Although it is three and half years ago, I remember, as if it were yesterday, my new ‘forever’ son calling me Dad for the first time.
It was only the second time we had met as part of the introductions and we were playing with cars at his foster carer’s home. Suddenly he said “Dad, get that car for me.”
Welcome to the real world of adoptive parenting when your new son starts to boss you around at almost your first meeting!
I’ll call him Alex (although it’s not his real name) and of course, I was moved and delighted that, aged seven, he had started to call me Dad so early on in our new relationship.
I was also desperate to ensure that he liked me on the one hand but, at the same time, I was very aware of the need to preserve some degree of self-respect and set some early boundaries. “Why don’t you get it and drive it over to me?” I said with my heart slightly in my mouth and, amazingly enough, he proceeded to do just that!
In the time since then, my love for my son has grown more and more each day (as I say to him), and each night I go into Alex’s room when he is asleep and, whatever the storms of the day have brought, I think how fortunate I am to have him in my life. To hear your son say “I love you Dad”, and to ask for hugs and cuddles when he needs them is an indescribable joy that I never thought I would experience.
I’m a single man, and adopting Alex has been the most rewarding and fulfilling experience of my life. It has also been by far the most challenging. Learning to manage Alex’s controlling behaviour; supporting him through regular toddler-like tantrums and bouts of physical aggression directed almost exclusively at me; helping him deal with the demands of school to be an 11-year-old boy, when developmentally he is still a little boy craving love and attention; helping him learn to depend on reliable adults before he can even consider becoming more independent, which is what the school and I would like.
These and many other challenges have tested me to my limits and sometimes beyond. At the same time, they have also provided the basis for what has been the most exciting journey of self-discovery as I have learnt how children who have experienced early trauma help you face your own vulnerabilities and find creative ways of responding to them.
So, for example, how can you expect your own dysregulated child to learn to calm down if you have not yet learnt to calm yourself down in the face of their aggression or tantrums?
Or how can you expect your son, who regularly says out loud that he is rubbish or useless, to talk more positively to himself, if the little voice in your own head is always saying that you are a useless parent or that it is all too much at the moment?
The learning curve of personal growth and development has been a steep and at times humbling one, but I have also found it a huge encouragement to find support from other adoptive parents facing similar challenges. As a result, I have made new friendships with parents who don’t drive you mad like so many well-meaning friends or professionals saying “Oh, all children do that!”
Some of my family and friends have said what a wonderful and altruistic thing I, as a single man, have done in adopting an older child, or how lucky Alex is to have me as a Dad. I usually respond by saying that it was not altruistic at all, as I adopted Alex to meet my own needs to be a parent, and that in fact I am the lucky one.
In spite of, and in fact, because of, the challenges, the rewards of adoptive parenting or ‘parenting plus’ are all the greater. Whatever the future holds for Alex and me, I will always be his ‘forever’ Dad.