random advent

I am the Queen of unrealistic ambitions.

Approximately every five days I have a new business idea, or personal goal, or family-related plan which I will never – I repeat, NEVER – be able to see into action.

And so, it’s fully understandable that I began this year with the aim of writing an Advent devotional ready for this Advent.

I mean – what was I thinking??? I have four kids who each present their own set of challenges. A husband who presents more. I’m a school governor and chair of the PTA. I lead a house group, help run a toddler group, am on the Sunday kids work rota and occasionally lead worship. If I’m in bed before midnight, I count it as a minor miracle – and that’s with a pile of dirty laundry dumped by the machine, pots sitting unwashed, emails unreplied to and our bedroom still resembling the aftermath of a hurricane. (Still. After I’ve spent the whole year trying to get round to tidying it.)

So no. The Advent devotional didn’t happen. But then I realised something. I always begin Advent full of good intentions about sticking to a devotional, focusing my mind in the busy lead-up to Christmas. And it lasts for two weeks, max, before I lose the habit and drift off. Just like my over-ambitious life plans, even trying to read something for 10 minutes a day for 25 days is an unachievable goal.

Now it struck me that if I’m like this, maybe others are too. And doesn’t this, in itself, bring us back to the Christmas story? Our good intentions, our ambitions, our desire to get things right – we can’t possibly keep this up. And when it inevitably falls flat on its face – in life, or in the stresses peculiar to December – we are left with a small baby in an animal feeding trough, born as a refugee into a political unstable country. His vulnerability, at birth and at death, would become our strength.

So here’s what I’m planning to do: write a little thought here on the blog every day this Advent. I’ll share anecdotes from my day, or things I’ve been thinking about – and I’ll try and include a short Bible passage too. You’ll bump along with the Desert household as we carry out our Christmas traditions and enjoy the season – but, inevitably, you’ll be the first to know when things don’t go to plan.

If you’re looking for exegesis or coherent thought, then this probably won’t be for you. If you like the idea of ‘doing Advent’ alongside another desert wanderer, then please join me. I’m going to call it ‘Random Advent’ – I did think of joining the words together in some overly fashionable way, but #randvent just sounds like the wrong kind of hashtag. This is not that kind of blog.

I’ll be updating on Facebook and Twitter, obvs, so please like/follow me on those media if you don’t already, but the easiest, surefire way of receiving each Advent thought is to sign up to email alerts. You can do that on the right-hand column of this blog – just type your email address and click on ‘follow’.

I’m not promising it’ll be anything profound, but perhaps as we offer God our mundane and simple, He will do something extraordinary. It worked for Mary and Joseph.

five ways my toddlers are different from yours

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As the ‘at home’ mum of twin 3-year-olds, I spend a lot of time in the company of other parents and toddlers. We share our trials and joys – but largely the trials. We discuss what time our children are waking up, what they refuse to eat, how many times they’ve sat on the naughty step today, and all the latest misdemeanours – from drawing on the wall to hitting their siblings.

I join in these conversations with tales of my own frustrations with our toddler boys – and am often met with reassuring responses like, “Don’t worry – all children do that”, or “They will get through that phase”, or “My kid was exactly the same”.

While these reassurances are comforting and well-meant, I also have a nagging feeling that things are not so straightforward with my kids. On a daily – no hourly – basis, I feel like adoption rears its ugly head in each emotional response my children give to whatever is going on that day. Yes, they are toddlers, and on a surface level there is nothing to distinguish them from non-adopted toddlers. But, beneath the surface, there is something more complex going on – something which, nearly two years after our boys came home to us, I’m only just starting to piece together. Here are a few snapshots:

Our boys have two mummies.

I am their Mummy, in most senses of that word. They call me “Mummy”, and the reasons are obvious. I feed them, clothe them, play with them, care for them. I cuddle them when they’re upset. I put plasters on their cuts. I read stories to them and answer their (many) questions. God help me, I potty train them. They know no other person who is more deserving of the title “Mummy”, and so it gets transferred to me.

But I didn’t carry them in my womb, I didn’t give birth to them, I wasn’t around for the early feeds and sleepless nights, and I didn’t wean them. And that is confusing, even for children too young to remember the alternative mummies of birth and foster. Maternal bonding is not a figment of some psychologist’s imagination; in the womb, a baby is physically attached to mum, hears her voice, and feels her heartbeat. Separating mum and baby leaves an emotional scar, however young the baby was when separated.

Once or twice, I have heard one of my boys say “Mummy” and I know – don’t ask me how – that he’s not referring to me. More often, one of them is irrationally upset, and is calmed by looking at photos of “tummy-mummy” or talking about her.

This dual-identity is a struggle for any adopted child, not least before they’re old enough to be able to articulate it.

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Our boys regularly have periods of inconsolable sadness, anger or frustration.

My children aren’t comforted as easily or as quickly as my birth children were at the same age – or, indeed, as the other children I observe through the week. I think there are probably many reasons for this. One – obvious from the start – is that they simply weren’t used to us. Babies are tuned in to respond to their caregiver’s touch and voice – and if that caregiver changes, this becomes confusing. To start with, it wasn’t surprising that it took us a while to calm them down. But now, nearly two years on, things have not improved massively. Whilst there are times when we can calm them down in what might be thought of as a ‘normal’ toddler calming-down period, there are many times when their whining, shouting or screaming just will not stop. At these times, I suspect that the reason is that our boys have deep, deep hurt and anxiety which is brought to the surface by totally unrelated, ‘minor’ triggers, such as us saying ‘no’ to a cup of juice or a chocolate biscuit, or asking them to let us put their shoes on to go out, or any other request that toddlers usually rail against.

Our boys need to test us.

All children do this. They test the boundaries, they test what they can get away with to see at what point their parents will intervene. In addition to this, our boys test us. They love us as their parents – I’m certain of this – and yet they push us away. They repeat behaviours that they know are inappropriate for a lot longer than ‘normal’. For example, it took them a year or more to stop throwing their empty (or not so empty) bowls on the floor at the end of a meal. We don’t believe this is because it took them that long to understand that we didn’t want them to do it, and that it wasn’t an appropriate way to communicate that you’d finished, but because they had to test us, to see if we were going to abandon them should they not ‘perform’ as we were expecting.

This is one small example, but we see lots of this in daily life: negative behaviour patterns being repeated longer than is normal, physical pushing or hitting us, and (more recently) struggles with potty training, beyond what might be considered usual. Every day is a constant stream of such ‘tests’. Being steadfast, consistent and reassuring against this backdrop is one of our biggest challenges as adoptive parents – it is exhausting and stressful.

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Our boys struggle with daily transitions, and changes in routine.

Again – our boys are not the only toddlers to struggle in this area. But, whereas many toddlers will learn to become more flexible and accommodating as they grow up, our boys may always struggle with change. In this respect, I think our boys have something in common with children on the autistic spectrum, for whom any sort of change can be overwhelming, daunting and even frightening.

If it isn’t obvious why adopted children struggle with change, consider this: you are born to one person who, at some point during your childhood stops being your primary carer, and you move to a foster carer, eventually moving to an adoptive family. This scenario presents two major changes of carer (and all that accompanies this: home, locality, family, friends) – and this is one of the better case scenarios. Imagine that you’ve been moved between several foster carers before finding your permanent adoptive home (or, possibly, long-term foster home). These changes bring with them extra anxiety and heightened stress levels, as you have no idea how the new home will compare to the last. You have no security, and are not even sure of your identity anymore, as tied up as it is with what you know to be your ‘family’.

I noticed this summer that, when we were telling our children about our forthcoming holidays, we had to be very careful to reassure them that we would be coming back at the end of it. Our boys were also very keen to be reassured that Mummy and Daddy would be coming, and that their older siblings would be joining them too.

I’m just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of learning to manage change for my children, while they’re too young to manage it for themselves, but simply having identified it as an issue feels just a little bit freeing.

Most toddlers’ defiant behaviour will pass one day – but our boys will always carry their past with them – and this may present in a variety of different unhealthy behaviours as they grow up.

Our boys will grow out of being toddlers. They will start to get better at articulating how they feel instead of pushing or throwing, they will start to be easier to reason with, and they will stop being so bothered by the coat-and-shoes routine required for leaving the house.

But they cannot shake off their past so easily. The anxiety, the insecurity, the sadness, the anger – I hope all of this reduces as they grow older, but it’s unlikely to disappear altogether. As an older, wiser adopter once told me about her own grown-up adopted children, “They will always be vulnerable”. And, hence, we are prepared that this past may manifest itself in negative behaviours as our boys grow up – not the pushing and shoving of toddlers, but the withdrawal, sullenness, aggression and unhealthy addictions of teenagers.

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I write these things not to scare you or upset you or make you feel incredibly sorry for me, but to give you a little insight into some of the challenges of adoption. In fact, I think I usually write about adoption in very positive terms (take a look at my adoption posts here), so this is written simply to balance things out. It is hard work – but it is Kingdom work, I’m sure of it, and it is this that spurs us on when things get tough:

God places the lonely in families; he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy.

Psalm 68:6

If you’re in a similar position to me, I can’t recommend The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting highly enough – read my review here.

And for an adoption book aimed at kids, I suggest The Mermaid who Couldn’t – my review is here.

Disclaimer: affiliate links are used in this email. If you click through and make a purchase, I make a small commission at no extra cost to yourself. Thank you for your support.

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what i’m into – october 2017

I’d like to say that I began October in a darkened room, wearing an eye mask, feeling my way to reach wineglass to mouth, sipping something strong and recuperating from the whirlwind of children’s birthday parties in September.

Actually, I was too tired to move, so I stayed on the sofa and the wine stayed in the fridge. #glamorous

Books

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I finally finished Captain Corelli’s Mandolin! Trumpets and fanfares and party poppers and silly string please! It was SO good that I reckon I should read a novel which takes me three months every year. Whilst it’s nice to be able to tick a book or two off my reading list every month, there’s also something about not being able to skim the sentences of a novel, breathing in every nuance and turn of phrase, which is life-giving and soul-enriching. If you haven’t read CCM, I highly recommend it!

Food

You know by now that I’ll bake anything as long as it’s a Martha Collison recipe. So this month I tried her brownie ice cream sandwiches. They took a while, whisking up the ice cream and waiting for it to set, in addition to baking and cooling two layers of brownie, but the result was a hefty tray-load of goodness, which could be sliced up, eaten there and then, with the rest frozen to be a stand-by pudding or teatime treat on another day. It really did make a huge amount, and more than accounted for the time taken in making it in the first place.

For the benefit of any locals reading this, we tried Zill’s restaurant for the first time, and enjoyed the variety of tapas dishes to start with, the mixed grill main course and baklava for dessert. Hubby thought it was ‘fine’ (he’s hard to please), but I love pretty much anything that involves a pick-and-mix way of eating. I also returned to Ambiente and the good old York Tandoori, hang-out of students and locals alike, this month, with different groups of friends. (Oh my gosh, you read that right, THREE meals out this month. What can I say? Lots of birthdays. Not my kids’ though, thankfully.)

You’d have thought that October might see the back of birthday cakes but, no, Desert Dad has plonked his celebrations right in the middle of the month so, before I could recover from September’s onslaught of fondant, I was back in the kitchen crafting something which was better in my head than in reality.

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Still, I think you can tell what it’s meant to be. I have to fess up here and tell you that I tried Martha’s chocolate cake recipe and, for the first time thus far working my way through Twist, I was disappointed. It was chewy and un-cake-like in its texture. I happen to have a pretty stonking chocolate cake recipe which uses hot chocolate powder to replace some of the flour, so reckon I’ll be sticking with that in future.

My one achievement of this cake, though, was that – like all good chocolate boxes – there was a second layer of chocs underneath the layer you can see 🙂 Happy days.

Music

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The kiddoes have got hold of their Dad’s old mix CD and make me play Dolly Parton and Belinda Carlisle on loop for hours and hours – although I’ve now convinced them of the amazingness of Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U, so that brings a welcome change.

We still have cello most days from Missy.

And Mister has started rehearsing for Young Voices, which he’s now old enough to take part in. I’m delighted the selection includes a Stevie Wonder medley, as well as A Whiter Shade of Pale, surely one of the most bizarre songs to have ever been a mainstream hit, as well as a good deal of songs with uplifting and affirming lyrics like “I’m powerful! I can do anything I want! Watch out, world – here I come! WA-HEY!” or “Music brings us together! It will be the repairing of the nations! It will succeed where politics has failed! Let’s sing and have peace, people!”

Still, I’m in floods whenever he opens his mouth to sing.

Stage and screen

Quite a bit this month… The three younger kiddoes and I went to see The Ugly Duckling with some friends. It was beautiful and engaging, and Missy (6) loved it, although Monkey and Meerkat (3) got a little restless.

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Then I headed out with a friend to see Son of a Preacher Man, an incredibly feel-good, toe-tapping musical, although various sections of acting, dancing and singing seemed a little stunted at times, probably due in part to the fact that pretty much all the characters are required to do all three equally well, which just isn’t the case in most musicals, where some characters do more singing, others do more dancing. However, the incredible versatility of the on-stage musicians, who also appeared to have amazing voices and act pretty well, more than made up for anything the main characters were lacking, and I spent the next few days screeching out Dusty songs at the top of my voice, with a piano if one was accessible.

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Towards the end of the month I got to see the poet Hollie McNish with a friend. Quite brilliantly wonderful – my head was nodding in agreement throughout, at the same time spinning with how eloquently she phrases the things inside my head. Well recommended if she’s coming near you, especially if you’re a 30-something Mama 😉

And The Apprentice has started, and I’m hooked as always. Some friends ask, “How can you possibly watch that? They’re so mean to each other.”

BECAUSE IT’S TELEVISION.

It’s funny and it’s gripping and it’s shouting-at-the-screen brilliant- well worth the licence fee on its own. Also, it’s not real – not really real, anyway. Everyone’s playing up to the cameras, and the editing is very clever. Those who are genuinely mean tend to get found out, and the tables turn pretty quickly. My money is on Sarah Lynn – although she seems a little too obviously good, so perhaps I’ve missed something?

Articles

Quite a few this month. The most interesting and true of them all, perhaps because it articulates things which are hard to articulate, is this article, on how – despite growing equality in parenting – it is still mothers who are the ‘keepers’ of so much information. Along a similar vein is this fantastically thought-provoking cartoon, translated from its original French here. If you only read two things this month, please read these!

Then this article in The Guardian is an interesting insight into the culture of the ‘involuntarily childless’; this piece (also from The Guardian) highlights a very interesting case of a headteacher who bravely adopted MUSIC as his approach to rescue his school from Special Measures; and this blog post on why adults need bedtimes was really thought-provoking too. (Needless to say, I don’t have a bedtime, or not a very sensible one!)

What little girls need from their fathers is outlined in this pretty challenging article, and I’m always fascinated by stories of parents who quit high-powered jobs to spend more time with their children, so here’s one of those.

Blog

New for this month: an actual paragraph dedicated to this very blog…BECAUSE I WAS ACTUALLY QUITE PROLIFIC THIS MONTH (for me) AND I’D LIKE YOU ALL TO BE EXTREMELY PROUD AND AMAZED. I finally got to share why I think the Suzuki method has been so beneficial in these first couple of years of being an adoptive parent – and I had to respond to the #metoo campaign with some thoughts on how the heck we are supposed to raise our own daughters and sons in this culture.

In other news…

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* As part of my commitment to not ignoring my son for the rest of his life, I accompanied him (and his little chums) to my first ever football match. I know nothing about football, but York City are like in the Eighth Division. We didn’t win – but we saw a few goals scored from both teams (the illustrious Tamworth on the opposing side), and it was a good first experience – made, at times, more comprehensible (and at other times more hilarious) by the commentary of the four little men sitting next to me. Gosh, they know a thing or two about red cards.

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* I sold all our (cloth) nappies and paraphernalia on eBay. That was a good feeling.

* I did some major toy clear-outs, to make room for all the new birthday Stuff, and that felt good, especially where I could give to known individuals or community groups. I still have the older kids’ bedroom to tackle, though, and am dreading it…

* I helped at our school’s first ever Film Night and it was great fun, especially dishing out the movie snacks!

* We had a few days away seeing my brothers’ families and some distant friends. Felt good to catch up, although travelling with the twinnoes is stressful.

* We visited a new-ish farm near us, and found an animal even smaller than our teeniest-tinest boy, so couldn’t resist this photo of our Meerkat bottle-feeding a micro-pig:

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* We’re trying to buy an ironing board cover that doesn’t look like it came out of a 1980s batchelor pad. If any of you have experience in this field, do share.

And that’s it. Linking up, as always, with Leigh Kramer’s blog. How was your October? And can you believe we’re already into November? Feels like the year’s just begun, right?