How it all began

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.

Our snowy garden

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.

Further meetings and the importance of great foster carers

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. 

Further meetings

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.

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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.

First meetings

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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.

The big bump in the road

I had always considered writing about our experience of bringing up Mac. When we were looking to adopt, there was not much that you could read that gave a realistic sense of what bringing up an older adopted child was like. I thought that there could be experiences that we had gone through that might be useful for others.

Then there were also the funny memories – the stories that we tell each other around the dinner table or when new girlfriends are introduced (the verbal equivalent of the naked baby picture) – that it seemed that it would be fun to record somewhere. Again, it was really just for us as a family, but if others were interested and found them useful, then it seemed a good thing to do.

And then Mac died.

Of course, that turned our life and plans on its head. It is impossible here to say just how much that changed us as people and changed the way we think about so much.

But as I thought about it more, it struck me that the people you share the majority of your memories with are usually your children.  Your memories are part of the inheritance that you pass on, part of the way that you live on in them shaping them with your love, care, and your stories about the past.  Of course, we are no longer in a position to do that – so I offer them here to you.

But more than anything I want this blog to be a positive thing – something that celebrates Mac’s life and the man that he became and how we got there.  I want it to be a place that celebrates how we found Mac and helped to find himself; of how we helped him to mature, build resilience and learn to live with the things that had happened to him in the past; of how he learned to keep his old life and new life in balance.  I want it to share the wonderful memories that we have and how lucky we have been to have him in our lives.

I don’t want it to concentrate on how he died, but we can’t ignore the fact of his death and how it affected us because we have learnt so much about who we were and are as parents by losing him – leaving that out seems wrong. 

Time moves on.  The pain of losing a child never goes away – but you do learn to live with it, and in time it doesn’t become what defines you (unless you allow it to).  There are occasions when things are worse – celebrating my fiftieth birthday was not the same without my son by my side in the way he was when we celebrated Swee’s.  As his peers move on and grow up, it reminds us of the future that has been lost for all of us.  Sometimes these occasions catch us unawares, and the tears just come from nowhere.

We have learned to prepare and to create new traditions.  We weren’t sure what to do on Mac’s eighteenth birthday.  So we gathered together – family and our closest friends and had a birthday party.  We had a rainbow cake and released balloons – and it might be fanciful, but as the balloons rose up into the sky, they formed an ‘M’.

Of course, I miss him.  I miss his laugh that sounded like a peel of bells.  I miss his bear hugs.  I miss singing with him in the car.  But if someone told me that we would only have him for eight years and that we would have to endure the pain of losing our son, I would still do it. 

We learn so much from our children, and I know that I am an infinitely better person for having been Mac’s dad.

Sparkle and Shine, my beautiful boy.  I love you.

Dad xxx.

Finding Mac – an introduction

Modern families come together in all sorts of ways – one parent, two parents;  same sex, opposite sex; planned, unplanned; biological, adopted.  We have examples of different sorts of families all around us, and these examples inevitably inform our own ideas of what our families will be like – the way we want to be as parents, the number of children we think is ideal.

This blog tells the story of how our wonderful little family came together, and the ups and downs as we got to know and love each other and become a successful family unit.  Inevitably it focuses on the experience of adoption, and particularly the experience of adopting an older child.  We adopted Mac when he was eight.  As is not uncommon of a child adopted at that age, he had passed through a number of homes in his short life.

So I hope this account might help those who are either considering the same journey that we took, or are already on that journey.  This is not a manual of how one should go about bringing up an adopted child – I wouldn’t presume to be able to tell anyone that!  This is just a record of how one small family in rural Hampshire made it work and got through the everyday challenges and excitements of becoming a new family.

Of course, much of what is here is specifically related to adoption and how it works in the UK, but I hope that there is something here for all sorts of families as they enjoy and struggle to help their healthy,  gorgeous, funny, moody and intelligent children grow into wonderful adults.  I know that for me the greatest achievement of my life has been to see Mac grow into a kind, loving, thoughtful (and hilarious) young man. 

I also wanted to record all of these memories somewhere.  As I have grown older, and important family members have died, I realise that many of the stories that go with the photos we keep are lost.  I used to love sitting with my grandma, listening to all of her stories of growing through two World Wars.  I used to love asking her questions, especially if I had forgotten some important part of the narrative.  But now I cannot ask her, and I regret that there is no permanent record anywhere of all of those wonderful stories.

I used to imagine, when we were thinking about and going through the process that our child must already be born and wondered what they were doing and how they were.  It is hard to think too much about their past – it something that you were not part of – and yet you love your child and your natural parental instincts can make you wish that you could have been there to sooner to save them from all the hurt.

The stories here tell of how we found our son, Mac.  Through recounting the events of his growing up, it tells of how we continued to peel away the layers, of how we helped to fill in the missing pieces from his early life – how we continued to find Mac.  And eventually it tells how Mac grew up and found the person inside that he was happy with – how he found Mac himself.

As an adoptive parent, I sometimes felt that we had ‘borrowed’ Mac. As he was not our biological son, it sometimes felt that we might only have him for a short time.  There was always the slight risk that when he was old enough, he might choose to go back to his biological family, and leave us behind.  But in some ways, as parents, our children are always borrowed.  We are successful when we let them go to pursue their own lives and build their own families.  We can make memories together, we can teach them unconditional love and hope that they will value those and love us in return.

The memories we make are important – they are the things that can outlive us all.  As I grow older, I realise that life is short, and I don’t want the memories that we have made to die with us when we finally shuffle off this mortal coil.

Finally, I hope that what you see in this account are stories based on love – the pure unconditional love between a parent and a child is the most precious thing and I am so glad to have been lucky to experience it.  Love is the most important thing:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  

It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres….

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

(extract from St. Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13)