ADOPTING IN MY 50s AND HOW IT’S CHANGED ME

Susie talks honestly about the arrival of her adoptive daughter in her life.

At the ages of 55 and 56, my partner and I adopted a 6 year-old girl. She has now been with us nearly a year and has changed our lives completely. The first few months were an emotional rollercoaster of spectacular highs and lows which more than once made us question whether the decision to adopt was the right one. But now, having weathered the ‘settling in’ period, and become stronger for it, we’re com-mitted to loving and supporting our little girl on her journey through life.

Like most adopted children, she has developmental trauma, her early years marked by neglect and domestic violence, which have left her angry, sad and vulnerable. De-spite this, she is an affectionate, funny, feisty, intelligent and bold child who loves ani-mals and wants to be a doctor when she grows up. We have a long road ahead of us to help her process her experiences.

“Being assessed as ‘older’ parents took almost two years”

My journey to having a child has been a long one. Growing up I simply assumed like many other women that I would one day have children. The opportunities were there in my twenties and thirties but somehow the relationships were never quite right. The men I met ranged from the stable, predictable and boring, to the nomadic, adven-turous and not-for-settling down types.

In my early forties I thought about adopting as a single parent, but ultimately decided that I didn’t want to do it on my own. In my mid forties, still hoping for children in the context of a loving relationship, I met N. We have lots in common from our love of art, learning, travel and adventure, to a strong sense of shared values. Having almost re-signed myself to childlessness, a fading hope reignited, over time, into reality as we started to discuss adoption. Although it took N a while to get used to the idea, he nev-er once said no, and our conversations evolved to the point where it began to happen. I still had strong maternal instincts and saw that N could make a loving, compassion-ate and wise father, which I think he only began to feel through the adoption process.

Being assessed as ‘older’ parents took almost two years of being asked lots of prob-ing questions by our social worker, filling in detailed forms, going on courses, reading lots of books on therapeutic parenting and adoption and gaining over 50 hours of childcare experience. It’s an intensive process, which gradually prepares you for the realities of being an adoptive parent and how different this can be from being a birth parent. We now understand that we are not just adopting a child with behavioural diffi-culties, but are often managing the hidden impacts of intergenerational trauma.

“I fluctuated from being wildly excited about the prospect to feeling panic stricken”

As N’s commitment to the adoption process grew stronger I fluctuated from being wildly excited about the prospect to feeling panic stricken (“What the hell are we do-ing?”) to even cold indifference. It was hard working through these very mixed feel-ings, but the little voice inside told me to keep going and that if I didn’t, I would probably have huge regrets about it. My mother fantasies revolved around the deep bond I would have with my daughter, the exciting everyday-ness of being a mother – going to school, reading and playing together, the bedtime ritual and the adventures we would have as a family.

My greatest fears were that I wouldn’t be a ‘good’ mother, or be able to manage the unpredictable behaviours of a traumatised child, or that my relationship with N would splinter under the stress of it all. And could we actually afford it? Were we kidding our-selves that we were still young enough to do it? Would we have the mental and physi-cal reserves to cope with a potentially volatile teenager when we were in our sixties? What about our interest in travel and adventure and pursuing our own creative pro-jects? Would that be gone forever, or could we somehow make this part of family life? Whilst I didn’t ignore these worries, I focused on staying in the moment and on what was right now, rather than anticipating the worst. They are all still concerns of course, but somehow seem to matter less.

As older adopters, and each from a small family, we don’t have the extensive network of relational support that others do, but I have become closer to my mother and sister (who doesn’t have children) as a direct result of the adoption. We are more reliant on local and not so local friends and the growing number of adoptive and school parents we’re getting to know. My friendships have changed as a direct result of the adoption. Some friendships have become closer, re-surfaced or re-charged as we now have children in common and a few have become more distant, responded insensitively to my new status, or disappeared from my life entirely.

So what is the reality of adopting an older child at an older age? It totally depends on little one’s behaviour and mood on the day. A friend and mother of birth twins once said that the highs are much higher and the lows much lower that you expect and I have certainly found that to be true.

“The highs are much higher and the lows much lower that you expect”

Taking on a fully formed child with precarious beginnings to her life means that there have been fundamental impacts on her mental development and wellbeing. She can be loving, funny and compliant one minute, then controlling and defiant the next. We’ve had tears, tantrums, door slamming and head-banging.

She needs our attention and engagement almost continuously and insists on animal role play every time she experiences a transition, whether from the home to outside, or going up to bed. This can be wearing, though N and I are lucky that the flexibility of our freelance jobs means we can alternate childcare when the going gets tough. She has hardly talked about her early experiences, though every now and again she men-tions an everyday detail or incident from the time before she went into foster care. We are still in the early stages of getting to know each other and it will take a long time for her to fully trust us.

Having said all this, it is also a joy having this child in our lives. I’ve felt more alive, and proud to be helping a small person who’s had such a terrible start in life. If she wasn’t with us, we wouldn’t have lain together in the daisies in the local park, seen her delight on the tree swing in the nearby woods, watched a pony gathering on Exmoor, gone rock-pooling and fossiling, or had a snail race in the back garden. I wouldn’t have ex-perienced her moving my hand across her sweet baby face and shoulders to soothe herself to sleep, climbing on to my lap to hear a story, or giving me three hugs before she left this morning on a school trip.

Although she doesn’t yet call us Mummy and Daddy, I heard her say “my mum” in a conversation with a friend last week and she sometimes calls us “Mamma” and “Dadda” when she’s in toddler mode. I’m sure it will come in time. If the truth be told, I don’t quite feel like a mother yet and my maternal instincts come and go with great rapidity. N says he does feel like a dad. I think this is all to do with the developing at-tachment between us and the little one. She had a very ambivalent relationship with her birth mother. At certain moments this appears to transfer to her new relationship with me, as she tries re-enact the same volatility. This is a common and trying experi-ence for many adoptive mothers.

“The intensity of adopting brings you right up against yourself and makes you ques-tion daily who you thought you were.”

Adopting is such a huge life project and journey that it is difficult to answer the simple question of whether I’m glad I did it. There is too much at stake… I made the decision to adopt after many years of wanting a child and never quite giving up on it. I went into it with my eyes (mostly) wide open. I made it happen and the time and situation felt absolutely right and continues to feel right. The intensity of adopting has surprised me, the way it brings you right up against yourself and makes you question daily who you thought you were and why you are reacting in certain ways.

I think and hope it has made me a better person; more tolerant, more open, perhaps softer, less critical and impatient. Our relationship has benefited from adoption, mak-ing us more harmonious and less acrimonious as we work on our common project. Petty squabbles that might previously have grown into arguments get forgotten in the intensity of childcare. Our values seem stronger and our care for each other deeper and more considerate.

Like any new life journey, adoption is a continuing process of learning, changing and growing and hoping that everything we are doing will help our daughter grow up into a balanced and healthy adult, ready to be in the world.

Words: Susie Smith