On Tuesday, a friend was visiting. During the conversation, she said, “I think what you’ve done is amazing. You’ve taken on children with problems,” People say this kind of thing to me quite a lot. It winds me up but that’s beside the point. Until then, I had forgotten something really important about how this whole journey started.
When my husband, James and I began the adoption process, we were advised that children who experience trauma in their early years are at a disadvantage for the rest of their lives. They can struggle to form attachments with others, have difficulty learning, have trouble maintaining good mental health or some combination of all of those. Adoptive parents are advised not to aim too high and not to expect too much.
I was unwilling to accept that all children who have difficult starts in life are doomed to that sort of future. “Not my kids!” I told myself and vowed to do everything possible to help them create lives they love. I didn’t even know who my kids were at that point but I knew who I was and I believed I could make a difference.
As it turned out, the challenge of parenting was greater than I expected and the challenge of adoptive parenting was even greater than that.
I still believed anything was possible for them but I was living as if that wasn’t true for me. Instead of being inspired to grow into the person they needed me to be, I beat myself up for repeatedly failing them. Each day I had a mental tally – was this a day where I helped them move a step closer to “anything is possible” or a step closer to “trauma ruined your life”? Most days I felt like I had done the latter.
After they went to bed each night, I’d console myself with wine and junk food, promising myself that ‘tomorrow will be better’. I think I stayed in that phase for so long because, in some ways, it was easier than doing the hard work I needed to do.
Since then, I’ve committed wholeheartedly to letting my actions do the talking. There is no point telling them that anything is possible if I don’t also show them.
Giving up alcohol was only one part of it (and in large part, was more about proving something to myself) but it has made me a better parent. I have enough energy to play and enough patience to spend as much time with them as they want. We hug more, talk more, share more and do more together. I don’t plan weekends and evenings in ways that involve fobbing them off with some other activity so I can relax with a glass of wine.
I am well aware that many aspects of their development are out of my control. I am also aware that happiness makes a massive difference to every other significant measure in life – mortality, health, mental health, ability to form good relationships and a whole host of other things – and there, I definitely have some influence.
According to Sonja Lyubormirsky, 50% of happiness is genetic. Ok, so that part is out of my hands. 10% is determined by our life circumstances – again, I can’t do much about the past but everything else is still in play – and that leaves 40% to work with. Forty percent of our happiness is determined by our habits. Much of that will fall to them as they get older but right now, it’s up to me to show them how to make best use of that 40%.
I still believe anything is possible for them, but now, instead of just talking about it, I am showing them.