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First, put on your own oxygen mask

(published in Adoption Today, Feb 2015 under the pseudonym ‘Annie’)

“Parenting is hard work but so rewarding”& “You’ll be such a great Mum; what a lucky boy” were the two commonest responses received when I told the families I was working with that I was taking adoption leave.

Having worked for 15 years as a children’s occupational therapist I had witnessed from afar the ‘hard work’ of parenting. After the first day of our adoption course I described to my husband the ‘super parenting’ required for many of the children I worked with and how I suspected parenting an adoptive child may be on a similar level; our desire to have two children reduced that day to one. During the second day of the course we muttered to each other that perhaps we should adopt a dolphin instead! I guess this means that our eyes had been opened a little to the potential challenges.

I considered that I had worked hard at my job and was determined not to describe parenting as hard. This did waver a little during ‘the big push for potty training’ when wees were guaranteed to meet the floor the moment my back was turned. I was quite relieved at the end of that half term week when the responsibility was shared with Nursery!

It was however the ‘great Mum’ label that has proved the harder challenge. Knowing how to help our little boy but not always being able to do it has been enormously frustrating. ‘Sam’ came to us with the label of delay but has gone on to receive diagnoses of ASD and dyspraxia. This is my bread and butter and I know theoretically how to help him. And to a very large part I have done and continue to do so. Our first winters together were the very cold ones of 2010 and 2011. When the temperature hit the balmy +7 degrees, we were the ones at the park, Sam flying on his tummy on the boat swing, developing his prone extension and giving me lovely eye contact.

The down side of course is that the high expectations others had of my parenting ability were mirrored by my own expectation of self. Even at the time, I humbly said to a congratulating parent that I suspected the patience needed for me to work with her son for 40 minutes would not really compare with full-time parenting – how true. The pencil being thrown, paper screwed up and chair being tipped over backwards during homework would trigger my nervous system in a way that has, and I sure will never, occur in a therapy session.

I am learning that it is one thing knowing what to do and quite another doing it as a parent – our emotional investment makes the relationship is so different. So too however can be the strategies. One mistake out of ten spellings this weekend by my perfectionist boy led to the typical flare-up. What worked on this occasion however was tickling him until he laughingly conceded it was OK to make mistakes – not a tactic I would use as a therapist!

Probably however the longest lesson to learn has been the need to look after self. Our drive to put our children needs first is a combination of our biology for our off-spring (including those adopted) to survive, and pressure from society that applauds and expects self-sacrifice. On a recent course, the oxygen mask analogy began to make sense to me: how can we put survival gear on our children if we’re unconscious? However it took a personal experience for it to finally hit home. Sam and I were swimming in a pool that is unstaffed and we happened to be the only ones in. He’d recently learnt to swim and could swim in the deep end but as a precaution I ensured he was next to the side while I swam along the other side of him. Of course, as I should have known, his instinct on beginning to flounder was to grab me not the side, at which we both went under the water; we had a scary few moments before I was able to haul him up and sit him on the side. Since then, I swim next to the edge. There I can reach him and hold the side to keep us both afloat.

So, that’s the challenge for us all. What is our ‘side’ that keeps us afloat while helping our floundering kids to stay above the water?

While I was looking at the Santa Specials options as a pre-Christmas treat for our lad, my mum suggested that instead my husband and I should go away together. I was aghast! How could we do that instead of taking our son to see Santa? Reality is of course, what we think is a treat for our children sometimes isn’t. I thought back to two years ago when parents and grandparents were photographed sitting on Santa’s sleigh while our little boy stood expressionless, keeping his distance. After all the busyness of the end of term parties, fairs and performances perhaps a quiet day mince pie making with Nana wouldn’t be so bad.

However we justify our decisions, we need to keep in mind the big picture. Our indulgence of self and, as importantly of each other, charged our batteries for Christmas. It was wonderful to relax in a spa, eat a beautiful meal, and not be woken at 6.30! On returning home, I had a lovely bear hug from my happy son (my husband had a punch, but hey, that’s lads and dads!)

Thankfully, it’s too late for new year resolutions as they are notoriously not kept. Resolving to change can happen at any time as can going back to old habits. We cannot often afford a spa break, but walking together in the hills is free and freeing. We need to regularly check our capacity for this super parenting by ensuring we and those we share this journey with are topped up with oxygen and are always within reach of the side.

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