When I was starting to gather all of these memories together, it took me a while to decide what to call them – “Finding Mac” seemed to work because this is a story of how we found Mac and became a family, but also how he found himself and became a beautiful man comfortable and happy in his own skin.
But the subtitle for the collection was always going to be “Let the memories begin”. Sitting down to write these memories has been a form of therapy – of course it has been an important way to record the memories for family and friends (and anyone who wants to read them), but also a way of starting to move forward since losing Mac.
Losing anyone significant in your life is difficult, and the loss of a child feels wrong on so many levels. You never expect to have to sit down and plan your child’s funeral, or decide what you would like on their headstone. But for me, those were not the difficult things to deal with. In fact, they were great distractions, a way of getting through the early days and months. Writing and delivering Mac’s eulogy was in so many ways a positive experience – my final act of love for him as we marked his passing.
The truth is that the pain is so great, your body doesn’t let you feel all of the hurt at once. It seems to come out bit by bit – hopefully at a speed you can absorb it and deal with it. The resilience of the human mind and body is truly amazing at times.
That doesn’t in any way make things easy. There have been some truly dark times – and I expect in the future there will be more. But with family and friends and support around you it is possible to move through all of this.
What I did find was that from the very beginning memories were important. Swee and I talked (and continue to talk) about Mac so much and I didn’t want to lose a moment of the time we had together. Writing it down seemed to be the best way for me to cope with things. There was a real joy in remembering. Looking at the faces in the photos and trying to remember how we felt – those feelings come flooding back, and really fill me with joy. Even when feeling most sad, seeing us all smiling while we were doing something fun like playing in the garden in the sun really lifts the spirits.
And here I do have a plea to anyone reading this. Don’t ever worry about mentioning someone who has died to a grieving relative, however recent. We want to talk about them all of the time. We want to hear stories and memories; we want to know how they affected you and how their lives meant something to you as well.
Don’t worry that it will upset us by reminding us. It won’t. We never forget them; they are always on our mind. As time moves on it doesn’t hurt any less. It should hurt as that hurt is the absence of them that you feel. But we do learn to live with the hurt. And we do find ways to laugh more about them and to cry less.
We have learned so much more about Mac since he died and from the stories people have shared with us about their experiences of him. We know that he touched so many lives in his short sixteen years. There were more than five hundred people at Mac’s funeral – all of them with a reason to be there and all of them carrying part of Mac’s story with them. Their stories, and their parts in Mac’s life help us to know him better and to keep his memory alive.
Of course, there are times of regret. Mac was very caring, and we know from things we have been told that he had a gift at talking with his peers and helping to mend their hurt and help them with their problems, even if he wasn’t always as good at sorting his own! he had a real skill in breaking down factions within groups. In some ways, as he had often been the outsider, he was able to find ways to bring different groups together. We could see that in him and they were skills that I would have loved to see him develop as he grew older.
But I do know that he made the most of his life that he was given. He had travelled to three continents, and had seen so many different cultures. He had learned to love his friends and his adopted and birth families. And he had found someone to love and who dearly loved him. He had enjoyed a sense of freedom. He had learned to overcome things that had gone wrong in his earlier life, and to begin to feel comfortable as the person he was.
It is interesting how many loose ends that Mac had managed to tie off before he died – broken relationships mended and old problems solved. But there is one thing that I will always remember about his last day…
Mac was always willing to give me a hug. However old he got, he was never too big to give me a hug, even if they weren’t as often as before.
I used to say to him, “Promise me you’ll always hug me and never feel you’re too old”, to which I would get the normal teenage grunt of “oh, dad!”
On the day he died, just before he went downstairs to go and ride his motorbike to school, he hugged me and told me he loved me. I will never forget that hug. I can still feel it today.
One of the more difficult aspects at the beginning of an adoptive placement is that you still get lots of visits from social workers. They come to see how things are going and will always talk to you and the child separately – just to make sure things are working out. I know that for many of us this is particularly stressful. Often you may not have had the best relationship with social workers through the process and really you just want to get to the date when the adoption has gone through and you will no longer be bothered.
Children who have been in care for some time know how to work the system. They get pretty clever at knowing what to say to their social worker – after all you have to remember that everything is always done in the best interests of the child. That can make the potential parents feel pretty vulnerable at times.
On the whole we had a good relationship with our social worker. She had worked with Mac and his family for a long time. She was due to retire and was pleased that she would be able to see Mac into stable placement before she finally finished work – he was one of her two last cases.
Mac only got us into potential difficulties with social workers once. I can’t know even remember why the situation occurred. It had been one of Mac’s difficult bedtimes. He had a small book that had numbers of important people in it. It was something he had so that he knew if he wanted to get in touch with them, he would have their number. One of the numbers was of a couple who had provided respite foster care for him when he was with Sue and Mark. They had also been foster carers for him and his brother when they were first placed into care. They had similar aged children, and he had happy memories with them. There had been a possibility that he might have stayed with them, but this wold not have been adoption, but long-term fostering – and it was decided for various reasons that this wouldn’t work. However, understandably Mac was still very fond of them.
So when Mac had gone up to bed, he had gone into our bedroom and phoned this couple to say that he was not happy (which was true – he had just been told off!). of course, he didn’t give her any of the context and she phoned the duty social worker.
The next day, our social worker arrived to confront us with this, and to talk to Mac about it. Of course, all of this was easy to explain. Mac was very contrite. It was close to Christmas, so we let him call the foster carers again, so that he could wish them a happy Christmas an have a better conversation and let them know he was happy and that things were going well.
In fact, we did find that social workers could be of great help. Mac was getting increasingly angry, and we wanted to find ways to help him with that and to be able to find ways to help us to deal with it.
We spoke to one specialist social worker who really helped us with some tips. The first one was about control – really much of the issues were around control and who should have it. It is very easy as parents to think that you must always be the ones in control – and it is important to be in overall control. But many adoptive children will have spent their whole lives with no sense of control at all – with their chaotic lives completely out of their control and many things happening around them that makes them feel unhappy or unsafe.
So, we found that we needed to give Mac an element of control. I have to say its one of the hardest things that we had to learn. Maybe give him a couple of choices and then let him go with the one he wants – decide what is really important and make sure you have control of that – if its not one of those then let him decide. We got better and better at it – and as we did things did become easier.
Another tip that I would like to pass on was a way to help with anger. With adopted children (and others in care), it is often the case that they cannot help getting angry – they get to a point when they really cannot control it any more. However much you tell them to calm down, the wiring in their brains will not let them do it. Mac used to know this was happening and would warn us and tell us to leave him alone.
One of his educational psychologists gave us the best trick ever to help him with these episodes of anger. As he got to that point (and we got better at recognising when it was happening) we asked him to do simple sums – 2+2, 3+3 – making sure they were straightforward. But making him concentrate on something logical used a different part of his brain – the logical part. The first time we did this, we were pretty sceptical, but as soon as he started giving us the answers, it was possible to see him calming down and being able to get control back of his emotions. It sounds ridiculous, but I promise it works – even in the middle of pretty ferocious temper tantrums.
Mac also went through a spate of bad dreams – we really wanted to help him with it. This is the advice we were given – give him a pair of magic boots. For Mac, the nightmare normally involved someone nasty chasing him. So before he went to bed, as he was falling asleep, we would tell him he had a pair of magic boots, and that if anyone chased him in his dream, then he could reach for them and he would be able to get away. Again, it’s a simple idea but it really did work.
So we did find the advice and support helpful – the professionals have seen so much of this before that they really can provide help when you need it. That doesn’t mean they were always right.
We warned that we should never get into bed with Mac. I think the feeling was that this would leave us vulnerable if Mac wanted to say something about us and accuse us falsely. And whilst I can see the sense in that, sometimes for the sake of you child you have to follow you instincts.
Most mornings at the weekends, Mac would jump into bed with us (luckily we had a very large bed!). He loved the contact and would love to play tickling games. Mac would regress and act much younger than his years. What you often find with adopted children is that they will display younger behaviour, trying to fill the gaps of things they missed out on. He particularly wanted to be close to Swee as his mum. This culminated in the best and most heartfelt comment that he ever gave her,
“I wish that I had come out of your tummy.”
Adopted children get you into difficult situations
You have to be ready for all sorts of difficult situations as an adoptive parent. I’ve already mentioned the embarrassment that Swee faced when she took Mac to archery!
What you will find is that most people want to know what happened to your child – they want to know their story. But you have to remember that the story is theirs to tell – it is something between you and them and you share it sparingly and only if absolutely necessary (e.g. with health professionals and teachers). Even then, you need to think carefully how much they need to know.
This can get difficult with friends and acquaintances – those who really care about you will understand, but many don’t. There is a morbid fascination with might have gone on in your child’s life before. Of course, the problem with there being a vacuum of information is that some people will choose to fill it with assumptions and misinformation. This can lead to some awkward situations – all I can say is that your first loyalty is always to your child, and you soon find out who your real friends are!
You also learn how to deal with you child’s tantrums by trial and error. Fairly early on, Mac was in a foul mood in his bedroom. I went upstairs and very calmly sat on his bed as he started to throw all of his soft toys around. Figuring out that this wasn’t too dangerous, I decided to call his bluff and suggested he kick them around as well (thinking I was being a marvelous parent and outwitting him!). He went to kick one teddy bear really hard, but misjudged and kicked the floor – I could hear the crunch of his foot!.
Luckily our local GP is very close by and were happy to see him straight away (it was just before they shut for the night). I explained what had happened – our GP was fully aware of our situation as Swee had worked there for a long time, so they had lived through the whole process with us. She examined his foot and declared that nothing was broken, just badly bruised. A great deal of limping went on for a few days – even if it wasn’t always the same foot! But the most important thing that Mac learned was that we cared enough to take him to the doctor when he was hurt.
One of the first things I can remember with Mac was teaching him about jokes. Mac had the most fantastic laugh – it rang out with complete abandon like a peel of bells. I loved to see him laugh – tickling him always worked a treat. If you tickled him he could barely stand it, but didn’t want you to stop. He would laugh and laugh.
Like most kids he wanted to learn how to tell jokes – he was dreadful at it! It took a while for him to really understand the concept. Making him laugh was easy, as long as it had a bottom or a fart in the joke it was a sure fire winner. However, he had a favourite joke which is still one of my favourites today.
Question: “What do you call a monkey with a bomb?”
Answer: “A Baboooom!!”
Mac and I loved to go to the cinema together. The first film we went to was early on and was called “Hotel for Dogs”. I was a charming story, but very soon I started to get worried (I hadn’t done my homework to find out the main plot). The two children involved were in foster care and were trying not to be split up – exactly what had happened to Mac and his brother.
I was sitting there terrified it might upset him. But as ever, Mac surprised me and said in a matter of fact way,
“That’s a bit like me, isn’t it?”
And that that was it. Its amazing how many children’s films have the premise of adoption or fostering and children not with their parents. Anyway, enough to say that “Hotel for Dogs” remains a firm family favourite.
It is usual for there to be a honeymoon period when a child first moves in with you for adoption. For a period of time, it is likely that the child is going to try as hard as possible to make sure that you like them and that you will want them to stay. This was certainly true of Mac. He was so keen to have a new family of his own that his behaviour was exemplary
For the first couple of weeks everything went really well. But we knew this wasn’t the real Mac. We knew he wasn’t really telling us everything. He didn’t really want to ask for anything, so would say,
“I thought you might like a biscuit”,
which was his way of saying that he would really like a biscuit himself. But we managed to read through some of the code and he seemed very happy at home. We quickly found the things that he really needed to feel safe (helpfully prompted in many cases by Sue and Mark’s tips to us).
For much of Mac’s childhood he had been short of food, or not sure where the next meal would be coming from. So to be really happy to go to bed, he always wanted to know that there was a glass of water and a packet of biscuits in his bedroom.
Mac was always worried when we dropped him off at school that we would not pick him up, so we always made sure that one of us was at the school in plenty of time and in the same place so that he could see us as soon as he was let out of the classroom.
Some things would set Mac into a meltdown for no apparent reason. He hated loud noises and shouting and particularly hated it if someone knocked on the door too loudly. We eventually found out that he had a memory of someone knocking down his birth parents’ door with an axe coming after his father. The memory always haunted him and sometimes appeared in his dreams.
We also found out that Mac was terrified of what would happen if he broke something. If he dropped a cup or a plate, he would get really scared that he was going to be told off. We always made sure that we were very calm and explained to him that it didn’t matter and was an accident and that he was much more important than anything material. Adopted children come with all of this baggage and it takes some time to unpack everything and start to help them overcome these memories – sometimes all you can do is help them live with it. We always encouraged Mac to talk to us about these things so that we could try to help him. Over time it is inevitable that memories will come out that you won’t have been told – part of the role of an adoptive parent is to help deal with all of that.
So we enjoyed the honeymoon period with Mac. Things were going so well. But we knew enough to know this was going to change. Sure enough after just two weeks the honeymoon period ended. Mac had decided to see where the boundaries really were.
Of course, most adopted children have very low self-esteem. They will have suffered so much neglect and rejection that they really find it hard to trust or to really believe that anything is going to be permanent – after all their experience so far is that nothing lasts for ever. They have always had to move on. And whatever they have been told, they will think all of that is their fault. So the behaviour starts to change as they look for the boundaries to see what they can really get away with.
I’m a great believer that all children need boundaries. They find a safety in knowing how far they can push you and that you care enough to react and to out rules in place. And as they grow those boundaries will continue to be tested and you will make decisions about how they might change.
Mac, in common with many looked after-children, will really push boundaries as far as they can. I think for Mac, he wanted to push as hard as he could because he didn’t really believe that we wouldn’t change our minds and decide that we didn’t want him – after all that had happened to him in the last adoptive placement he had been in. Why should we be any different?
So Swee and I were very clear with him about what was and wasn’t acceptable. But we also made it clear to him that whatever he did, we would always love him and always want to be his parents. That consistency was really important to keep to. But I can promise you that it was not always easy.
Mac was normally very good at going to bed. He enjoyed being in his bedroom. We had made sure it was a comfortable place where Mac could always feel safe. We established a bedtime routine of a bubble bath (he always loved lovely smells and bubbles), going downstairs to say goodnight to Swee, followed by my reading him a bedtime story and saying his bedtime prayer. He would then snuggle down and go to sleep. I would normally come back up half an hour or so later to check that he was asleep. There’s nothing better than seeing your child snuggled up in bed sleeping soundly.
This routine to begin with always worked, but one night, as the honeymoon period came to an end, he decided he wasn’t going to go to bed. He sat cross-legged on the kitchen table and decided he wasn’t going to budge! I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do next. I didn’t want to get straight into punishments so I made it clear that he had to go to bed and that I would sit at the kitchen table with him until he decided to do as he had been told. Of course, I hadn’t any further plan, and Mac was in a determined mood.
We sat for what seemed like an eternity, and must have been an hour. I was insisting that he should go to bed or he would feel tired and grumpy in the morning and he had decided he wasn’t going anywhere. Not only was he not moving, he was being moody and rude.
“I bet you were never like this for Sue and Mark”, I said.
“Yes, I was!”, he retorted.
So I decided to phone Sue and Mark to see if that might change the mood. He really didn’t think I would, so I rang their number, hoping and praying that they were there. Mark answered the phone.
“Hi Mark,” I said, “It’s Richard here. I’m afraid Mac is being very naughty tonight. He tells me he was like that at you house.”
Mark played ball.
“No”, he said, “he was never rude to us.”
“Would you like to talk to him?” I said. (Mac poked his tongue out at me!)
And with that Mac picked up the phone, put his best voice on and talked politely to Mark. It was enough to change the mood, and when he had finished on the phone, he stomped up the stairs and went to bed, and was soon asleep.
To be fair to Mac, he always woke up happy, whatever had happened the night before. It was often the evenings when he played up, usually because he was tired. It is not unusual for adopted and looked-after children to need more sleep – day to day life just tends to be more emotionally draining for them.
The other times when Mac would play up was if we had people round after he went to bed. He hated the feeling that he was missing out on something. One evening I was out and Swee had my sister round. Mac had seen Sandra, and then went off to bed. But he couldn’t resist coming down and despite being told repeatedly would not go back to bed. Eventually, after having tried several times, Swee said that she would shut the sitting room door and he would just have to go off to bed. So as Swee marched out of the sitting room, he caught hold of her top by the sleeve. As cool as you like, Swee managed to get herself out of her top and Mac was left stranded with just her top in his hand. She shut the door and told him to go to bed one more time.
Mac realised he had been outwitted and stomped upstairs leaving my sister open-mouthed and my wife standing in just her bra. But she had won the battle and the boundary had been set.
It wasn’t just us that Mac played up at bedtimes. To be honest we didn’t really leave Mac very much. We felt it was important that he had consistency, knowing that one of us was always around for him. But we knew it was important to be able to go out and to have other people be able to babysit.
The first time we went out, we asked my sister to babysit. We only went out to the local pub, just in case there were any problems. So we went out and had a lovely evening. When we got back all was quiet – Mac was asleep in bed and Sandra was watching the TV. It seemed everything had gone swimmingly….
However, not all was as it seems. Mac decided he was going to play a trick on his Aunty Sandra. He had a bath, they read a story and he went to bed happily. But he knew that she would come up to check on him – so he decided to hide in the wardrobe.
My sister came upstairs and was beside herself. In the moment, she didn’t think to look anywhere and was convinced she had lost him – what would she do and what would we say!? Of course, she did then start looking around and there he was quietly sitting in the wardrobe waiting for her to find him. He thought it was very funny – I’m not sure my sister was as amused!
One of the more surprising and endearing things that Mac did happened very quickly. Once Mac had gone to bed, the rule was that he was not allowed downstairs again. Sometimes we would hear him pottering around upstairs.
The first time we heard him do this he was going into our bedroom. When we went to bed ourselves we found a little note on our pillow – Mac’s writing and spelling was not great at this point, but we were starting to get good at deciphering it – he had written a note saying how happy he was and that he loved us. This was the first of many notes from Mac – sometimes it was to say sorry, or to say he had a good day, or just to tell us how he felt. It became a really important way for him to communicate with us. Eventually it stopped, but did go on for a few years. We still have them all.
It had been decided that Mac should spend a few days at home with us before he started at the local primary school. This was a chance for us all to bond and to start to settle into the rhythm of life as a new family.
As we knew this time was coming we had done some planning to decide what we might do with the time. We wanted to do something memorable, starting to make those memories with Mac. As it was running up to Christmas we looked to see if there were Christmassy things that we could so together. We found that there was a new experience that was being laid on called “Lapland UK” where you could get the chance for that Lapland and Father Christmas experience without having to travel abroad. (Travel abroad was not something we could contemplate as we do not have parental control at this point and Mac did not have a passport.)
So we booked tickets. With the tickets came a special invitation to Mac from Father Christmas to come and visit him in Lapland. We wanted to make it special, so on the Sunday morning after he arrived we made sure that Mac found the invitation on top of the wood burner in our sitting room. Mac was so excited! He had visited Father Christmas once before, but certainly hadn’t travelled to Lapland.
So the next day, we drove to the venue in Kent. This was quite a long drive, so added to the excitement that we were really travelling a long way. Mac always fell asleep in the car, so as he woke up we were just approaching the site.
We went up to the entrance. We were given a special time slot to enter. A number of parents and their children were taken by elves the entrance to “Lapland”. We entered into a special closed area decorated as an enchanted wood. As we walked further the scenery became more snowy, and it certainly made you feel as if it was getting colder. The elves explained that we were walking along a magic path that would take us all the way to Lapland. As we came out of the wood we came across a huge pair of gates and entered a Winter Wonderland, full of snow and looking every bit as if we had come across Lapland.
There was loads to do. We visited real reindeers. Mac decorated gingerbread biscuits with Mother Christmas. We ate lunch in a dining room full of elves. We were able to buy lots of Christmas decorations and Christmas sweets. The highlight of the day was to visit Father Christmas.
Before we went to see him, I went along to a special office where you were able to fill in a form with key details about Mac, so that Father Christmas would be able to recount them and keep the illusion real. Of course this was really difficult, as many of the questions were unanswerable – who was his best friend, what was his favourite thing to do – Mac was in a new home and I wasn’t sure I could provide the right answers. So I went up to the desk and explained Mac’s situations. The organisers were fantastic and said they would explain everything.
So we went into a waiting room and were collected by an elf who led us through a snowy wood to reach a wood cabin. We entered and there was Father Christmas sitting on reindeer skins ready to weave his magic.
Mac was open-mouthed. Father Christmas related a few facts – knowing Mac’s name, knowing the names of our dogs – and then he said the most special thing.
“I know that you have just moved to live with these special people. I am sure you will be very happy. I know where you live and will make sure I deliver some special presents.”
He handed over some presents to Mac – a copy of “The Night before Christmas” and a beautiful cuddly toy in the shape of a husky puppy. We left the visit with Father Christmas very happy.
There was one more thing that Mac wanted to do. There was a wonderful ice skating rink and Mac was keen to try it out. Now neither Swee nor I are any good at ice skating. I had once tried it and was never able to let go of the side – Swee had had an experience just as bad! So we knew that we would be of no help, but we didn’t want to disappoint him. With luck, the venue had thought about everything and there were special “ice-skating elves” there to help the children who were not very proficient. Mac put on his skates and took to the ice.
We were terrified he was going to hurt himself. When a child first moves in with you, you do not have parental control – it still sits with social services – and social service visit a lot to see how things are going. We were so worried that he might fall over.
“We can’t break him on the first week that he lives with us!” Swee said.
Of course, we shouldn’t have worried. Mac was well looked after by the elf and had a great time skating on the ice. With that, we were all tired and decided it was time to start the journey home.
As soon as we started driving, Mac fell asleep and slept the whole two and half hour drive home. We finished the day by picking up his favourite pizza on the way back to the village.
That night we decided that it was time for Mac to write his Christmas list to Father Christmas. He wrote a really modest list, and we put it on the wood burner where the invitation from Father Christmas had arrived. We left a small drink and a cake for Father Christmas (we didn’t have any mince pies yet) and Mac went to bed in the hope that Father Christmas would pick it up (of course, he did and also enjoyed the cake and the drink!!)
We all slept well that night.
The Last Days Before School
The next morning Mac came downstairs in the morning and checked on the woodburner (we had closed the door to the sitting room so it looked like no-one had been in there) and announced to us that the letter had gone and that Father Christmas had also had the cake and drink.
We started to plan Mac’s bedroom with him, asking what colour walls he would like and arranging bits of furniture. He had been given lots of books so we ordered some bookshelves. We found a small hammock that we were able to put all of the soft toys that people had bought for him. We made sure that there were plenty of pictures and that it started to feel like his room and that he felt comfortable in it. We wanted to make sure that it was a place that he always felt safe in – a sanctuary that he could retreat to when things were difficult.
Mac and I spent a great deal of time together. Swee was getting everthing ready for Christmas – writing cards to everyone and letting them know of our news and that Mac had moved in. we had made the conscious decision that I would spend as much time with Mac as I could during my adoption leave as we knew that I would never get concentrated time like that again.
We made many trips to the recreation ground and the children’s playground – kicking balls around and me pushing Mac on the swing. Again and again, Mac talked about how excited he was to be starting school and how excited he was to be able to make new friends. Certainly it was not the academic that Mac was looking forward to, but the opportunity to mix with his own age group.
Just before Mac started school he had a session with his play therapist, Chris. He had spent a great deal of time with Chris over the last couple of years – first to get him ready for his adoptive placement with his brother, and then to help him get over being taken away and split up from him. Chris was extremely fond of Mac and had helped him an great deal. She was so pleased that he had found a placement that looked like it should work for him.
I remember Chris coming and saying, “I love to get together with the children for some messy play so that we can help them come to terms with everything that is happening to them”.
(I will be honest that I wasn’t that keen on the idea of “messy” play!!)
Chris and Mac spent some time together painting and we left them to it. It was important that Mac felt he could tell her anything he needed to without us overhearing. The session went well and Chris arranged to come back in a week or so to see how he was coping with his new school.
I have to be honest, I had been a little sceptical about the effectiveness of play therapy, and there were times when I was sure that Mac was “playing the game” and saying what he thought they wanted to hear. In fact Chris left an orangutan glove puppet called Charlie with us so that Mac could talk to him if he needed to. (The first thing Mac asked us to do was put Charlie in the wardrobe as he was terrified of it!)
But it is clear that Mac and Chris has a very special and close bond, and there is no doubt in my mind that it was partly her work with him that helped be ready, eager and able to settle into a new adoptive placement, so we will always be grateful to the work that she did with him.
So, the first few days had gone well. We were starting to fall into a pattern and it was clear that Mac was more than ready to start school. So on the Wednesday morning he started in year 3 of St Mary Bourne Primary School.
One of the things that most potential adoptive parents ask is, “What will I be called?”, especially if the child is older. Of course, they already have a birth mother and father, and will already have someone that they want to call mum and dad. I remember thinking that I didn’t really mind what Mac called me – as long as we were all happy. But, of course, I was lying to myself. After such a long time trying to have a family, the desire to be called “Dad” was very strong. The words “Mum” and “Dad” are more than just language – they signify the ultimate bond.
Up to this point we had been “Richard and Swee” to Mac. I wondered how the change would be made. Would it be something that would happen over time, or would it be something that happened more quickly?
Mac slept really well on the first night. I think Swee and I both were fairly restless, listening for him to see if he wanted anything, to see if he was happy. But the night was uneventful, and we all eventually got some sleep.
The next morning Swee got up early to get breakfast ready. Mac woke up and came into our bedroom and jumped into bed as I was getting dressed. We started to have a pretty mundane conversation, asking how he slept and what he might like to do today. Then I plunged in with the question I had been longing to ask.
“Do you think you might like to call me and Swee ‘mum and dad’ one day?”
“Yes”, he said.
And with that we went to the top of the stairs and called downstairs to Swee,
“You want to be my new mum. Can you get some new pants as these ones are too tight!”
He was standing in a tight pair of Y-fronts. Swee went off to the supermarket to buy as many different styles of pants in what she thought was the right size, never having bought pants for an eight year old before.
From that moment Mac started calling us Mum and Dad, and never called us Richard and Swee again. I can still remember that day and the first time I heard someone calling me Dad. It was something I had imagined for so long. It was something that I had ached for, and here was this beautiful, perfect, loving boy blessing me with that name. It’s something I have never taken for granted.
Of course, the reality of adopted children is that they do have other parents. And if your child was adopted at an older age will have a relationship with them. We never forgot that, or criticised Mac’s parents. We would always explain that they hadn’t been able to look after him as they had got their priorities wrong, rather than going into any detail. As the child grows they start to work more of it out for themselves and start to understand on a more mature level.
We always referred to Mac’s birth parents by their Christian names, so that if I was talking about his mum he knew I was talking about Swee. Mac tended to refer to all four of us as “Mum and Dad”, and it is amazing that it was never confusing for us as we always seemed to understand which of us he was referring to. However the same cannot be said when outside the house.
Swee and my sister, Sandra, had taken Mac to the local archery club. It was something he had always wanted to try – probably due to his ongoing love of Robin Hood and Legolas from Lord of the Rings. There was a good club locally that worked well with young beginners.
Swee and Sandra were sat on the sidelines sitting talking to a few parents while Mac was being shown how to fire the arrows. He was doing quite well, and suddenly they overheard his conversation with other youngsters.
For some reason the conversation must have got onto drugs and Swee overheard him say in a completely matter of fact way,
“My mum is a drug addict.”
Suddenly there was silence in the room as everyone turned to look at my wife. At that point Mac said,
“Oh! Not that mum. I’m adopted!”
Adopted children get you in to all sorts of scrapes that you might not be prepared for.
The introductions were complete and had gone well, and finally a date was set for Mac to move in. Just before this we went on a long planned holiday with my parents and sister and brother-in-law – a cruise to the Mediterranean that was to be our last adult holiday for some time.
Just before we left we went to see Mac to explain that we would be away and to assure him we would be back. Most children instinctively trust the people around them until they are proved wrong. However, for adopted children it is common that their trust has been abused so many times that they tend not to trust until that trust has been built up. We were concerned that a fortnight would be a long time for Mac not to see us – as a young eight year old he still found the concept of time difficult. So we wrote Mac a number of letters and gave them to Sue and Mark to give to Mac at certain points during that two weeks to ensure that Mac felt we were in touch and coming back.
Once were back, we quickly went to see Mac with presents of a cuddly dog from us, a Barcelona football shirt from my sister and plenty of sweets. Then Sue and Mark came over with Mac for bonfire night. The village always had a huge bonfire and firework display with hot dogs and baked potatoes. We had a great evening and we sensed that Mac was less keen to leave – he seemed like he really was ready to move in.
The next time we were to meet was a week or so later on moving-in day.
As Swee had left work to look after Mac, I was entitled to take statutory adoption leave, which was enhanced to six weeks by my employer. At the time I was nervous about being away from work for so long. It was still unusual then for men to take leave for childcare reasons and it seemed like so long to be away. I was worried about how it might affect my career – would my department get used to me not being around, would I be overlooked for good opportunities because I wasn’t there, after all “out of sight, out of mind”.
I have to say, I am forever grateful to my director at the time, Paul. I had a great working relationship with Paul and I said to him although I was on adoption leave I would be available to talk and could even pop in if necessary. Now anyone who has worked with Paul, will know that he has many great qualities, but his sense of pastoral care was not always top of the list! But he provided the best example of leadership that I can remember. He told me that I should forget work for the six weeks and concentrate on my new family. In fact he went as far to say that he would be angry if I did get in touch.
“When I get to the Pearly Gates, I don’t want St. Peter to blame me for you not bonding properly with your son”, he said.
It was the kindest thing he could have done. He gave me the permission I needed to concentrate on my new life for six weeks without the daily distraction and stresses of work.
It was the morning of Friday, 14 November 2008 – the first of my adoption leave. The timing of the adoption leave was going to work perfectly as it took me through to the week after Christmas. Neither Swee nor I can remember much about that morning. I think we were in a bit of a daze, making sure that everything was ready for Mac, but with everything seeming a little unreal. From today, that was it – he would be moving in and we would begin the journey to becoming a perfect unit – a new family.
So mid-morning, Sue and Mark turned up with Mac, and Denise was also there. They unpacked and brought in three small boxes and a small suitcase with all of his stuff which we took up to the bedroom. They purposely didn’t stay long and waved goodbye leaving us to it. (We would be seeing Denise soon, as the social worker involved visits a great deal to begin with to make sure everything is going well.)
We helped Mac to unpack his things. There were already a few other things in his bedroom – some cuddly toys that we had accumulated and some games. We also had a stained glass rocket that hung against the window and a few pictures on the wall. We had not done much more to the bedroom, because we promised Mac that he could help decide how he wanted his bedroom decorated. He had some posters that he wanted to put up – a particular favourite being his “Lord of the Rings” poster. Mac loved “Lord of the Rings” and could watch it time and time again. One of his prized possessions was a cushion with his favourite character, Orlando Bloom as Legolas, which we placed on his bed.
Then we went downstairs to sit down and have some lunch together and decide what we were going to do for the rest of the day.
That first day was pretty daunting. Swee and I had spent lots of time our siblings’ and friends’ children, but now it was down to us. This stranger had come to live in our house, had come to be our son, and we wanted to make everything really special and perfect. But how would we fill our time – what would we actually do to keep him entertained?
To begin with the situation is even more difficult. You are advised to keep other people away as much as possible. There is a sense that you want to have everyone round to be introduced to the new addition to your family. But, of course, that can be particularly daunting, so the first few days was just the three of us. We did say hello to a few people in passing – our next door neighbours had similar aged children and were keen to say hello.
Of course, we had thought about how we wanted things to be. We wanted to make sure that we integrated Mac into our live as much as possible – if we needed to go shopping, we would take him with us and try to make the trip enjoyable, if we had things to do around the house, we would get him to help. We wanted to involve him in our daily lives as much as possible.
We decided to pop to the local supermarket. Although we had already completely stocked up on food, we wanted to see if there were any particular things that Mac would like to make him feel more at home. Also, it was a way to make the day as normal as possible. It would have been easy to do lots of really fun things on the first day, but we were keen that Mac should fall into normal daily life with us.
So off we went and for the first time negotiated a supermarket with an eight year old in tow. So many things were different – strapping him into his booster seat in the car (he was just a little to short not to have one at that point), parking in the parent and child spot, walking around a supermarket trying to look like we weren’t complete novices and this wasn’t some strange child that had just walked into our lives!
It was an opportunity for Mac to identify some of his “go-to” treats. Any type of milkshake was always very popular – whether it’s the thick ones that are already made up, or just a simple few spoons of Nesquick in some milk. Mac has always loved making his own milkshakes – mixing different flavours to see how they turn out. Super noodles was another favourite – a packet of super noodles was always something that would satisfy his hunger, particularly when he was in the middle of a growth spurt.
Mac did like sweets, but his favourite flavour was definitely mint. He also liked chocolate and marshmallows – a hot chocolate with lots of marshmallows in the top was his idea of heaven. And this love of mint and chocolate came together in mint choc chip ice cream.
Mac had no great love of fruit at that point, but he was very happy to eat vegetables. Actually what Mac really loved was a proper home-cooked meal. Swee’s mince is legendary, and if Mac smelt Swee’s mince cooking away on the hob, he knew there was going to be “pesgetti” (his name for spaghetti) for tea. When it was evening like that he couldn’t be happier. I think he really realised the love and care that goes into cooking for your family, and that made him feel loved and wanted.
Once we came back from shopping, Mac and I went for a walk around the village, and over to the recreation ground and playground. We are lucky here to have great facilities for our younger children and Mac loved to play on the swings and the slide and the bouncy horse. Of course, what Mac really was missing and craving was company of other children. He knew in his heart that he shouldn’t really be an only child, he shouldn’t really have to put up with just playing in the playground with me – he had a younger brother living in another home and he felt that loss a great deal.
So as we sat on the bench in the playground eating a mint choc chip cornetto (even though it was November!), he started to talk about wanting to make friends. He was really looking forward to going to school so that he could meet other children of his age and make the sorts of friendships he had dreamed about. As he had moved around so many times in his eight years, and missed a great deal of school, Mac had missed out on the opportunity of making real friends and understanding how friendships worked – all of that was to come.
Of course, in the same way that as adults dreaming of having a family we had built up in our minds what being a family would be like, adopted children do exactly the same things. They can have an idolised view of how things are going to be, and it is your job as adults to help them to negotiate the reality.
When we got home, there was a surprise waiting for Mac. One of our friends makes wonderful cakes and she had kindly made a “Welcome home” chocolate cake and £20. Mac was stunned – we still have a great picture of him looking lovingly at the cake and holding up the £20 smiling.
Finally the evening came. As it was a special day for all of us, and a Friday night, we decided we would have a treat and have fish and chips. Mac and I went off to the local chippy and went to get our tea – cod and chips for Swee and battered sausage and chips for me and Mac (Mac and I share a dislike of fish). We sat at our table and ate up the chips and had a nice chat about what we would do over the next few days.
The 14 November 2008 was a special night for another reason – the annual telethon “Children in Need” was on the TV. We all snuggled up together on the sofa, watching our favourite TV stars doing silly things with the great Terry Wogan holding everything together. Mac was cuddled up next to me and I could feel him relaxing and getting tired and ready for bed after a very busy and eventful day.
There were lots of short films, showing some of the children that had been helped by the charity and how the money had made a difference. As he was watching the TV, Mac said,
“That’s a bit like me. I used to be a children (sic) in need, but I’m not any more now I have come to live here.”
They say from the mouths of babes! To be honest Swee and I were pretty emotional anyway, but this really brought a tear to the eye.
“That’s right, Mac”, I said.
From that day, “Children in Need” has been our favourite charity. Mac always loved the opportunity to get involved at school and to help raise as much money as possible. He really identified with the plight of the children he would see on the TV – there was a real sense of emotional intelligence and empathy with them.
It was soon time for a bath and bed. Mac was used to this as his routine and it was a routine we were glad to continue. Mac had a lovely warm bath with lots of bubbles and then he got into his pyjamas and into bed.
I sat next to his bed, and read him a story – we had decided to work through the Mr Men books (we had the complete set that had belonged to my nephews). We looked at the pictures together and followed the words of Mr Happy.
Finally we added something to bedtime. We had given him a picture with an Angel and a prayer on it. The prayer was one that I had been given by my Godfather when I was young and we had passed it onto to several of our Godchildren over the years. It’s a lovely prayer to say with a child at night time and we wanted to work it into Mac’s routine.
It goes like this:
God is above me, my safety to keep,
Angels are watching and guarding my sleep,
The sweet stars are shining to keep away fear,
My mummy and daddy, I know, are quite near,
I’m loved and I’m happy,
My small heart is light,
Thankyou for everything, dear God,
We said this prayer every night and Mac would join in with the “goodnight”, but very soon learned the words himself. It was always a lovely way to calm down and prepare him for sleep. Swee then came up and we both kissed him good night and he went off to sleep.
We went downstairs, pleased that we had got through the day and excited about everything that was to come. I stayed up to watch more of “Children in Need” to see how much was raised and then followed Swee to bed. It was so nice to be able to check in on Mac on the way to bed and see that he was sleeping deeply, with a couple of cuddly toys clutched to his chest.
The adoption process is not an easy route, and what is now over twenty years ago, was even more difficult. It would be easy here to criticise social workers – actually I have a great deal of respect for many social workers and the extraordinarily hard job that they do. However, it is fair to say that we were let down badly by one of ours on a number of occasions.
I’m sure the process is designed to put you off the idea of adopting. There is a great deal of sense in that in many cases. The children that are available for adoption rarely come to you with no issues. Almost all of them will have suffered some form of abuse, even if that is only down to neglect and the fact that there birth parents are not able to look after them sufficiently. The situation is very different to the first half of the twentieth century before effective birth control when there were many more babies given up for adoption due to the stigma of being an unmarried mother. And if you do adopt a baby, it may well be suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome, or effects of drug abuse during pregnancy, which can have a profound effect on their future development.
The first issue that you will be asked to consider is if you are emotionally ready to adopt. For most people, adoption will not have been the original plan to have children. Nowadays many couples will have also tried fertility treatment before they consider adoption. All of this will have taken an emotional toll on the couple, and it is very important to come to terms with all of that – to mourn the fact that you will not have your own biological children – before you can be ready to help and love an adopted child. Actually, working the through that sense of loss that you will have experienced is useful to help empathise with the sense of loss that your adopted child will have. All adopted children have experienced loss, even if it is just being taken away from the birth family.
The approval process will explore all aspects of your lives as individuals and couples. It will look at past relationships, how your relationship works now, what experience you have of being with children, what support you have around you to help with this life-changing decision. You have to be prepared that the process will be incredibly intrusive and to just go with it. It is a hard time to go through, as you will be acutely aware that the social worker asking you questions will be writing a report at the end of all of this and deciding whether to recommend you or not. The process also is trying to ensure that potential abusers are weeded out of the system – it is a sad truth that adoption and fostering is an attractive way for abusers to get access to children.
So, after going along to an introductory presentation and filling out a number of long forms about ourselves, we had our first meeting with our designated social worker, who almost at the beginning of the conversation announced that we would be very unlikely to be approved for adoption as we were too overweight, and despite any positive aspects about what we were able to offer would never be considered. We were encouraged to take some months to lose weight before we then continued with the process.
A few months later, we had ticked the box of losing a considerable amount of weight – enough for the agency to start the process proper. The next nine months consisted of many meetings with our social worker – both as a couple and individually. We went on training days with other prospective couples. References were written for us from family, friends and their children. We considered the number and age and sex of children we would consider. Finally a report was written and we were taken to Panel for approval.
The Panel process was gruelling and intimidating. A group of six or seven people are there to question you and your social workers before they decide to recommend you or not as potential adopters. In that meeting you just want to make the best impression in a short time and to ensure that the Panel really gets to know you and your motivations. Despite the stress I was amazed how eloquent Swee and I were able to be.
Following the Panel meeting we then had to wait some weeks before we knew whether we had been successful or not. The news finally came by phone call as we were standing in front of a waterfall in Norway while we were on a cruise of the Fjords! We had been approved to adopt one or two children up to the age of eight. That was it – our lives could now move forward again.
The Matching Process
There is a huge sense of relief once you have been approved as adoptive parents. It is a very bizarre and liminal time – standing on the edge of becoming a family at last, but not really sure when that will be. Once you have been approved, then your details will be considered every time there is a child that needs adopting by your agency – in our case Hampshire County Council. There is no way of knowing how long this stage will take. As we had made the decision to take an older child, it was a fair assumption that we might not have to wait too long as fewer people are willing to consider older children.
However, the months went by and there was no news. We had been considered a number of time, but for various reasons we had come second to other couples. It always seems hard to believe that you are not matched more quickly. The news is always full of stories that there are not enough parents for the available children – but the truth is that counties like Hampshire tend to have more potential adoptive parents that available children.
After a few months, your details are shared with other agencies. There are also other ways for matching to occur. Sometimes there are evenings where the details of children are shared at an “open evening” with the relevant social workers. It is a bit like a bizarre form of speed dating where you go around to the various agencies and see what they have on offer.
There is also a magazine called “Children who wait” which publishes pictures and details of children who have been difficult to place – normally due to complex needs, because they are part of large sibling group, due to their ethnic mix or due to their age. Swee and I used to read this publications every month. We would read it separately and highlight any children that we might consider finding out more about. If we agreed then we would contact the relevant agency to get more details. One day, about a year or so after approval, I remember clearly seeing a picture of an seven year old boy – he looked very happy swinging on a swing with wellies on his feet that were far to large for him. His name was Mac.
Soon after we had a review meeting with our social workers to consider why we were not being matched and to see if there was anything that we needed to consider changing. Our social worker came along with her manager, as it turned out a number of mistakes had been made in our case – we had not been put onto the national register as promised, and our social worker had written our details incorrectly so that the children we were being considered for was hopelessly narrow.
I can still remember now the upset and frustration I felt – we had reached the point where we were we were about to give up on the idea of adoption and try to move on with our lives and it turns our the agency had messed up our case. All I wanted was to get those people out of my house – but before they left the manager mentioned that she had the details of a boy that she thought was perfect for us, and hoped we would consider him. We agreed that she would leave the details and we would consider them and get back to her.
After they left, we were exhausted emotionally. We really didn’t know if we could carry on with this process any longer. Maybe it was time to accept that we were not going to have children – we would fill our house with dogs and cats instead and make the most of our nephews, nieces and godchildren. We would look to enjoy our lives and move on from the dream of having a family.
The next day we opened the details that had been left with us – of course the details were for Mac. The more we read about him, the more we felt he was ideal for us. The more we read about the difficult start he had, the more we were sure that we would be able to help him. The more we read and the more we looked at his picture, the more we could imagine him as our son. We rang the agency, and the process started.
There is one thing I remember clearly from our matching panel that was very significant for me. It was very clear that we were Mac’s last chance to have a family of his own and to be adopted and I remember being asked how I felt about it. The answer was simple – Mac was our last chance to be parents – we were in exactly the same position. It seemed so clear to me and to Swee that this really was meant to be – we were somehow destined to be Mac’s parents and it was something we couldn’t wait to do.
After all of this time we had found our son – we had found Mac.
But before we come to “moving-in day” I’d like to go back to the beginning to explain something of the journey that Swee and I went on before we first met Mac.
Growing up in an idyllic Hampshire village in the ‘80s it was easy to think that life would work out in the way you planned. You would go to school, pass your exams, go to University, get a degree, get a “good” job (whatever that was), get married, buy a house, get a dog and have children. I don’t apologise for this being an overly simple view of the world. When I was growing up it was the example that I saw around me, and I knew that’s what I wanted for myself.
And to be fair, life did pretty much follow that path.
Growing up was carefree. I remember long summer holidays with warm, balmy evenings stretching out in front of us. Camping with friends in the garden, taking the opportunity for some illicit alcohol or tobacco. I remember clear, cold bonfire nights, with huge village bonfires, great fireworks, jacket potatoes burning your hands and cheap hot dogs with onions and tomato sauce. I remember twinkling candles in church at Christmas time, singing all our favourite carols and looking forward to presents and playing games with the family. I remember cold, snowy winters, playing snowballs, building snowmen and sledging down hills. I remember acting in village plays – particularly enjoying taking part in the village pantomimes.
Even the teenage years were fairly painless. I was lucky enough to enjoy school, so homework wasn’t a chore. Exams were a challenge I enjoyed. A small hiccup at University was soon overcome with a new job and qualifying as an accountant. My career moved on successfully and I enjoyed what I did.
Then came the house and falling in love with my wonderful wife and acquiring two lovely dogs. Everything was pretty much as it was supposed to be. Swee and I had known each other for a long time before we were married, so we felt it was the perfect time to have the children we were both more than ready for, the perfect combination of the best of both of us.
And there came the bump in the road. It turns out that getting pregnant just when you want to is nowhere near as straightforward as you might expect. Suddenly life seemed to be completely out of our control as month by month went by with no signs of the planned for and expected pregnancy. Next came IVF and that didn’t work as we had hoped.
By this time we had already been considering adoption. My mother was adopted, so we had a positive example of well this can work, and as we were older, we were not necessarily looking to adopt a baby – we would be very happy to take an older child or children.
So, we phoned our local adoption agency and started the process.
Now that the first meeting had gone well, all was on for our panel to take place to approve the match so that Mac could move in. While we were waiting for that date, we were sent to meet Mac’s current foster carers, Sue and Mark. It wasn’t billed as an approval meeting, but it was clear to us that if they didn’t think we were up to the job, approval might well not be forthcoming.
So one afternoon, Mac was sent away to play and we went to visit his foster home and foster parents. We followed our satnav as it took us to smaller and smaller roads through the New Forest. Finally we came to a small group of houses in the middle of nowhere – the final one of these was Sue and Mark’s.
I don’t know about you, but I have always thought that certain buildings exude feelings. When you go into a cathedral or old church, it’s as if you can sense the years of prayer and stillness that have gone on there giving a sense of holiness. It’s as if the walls have absorbed the feelings. Well, there was something about Sue and Mark’s house. The house was modest and tidy, but it felt safe; there was a palpable feeling of the years of love, protection and healing that had gone on in that house as many foster children had passed through their hands.
We immediately liked Sue and Mark. It was the beginning of a friendship that we value to this day. We had great conversations about Mac, and for the first time we really felt we were getting useful information about the boy who was to join our lives and what he was really like, rather than the sterile reports written by social workers. For anyone that finds themselves in this situation, make the most of it. Prepare a list of the questions you want to ask and get as much information that you can. A child’s foster carers, and especially very experienced carers like Sue and Mark, will be of huge value to ensure that the placement will be successful. Don’t be afraid to ask anything. Remember they will already love that child and will want to make sure that their work is continued into a successful adoption.
Sue and Mark are extremely experienced foster carers. They are used for some of the more difficult cases – those children that really need some extra care. Mac was sent to them when his first adoptive placement broke down. He had been placed with another family with his younger brother with a view to adoption. However, while the placement worked for his brother, it was not successful for Mac, and the unusual decision was taken to remove Mac and leave his brother (who went on to be adopted into that family).
So when Mac was taken to Sue and Mark’s you can imagine he was a very unhappy little boy. It is not exaggerating the situation to say that without Sue and Mark’s love and care (and with a little help from their own family and beautiful golden retriever) Mac would never have been prepared to join a new family We will always be grateful to them.
There is one thing that Mark said that remained with me and is a piece of wisdom that I share with anyone going through the process of adoption. As he walked us to our car, he said,
“Macaully won’t be the same little boy for you. He will change.”
At the time I didn’t really know what he meant. But over time I began to understand. Mac did not really let his full personality out with Sue and Mark. He understood that it wasn’t permanent and that he was marking time. It wasn’t until he was in a home of his own and until he began to feel that it might become something more permanent, that his real personality started to show – the good bits and the naughty bits. Mark was right, when Mac moved in with us we began the process of finding the real Mac. We eventually had a very different Mac to the one that lived with them for a year.
Following these two meetings, we were then sent to the Approval Panel. This group of people (made up of social workers, experienced adoptive parents, adoptees and medical advisers) looked at our case to formally make the decision that we should be matched with Mac and that he should move in with us with a view to an adoption order being made as soon as it looked as if we were settling down as a new family.
Panels are always nerve-wracking. But the meeting went well, and we finally knew for sure that Mac would be moving in with us and we would begin our journey together.
The next stage was to make introductions and to ease us into our relationship with Mac as we started to get to know him.
After years of waiting, the next stage of the adoption process starts to move really fast. The idea is for the child and the new parents to get to know each other before they move in permanently to their new home. It is a really important part of the attachment process. The great thing about Sue and Mark is that they had done this countless times and knew just how to make things work to their best.
So first of all we went round to their house for tea. We went along ready to play and with a present in hand. Mac was always a very tactile boy, and it is interesting that he interacted very differently with me and Swee.
With Swee, he just wanted to really hug her – to sink into her chest like a baby and to be enveloped by her. He hugged me as well, but was more interested in “rough and tumble” games. He loved it if I turned him upside down making him squeal with laughter.
We took Mac a small remote controlled dalek as a present. Sue and Mark’s son shared his passion for Dr. Who with Mac – luckily we liked the programme as well! We played for hours with that toy and we still have it to this day – somehow it managed to survive the years.
We had a number of other meetings with Mac at his house. Sometimes they were for special occasions, like the Halloween party where we dressed up as witches and wizards, went apple bobbing and ate Halloween food. But more importantly were the meetings where we just did normal things – taking him for a bike ride, reading with him or helping him with his homework. Sue and Mark widely knew that we needed to do the mundane things with Mac just as much as the exciting.
Mac also came to the village a few more times. First of all he came with Denise again. By this time we had sent Mac a book setting out all the details of the village and his new home – pictures of the family, our pets, the house and his bedroom. These books are really important to adopted children. Their carers will go through them many times to get them ready for their move.
The picture of his bedroom made it clear that it was ready for him, but that he would also be able to help us to re-decorate so that it could be just as he wanted it.
However, when Mac came to visit with Denise it was decided that he shouldn’t visit the house at this point as it was important not to overwhelm him. However, he did want to meet our dogs, Rigby and Peller. So we all met on the recreation ground again and took the dogs for a walk. Unfortunately the afternoon turned into one of those late September storms when the heavens opened for hours. Our social worker was adamant that we could not go to the house, so we ended up walking in the rain. I lent Mac my coat as his cagoule was not up to the job – it meant that I was thoroughly soaked through to my pants.
Of course, Mac made the ban on visiting the house seem completely unnecessary as he knew exactly where the house was as we walked past it. As we walked through the village he started to make his first requests:
“When I move in, can I have a pet rat?”
I was keen not to commit, but said we would think about, falling very quickly into “dad mode”. (When Mac and I talked about this years later, he admitted that he had meant to ask for a hamster!)
At the end of the walk, we went to the local pub (the George, which is now one of Mac’s middle names!) and played pool and ate chips. We had gone and changed into dry clothes and brought a warm sweatshirt for Mac to change into. Sue later told me that he slept with that sweatshirt every night.
More meetings followed including a couple of overnight stays at our house. There are a couple of things that really stand out for me.
First is that you learn quickly from your mistakes.
On a trip to Marwell Zoo we took him into the gift shop and were keen that he got a gift to remember this special day. However, we made it too difficult saying to choose anything. We gave him no parameters and he just had no idea what to do – so he actually became upset and overwhelmed. My wife is always the sensible one, and realised so narrowed the choice down for him and he chose a soft giraffe cushion that he loved to have to fall asleep with in the car. For a child that had so little for so long, it was just too much to suddenly offer him anything.
Secondly whenever we came to visit him at Sue and Mark’s he would always be looking out for us. His bedroom had a small window that looked out to the road – his little face would always be looking out expectantly, hoping that we would come as we said we would, and probably expecting each time we might let him down. Children like Mac take a long time to trust that you will do what you say. His overriding experience of adults was that they promised things which didn’t come true – we had to continue to be consistent to prove that we were different and would not let him down. I’ll never forget the image of that face at the window.
The thing to remember about all of these meetings is that is the start of making memories. For me, the making of shared memories is the most important thing – good shared memories are so important as part of the bonding process and to remember when times are tough. You want to be able to have those “do you remember when” conversations with your kids.
One of my favourite memories from that time was again at Marwell Zoo. As we were about to leave we saw an old man with a fantastic white beard. I pointed him out to Mac and said,
“Look! There’s Father Christmas in disguise – he’s come to see if the boys and girls are being good!”
Mac was completely taken in ( and I have to say the man did look remarkably like Father Christmas in casual clothes!). And this became a great shared memory – one that we would often share over the years.
So meetings and introductions all done, the day drew close for Mac to finally move in.
It was a sultry Summer afternoon in a small village in Hampshire. Two people were sitting on the bench outside the village shop. To any passer-by it would have looked like a normal day – nothing seems out of the ordinary, just a couple enjoying a quiet, lazy, sunny afternoon in a beautiful picture-postcard village. If you looked closely, you might have noticed that the couple maybe looked anxious and weren’t talking. You might have noticed that they looked a little too closely at every car that drove past them. You might have noticed that they looked slightly emotional. You might have noticed that the same two people kept popping out of the shop to ask a question and looking expectantly.
But today – a normal day in August 2008 – was about to become the most significant moment in their lives. That couple was my wife, Swee and me and today was going to be the day that we met Mac.
A small VW polo pulled up. Out came our social worker, Denise, followed by a small, wan, skinny eight year old. He was dressed in his school uniform of red jumper and charcoal trousers, all covered with a thin, slightly worn cagoule. He and Denise went to the boot of the car and took out his scooter:
“Do you want to see my skills?”, he said,
“Of course”, I replied.
And with that he scooted onto the recreation ground and started to try and do some tricks – trying hard to impress as if he was in some juvenile talent contest – doing everything to impress us and win the competition. There was an intensity and concentration in his trying to show how good he was with his scooter, which was at once endearing and heartbreaking. Here was a little boy, desperate for his own new family, trying to make sure that finally he was the one that would be chosen.
Of course, what Mac didn’t know was that we were already in love – as soon as we saw his face we knew he was ours. As soon as we saw him we knew he was our son and that our family was complete. As soon as we saw him we were desperate to get him home and love him and spoil him and give him all the things that we had dreamed about.
However, we all needed to play things cool. This meeting was unusual and unorthodox. The usual wisdom in the adoption process is that there should be no meetings between prospective parents and child until after there has been a formal matching decision – that is a panel of the great and the good working for the adoption agency have decided that they agree that the match is a good one and should go ahead.
However, this situation was slightly different. Although our social workers and their management had agreed that this was a good potential pairing, the formal process had not yet happened. This was because Mac had expressed a desire to have some say in the process himself. Mac had already had a failed adoptive placement which had been successful for his younger brother. In fact he was now at an age (eight years old) where the received wisdom is that adoption is less likely to be successful and that permanent fostering was a more likely option. But Mac’s determination to have a family of his own, and to be like his younger brother, won through, and the social workers were prepared to let him have some say in the selection. So, rather than him trying to impress us, Swee and I were trying hard to make sure that he would want to be with us and that he would be happy with the match.
After he had scooted around a little more, we went into the local shop to get him a snack. He chose his favourite – a thick chocolate milkshake and some extra strong mints. My mum was one of the volunteers in the shop, and was working there that afternoon. However, all the family had been given strict instructions not to identify themselves at that point as it was important not to overwhelm Mac with too much information. She took his money and pretended that she didn’t know that anything special was going on. Then, my dad arrived, quickly followed by my sister – all by coincidence, of course! Actually many of our friends happened to pop over to the shop and the recreation ground that afternoon. The great thing about living in a village is that news travel fast with no effort at all, especially when you are trying to keep a secret.
After a little more playing in the playground, it was time for Mac to go home. He packed up his scooter, got into the back of the car and Denise drove him back to his foster home in the New Forest.
We sat down and Mum joined us and we just sobbed for joy, all of the years of stress and uncertainty finally coming out in our tears. It was so unreal.
“He’s so beautiful!”, Swee said.
I wasn’t able to speak – I didn’t know that I could add anything of any use. The meeting had been profound and one of the most emotional of our lives as everything we had read about Mac became real.
Love was instant. There was a hormonal surge to care for this quirky, loving, sad, damaged and charming boy. We had found Mac and it was if some primeval urge had kicked in to look after and protect this small, vulnerable child. There was a need to give him all of the things that he had never had and to right all of the wrongs that had been done to him in his life so far.
Denise called later that night to say how well she thought the meeting had gone and to say it had had a profound effect on Mac as well. As she was driving him home, he opened up to her in a way that he never had, asking questions about his birth family and why things had happened the way they had and why he had to leave them. It seemed he was already emotionally preparing himself to join a new family – our family.