at least partly defined by this twin-thing, to eventually leave it behind when your children or (sibling) go their own way. I sometimes find myself wondering if I will do this in twenty years time, stop people at a street crossing to tell them about my children, now gone. I was still thinking this conversation was about to end, and I just said "oh, how lovely" and left it at that.

"Is it a boy and a girl? I have a boy and a girl" he said.
"That's right - this is our little boy, and this is our girl," I said, pointing.
"Which one was born first?" he asked.

And I paused. This is the point in a conversation where I always, always say "well, we adopted them so I'm not sure because I wasn't there" and move right on. And no, I'm not really all that happy with that answer either, but I can't come up with a better one*. I think it must be something about twins - people seem compelled by some cosmic force to ask questions about the pregnancy and birth. Which one is older is the most common question, followed by how much did they weigh and how much time did they spend in the NICU. I think people do this to everyone with twins, I'm pretty sure it's not just me. But I do wonder sometimes whether this is a way that some people decide to probe the adoption issue without actually quite asking about adoption. And I always say they are adopted - well, they are - and some people do look a bit TOO surprised as if to say 'oh, I had no idea!' even though the babies are clearly a totally different colour from me. Surely it's not that much of a shock, Random Supermarket Stranger? But once, a few days ago, for the very first time, I didn't say it. I just said 'oh, our boy is older' to cut the conversation off. The person I was talking to was elderly, and a bit deaf, and a bit confused, and not somebody we were ever going to see again, and I just didn't want to get into it. And then yesterday, taking this man's strangeness into account, I did the same thing. And that's when it all started to go wrong.

"Oh!" he replied. "Our girl is older. Did you have yours in the hospital in this town?"
"No" I said, truthful but squirming a little. Can't he just leave now?
"My wife gave birth last week. They're all still in the hospital now" and my heart sank. For this man, obviously, and his wife and their tiny, tiny babies who turn out to be just over three pounds each. But also for me and my own stupidity - it became clear that this was not a conversation that I was going to be able to brush away. I should have told the truth, while I had the chance. I made the appropriate noises of sympathy, doing my best to make them sound like empathy. It didn't feel like any kind of fantasy or wish-fulfilment, me pretending I birthed those babies. It just felt like the most paralysingly awkward conversation I'd ever had in my life.

"In the end, she had to have a Caesarean section" he told me. "Did you have to have a Ceasarean section?"
"No!" I said, glad for another truthful answer.
"But she was in labour for quite a long time before that. How about you?"
"Oh no, I wasn't in labour for too long" I said, a bit wildly, thinking please oh please oh please don't ask me any questions about dilation. I don't want to have to make any stuff up about my cervix.

I still couldn't quite work out whether he has had too much to drink or taken something much stronger. It had become possible that he was just operating under a thick, thick blanket of stress and grief. He was desperately worried about his little family, and told me that his wife isn't coping at all, and just cries and cries. But he didn't seem like a normal man under pressure - there was something else going on, either mental or chemical, and I realised that I wouldn't be able to figure it out so there was little point trying. If he didn't seem quite so vulnerable, I like to think that I would have apologised for giving him the wrong impression, explained that we had adopted our twins, and wished him and his wife the best for the future. Instead, I decided not to retract it and give him what comfort I could. The conversation continued for the better part of ten minutes, with me trying to tell as few outright lies as possible. He concluded by telling me how he and his wife had 'left things a bit late', and had to take desperate measures.

"We had to do the thing - what's the thing called with the artificial insemination?"
"IVF?" I guessed, taking the twins as a clue.
"Yes! That's the one. We did the IVF. But it was all my own sperm" he said, proud.
"Well.... that's excellent!" I replied, which seemed to be the reaction he was hoping for.
"Oh, and then when we found out it was twins... we just couldn't believe it! How did YOU feel when YOU found out you were pregnant with twins?"
Well, that part of me felt entirely fictional, sir, I wanted to reply, but just told him "We were so happy" and he beamed.
"So were we!" he said. "So were we!"

A few minutes later, he left, taking my paralysingly awkward lies with him. I went on, wracked with guilt, to get my coffee. At least the babies didn't understand that, I thought. Yet. One day they will.

Why did I get myself into that mess?

I really feel like I should be learning something through experiences like this. I only wish - I wish I knew what that something was.

*And before anybody freaks out about how much I share, we have extreeeeeeemely strict rules about no sharing ANYTHING about the babies' personal story with anybody. At all. Even including extended family. I'm going to write about this no-sharing thing in more detail at some point. So no, we are most definitely not giving people any details at all about their adoption story, just the fact that they are adopted, if this is something that comes up. And it's the fact that we aren't going to share anything further, and have to be polite about it, that makes so many of these conversations so exhausting.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Not-Wordless Not-Wednesday

When I decided, back in the mists of time, to try this photo-a-day thing, the website that told me about the project had a warning: You will reach a stage where you want to give up. Don't do it!

Friends, I have to tell you - I have definitely reached that stage. The last few weeks around here have had that low-level hum of slight unhappiness that comes from being at slimefest and two babies' sleep needs rearranging themselves in a decidedly un-synchronised fashion. There have been some lovely moments, but some very hard days.

The last thing I've felt like doing is documenting it.

To add irony to the situation, this was about the same point that I started writing my series on how to photograph babies. I have to keep reminding myself that this is exactly what that series was supposed to be about - getting pictures of what's really going on around you, in the midst of your ordinary life. So I'm telling myself that the fact that I don't actually feel like picking up a camera at the moment doesn't make me a fraud. It just puts me in a good position to remind myself of my fourth point:

4. Take Pictures All The Time
This point has already been mentioned by Annie in a comment after my first post in this series. She said: I keep remembering the words of a famous children's photographer who when interviewed said, "The best way to get good photos of children is to take a LOT of photos." This couldn't be more on the money. Partly this is about statistics: if you get a decent photo 5% of the time you press the shutter, you're going to have to press the shutter lots of times before you get anything worth keeping. But there's actually a lot more to it than that - taking photos all the time should increas the quality of your photos, not just the quantity. I'd say there are three main reasons for this:

Your children will get used to it and ignore the camera. This one is self-explanatory.

Taking lots of photos keeps the stakes very low each time you get your camera out. If nothing works, no big deal. Put it away. Try again tomorrow. However, if getting out the camera is a big occasion, something that only happens rarely, you're going to want results. When you don't get them, you're going to get cranky and frustrated and your children are going to start hating the camera. Don't let this happen to you.

Taking good photos is a skill, and skills need practice. I'd done quite a lot of photography before the babies came home, and found it a bit surprising that it wasn't immediately easy, but it wasn't. Each type of photography is a new skill, and child photography was one I didn't have. Kids add a huge element of unpredictability to everything. I've done a bit of wildlife photography, and photographing children is far, far more like that than taking a portrait of an adult. The main reason for this is that the adult wants the same thing you want - a great photo. Babies? Not so much. They don't care about your stupid photo. They are more like rhinos - they want food, and an opportunity to wreak as much havoc as possible. Minimise the havoc by getting lots of practice.

So, how does this fit in with what I said last time about photographing purposefully? How can you stay purposeful if your camera never sees the inside of its case? Well, I'd say that it's all about frequency rather than volume. If you find that taking pictures all the time means you're clicking aimlessly and your camera is beginning to sound like the wings of a hummingbird, set yourself limits. Take pictures every day, but only allow yourself to take ten shots at each session and THINK about each one. Ten minutes of practice every day makes much more of an impact on your brain than two hours every two weeks - at least, this is what my mother kept telling me when I refused to practise the piano.

For putting this into practice, I can't recommend project 365 highly enough. If I hadn't started doing this, I would have only a tiny fraction of the photos of the babies that I do now. When they first came home, I was always so exhausted that it never felt like the right time to haul out the camera - and when I did I wanted something really GOOD. Needless to say I never got it. Now, because I do it every day, I get out the camera even when I don't feel like it and I'm often surprised by getting something that is much nicer than I was expecting. Not always - obviously - but often.

So while I definitely do feel like quitting right now, I'm not going to, and here's the evidence.

Who is the fairest one of all?

no! It could be contaminated!

I thought I already WAS working it!

danger of imminent starvation temporarily averted

I thought you said this was going to be fun.

now THAT's a head of hair

baby I with our neighbour

you can try to blind me with your death ray, but I will not lose my iron grip


see? Wildlife photography.

quick.... I'll cover the entrances. You take sector 12.

(and when I say low stakes, this is a photo of his feet and they aren't even properly in focus. Looooow stakes).

all non-essential agents, evacuate immediately! They're multiplying!

sadly, she had to throw this one back

Take my hand! I've found a gap in the force field!

(by the way - this photo is an artistic writeoff but a VERY BIG DEAL. It took a long time for baby girl to realise that sippy cups were not The Enemy. This was a major milestone).

vaccinations. Ouch.

.... and that's when I met Elvis.

I can see the humanoids approaching. We do'nt have a second to lose.

There are very few supplies left. We'll have to be very cautious.

It's big, but I think we've rendered it harmless

Mission successful. All the prisoners are accounted for and we have neutralised their contaminants. Over and out.

Monday 20 September 2010

Where I've Been

Been awol from blogging recently - the babies and I got a cold and unexpectedly ended up here: (click to enlarge)

so things have been a bit fraught and screamy.

And yes, I did spend breakfast drawing this rather than interacting lovingly with the babas. What can I say? Hopefully the festival will end soon.

Tuesday 7 September 2010


I have been hoping to be able to write about how we have attached, as a family. Before we adopted, this is what I was most desperately concerned about, and I have been wanting to reflect on it. I wanted to leave it a while, so I thought I would wait until we had known each other six months. And then six months came and went, and a year seemed more appropriate. And today, it's a year since we got on a plane to go and meet them and I'm realising that I'll never be able to write the post that I had in mind.

What I wanted to say is this: It's been a year. And it took some time, but I think the babies are securely attached to us now. And that much is true, and I am more thankful for it than I can say. They exhibit classic attachment behaviour - they crawl away and then look back to check in; they are forever handing me things; when they are poorly they want endless cuddles. From me. Aaaaaaaah. I know they expect me to provide for them - they think I can read their minds, and they get cranky when I don't do it fast enough. They clearly think I can do magic and be in two places at once. The rules of space and time do not apply to me, in their world, for I am The Mummy. I am omnipotent, apparently, so again with the cranky when I can't cuddle them AND put them down AND play on the floor AND give them dinner AND a cup of water, all at once. Both of them. When they were tiny, they didn't expect anything of me. Now they expect everything. It's utterly exhausting. It's endlessly frustrating. It's infinitely gratifying.

Yes, gratifying. I find myself thinking: I did that! I made you trust me, with my manipulative mothering ways! and then I want to do a little victory dance around the living room. And okay, sometimes I close the curtains and succumb. I'm not ashamed at all of feeling thrilled about this. No matter what your views on adoption, the best possible gift an adoptive parent can give their baby is to help them towards secure attachment, if possible*. It's not about making us feel like a real family, and it's not just about warm fuzzy feelings. It's about brain chemistry, and parental responsibilities don't get much bigger than keeping your child's neurochemistry somewhere within the normal range. A securely attached child sees the world as an essentially safe place, and starting life without that makes everything - everything- harder.

So far, so good. But I think what I really was hoping to mean, when I said they were securely attached was: They are okay. We are okay. It's all going to be okay. And as time goes on, I feel increasingly uneasy about being that certain. Partly, it's because I second-guess
my own interpretation of their attachment behaviour. Okay, so she did this, and that was great, but I went away and came back and he screamed and screamed. And then she crawled straight up to that stranger and started playing with her earrings and never gave me a glance, even though I was right there. Maybe I should get my ears pierced. Then she would never play with anybody's ears but mine. Or maybe she would go to that other woman anyway. Maybe they only act attached to me because I'm the only one around, most of the time. They haven't said 'mama' yet. They don't know who I am. They aren't attached at all. Their little brains are a mess of toxic stress chemicals. I'm deluding myself. I've ruined their lives. And on and on into the spiral of crazy.

It's not often that I use this line, but I'm going to use it now. I find myself wanting to say to people: if you haven't adopted a child, do not tell me to lighten up because you do not know about this particular spiral of crazy. People with children they have birthed tell me that hey, all kids do things like that. And of course they do. But I guess it's like watching your child suddenly start to wheeze if both your parents died of asthma. Yeah, other kids wheeze, but you've got a good reason to be more concerned about it than other parents do. You do not need them to tell you not to worry, because your child has risks that they have not ever had to think about. So I'm afraid this is one area where I get twitchy, and want to press the shut-up button when people with straightforward families tell me I'm making mountains out of molehills. I want to gently remind them that they do not know what this feels like because my child is at high risk of attachment difficulties and their child is not. Which is fantastic for them. They should enjoy it. And keep advice on this topic on the inside of their mouths.

I get so tired of wondering. I just want to know. I want to know the answer. Are they 95% as attached to me as they would have been to their birthmother? 90%? Is that an acceptable level? How about 80%? No? 81%? Would their lives be ruined at 82%? Do they get bonus points for also being attached to each other?

I'm probably never going to know, am I? Because life is not a controlled experiment. I've begun to realise that people who announce that their child is definitely well attached probably don't know either. And I'm never going to know, and it wouldn't do me - us - any good if it did. How would I change my parenting style? It's not like I'm not already aware of the issues. Sure, some people ignore potential attachment difficulties, and need to monitor their child's behaviour more closely, but that is not the side on which I tend to err, at least when it comes to adoption issues. Sometimes I think the adoption stuff takes up so much of my brain that all the other parenting stuff is squeezed out. The need for regular baths? I can ignore that, no problem.

Even if I could know, what do I think is going to happen if their attachment really is 100% perfect? Does that mean we're just an ordinary family now? Do I get some kind of medal? Of course not. I know that's not how it works. But I guess I thought it would be like what happens with ducklings. If ducklings don't see their mother duck when they hatch, they can imprint on something else instead, and see that thing or person as their mother. And no, I didn't think it would be instantaneous like that, and I know it's a deeply flawed analogy because these babies came from another mother, not an egg, but I did think that it would be that clear cut. Hey, look at that farmer being followed around by those little ducklings! You don't get ducklings who are partially attached to a farmer, who follow him around for two thirds of the day but spend the remainder of the time following something else. No - it's permanent. I wanted to be that farmer. I wanted it to be totally unmistakeable. To me. To everyone.

But I'm beginning to wonder whether thinking about it that way is really the wrong way around. Wasn't it Aslan, in The Horse And His Boy, who said that you can't know anybody else's story, you can only know your own? And okay, Aslan may not be real, but he gives much better advice than most people who are so I'm going to take it. Meaning: I need to nurture their attachment. But I shouldn't be defined by it. Ultimately, I need to remember that it's not my story.

Earlier, I gave a list of reasons why I think they are attached to me. So in the interests of balance, here's why I think I am attached to them. There's only one reason, really - they just seem normal to me. They seem right. Other people's children look wrong, to me, now. Their faces are wrong. Their hair is wrong. They crawl funny. I can't explain it any other way. My babies have created a them-shaped space in my psyche, and that's that.

So maybe the conclusion of my thinking on attachment is this. I don't know if I am their farmer. I hope so. I think so. But no matter what happens, forever and always, I know this: they are my ducklings. And I think that's enough.

*Yes, I know APs need to do a lot more than that, especially as children grow up. But that's why I specifically used the word 'baby'.

Friday 3 September 2010

In Which You Do My Market Research For Me

I haven't forgotten about the photography series, honestly. I'll get back to it. Soon. But for now, hands up who wants to read a post that starts with me thinking about writing a book? No? Oh well, tough luck, here it is anyway.

I mentioned a few posts down (yeah, the really long one) that I'm thinking about this. I know I'm not the first, here in adoption-land, and I'm pretty sure I won't be the last. So many people write so interestingly about their stories - there's obviously no lack of talent. But the difference between blogging and getting a book on the shelf is definitely not just about talent. The first requires a computer and an internet connection. The second needs commitment, time, timing, resources, more than one draft (gasp!) and a whole bunch of other stuff including a truckload of good luck. I need to realise that it's probably not going to happen for me. If failing at this is going to destroy me, I probably shouldn't start.

But whether I like it or not, in my head, I have sort of already started. I'm in the research and thinking stage at the moment, so I haven't typed an official word yet. But I still feel like I've started something, mentally. And I stocked up on pens* in honour of it all and I'm always scribbling things in a notebook so really, I'm practically Hemingway already.

I think I'm okay with just doing this, and not worrying too much if it fails. Remind me of this when it does, okay? But the process so far has been incredibly interesting (to ME, I hasten to add, you probably have better things to do with your time), and I have started to think much harder about everything I read, which can't be a bad thing. And of course, I now have a slew of new blogs about writing / publishing to follow, and that's been fun too. My favourites at the moment are literary agents Rachelle Gardner, Janet Reid and Nathan Bransford who provide a nice mix of useful information and time-wasting links (Jane Austen Fight Club, anyone?)

Anyway, (I think one of the useful bits of information was probably not to start a paragraph with 'anyway', but anyway - oops, there I go again) the thing I find myself thinking, often, is why? Why am I doing this? If I write it, why would anybody read it? And then to answer this, I find myself asking well, why do I read what other people write? And that's been interesting. I've read a truly insane number of adoption books over the last few years. You could be forgiven for thinking that my answer to 'why do I read it' could be: because it was about adoption, and Amazon was selling it. I have shelves of adoption (and parenting) books. Seriously. Shelves. And I suspect a lot of you are the same. So I was playing one of those 'desert island' games with myself, and wondering: what books would I pick if I had to recommend just FIVE books about adoption? Or, actually, because some of my favourites aren't directly about adoption, what five would I recommend to read in preparation for an adoption? And how about five online resources?

I think I know what my five would be, although I hyperventilate a little, thinking about not having all the others. I definitely know what my number one, top, NON-recommendation would be. But before I say, I'm wondering what YOUR five would be. And most importantly: why? I'm extremely curious. C'mon, spill!

*Honestly, these pens are just beyond fantastic. If you like a fine line, the Pilot G-Tec-C4 is your new best friend. I have huge, schoolgirlish handwriting, and a pen with a tiny nib is the only way to keep it under control - otherwise I look like I should be dotting my 'i's with hearts.