I think it’s pretty common if you are longing for children that you spend some time imagining special occasions and how they might be when you do have children. Birthday parties, Christmas, family occasions more generally are all very different as a parent of a young child. I know that once we had been approved for adoption, I often spent time thinking about and planning what Christmas would be like, and what I would want to do to make things special when a child finally moved into our home and became part of our family – but then I have always been an inveterate planner. The thing to be aware of is that the adopted child has being doing the same thing – dreaming of how they wish things could be and how they hope things would be once they have a family of their own.
I know once we had adopted Mac we looked forward to these occasions, the opportunity to “show him off” to our family and friends, knowing that they were going to love him as much as we already did. We were so keen for him to be surrounded by the family that we cared about so much and wanted him to be enveloped in their love.
We had been warned that to begin with to introduce people slowly as moving into a new home is a pretty daunting prospect – it is most important that the attachment between parents and child is beginning to build, giving the child some much needed stability an opportunity to begin to build trust.
We were careful to follow this advice. We introduced Mac slowly to the closest members of our family – grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins – and he lapped it up, glad to be the centre of attention and revelling in the treats that the all inevitably had for him.
But we didn’t always get it right. Mac had a complete meltdown at the first big family party we took him to – a gathering of much of our family for a Chinese meal to celebrate my father’s seventy-fifth birthday. Dad had hired a private room upstairs in the restaurant, so it was the perfect opportunity, with no-one else around.
WE made so many basic errors – misjudging how long it wold take to get ready with an 8 year old, forgetting he would be tired, not noticing he was coming down with a nasty cold. You name it, we got it wrong, and so the only thing to do was to leave – me with an eight year old Mac under my arm crying and really quite upset and very hot. Classic parenting fail.
Actually as soon as we left the restaurant and got into the car, everything calmed down, so we got pizza and went home. What we also didn’t know was that Mac was starting to come down with a nasty cold and temperature – probably a reaction to all the changes he had been through in the last few months.
It is interesting that we found an almost sure-fire way to get Mac to calm down in any situation was to take him over a threshold. It was more than just taking him out of the situation, but we had found that if you got him through a door, it would often take the heat out of the situation. This was most useful in the morning. Mac did nearly always wake happy, and was usually fairly content to go to school. However, we did find him starting to kick up at schooltime when he first started testing the boundaries in the early days. We were always very keen clear that school was a non-negotiable. Even if he was very upset in the house, if I managed to get him out of the front door, he calmed down almost immediately. (I have since read somewhere that there is scientific research that shows humans do change emotions when they move through a threshold – so maybe there is something in it).
Mother’s Day is so painful for many people at some time in their lives – if they have lost their mother, if they have lost a child, if they are childless – and once we were married and unsuccessfully trying for a child, Mother’s Day was very difficult.
Once we had Mac, it became one of the special occasions we started to look forward to the most. We would finally be able to celebrate Mother’s Day in a completely different way – as one of the “in crowd”, rather than being on the outside, looking in.. It was going to be a celebration that we had finally become a family. And for us that meant going to church as we had so much to be thankful for.
Our church, like so many, gives out flowers to mothers on Mothering Sunday. But the children often also make gifts for their mothers. I can still remember sitting with Swee in the pew as Mac went up to the front to help give out the presents. The children had made little pretend “handbags” from a face flannel containing soap and other smellies. They were in different colours – but Mac knew that Swee loved all shades of blue and looked carefully for a blue one. He rushed back to Swee with the biggest smile on his face as he launched into Swee to give her the present and a huge hug. I felt so emotional and happy – I can’t imagine how Swee felt.
As it was Swee’s first Mother’s Day, the rest of the family came back to our house for lunch. It was a typical family get together and not the first we had had since Mac had been with us, so we thought nothing of it. Fairly soon after lunch started, Mac became really quiet and pensive. Quietly he went off to his room on his own.
You see through all the excitement, including his own, we hadn’t thought enough about the conflicting emotions that Mac was feeling. Here for the first time, Mac was celebrating Mother’s Day with a woman who wasn’t the woman he first called mum. Now even though in many people’s eyes she had let him down and not played the role of a mother, she was still his mum and still very important to him. Despite that fact that he was angry and upset at her for the occasions when she hadn’t been there for him, he still loved her.
And here I have to say it takes a while as an adoptive parent to come to terms with that. However understanding you try to be, you know that they have let down and hurt the child that is now yours, who you love as much as you would your own biological child, and it is difficult to forgive them. We always made sure that we never let these feelings show with Mac, and over the years, as you realise how important they still are to your child, the angry feelings subside. (Now in our shared loss of Mac, we have established a friendship and often drop notes to each other on social media checking up to see how we are). Mac was always emotionally intelligent and he knew she had let him down, but she was still his mum.
That first Mother’s Day, we had forgotten the huge conflict of emotions that Mac would have and didn’t make allowances enough for them. But we did learn a lesson.
So on any other big family occasion, we would make an effort to mention Mac’s birth family so that he knew they were not forgotten and to make sure he realised it was OK to be thinking about them. It was always a tricky line to tread, because as Mac grew older he made it clear that they were his family, not ours. But we would still mention them as I think it was important as Mac grew to give him permission to think about them and to know that it didn’t hurt us. We knew he loved us and loved his home and all that it stood for – but there was still room for him to think about them and to love them.