Saturday 31 December 2011


I do not generally do resolutions, and if I did I certainly wouldn't write about them here. I do not generally do a word of the year, or goals, or in fact anything that might in any way be construed as inspirational. This is not that kind of blog, people! You know that by now, right? If I'm honest, I think it's probably because I've always thought that goals = something that might not be achieved = one more chance to fail = more than my poor, frail psyche can handle. 

That's probably really stupid. Failure is part of life. Failure is fine. Failure is better than not trying. Also, opening myself up to the possibility of failing also gives me the option of succeeding, right?  (I'm sorry if that sounds inspirational. I didn't do it on purpose, and I promise not to do it again). 

I didn't give 2011 a word when it started, but as it ends I'm going to award it one in retrospect - survival. I'm really glad that I did survive it, but I want 2012 to be better than that. So, here goes. I'm setting some goals for the coming year. I'm only doing two, because the secret to success is low standards I'd rather finish two things than start six.  (These are non-spiritual things. I want to set some God-focused goals too, but I need to do more thinking about that first and I'm not sure that this blog is the right place to seek accountability in that area of my life). So, my two goals. First: 

In 2012, I am going to finish my book.  

That's kind of a predictable goal for me. I've been working on it for ages (more than a year now, which sort of kills me to think about) and with lots more steady work, I can get this done. It needs to happen. Barring major illnesses or accidents, I think it will happen.  In fact, it's kind of a cop-out because I would be doing this whether or not I called it a goal. 

And here's where I wish that we knew each other in real life - not just because you are awesome (which you are) and incredibly good-looking (also true) but because I would like to see you crease up with laughter when I tell you my second goal: 

In 2012, I am going to run 5km. 

I told my sister in law this today, and she screeched with amusement and said you? and I wasn't offended at all, I just said I know, isn't it crazy? and she said crazy? It's insane! and then we had a good chortle about it. I've never been particularly big, but I was always the slowest kid in my class at school, until I moved schools and met a girl called Anna and then for a while I was the second slowest.  And these days, I have the kind of carefully honed body that comes from spending all my spare time writing a book. Oh, and also eating a lot of carbohydrates and butter. 

I sort of feel like I can't do it.  And then I think why not? I've got two legs and two lungs, just like everybody else. (Well, you know, most people). There's no reason I shouldn't be able to do this. I'm doing a couch to 5K programme (although I've done a four runs now, starting in placebo week, and I would argue that couch is a bit of a misnomer) and there is no reason why I shouldn't be able to achieve this. I just have to do it. Sure, there is a 0.00001% chance of me being attacked by a serial killer on the river path, or a 0.0000001% chance of me having a serious asthmatic episode (you know, because I had a really bad one when I was FOUR) but I think there's about a 100% chance that I'm going to die of heart disease in my fifties if I don't start taking better care of my body. I have always had lots of reasons why I couldn't do something like this, and now I'm sick of it. I'm going to do it. 

I guess it's just that running - or any kind of concerted exercise - is an intensely un-Claudia-like thing to be doing. It's hard work, and I'm not good at it, so where's the fun? I run like a toddler, arms and legs swinging wildly in all directions. When I went to buy running shoes, I was wearing a denim miniskirt and bright pink tights and I didn't realise it was the kind of place where they videotape you running on a treadmill in order to sell you the most expensive right shoes. Oh, the shame. I suspect they put me on youtube as soon as I left - the videoed rear view of my denim-clad self jogging while my skirt flapped above my neon thighs was nearly enough to make me quit before I started. I am not a Running Person.  

But the weird thing is that sometimes I dream about running.  In my dreams, I run like I am flying. I spring off the ball of my foot and leap into the air, effortless momentum carrying me forward and up and forward and up until I am airborne, almost floating, before I arc downwards and land on my other foot and spring up again, feeling the wind on my face and the joy of forward motion.  In my dreams, I run like I was born to do it. I want to feel like that in real life, even if only a little bit, even if me running never looks like that to anybody else. Even if it's not what I think of as me.

So that's my goals. One goal that is me being me, and another one that is me being not-me. In some ways, I'm much more excited about the second. And since - I'll admit it - the combination of new year and new brain medicine is making me feel inspired, I'm going to pass it on, unapologetically and totally without cynicism (for once) and ask you - what would you do in 2012 that would be like the you that you already are? What could you do in 2012 that would be a surprising, unnatural version of you? 

Whatever you do do, I want to wish you a happy 2012. 

Saturday 24 December 2011

Placebo Day Brain Wants To Say Thank You (And Merry Christmas)

So, I went to the doctor.  Thing is, I already had an appointment booked about something totally different. Part of me had been thinking 'you should just tell the doctor up what you really want help with' but I was pretty sure I was going to chicken out.  But then, but then I got so many thoughtful, kind, wise words from so many people in comments and emails I thought I'm going to ask for help. 

I should probably back up a little bit and say that, over here, we don't really have therapists like the US. Antidepressants are prescribed by GPs (family doctors) and they are also the people who refer to psychologists if necessary - as a totally separate thing. It's not a great system, because a GP's appointment is only ten minutes long and they are usually in a rush. It's not really enough time for - well, anything. What can I say. I love free healthcare, obviously, but there are lots of things about the NHS that aren't great. This is one of them. Anyway. 

I went to the doctor. And the sooner I forget about that appointment, the happier I will be. First of all - I cried. Immediately. As in, I opened my mouth to say 'I need to ask you for some help' and I bawled like a child. And then everything I said after that was sort of incoherent. He asked me about what was making life feel difficult, and I told him about the children, and stress at work, and the fact that I always struggle with Winter but this year I have felt like February came in October and won't leave. I've seen this guy a few times before and he's been really good, and I guess that maybe, if I heard myself say those things I would probably think that those actual things were the problem.  So, anyway, he said that I should go to 'talking therapies' and believe me, I am in favour of evidence-based psychological counselling, but the leaflet he gave me just looked like ... nothing. An advice service, sort of. I said I'm not sure that this is what I really need. And I said how will this service help me? and he said well, they might be able to give you tips for coping with stressful situations at work. And he also said well, I don't really like prescribing medication for depression. Medication won't make your problems go away.. 

And for a moment, I just sat there. My worst fear about seeing  a doctor was actually that I would screw up all my courage to do it, and then nothing would change. I feared that he would say you know what, Claudia, your life actually is pretty stressful and I guess you're just going to have to suck it up. And I couldn't believe that I was sitting there and that was actually happening.  Not in so many words, but I knew that I needed more help than just tips for coping with stressful situations at work. But I nearly just said okay and walked out, because, well, what else was I going to do? And then, I suddenly realised NO FREAKING WAY AM I LEAVING THIS BUILDING WITHOUT ANY DRUGS. 

It was odd, but it wasn't until that moment that I realised that was what I really wanted. I knew, deep down, that something wasn't functioning properly. I always get Seasonal Affective Disorder through Winter, so I'm familiar with that feeling of a chemical lowness that feels absolutely real until April suddenly comes and suddenly, everything looks different. And I knew it felt the same (but much worse), like my brain wasn't processing enough of something, or too much of something, and that it wasn't anything that I could really fix on my own. I should have realised earlier, but I didn't. 

So, empowered by all your support, and support from friends through email and a few conversations, I shook my head at him and said No. That's not the problem. I could quit my job tomorrow and I would still feel like this. It's not really the situations in my life that are the problem, it's that I'm not coping properly with those situations. Something is wrong in my head. And I decided that I was going to sit on that chair until he would either write me a prescription or at least agree to discuss it further.

He wrote me the prescription. 

It's a super-low dose of antidepressant, and who knows, it might not be The Answer for me, but I feel a hundred times better for having done something concrete to help myself, and not just accepting that I feel awful because I am awful. And also, at the risk of pre-empting myself, I have to admit that I already feel fantastic. I can't quite explain it. I can't quite describe it, except to say that about four hours after taking the first dose, I felt like the sun came out from behind a cloud.  I would think that I'm imagining it, except that a friend said that this particular drug helped her immediately, too. Most likely, it's just the placebo effect, but if that is the case I think everybody should be taking placebos All! The! Time! 

Placebo Day Brain is a fantastic companion. I took her shopping, and she did a great job of finishing off my Christmas gifts. Then we played happily with the children. Then we bought a pair of running shoes (more on that, perhaps, another day). Then, after the children were in bed, we went and got Christmas groceries and we didn't get stressed or unhappy about any of it. When we got home at 10pm, rather than just unpacking as quickly as possible, the two of us saw the pantry and said 'who can stand having such a messy pantry? Let's clean this thing, stat!, and we did. 

And then the next day (today) I cooked two huge meals and was patient with the kids and I looked at all the twinkling lights and listened to some carols and thought oh, isn't this the most wonderful time of year? 

In short, Placebo Day Brain can kick Bad Day Brain's butt. 

I know it's Christmas eve. I should really be wrapping my presents (in the grey paper, heh) but I wanted to write this and say a huge, words-fail-me thank you for all the support that you gave me about this. (I haven't replied to emails yet, I will get to it, I promise!) I really hope that I won't be the only person who benefits from all the wisdom you left in the comments section- I can't tell you what a huge help it was to me. You made me feel like I wasn't crazy. You made me feel like I should reach out and ask for help, and if I hadn't read what everyone wrote, I think I would have just taken that stupid leaflet and spent most of Christmas crying. I don't think that the help I asked for is what everyone would need, but I know there are others of you who are feeling like I am and I want to tell you that it's possible, it's okay, it's worth it to do whatever you need to do to say HELP. Please. If you need it, do it. Go back and read what everyone else wrote and I hope it will give you courage like it did for me. 

And for the rest of you, I this time I actually want to say: 

Oh, and I just had another look at the wrapping paper, and I've decided it's fine. Grey? Meh, no. I'm pretty sure it's silver.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Tis The Season To Be (Not) Jolly

I bought wrapping paper and ribbon for Christmas. They seemed like a good choices at the time but when I brought them home I looked at them and asked myself - when did grey and black become appropriate colours for Christmas wrapping? Merry Christmas, kids. Your gifts were chosen by Bram Stoker. 

At least I bought some wrapping; I wasn't entirely sure that was going to happen. Lately, things have been not so good around here. I've talked recently about some of the reasons I've been finding life hard, and they're all legitimate reasons, but I've reached a point where it's not really about the reasons any more. Its hard raising kids, I tell myself, and yes of course it is but I'm pretty sure it's not as hard as I've been finding it. The last six months or so things have been sliding downwards - in my mind, I mean - and I think I've finally reached a point where I need to acknowledge that I'm depressed okay, not quite ready to use the D-word yet I don't feel like myself any more. I'm doing what I absolutely have to do, but I can't face doing anything else. Worse - I don't even want to do anything else.I can't be bothered. I just want to make it to the end of the day, and then I want to go to sleep. Not every day. But enough. If Tom Cruise on Oprah's couch is a 10, and Sylvia Plath in 1963 is a zero, at the moment I'm probably averaging about a four. I've mentioned this to a few people and they always ask me if I'm going to hurt myself or the kids and the answer is no. That's not what I'm trying to say at all.  But everything feels grey. Life is like driving a car through fog. It's possible, but it's hard work and nothing is in focus. 

It's an impossible thing, trying to think rationally about your own mind. I've found it so, anyway. Especially when things alter slowly - like they have for me-  it doesn't feel possible to separate out how the world seems from how the world is. How can I possibly know if my perceptions are skewed? What I mean is: I don't feel like I'm looking through a grey filter. I just feel like the world is grey.  And I assume that everyone else sees it as grey too. I don't feel depressed; I just feel like the world is an immensely difficult place to live. 

 It's only recently I've started to think: I don't think everyone else around me is experiencing things the same way that I am. At first, I just assumed that they were all wrong. (Anybody who knows me in real life will not find that reaction surprising). Or - as a Christian I just assume that probably I should just be praying more, or complaining less, or quoting to myself the verse about rejoicing always. But now - I'm not so sure. I'm starting to think there's something wrong in my head. I can't tell you how much I hate that thought. 

I just want to crawl out of my own skin, but I dont' think that's an option.  So, after talking to my sister last week (thanks, L), I did an online diagnostic thing instead. The questions were things like 'do you feel constantly overwhelmed? Have you exhibited any of the following behaviours: social withdrawal, irritability, stopped doing things you enjoy? And so on and so on. And I'm reading it all going well of course! Doesn't everybody? Then I clicked enter and it told me: If your score is above 3 you may be depressed. Your score is 24. 

Okay then.   

I know I should probably speak to a doctor about it, but the thing is - I don't want to.  On a good day, I don't feel like I need any help. And on a bad day, I don't feel like I deserve any help. Good day brain tells me - You aren't overwhelmed and miserable, Claudia, you're fine. Bad day brain tells me - Of course you are overwhelmed, Claudia, it's because you're lazy. Of course you are miserable, Claudia, it's because you're an awful person. I don't like bad day brain, but bad day brain is getting a lot of airtime at the moment. Bad day brain thinks that she is the only show in town. 

Since this is largely a blog about my kids, I need to say that I don't really think this is about the kids. If it was, I would at least know what to do with it. I could put a label on it - post adoption depression - and maybe make some progress and get past it. I want to be past it. But this? I think it's just me, independent of them.  I've been frantically googling anaemia and hormonal imbalances and all kinds of other ailments that I wouldn't really wish on myself, hoping to find an answer to why I feel this way that I can live with. Because hey, if I feel miserable because I have a malfunctioning thyroid, I will happily take thyroid medication. Same goes for how willing I would be to discuss my (totally fictional) anaemia with the world. But I have much, much more resistance to the idea of taking any medicine that is just for my mind. I suspect antidepressants would probably help but I'm frightened of them. More to the point, I'm frightened of needing them. 

I know that is probably stupid. 

Partly - cards on the table, here - it's because I think we would eventually like another kid. Or two. Not right now -oh, please, please, please not now, I can't can barely manage what I have - but I don't want to burn that bridge.  And I have no idea what U.K. social services would think about antidepressants -  I don't think they would be impressed. I'm frightened that me doing this now would mean that we never, ever get to have another child. I don't want another child at the moment, and can't imagine wanting another child, but I also know that I probably won't feel this way forever. I don't want to look back in, say, 2013 and hate 2011 Claudia for trying to take care of herself. 2011 Claudia doesn't need any more hate; she's doing a pretty good job on herself already. 

Okay, also: I'm frightened of what other people - people I work with, for example, would think if they found out just how poorly I was coping, and I feel like taking antidepressants would be admitting that I can't cope. What little common sense I have left tells me that this is stupid. Mostly because - actually, nobody cares. I don't care what medication other people take, why should they care about mine? But part of what my brain is doing to me at the moment is telling me horrible things about myself, and making me believe that everyone I know thinks those things about me too.  Not suicidal bad things, I hasten to add, just averagely bad things like wow, did you hear about how she can't even cope with two small children and a part time job? What a loser. (Shut up, bad day brain). 

Also - I'm just ashamed of feeling like this. I'm ashamed of how poorly I'm managing at the moment. I don't want this to be real, so I want to pretend it's not happening.  I don't want to click 'publish' on this, because I don't want to admit that I am struggling this much. Maybe it's the questions about whether I'm going to do something drastic that make me feel like there is something horribly, terribly wrong about this. Depression is an illness, apparently, like asthma is an illness, but when I say I have asthma nobody wonders whether I need to have my children removed. (Stop being such a drama queen, Claudia. There's nothing wrong with you that a good kick up the backside wouldn't fix). (Thanks for the input, bad day brain). I don't need to have my children removed; I just want to make that clear. And the fact that I'm assuming people want to remove my children, that people would assume this makes me an unfit mother - yep. That's bad day brain again. I think. Even though it just feels like hard logic. I feel like it says something about who I am, something that I wish it didn't say. But I think that's why I will click publish- because I know I shouldn't be ashamed. Even though I am. 

I want to pretend that my relentless negativity is actually a perfectly logical reaction to an impossible world. But the world isnt' impossible, is it? It's nearly Christmas. There are lights twinkling (not in MY house, obviously) and I have adorable toddlers and surely I should be enjoying this time of year? Everyone else seems happy about it all. And okay, even if 50% of them are faking, that's still a lot of happy that I'm not feeling. Realising that my perceptions are probably off is making me question myself more than I can explain. Maybe all of my perceptions are wrong. Maybe Justin Bieber is actually a really talented guy. How would I know? How would I know???? 

Why am I telling you this? Probably  because I don't know what I think about all this yet, and as EM Forster said - how will I know what I think until I see what I write? Although - hang on, just re-read it, and I still don't know what I think. 

Have you been through anything like this? Do you know what I mean? 

Ummmm.... and Merry Christmas, I guess. 

Tuesday 13 December 2011

The Cost

Of finally having a long talk on the phone with my sister.

Totally, totally worth it.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Why Writing a Book Is Like A Dysfunctional Relationship

As you all know, I'm in the middle of trying to write a memoir about our adoption. It's pretty much killing me.  So, since it's on my mind, here is the sum of all my fears: 

Why Writing A Book Is Like A Dysfunctional Relationship: 
Stage 1: Infatuation
The idea hits you like a hurricane and suddenly you can't think of anything else. On the train: thinking about the book you're going to write. In a cafe: scribbling notes for your book. On holiday: disappearing for the chance to be alone with the delicious possibility of your book.  You write down ideas for titles. You doodle cover designs. You feel smug and self-satisfied about how wonderful your book is going to be.  At this point, everybody else's books look like pale, undernourished, sad little things. Your book will be so much better than that. You feel like this. But about a book.

Stage 2: Gifts
Getting started properly is harder than it looked. You buy - and read - books written by writers who are writing books about how to write a book. This is not procrastination, it is an investment. Then you size up the task ahead of you. This is the point at which it becomes clear that an ordinary set of writing tools will simply not be sufficient to do justice to the beauty that is your book.  If it were a woman, you would buy her diamonds, but instead you buy scrivener and set up dropbox and those who have truly been bitten badly make excuses to buy new laptops [not me, by the way. Obsessive, yes, but not financially irresponsible]. Then you set up your dropbox folders and fire up scrivener and actually start to... write.

Stage 3: Comfortable Togetherness
This is working pretty well. The words are flowing, the ideas are coming. When there is spare time, you spend it together. You love being with Book, and you're pretty sure that Book feels the same way about you. The word count goes up.

Stage 4: Faint Disillusionment
The only thing is.... some of this is seeming a little repetitive. And the structure is not really as clear as it should be. It seems that there are about three thousand words on what actually happened to you, and ninety-seven thousand words about how  that made you feel. Can that really be right? Better check again. Just as well scrivener has such an advanced word-count function. Okay, it is right. You give some of it to your husband to read. He says he likes it, but he doesn't ask for any more and he doesn't laugh at the parts you were pretty sure were funny.  Also - this just feels like a , colossal, unbearable amount of work. Your mother suggests, gently, that your time might be better spent elsewhere. 

Stage 6: It's Not You, It's Me
Suddenly, spending time with Book doesn't seem quite so appealing,.  There's nothing wrong with the book, you tell yourself, it's just that you are really really busy. You have other demands on your time. You have an actual life, remember? And friends. And work. And other commitments. Sheesh, if only Book could stop being so self-centred and see that your entire life isn't about writing it, then it would see that you have got Stuff going on.  It would give you a break. It would stop nagging. You are committed to the relationship, but you've got a lot on your plate, okay? OKAY?

Stage 7: Actually, it IS You, Please Stop Ruining My Life
And then, you realise that no, all that was lies, the real problem is that you hate your manuscript. It's boring, it's wordy, it's self-indulgent and you don't even like the main character which is a giant bummer because the main character is, well, you. You contemplate all the hours you have poured into it, all the emotional energy, and shake your fist at the stupidity that made you start it. It all seems like such a waste. You write procrastinatory blog posts like this one. The only silver lining is - at least nobody got to read it. At least nobody else knows how bad it is.   At this point, everybody else's books look like works of genius. All of those pages, and all with those nice little numbers at the bottom!  You seethe with envy and wish you had had a different idea. In short, you think that probably, life would be better without Book. You wish you had taken up crochet instead.

Stage 8: We Can Work It Out
But the thing is, you really don't want to live without Book. You slink back and apologise. You make plans for how things will be different this time. You will be more realistic, and not expect Book to meet all your emotional needs. 

Stage 9: Isolation
Having other people around just makes things complicated. Your mother suggests, more forcefully this time, that you are throwing good effort after bad but you tell her that Book is wonderful, really, and when the two of you are alone, nobody could be better company.  If the rest of the world doesn't understand the love you have for each other, well, that's fine. FINE. You and Book will make it on your own. 

Stage 10: Trying to Leave
The first draft is nearly done. Suddenly, you start to fantasise about how it will be when this thing is finished. You will have your old life back! All those hobbies, all that housework, all that time to watch reality TV. You whisper as much to Book, and Book whispers back - how will you know when you are really finished? Sure, it feels like the editing is done, but how would you know for sure? You don't want to push it out there too soon. People will laugh at you! The comma placement leaves a lot to be desired. There are too many adverbs. Okay, you decide, you really can't be parted from Book now. This whole thing needs a major re-think. 

Stage 11: Until Death Us Do Part
You decide to rewrite the whole thing in future tense. Would that make it seem more edgy? Perhaps you will change it around so that the main character (you) speaks in Latin and has psychokinetic powers.   Maybe it would be better if you stared at the end, or in the middle, or wrote the whole thing in verse.  There are so many ways this could be so good, you tell yourself; it's just not quite there yet. You no longer have any plans to actually finish. All your friends have forgotten what you look like. Your husband can no longer remember your name. You realise that you and Book are in this thing alone, together, forever and ever, amen, until your heart stops beating and Book's non-existent pages start to crumble. This isn't quite how you pictured your life, but here you are. So you fire up the computer, and shut the door, and make another pot of tea. And you massage your bony, ancient fingers and 
Because really, what else is there to do? 

Thursday 1 December 2011

Look Up

See where it says 'Adoption 101?' I've finally, finally, finally finished the list of links I've been working on. And it's finally up.

No pun intended.

I hope some of you find it useful- there's a lot of cool stuff there. And while I was finishing it off earlier, I looked around to see this:

A major yoghurt extravaganza. (And yes, he is wearing a torch. Isn't your kid?) So, um, yeah. If you especially like it, please volunteer to come over here and clean some of the food off my kids!

[yes - this post used to have some other pictures but people were finding this blog by googling weird stuff and I think this post was the culprit, so.... yeah. I deleted them.  Buh-bye, crazy googlers!]

Monday 21 November 2011

The Second Year of Motherhood; Or, How I Served Up Two-And-A-Half-Year-Old Pie

It is no secret that I have struggled a lot this year.  I have found the second year of motherhood so, so much harder than the first. Mothering two babies is intense, but I managed it by staying in the house a lot and taking on absolutely no extra commitments. This year, that hasn't felt like an option. 

I don't know. I find toddlers much harder to handle than babies, but the expectation seems to be that my life should be getting back to 'normal', now. People are asking me to do stuff again, stuff it's impossible to say no to. The expectation seems to be that after having kids for two years, I should be able to manage normal human responsibilities again. I should have hit my stride. And I did, I guess, but this year I feel like my stride sort of hit me back. 

This seems to have all started about the time I went back to work (two days a week, people, two days a week). I feel like that was the milestone that meant I had to start carrying my load again - socially, in the extended family, at church and yeah, just in my own head. I feel like I can no longer say 'no, I can't do that totally reasonable thing you've just asked me to because I am TOO OVERWHELMED by my life' when I'm also saying 'please relate to me as a serious, professional woman'. 

I feel like I somehow just should be able to manage my life now: get myself places on time; cook for the sick; all the stuff I joked about here. But that doesn't seem to be how things are. This is partly because work -  previously an annoying hum in the background of my life - has suddenly gone crazy. I was working hard before, but now I can feel it taking me over. It has never stopped been a significant aspect of my life, obviously, but it feels very front and centre now, even when I'm not physically there. If work is the shark swimming around in my subconscious, it has gone from feeling like this: 

it's there, but I can sort of ignore it when I'm not looking directly at it 
 to this:

and I'm trying to figure out how to make it fit in with everything else I have to do without getting eaten alive.

I'm not doing so well.

Last week, every single minute of every single day was scheduled. I don't mean scheduled activities like Toddler Yoga (don't you know me at all?) but we had friends over every day and we were busy every evening and on Saturday too, and this introvert does not cope well with that much contact with other humans and by the end of it I was pretty much in dissociative fugue

Speaking of having friends over, can I please digress here? I have no idea how everyone else manages to do friendship at this point in their lives.  I get it in my head - theoretically, I can see that having a close-knit group of local friends who are fighting the Poop Wars along with me would be by far the best way to survive with my sanity intact. But how am I supposed to make that work, timewise? This is a non-rhetorical question. I really want to know. We have free time in the morning. We can do stuff between about 10 and 12:30; 1 at the latest. The afternoons are a write-off because of naps and dinner and baths (when they're lucky) and some struggles with evening  behaviour.  I'm at work Wednesdays and Fridays. We always see my good friend H and her son and go to the library on Thursdays. This leaves me with 5 other hours in the week when I can see people or run errands. I used all 5 of them last week to do friend-y things. The total wall-to-wall scheduling of my days at home nearly killed me, even though I was extremely glad to be able to invest the time in those friendships. 

I guess I just kind of wonder - those of you who have that kind of close-knit local support group, how do you make that work, timewise? How do you find the hours in the day to put in that kind of commitment? None of my friends are friends with each other. So I try and I try, but I'm putting things into my diary four weeks in advance because I just can't seem to make the numbers add up to do it any other way. Or is that kind of thing (where you are always at each others' houses, cooking each other meals and putting each others' kids to bed so that you can all have frequent date nights) just an urban (okay, suburban) legend? Because it feel like it is the way motherhood is supposed to workand I feel like the only one who doesn't have it.  Do people really have that, or are lots and lots of people just lying about their village?  Curious minds want to know. Okay, digression over. 

So. Last week. Part of the reason I was so busy was that one of my friends had been scheduled to speak at a church prayer meeting but was sick and asked me to fill in for her. I'm going to be honest - I really didn't want to do it. It wasn't our church, I didn't know anybody and even though it was just a short slot about the school we're trying to start, it was a commitment I didn't really want. When she asked me to do it, I thought straw, meet camel's back. I wrestled and wrestled with my conscience about whether I should just say no way! and in the end I decided that no, I really had to do this, there was no other option. My conscience won.  

In the argument with my conscience, what I neglected to do was actually check my diary for that evening.  That is how I forgot that we had invited my sister's mother-in-law (henceforth MSMIL, who is visiting the UK at the moment, and whom I like very much) over for dinner on Tuesday night.  So. At 10:05 am Tuesday, I was racing around the kitchen, finishing up the breakfast cleanup in preparation for a visit from my new friend F at 10, ie five minutes ago.  I then had to race out to the lounge in response to a bellow of rage from Blue that always, always means that Pink has bitten him. Sure enough, his little hand had teeth marks. I drew him into me and he cried and cried next to my ear while I patted him. For thirty seconds, because then the phone rang. I would have left it, except I thought it was probably F, lost and asking for directions. With Blue bellowing in one ear, I was then rather surprised to hear MSMIL's voice asking me 'so, I was wondering what time you are going to come and pick me up this evening'. Indeed. 

I felt terrible - terrible. By that stage, I absolutely couldn't cancel the night's engagement. I also couldn't really hear her because of the screaming. I also couldn't ask her to phone back because F was due five minutes ago.  So I apologised profusely and... rescheduled. For Thursday. 

I enjoyed the time with F and got through the thing in the evening. Wednesday was definitely a shark-attack day at work. All the time there's a nagging voice in my head saying 'you have to make something suitably apologetically nice for dinner tomorrow!' but I mostly ignored it.  Got home late. Rummaged through the freezer. Found a box labelled 'pie insides' and I realised that it was this delicious thing - chicken, wine, rosemary, tarragon - just waiting to be put under a pastry lid. (Pastry from the shop, okay? Pastry from the shop). Definitely apologetic enough. I rejoiced.  

Thursday morning came, and I took it out of the freezer to thaw before its date with a pie dish and a hot oven.  At this point, I thought 'hmmm, I wonder when I made this?' and realised - I don't think I've made this recipe since before the babies. We used to have a regular weekly Thursday Pie Night - not always actually pie, but each week I would try a new recipe and John would attempt to get home before it congealed. This, an actual pie, was the dish for which pie night was named and it was both of our favourites. And I was pretty sure that I hadn't made it once since we became parents. That meant that I was standing and looking at two-and-a-half-year-old pie insides, unable to think of any other options for dinner, torn between potential botulism and a walk of shame to the supermarket chiller cabinet for something ready made. And really, I didn't want either. I just wanted to sit on the sofa and eat Doritos. I looked and looked at it, trying to make up my mind and feeling like a big pile of poo. Iwanted to cry great big heaving sobs at the tragedy of this frozen lump of food. 

How did I get to this point? I wondered. How can I be so utterly unable to manage my life that one dinner guest and one unexpected evening engagement is enough to tip me over the edge? I still don't have the answer to that question. I just know that it is enough to tip me over the edge. As I get older, I'm becoming more aware of my own limitations, and losing hope that I will ever become any sort of person than the one I am. What I haven't figured out is how to make it all work, or failing that, how to say 'I'm glad you can cope with preschoolers and work and still have energy left over for other social stuff but I cannot'.  

I struggle with understanding my own motivations for saying yes and saying no, too. Am I saying no because I'm lazy? Am I saying yes because I want other people to think that I'm on top of things, even when I'm not? There's a fine line, somewhere, between being real and being lazy. I don't know where that line is, but I always feel like I'm on the wrong side of it, no matter where I fall.  Usually it feels like I'm saying yes because I have no other choice, and then I hate myself for not miraculously finding some other way of getting out of stuff while not letting anybody down. Yeah, that's really going to happen. 

I do know that the busier I am, the harder it is to just relax and enjoy being with my kids. And the more I enjoy them, the better mother I am. No kidding, Claudia. Toddlers are hard work, obviously, but they are also uniquely delightful. There's something incredible about being there alongside two children while they wake up from the long sleep of infancy, as their gaze starts to turn outwards, as they begin to notice and narrate their strange and fabulous little world. I can finally start to see what is going on in their tiny little heads, see what is important to them, and it's both hilarious and a revelation. Mostly, they are thinking about animals, it seems, or their grandmothers. Pink put three words together for the first time a few months ago, saying bye-bye, big raaaah! to the lion sculpture at our local park. Blue's speech has been a bit slower, and he only did three words together for the first time last week. At first, I thought it was just toddler word salad - he came up with bath cat swimming! But then I looked and realised that he was tummy-down in his bath, thrashing his arms and legs and saying Miaaaoooowww! over and over again. Bath cat swimming, indeed. I love that crazy boy. 

I want to spend my time with them. But I've got to live in this world, too, I've got to go to work so that they can see their father on Wednesdays and Fridays, I've got to care about people outside of my own nuclear family even when I don't know how. I'm always glad I did it later, I just never want to do it right now

So, in the end, I hacked off a bit of the frozen pie insides with a wooden spoon and ate the chunk, ice crystals and all.  Food poisoning takes about six to nine hours to kick in, and it was still ten hours until dinner, so I figured that if I was still okay by the time I was pre-heating the oven, well, so was the pie. I was fine. The pie was delicious, and we all cleaned our plates. None of us got so much as a twinge (well, if MSMIL did, she never told me). It made me think: we should really institute Thursday Pie Night again. And we should invite friends.  We should do it every week! And then we can swap around to different people's houses! It will be such a great way to get to know people! Okay, I'll start thinking about babysitters - right, who will we invite? 

.... Um, yeah. Balance. Not going to find it that way, Claudia. Which is a shame, because it really would be fun; you know, if I was someone utterly different from the person I actually am.  Maybe we can do it later. Maybe life won't always feel this busy. Maybe I'll get my work under control. Maybe the tantrums will stop. Maybe I'll suddenly find that I'm sliding along in a groove after all. Maybe things will feel manageable again soon, and we can start it up in what, six months time? Right now, that feels like a great idea. But then I look at everything, and realise that nothing is going to change any time soon. This stage, this second-year-of-motherhood feeling, is already well into my third year. Maybe it's not the stage; maybe it's just me. Which is fine, I guess - if I can work out how to slow down enough to enjoy the wonderful parts of toddler-ing and not be chafing after a different sort of life, after being a different version of myself who would somehow manage all of this better. There is a lot about this time of life that is hard, but I want to enjoy the good parts as much as I can. 

So don't take it personally, but I won't be inviting you over for regular group dinners. Or, if I do, pre-book an appointment to see a gastrointestinal specialist.  You'll probably be eating two-and-a-half-year-old pie. 

Thursday 17 November 2011

Today's The Day....

...Adoption Bloggers Interview Project Day, that is! Heather, over at Production Not Reproduction, has been hard at work pairing about 120 (gulp) people who blog about adoption so that we can interview each other. I signed up for the first time this year and it's been great fun getting to know someone in the blogosphere who I had never 'met' before. My interview partner is Andy from Today's The Day. Grab a cup of tea, get to know her and say hello! If you want to read Andy's interview with me, hop on over to her blog.

And don't forget to check out the rest of the participants: here's the list of pairs, and here's a clue about what each of those bloggers is interested in, and a bit more about the whole project. Thank you so much to Heather for organising this (it must have been a MAMMOTH task) and to Andy for being such an interesting and open interview partner. (How could I not love a person who uses the word 'dichotomy' in one of her answers?) Now, let's dive in with a very serious issue....

 Claudia: How did you manage to start Pride and Prejudice and not finish it? What didn't you like about it? I have to know!

Andy: I have always loved to read but have always leaned towards the quick and easy reads vs the classics.  I tried reading Pride and Prejudice when I was a teenager, and could never get into it.  Maybe it’s time to try again, though I’ve seen a few versions of the movie and haven’t enjoyed those either.... I guess it’s just not my cup of tea.

Your little boy recently had eye surgery (he looked very cute in that hospital gown). How is he recovering? How are YOU recovering? Any tips for helping kids to get through a trip to hospital?

His recovery is REMARKABLE!  Oh to be young again.  Just the thought of his surgery nearly had me down for the count, but he was doing back flips on the trampoline within 4 days.  My poor nerves!  He is fully recovered, back to school, not having any vision problems or pain.  Other then some redness in the corners where the cuts were made, you would never be able to tell that he had anything done. I think it took me a bit longer to fully feel “recovered” and not stressed out by the “what-if’s” that parents go through when their child is sick or injured.  Even though it was “routine” surgery according to the doctors, there is nothing “routine” about watching your child walk off to a room with strangers, knowing that someone is going to stick a knife in him and cut open his eyeball.  GAH!

This was actually Liam’s 3rd trip to the OR with full anesthetic, though all 3 were “routine” (see above for my thoughts on that!)  The best tip I could give anyone is to have your child prepared.  Visit the hospital if you can, read about surgeries and recovery, have them know what an IV is and that they will likely have one and why. I’m a firm believer of being honest and truthful with children and that knowledge is power.

I've been thinking a bit lately about how easy it is for those of us who experience adoption from different angles often misunderstand each other (and make each other angry), especially online. You have the unusual perspective of being both an adopted adult and an adoptive mother. I wonder what your take is on this phenomenon?

It is a position that I find I have to be careful with.  I have 40 years of adoption baggage that I don’t want to impart onto Liam.  I have to remember that my issues may not be his issues and that not everything is about adoption.  But at the same time it does give me the unique insight to be able to sympathize with him when adoption topics do come up.  I think that it has made me be much more open as an adoptive parent and more comfortable with talking about adoption.  And I’ve never felt threatened by Liam’s first family or how he feels about them.  I can understand the dichotomy of having 2 separate families and loving them both because I too grew up with that as a reality. (as an aside, I honestly believe that adoptees can love and miss their first families even when, like Liam and I, we have never met them).
As an adopted adult, what are the top three things that you would like adoptive parents to know about adoption from the adoptee's point of view?
1)  Know that your child can love and miss their first family and that this has no reflection on you or your relationship with your child.  Just as parents can can love many children, children can love many parents. 

2) Don’t be threatened by your child’s first family. Stop watching “Hallmark” adoption specials.... they are so far from the norm, but since they are the only stories being put out there to the public, people believe them to be true. No one is going to try and “steal” your baby back. When you are threatened by your child’s family, your child will pick up on that.  That then leads to your child being resentful of you for not letting them have the relationship that they could have with their first family.

3) Be willing to talk about adoption.  But don’t always wait for your child to bring it up.  No matter how great a relationship the adoptee has with their parents, we will still try to protect their feelings when it comes to adoption.  When I was 13 I asked my mom to send away for my non-identifying info.  She was great about it and sent it off right away. But once it arrived she waited for me to ask for it before she gave it to me.  It took me 17 years to bring it up again!  Mainly because I had trusted that my mom knew that it was important to me and that she would give it to me right away.  My mom never initiated conversations with me about my adoption, and that made me feel like the topic was taboo.

As an adoptive mother, what are the top things you would like other adopted adults to know about how it feels to be on the other side of the fence? 

1) Most adoptive parents are not the bad guys.  I see so many angry adoptees online that blame adoptive parents, calling them baby stealers and much worse.  If you want to blame anyone, blame the adoption industry for wanting to make money; blame social services for not having supports in place to keep families together; blame society as a whole for pressuring mothers into placing their babies for adoption in the first place.

2)  Remember that it is not your job to protect us. If you want to search or are struggling, be honest with us.  We are hardier then you think.

How does being a mother (particularly by adoption) make you reassess how your a-mom mothered you? (You can skip this question if your mother reads your blog, or if it's too private). 

One of the first things I decided when I started blogging was that I would never publish something that I didn’t want my mother to read, even though the internet is a strange and mysterious place for her that she has never been to.  So no worries on the question!  Being a mother has really made me appreciate my own mother more.  Even though there are many societal differences from how I was raised in the ‘70s to how kids are today, it has made me much more aware of how involved my Mom was in my life, and how I was her priority.  And while I haven’t really been affected by infertility, I did go through a period of mourning knowing that I would never be pregnant and carry and deliver a child.  Going through that made me much more aware of what my Mom must have gone through with her infertility issues and has allowed us to talk more openly about it.

You are obviously a big advocate for open adoption. I was really struck by the intensity of this post, right back when you started writing.  I was hoping to follow your relationship with Iris [Andy's mother] becoming more open, and felt so sad to read your post called The End.  If you had known, when you were 30, what you know now, what advice would you give to the Andy that was just starting out towards reunion?  Would you have done anything differently (pushed harder for contact, or not pushed at all) if you had known how difficult things would become?

I think I would have pushed Iris a little bit harder back then for more contact.  With the hindsight of Madelaine [Iris's other daughter] losing her job a few years after my initial contact with Iris,  those early years may have been a better time to try and get things out in the open.  I would also have pushed Iris for more information on my father and his family. I have 4 ½ siblings from his side that I know absolutely nothing about.   I would have also reassured myself that some information is better then none and that life will go on if/when I lose contact with Iris again.

On a much more prosaic note - you write about food quite a bit and your blog made me hungry! It seems that Liam struggles with eating (a familiar scene in our house too, unfortunately). As someone who does like food, what is your advice for handing food 'issues' in your kid? What has been the best thing you've done to help him? What's the worst? Believe me, I'm taking notes on this one! 

Ahhh food.  We have such a love/hate relationship with it!  We (my partner and I) love it and Liam hates it.  I’m not sure I should be giving out any advice, since we don’t seem to have solved our own issues.  The one thing that we try, which of course is the hardest to do, is to not let food become an issue.  The fighting, crying and tears (both his and ours) are not worth it and were just making us all resentful.  So if Liam wants to eat Penne with butter 6 nights a week and garlic fingers on the other night, so be it.  [from Claudia - penne with butter is the thing in our house, too!] Our saving grace is that he does love fruit, and will eat lots of it, so there is some nutrition getting into him.  Have you seen our fruit bowl?  [yes - I'm extremely impressed!]

And for those of us who do appreciate a good plateful - what's your favourite family dinner that we all NEED to make TONIGHT?

I have so many favorites!  But here is one we had recently, that is quick, easy and delicious.  Greek-Spiced Baked Shrimp.[I am totally making that this week!]


Thanks again to Andy and to Heather!

Thursday 10 November 2011

Over My Shoulder

It's an interesting thing, being an adoptive parent in the internet age. 

I'm so grateful for the internet. Lately, I have been working on putting together an 'Adoption 101' - a collection of some of my favourite blog posts from all around the adopt-o-sphere. I'm hoping to put a whole bunch of links together - the kind of thing that I would like to send back in time to the Me that was thinking about maybe possibly adopting, way back when. A semester at the college of collective knowledge, if you like - otherwise known as 'I spent lots of time on the internet neglecting my housework so you don't have to™'. I'll let you know when it's done. 

I hope it will be useful. But then there is a part of me that thinks - is this such a good idea? I wonder, sometimes, about the effect that all of my adoption-related reading has had on me. I'm an overthinker by nature - if I was living in a cave and my only source of information was campfire stories, I'd be the one left at the end of the evening asking the storyteller 'why did you say the mammoth reared its head? Why not raised its head? Do you think you are expressing your own feelings about the way the mammoth was nurtured?' You get the point. I'm not ever going to be the person who just chills out and says 'I'm going to let love guide me', and I'm not sorry about that.  But the internet is a black hole, a vortex, a maelstrom of information. There's too much there. Even on this one topic (adoption) it's never really possible to keep up, to be on top of the latest article, to know the latest thinking, to have read the most recent personal outpouring so that I can know exactly what is the right thing to do so my kids won't be messed up because of my culpably bad adoption parenting.

And here's the thing: People have always thought that they were doing the right thing. They thought they were doing the right thing when they told adoptive parents to take their babies home, deny all differences and and seal their birth certificates. [Oh, hang on, OBCs are still mostly sealed in the US. That's insane, by the way. See, I wouldn't know about that if it wasn't for the internet!] We think we're doing the right thing now by acknowledging loss and reading I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla and by golly I hope we are, but what if we're not? We've got to do the best we can with the knowledge we've got, I suppose, although I am in no doubt that the next generation of adult adoptees will let us know what it was that we collectively messed up.

Here's the other thing. As an adoptive parent, I write for the free therapy. I read widely so that I can learn, (and hopefully parent my kids better). I comment so that I can connect. (and I've stunk at this lately - I'm sorry). All of this makes sense to me. It feels worthwhile - probably not as worthwhile as cleaning my kitchen - but overall I think being here (and by 'here', I mean the internet, rather than 'here' typing in my hallway, slowly being covered in falling dust from our attic renovation) is a worthwhile thing. But sometimes I'm not so sure because of how much self-doubt it sows. I've been reading a really wide range of stuff recently (see above) and I feel like some bloggers mainly blog so that they can point out what other people are doing wrong. And by other people, I guess I mean adoptive parents. 

What motivates some of the nastiness that goes on? I understand that adoption is not all about unicorns and rainbows. And believe me, I do not want an award for adopting my kids. Do you want to know what I wanted when I adopted my kids? My kids. That's all. I don't want or need anybody to tell me that I did a great thing - I didn't. I don't think most of us want that. But I don't want to spend my entire life looking over my shoulder, either, trying to pretend to be someone that I'm not in order to satisfy every other member of every adoption triad since the beginning of time, trying to satisfy the self-appointed adoption thought police. I'm sorry if this all sounds vague and paranoid. It's just that I'm rapidly losing patience with a few people I have interacted with recently; people who are bothering online friends (no, sisters) of mine, people who do a lot of criticism and not a lot of anything else. 

I guess there's a good reason for that. Criticising other people is fun. It makes us the writer feel superior, and who doesn't like feeling superior? I suppose that is the true motivation for some of the nasties - self-congratulation by comparison. So, I think that my new internet rule is: Nobody should be allowed to saying critical things about a person (or a group of people) without saying two critical things about themselves, too. From now on, I refuse to take adoptive-parent critics seriously unless they can show a similar level of self-criticism. Not on their own blogs, not in comments, not anywhere. And, since that statement implies (critically) that a lot of people do not do that, here's me practising what I preach: firstly: right now I am questioning my own motivations for writing. Am I really writing through an issue that I think is important, or am I just feeding my own need for drama? And number two: we ordered pizza tonight because I was too lazy to cook. 

Back to looking over my shoulder. I don't want to be emotionally dependent on what the adoption thought police think of me. Periodically (eg, now) I make these resolutions where I say to myself "I am NOT going to let other people's bile get to me any more!" and I stick to it for a while, and then I slide back into caring again. And of course, I am not beyond the occasional bout of Internet Rage myself - sometimes I read things that make me so angry I can barely see. I want to write really, really mean things in reply. I don't do it. Then I wonder - the people whose mean writing upsets me - are they feeling that same feeling of Internet Rage when they read the lovely words my friend writes? Is that what makes them spill vitriol from their keyboard? Or are they just so used to being critical that their fingers are set to 'auto-nasty?' 

I don't really understand it. And I find it really difficult to hold some of these internet things in tension. The information, the knowledge, the scrutiny, the paranoia, the occasional outbreaks of unexpected nastiness. You need to be tough in the head to get through it all unscathed. I'm not sure that I am that tough. And I don't really have any answers about this. I think what I'm trying to say is: Sometimes I find this really hard.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Almost-Wordless Almost-Wednesday

I can't resist posting this:
 Fourteen seconds of my two - friends for once - rocking out to a bit of Belle and Sebastian on the kitchen counter.

Friday 28 October 2011

On October 27...

In 2009: We became parents to two fabulous and surprisingly noisy children
In 2010: I pondered the significance of the anniversary
In 2011:totally forgot the anniversary. I'd been thinking about it a lot the previous week, but on the actual day? Total blank until 11.30pm, when I was nearly asleep. 

In 2009: We ate pizza, because it meant we didn't have to think about cooking and parenting at the same time. The babies drank milk.
In 2010: We celebrated the anniversary with pizza, and hoped it counted as the start of a tradition. The babies refused to taste it. They drank milk. 
In 2011: Pizza again. The day after the anniversary. Because of the forgetting.  The babies licked it, and then cried because of all the flavours and asked for pasta. Then they drank some milk. 

In 2009: I thought ' This is it! Family Day!' but never said it out loud.  
In 2011: I could care less whether anybody is annoyed that I use the term Family Day. Anybody wants to discuss whether or not we are a family can take their turn singing ten rounds of 'the wheels on the bus' first. 

In 2009: I hoped I knew what I was doing
In 2010: I was pretty sure I knew what I was doing
In 2011: I am absolutely certain I have NO idea what I am doing

In 2009: I didn't know them at all
In 2010: I loved them
In 2011: They are so far under my skin that I don't really know where they end and I begin

In 2009: They were yelling
In 2010: They were babbling. And yelling. 
In 2011: They are singing. And talking. And also sometimes yelling. 

In 2009: I was getting sick and hadn't showered. 
In 2010: I was wearing a floral cardigan. I hoped it was channelling the 1940s librarian trend, but I forgot that only works if the whole outfit isn't channelling the 1940s librarian trend. 
In 2011: Last night, I decided that I would try some of the babies' hair products in my own hair. After all, they have dry hair, I have dry hair, right? No. NO. A thousand times no. So today I had to spend the whole day with my hair up as a result. Never. Again. 

In 2009: 

In 2010: 

In 2011: 

Happy Family Day, beautiful babies. We love you more than ever. Here's to many more happy years together. 

Monday 24 October 2011

The Periscope and The Dam: A Map Of Adoption Ethics According to Me (Part Two)

I'm continuing straight on from Part One, with no recap. If you haven't read that, this is going to make no sense at all. Read it now - I'll wait. Okay, now here we go: 

Agencies. Ah, agencies. Dwellers in the fertile plains. How would an agency behave ethically? It's probably easier to ask the question - how can things go wrong?  Let me take you on a journey to the bad end of the wall.

 In my mind, this wall we've been talking about is made up of equal parts law and moral obligation, and where it stands tall, it does so because of a combination of good regulation and good behaviour. This bad end of the wall is where those two start to run out. I've called the area at the very end of the wall, where it has crumbled totally, 'The Open Plains of No Regulation'.  In some countries, especially when international adoption is in its infancy, there are very few laws in place and it is very, very easy to behave unscrupulously. People can walk right around the wall because it's not really there. Of course, not all people do behave unscrupulously in those situations, but it's an environment that makes bad behaviour much easier, and therefore much more likely. In this sort of situation, an agency representative (or, more likely, a PAP) could easily go to a village orphanage and agree that a particularly cute child probably does need a new home, and, since there are no formal regulations in place surrounding abandonment / relinquishment, arrange to adopt the child (or facilitate the adoption) with very little official interference. I think this situation has been getting less and less common over the last few decades, all around the world, for which we should all be profoundly grateful. But it can still happen. There's always a lowest common denominator, a group of bottom-dwellers who will do all they can to get around the law. But it still needs to be there. Good regulation is absolutely critical if the interests of children are to be looked after.

The two bigger risks, especially in established international adoption programmes, are the holes in the wall caused by the 'Tunnel of Bribery' and the 'Pit of Coercion'.  These are two of the most obvious ways that people who benefit from adoption can act to influence the people who are the official decision makers. Coercion can take various forms, but when a parent is led to believe that they should relinquish their child, that it would be the loving thing to do, I think that's coercion's most common face.  I think the most difficult thing about coercion is that sometimes it seems that the people doing it genuinely believe that they are acting in a child's best interest. They may truly believe that a particular woman's child would be better off at school in Milwaukee or Stockholm  than with her on the streets of Kampala or Addis Ababa. They may honestly think that a young, unmarried woman will have the chance to re-start her life if she bids her baby farewell, and that this would be much better than her trying to make her way as a single mother in a society where they are stigmatised. In these situations, the agency may not be looking for financial gain, and they may even be well intentioned, but if they are working to convince a mother to say goodbye to a child she wishes to parent, the behaviour is unethical nonetheless because it is not their decision to make. They benefit from it, and they should not be trying to influence it. 

The tunnel of bribery causes holes in the wall when people use money to influence decision-makers. This could be an orphanage offering a mother money (or food) if she relinquishes her child. It could be an agency or a PAP offering perks to keep a pet social worker sweet. Either way, when the people who benefit from adoption use their money (or some other form of power) to increase the number of children who are deemed adoptable, this is probably the most blatant, the most obvious form of unethical behaviour.

(I've been thinking about this question of money, though, and I've come to think that it can be a bit of a red herring in adoption discussions.  Forgive the digression, but - if my agency gives money to a social worker so that she will be more likely to determine that a child is abandoned (when really, the child's mother is coming back and everybody knows it) that's a clear breach of the wall and of adoption ethics.  However, what about when my adoption agency fleeces me, on its own side of the wallWhat about if my agency director is taking a big chunk of my fee and using it to buy expensive cars, vacations, a swimming pool? What about when the agency's in-country employees are overcharging me and profiteering and asking for extra cash in order to do tasks that they have already been paid for?  Or, on the other side of the wall, what about orphanages who are processing adoptions legally and not getting involved in the decision-making but who are neglecting the children, keeping some of the money for care back and lining their own pockets? How about if an orphanage driver charges the agency a vast, ridiculous sum of money in order to transport children to the agency centre? My opinion is this: All of those things are bad. Some of them are criminal. Several of those people should be in jail, especially the orphanage guy who is stealing money that should be used to feed hungry children. However - that's not what I'm talking about, personally, when I'm talking about whether an adoption was ethical. I think that sometimes 'ethics' is used to talk about how well people behave towards the other people on their side of the wall, how well children are cared for, how being with an agency makes us feel. But all these awful things I listed- and they are awful things -  aren't really the heart of the matter, in my eyes. They are extremely important. But adoption ethics, I think, is first and foremost about answering the question of whether a child should have been adopted in the first place. Whether a child is treated well or badly while waiting to be adopted is critically important, as is whether my adoption agency is trying to defraud me of all my money. But I don't think those things are what makes an adoption - the legal transfer of a child from one family to another - ethical or not. Okay, digression over).

All of that, of course, leads me to admit that I don't really know what to do, schematically, with orphanages;  I think that the murkiest bit of the map is probably in-country orphanage care. In fact, I haven't even given orphanages a separate space on the map. I probably should have, but I drew the whole thing a few days ago and now can't find the blue felt-tip pen I used. Please, do your best to imagine that orphanages have their own bubble next to agencies. Close your eyes and draw it with the felt-tip-pen of your imagination, okay?
Use the light blue pen of your mind. Got it? 
I think that if adoptions are going to be squeaky-clean, people who run the orphanage, who manage the money, should not have anything - anything- to do with making final decisions about placing children for international adoption. Is this realistic? I don't know. I suspect that there is a spectrum, depending on the country, depending on the local infrastructure, depending on the orphanage. Where the orphanages have more power, more chances to get their hands mucky, the role of the watchers on the wall becomes increasingly important. (I haven't really discussed this group of people because their role - as independent, neutral adjudicators and enforcers - is pretty self-explanatory. Exactly what they do, and how well they do it, will vary by country and person. It should not be this way, but I think it probably is). I have no doubt that there are many orphanages where the only times that children in their care are sent for intercountry adoption is when an independent person with no interest in the outcome deems it to be in the child's best interest. If that orphanage receives reasonable funding from an agency for the care of the child, no ethical boundaries are crossed because the orphanage had nothing to do with deciding that child would be placed for adoption.

I also have no doubt that there are other orphanages where the people in charge have no qualms about pushing for particular children to enter the adoption pipeline. I am sure that there are some where the mothers who come for help are given a spiel about how that baby they are cradling could have a much better life (with an education!) in America. I am sure there are cases when the director then phones his favourite agency, tells them to refer the child and pockets a big chunk of the money passed to him for the child's care. This second situation is clearly and unarguably unethical. He pushed for the child to be relinquished, and then he benefits from that decision. I'm sure it sometimes happens, but it never, never should.

It may not always be as clear-cut as this, but these issues are one of the main reasons that I think agencies have to do more than simply hide behind the wall. They have to respect it, but they can't just put their backs to it and hunker down and think that is enough. This introduces the final feature that I have drawn on the wall: the periscope of accountability*.

An agency may not be actively facilitating child recruitment, but if they aren't interested in finding out what their partners in the field are doing, that's not good enough. So: agencies must not broach the wall, but if they care about ethics, they have to care about what is happening on the other side. For each child they place, I believe they have a responsibility to check that nobody on the deciding who gets adopted side of the wall is doubling up and benefiting, too.  They've got to make good use of the periscope. Because if agencies don't do this, who will? Embassies have a responsibility to check adoption details at the point where a visa is issued, but (as someone else said recently, and I wish I could remember who) these people are in the immigration business, not the adoption business. Their job is to check that a child is eligible to immigrate to their new country, not really to check whether or not they should be emigrating from the old. If the agency is going to be referring a child to new parents, the agency should be checking - as far as is humanly possible - that everything that happened before the child reached them was both legal and, yes, ethical.

It's a pretty obvious point to make that different agencies will be at different points along the wall.  I suppose that, in real life, this wall turns into something of a spectrum. One one side, it ranges from those who are doing everything possible to breach the wall at one end, to those with their eyes glued to the periscope of accountability at the other. On one extreme of the other side of the wall, there are those standing next to those breaches, hoping for kickbacks. Those committed to looking after the interests of children belong at the other.

I think it's important to say that even the very worst agencies can end up facilitating ethical adoptions. By the power of statistics and sheer dumb luck, some of the children that they place in new homes probably really do need them.  Similarly, even the very best, most ethical agencies can unknowingly place children who are the victims of other people's lies. Social workers can lie. Birthfamilies can lie. Agencies are not always the bad guys in adoptions that should never have happened. There is no way of managing this risk down to zero. We live in an imperfect world. ("Imperfect solutions for an imperfect world!" Now that's an adoption agency slogan I'd like to see).  But it can definitely be minimised, and I think a crucial first step is finding out as much as possible about where an agency stands along the wall. Are they tapping on the bricks, looking for cracks? Are they standing with their backs to the wall, fingers in their ears, ignoring warning bells? Or are they standing with their eyes glued to the periscope? The last group should be ensuring, firstly, that nothing they do will ever pressure any decision-makers into classifying a child as 'adoptable', but also that they won't participate in a process where anybody else has done this. I want to say that this last group is also less likely to use the word 'angels' anywhere on their website to describe children, but that would be flippant. So I won't.

So, if that's all in place, is that the best thing we can do for children? If we respect the wall, and cling tightly to the periscope, is that it? Is a really, really ethical adoption the highest thing we should be striving for? Is an adoption, facilitated by independent professionals, what every young mother dreams of for her child? Is that the best, the only thing we can do for children in need across the world? Well, no. Obviously. All that an ethical adoption system can do is pick up the pieces of tragedies that have already happened - this is a large part of what makes it ethical. If we want to stop the tragedies happening, we need to look elsewhere for solutions. Too many adoptions happen because women find themselves in the  swamp of adversity, fed by those three rivers of poverty, illness and social expectation. Building a nice high, tight, wall, a perfect adoption system, does nothing about those three rivers. They will continue to flow. Nothing will change. Families will continue to break apart. To address those three rivers, we need to think beyond the wall. We need something else: we need a dam.

The best way to address a problem is not to pick up the pieces, it's to stop it happening in the first place. If we are looking to have long term, big-picture impact on children's lives, we want the swamp of adversity to dry up. We have to build a dam.  What does that look like? Here are some suggestions:

Building the dam means working for family reunification. It means working for better healthcare (especially maternal and child health, and sanitation). It means working for education (again, especially for women). It means - and this isn't something that we, in other countries, have much power over - fair government.  If those things are in place, rivers start to dry up. The orphan crisis (although I have an allergy to the word orphan, I can't think of a better one here) is addressed in the best possible way because steps are taken to prevent children ever being orphaned.

There are lots of ways that people can help to build the dam. Some of them are here.  Here is another. Also, this.  However - this post isn't about the joys of microfinance, clean water or women's education - although those are all fascinating topics - it's about adoption, and adoption does nothing to help build a dam. So, the reason I bring up the dam here is that I think that ethical adoptions start with a wall, and I think that in some cases people are looking for a dam instead. This goes two ways.

Firstly: I get the impression, sometimes, that when people say that their agency is 'really, really ethical', what they mean is that their agency is spending a lot of energy and money building the dam. Their agency funds free health care. Their agency does all kinds of nice things that help people. And maybe they do help people, and that's great (see below, re: helping other humans being a generally good thing) but I suggest that it has nothing to do with whether or not the adoptions they facilitate are ethical. In fact, I think that sometimes people take bricks out of the wall to help build the dam. While I am totally in favour of the dam, I believe there's room for confusion if the people who are overseeing 'helping' projects also have an interest in adoption.

Secondly: Sometimes people say adoption is not ethical because what we should really be doing is preventing the problems that lead to adoption. They think that adoption is not ethical because it's not dambuilding.  I disagree with this second one because I think it misses the whole point of what an ethical adoption should be. An ethical adoption should pick up the pieces of a tragedy that has already happened, when the rivers were too fast, when the dam wasn't there, when it's too late to prevent the problem because it has already occurred.  Building a dam is too late for those kids. Adopting a child who has already lost his or her family does not mean that we don't think the dam is important (although we should be honest enough with ourselves to examine whether we really want the dam built now, or whether 'after my referral' would suit us better. I say that from painful experience).

Dam-building should be something that we do because we are human, and we care about other humans.
We should be doing all we can, where we can, whenever we can, to share what we've got, to make the world better, doing for others what we would want them to do if they were the half of the world who had nearly all of its riches. Dambuilding should not be seen as something that only adoptive parents should be invested in, or only the infertile, because honestly? The dam has not nothing to do with adoption. The reason I've drawn the dam on this map is not because the dam is part of adoption. I've drawn it to illustrate that it is emphatically not part of adoption. It should be separate.  Living with one may well lead to an interest in the other, but they are not the same thing. They are not interchangeable. People who have a go at adoptive parents for not sponsoring children instead? Yes, we should all be helping where we can. But that includes YOU. And me. And it should have nothing to do with whether or not either of us ever plans to adopt. 

So that's my take on what I mean when I'm talking about an 'ethical' adoption. Please remember - I am not saying that any particular country has it all figured out. I am certainly not saying that I have it all figured out.  I'm not saying that this analogy covers all the complexities. I am not saying that everything is okay. I am certainly not trying to list everything about international adoption that is not okay. I am not even really proposing any solutions. (Want to propose some solutions? I'm happy to do a link-up!)  I am just trying to define a word. Ethical. What does it mean?

I suppose I'm saying that I think it looks something like this.

*Not a real product. Not available at any store.