Saturday, 22 March 2014

Tribute to a Foster Mum

My husband and I were scared witless the first time we met Digger’s foster mum. Rosa didn’t make eye contact with either of us and her body language was closed, hostile even. Both arms wrapped tightly across her soft bosom.

When she eventually did look at us she memorably said: ‘I am not going to hand over Digger to some cold, heartless middle-class couple.’ Well, that put us in our place.

Her apparent hostility came from a place of love. She, more than any one in the room, had Digger's interest at heart. We saw that. And we knew how important getting her approval would be.

My husband broke the ice several times with bad jokes that could release some nervous laughter. Eventually she let down and approved us with the words: ‘I have a good feeling about this. It will be ok.’

When we met the next time – to set out the introduction itinerary – we were happy to see her again. Eager to hear more news and details of the little man, who was to become our son. And she readily shared all sorts of Digger vignettes with us.

Introductions began smoothly. Despite the fact that we were very nervous, having worked ourselves up over the entire morning. We parked the car outside her house, got out and heard a familiar voice above us ‘Halloooouuu. Digger, that’s your mummy and daddy. Say Haaallloooouuu…’ we looked up and there he was. Our gorgeous son. On Rosa’s hip. Looking puzzled. But curious.

We entered her small, immaculate flat under a stream of meaningless, welcoming words, and she then handed Digger straight to me.

I think my heart stopped for a little while… He rested his head on my chest. Softly. Gingerly. Rosa was surprised.

‘He never does that. Really. He has never done that before with someone he doesn’t know.’

My husband and I were reassured. So Digger wasn’t overfamiliar with everyone. It must have been the fine work she had done of reading the Tomy book every day, umpteen times a day, since it was given to her ten days earlier, after Matching Panel.

She had also put up A4 print outs of the two of us all over the flat. By Digger's cot, in the living room and in the kitchen. Very thoughtfully she had even put many on the kitchen cabinets. Digger crawling height.

We stayed a little longer than the allocated hour. Then drove home in a daze new emotions. We hardly slept that night.

Introductions went in a flurry of activity. For me, the keyword for the whole exhausting, bewildering week was trust. We all felt it, and it helped transition enormously. Not least for Digger.

Rosa’s love for Digger was plain to see. And it warmed us to her even more. She knew him. She was so warm, gave him great cuddles, made him giggle, knew all his likes and dislikes, and could comfort him effortlessly. I loved what I saw, but admittedly, I also felt very insecure in her presence. I was only a mother on paper. Not yet in my heart.

Rosa gave me lots of good advice, and showed me all the ropes. She taught me a few things that I still do, and that remind me of that special week. The most impressive lesson she gave me – almost in passing – was to let this little 10-month-old creature ask for help himself. It happened, one time when he was trying to raise himself up, but was struggling and audibly frustrated. I would have rushed to help him. But she just held out her hand, close to him, but not in the way:

“Oh boy, Digs, you are fighting to get up, aren’t you. Oh deary me, that does look frustrating. If you need a hand, just says so. See, my hand is right here. To help you if you like. Just take it if you need it.’

He tried a bit more on his own, and then took her hand. His little legs just weren’t quite strong enough yet. But it taught me a big lesson. Wait.

During that whole week of introductions, Digger wasn’t really all that interested in me, but he looooooooooved his new dad.

The rapport between Digger and Pierre, my husband, was instant and heartfelt. I couldn’t have been more pleased. Perhaps it happened so fast because Rosa was single. Put simply there was room for a man, a daddy figure. But not for a mummy. Digger already had a mum. I felt a strong urge to hold him and get on with my new role, but was also relieved to be able to step back a bit. I could observe him from a safe distance. In effect hide behind my husband. I reckoned there would be plenty of time for me to be mummy (indeed only a couple of weeks later, I was definitely the main person, and daddy was left out in the cold for a while). Also, I really didn’t want to tread on Rosa’s toes.

Rosa was great, and – looking back – unbelievably supportive of us both. If Digger fell, she would encourage him to go to us for comfort, but never ever refuse him consolation. He did get confused about who to go to. But then she would elegantly scoop him up, kiss and cuddle him, and then hand him to either of us. Reassuring him as she did so. ‘It’s ok. I’m right here.’ Big smiles and maybe a pad on his back, while on our arms.

Gradually, during the week, we had been bringing Digger’s stuff home to our house. I felt like I was stealing it all away from her. I felt guilty and weird about it. Rosa was professional and very helpful, although it cannot have been easy for her. One day when she brought him to stay with us for the day, he had thankfully fallen asleep on the way, and so she was visibly relieved to be able to hand him over, and drive off. The stresses of the week were beginning to show on her too.

Then the final day came. Digger was coming home with us. For good. The atmosphere in Rosa’s flat was so thick, that you could cut the air with a knife. Rosa asked for a final hug with Digger, in the privacy of her living room. The rest of us gathered in the hallway.

I will never forget the sound of the cry she let out, when she held him in her arms for the last time as her foster son. The boy she had loved as her own, since he was only a couple of days old. It was quiet but piercing.

The social worker present and I both cried. But Pierre stood firm. This was all in Digger’s best interest, he said. So it was Pierre, daddy, who carried Digger out of the flat. A puzzled and visibly sad Digger.

Then our new life began.

We didn't see Rosa for a few weeks. When we did, she cried. She didn’t want to. But it felt real and appropriate. Digger was happy to see her, but confused about the new baby. This was the first of many visits. And of many more to come. The foster mum and her family is part of our future.

I feel very privileged to have met her. And very lucky that we all get on so that we have been able to continue to see her. And that we live close enough to do so. We meet around Digger’s birthday, Christmas and in between.

The opportunity to integrate the early part of Digger’s life into his life with us is a gift. And one I think that will help Digger’s sense of self. A little part of me wish we could do the same with his birth mother, but I know why that is impossible. Still that doesn't stop me thinking in a better world it might have been.

Digger is relaxed with Rosa in a way I have not seen him with any one else. She knows him. I wonder whether it is that he reacts to, or whether he still recognises her as a safe haven. I think the latter. But does it matter?

Rosa is an extraordinary person. Savvy, generous and empathetic. She has that extra room in her heart. That extra capacity for putting yourself in someone else's shoes. It is a special gift to be able to foster. One I am not sure I've got. But she has in buckets. There is no doubt that she taught Digger was love is. And we benefit from it every day. My respect and admiration for her knows no boundaries.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The things we do: The Mattress

We have an old mattress in our sitting room.

It is used for jumping on. By Digger, by us - his parents, and any guest – big or small – if they fancy. The three of us use it at least two or three times a day for a good 30 mins. Often to a sound track of some pop with a good, steady beat. At the moment Fat Boy Slim’s Weapon of Choice and Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder are favourites.

It gets Digger out of puff, and quite steamy after a while, which leaves him happier and meeker for the rest of the day. We notice the difference on days with little or no mattress action Digger style. Digger throws himself around, in funny and amazing shapes, and is perfecting his moves.

The mattress is incredibly useful to have inside. Even on rainy days Digger can get a real workout without leaving the house. But it really comes into its own every evening, when we use it to squeeze the last bits of energy of the day out if him. He sleeps much better after a good session.

My husband was very sceptic when I wanted to keep the battered old thing, and use up so much floorspace. But we made a nice (washable!) cover, so now you find him bouncing most nights too.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

15 life skills mastered by my son this week

Perhaps many 2 ½ year olds have mastered these skills long ago, but to us they are new, as of early March 2014. Digger takes quite some pride in all of them. And so do we.

1.    Serving himself at dinner. Including filling our water glasses.
2.     Smiling and waving goodbye, when I said I was off, leaving him with his nanny. Normally he will wobble. That felt very strange for me. Not entirely sure I like this new response either.
3.     Retrieving his dummy from another room. He asked, I suggested. Off he went and returned with it. This is complicated stuff. Q&A, imagination, translating words into concrete scenarios, and then stepping into action. Wow.
4.     Filling a mould with sand, the tapping on the sand to compact it before tipping over the mould, ‘Tap, tap, tap…’ again, before lifting the mould. And hey presto: a fine moulded mount. Lots of neat little mounts in the local sandpit this weekend.
5.     Blowing a whistle. Will probably live to regret this one.
6.     Firing a water pistol. Quickly moved on to level 2: firing at his dad’s crotch. Will definitely live to regret this one.
7.     Popping bubble wrap. Again quickly moved on level 2: driving a tricycle across a great expanse of it. Much more efficient and fun.
8.     Blowing his nose. I mean really blowing it. So we can forget about the Nuk snot-extractor, which did many a times end in tears, and only marginally red noses.
9.     Skipping and spin jumping. Much of it exhibited while dancing Martha Graham style to mummy and daddy’s (bad) flamingo-style clapping. New evening ritual, as off this week.
10.  Drawing circles. Very Giottesque. At this rate and determination, Digger should be able to do a perfect circle – without the aid of compasses – at the ages of … say… 16. This week he also did a perfect capital ‘A’ and a perfect capital ‘D’. By accident, we think.
11.  Heading off to the Park - on his own. This is a dodgy one for many reasons. Not least that it was 8.15am, when Digger took of on his scooter, dressed only in a diaper and wellies. But it does show he is 100% certain we’ve got his back.
12.  Playing by himself for more than a few minutes. Then checking in with me, then off again. The jo-jo is working at ever longer intervals. I even opened a book when at the playground today. No complicated literature, but all the same. He still needs me, but is also happy for a bit doing his own thing. Again tugging a bit at the apron stings here. But it is very interesting. I already miss his all time need of me.
13.  Went to the loo to do his business, like all the above - at his own initiatives.
14.  Ringing the doorbell with a stick. Never know when that might be really useful.
15.  Getting and out of the buggy all by himself. Soon there will be little need to strap him in.

All in all another week of quantum leaps. Where are we headed?

Friday, 14 March 2014

The smell of Digger

The first time I met Digger, I thought his smell was strange, and truth be told, unpleasant, vaguely off-putting. It made me very worried. How could I bond with him if I didn’t like the way he smelt? Was it a fundamental dislike I had sensed? Was adopting him going to unravel because of it?

I love the way my husband smells, and have always done so. I fell in love with it and him at the same time. But with Digger was different. It felt like a barrier I had to break through, and I didn’t know how.

Few months later, the perfume of Digger was as intoxicating and wonderful to me as that of my husband. After a good work out in the park or the playground, it is always that little bit stronger. Especially if the sun is out. I can bury my nose in his soft, wild curls and inhale him. It has become familiar, and completely connected to this little person who I love.

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when it all changed. I guess I was too busy to dwell it. But by October I found myself in love - he had moved in in August. I imagine I started to like the scent of him sometime in that two-three month window.

Perhaps it was the diet then that initially made him smell so peculiar to me – along the lines of Europeans smelling a lot like old cheese to the Japanese, because of our diary intake as opposed to theirs. And I wonder whether he now smells like us. I guess we smell like a family, The Norwoods. Or perhaps it is simply the love I feel for him. But one thing is certain: It is.

Our Norwood smell would have been an omnipresent signifier of how things had changed. I imagine he must have felt something similar to what I was going through, only he had landed in our world.

No doubt Digger thought we smelt odd at first. As did our house and everything in it. He couldn’t turn away from it.

Digger has a keen sense of smell. Nowhere is it more obvious than when he is trying new food. He is very confident in declaring likes and dislikes. I think smell is at the heart of this. He doesn’t need to taste it to know.

I guess, after a while you grow used to a scent. Or it could continue to grate. Or you begin to love it.

Now when he turns towards me as he falls asleep at night, it is not only the closeness he wants. I sense he wants my smell too. And that it adds to his sense of safety.

In preparation for transition we were told to copy and transfer as much as possible from his foster homes into our house, his new forever home. We were told to begin using the same washing powder and softener as his foster mum, and we did so as soon as we had met her, and continued to do so for months after wards. I still like the particular transition-softener smell very much, and sometimes use it for our towels even now – for sentimental reasons.

I can’t help but to think that it is actually impossible to transfer very much from the foster homes. Bringing the physical things from one home to the new is the easy bit. It is whole context that is difficult to translate and is mostly lost. Because the overwhelming sense and reality of the situation will be changed, forever. This is not to undermine the sound and obvious advice in being very sensitive and in trying. It is to remind myself of just how much these children loose through adoption. As good as everything vanishes overnight. Expect for their little bodies and some physical memories. Smells and scents are but one aspect of it.

We were conscientious to bring some the smell of his foster home with us. And we expected not to wash his bedding for a long while. On Placement Day, the foster mum wasn’t going to let Digger go with dirty laundry, so everything was spinky spam and smelt of her clean home.  We left the bedding on for two weeks. Then he peed on it, which neatly ended the discussion of when to wash it.

Whenever we travel we make sure to bring along something with Digger’s distinct smell on it – his pillow, for instance, or better still duvet. And one (or two) of his beloved soft transition bunnies without which he will not leave the house and cannot sleep (we haven’t really tested this – we trust his judgement on the subject). Bringing these items helps him sleep in a new environment.

The only malodour around Digger’s two-year-old self (well… expect an obvious one) is that occasional pungent waft of a too well-loved soft bunny, when he sweetly offer it to our cheeks for comfort. That can be really hard on the old nostrils – stale regurgitated milk and sleep dripple, and whatever else it has been in contact with over the last few days.

I am grateful to Digger’s foster mum that she always kept everything so very clean, that it is easy for me too to stick everything – bar Digger himself, or my husband for that matter – in the washing machine when it needs it, without fear of loosing too much redolence.

Friday, 7 March 2014


It seems counterintuitive to use words to describe touch, something so personal and often fleeting. But I am going to have a go. It is so central to the communication between Digger and me.

When Digger first moved in, I spend a lot of time pondering over how and when to touch him. It felt awkward at times. As if I was invading his privacy. Which of course I was. Touching him now seems so obvious that I don’t really think about it.

In the early days, diaper changing was very much slower than he was used to. His forever mummy and daddy were amateurs compared to his fostermum. Once the allotted diaper time slot had run out, he would start wiggling and whining. Now of course, we can whip a diaper off and slam on a new one on in no time, almost without him noticing.

Three months in, I enjoyed a first proper hug from him. And I noted that he touched me in a new and different way. More intimate and loving. And then I realised I too touched him differently. This week I had the same realisation. It happened when he stroked my hair, gently in long soft movements. Like I do his hair. He smiled as he did it. Enjoying it – probably not nearly as much as I did.

Negotiations about lifting him, moving him around – especially since he couldn’t really walk yet – has become quicker over time. Only a split second of showing him my intentions, something like holding out my arms, lifting my eyebrows, making a rising noise or saying ‘Let’s go?’ All those careful manoeuvres were concertinaed down, in time and movement. He knew what was coming. And he would allow it, or not. Or sometimes he just wasn't quite ready yet, but a few more minutes would do it.

Now we are 18 months in and the movements are yet again different to what they were. He is longer, leaner and stronger, and hugs like no body else I know. He nestles into my neck when I hold him, and make a series of cosy noises, any time of the day, when he need refuelling. He does that in the morning in his PJs, at the playground covered in mud, while we watch TV, reading a book, getting a drink, or just when, and just because… The recognition of our evolving touch feels like a wonderful acknowledgment of how my son and I were getting to know each other. Of the continual strengthening of our bond.

Now when he falls asleep at night he turns in towards me, and lies as close as he possibly can. Often with his little legs pulled up under him. He is snuggling tightly up against me.  I am his source of safety. There he can let go of the day, and fall into the deep sleep that will take him through to the small hours of the morning.

My husband and I enjoy our bedtime routine. With three (or more) books, a couple of songs, and if he still isn't quite ready, then a little made up story in the dark of the room, after lights out. Turning towards us is that last movement before he falls asleep. We lie for a little while longer, and then gently lift him into his cot. I often add the words ‘I love you, little mouse.’ Hoping the words will worm their way into his unconscientious self, and deepen his sense of safety.

Digger needs reassurance during the night – not as much as the first few months, but still once or twice. Just to know that we are still there. Now all that is needed is one gentle stroke of his otherworldly soft cheek and his curly mop, and he goes back to sleep. No need for any words, like ‘safe’, ‘mummy’ or ‘right here’.

I nearly melted the first time Digger padded my back as I held him on my arm. Just like I pad his back, for comfort, for closeness, out of a habit. I hadn’t even noticed I did this, till he padded me back. Sometimes it is request for mutual padding, sometimes because that’s what happens when you are in mummy’s arms.

And then there are the rough touches. The rough housing, which he loves. Like being carried around upside down, or flung over a shoulder. Or blowing great big raspberries on his tummy. He is very good at blowing raspberries on us, might I add. That said, I feel that both tickling and blowing raspberries should be done in moderation. It can be too much. A big person inflicting something rough on a little one. I remember my own dad doing it to me, too much too hard. It didn't always feel nice. And sometimes it was even scary. It could spoil the moment. He wasn’t a bad man, he just often wasn’t on our wavelength.

There are also the assertive parental touches. The ones that accompany sentences like ‘Nope, Digger, I cannot allow you to touch that rotary saw.’ Or getting down to his level, and saying ‘When mummy says STOP, she means STOP.’ There is also the firm hand on his arm if he lifts his arm to hit, or on his leg if he kicks. Again it is accompanied by ‘no kicking of people’. And if I have the presence of mind ‘shall we go kick some ball?’ As a mum I am more likely to assert myself through my voice than by touch.

Respect of boundaries is a part of touch, my respect of him, and his of me. Respect shown through touch. Knowing when to and when not to. Mostly we both get it right now. Like Fred and Ginger.

All these movements, and our familiar touching each other are for me the ultimate signs of love and attachment. And I can't get enough.