After many months of asking on our side and promising on the Social Worker’s side the day finally came; she brought the complete Life Story Books with her for both boys. I knew about it of course, but the boys were unaware and were very secretive about it and didn’t want me to come into the room. So, I waited outside for the inevitable crying that was sure to follow…
For birth children parents can fill in the gaps, tell stories and show pictures to their children from the time they were babies and through pictures they can help the children create early childhood memories. I know they are not really memories as we wouldn’t remember things under 2 anyways, but with the help of pictures and anecdotes repeated enough times they become ‘real’ to the children. Except if you are adopted… Then you don’t have your birth parents around to help you build these memories. That’s when the Life Story Book becomes invaluable.
Life Story Book
I think you can imagine what might be (should be) included in such a book. This article titled ‘Life story books giving adopted children memories of their past‘ describes some of the challenges adopters face when it comes to using these books. Normally it should have photos of their very first days (that is if the SW can convince Birth Mum to give some), pictures of where they lived, some people who were important to them. There should be a section about Birth Mum, Birth Dad, some nice things they said or did and the children’s favourite things, toys, food…etc. There should also be a section that describes why they could not take care of the children, how the SW was concerned and why they have asked a judge to let the SW find the children a new mummy and daddy. I would also put in a part that explains it is normal for some children not to live with their birth parents…
The second big section should include life with the Foster Carer(s). During this time many children continue to have some kind of Contact with their birth family and hopefully there are some pictures to document these supposedly happy moments. It is common to move to a different city so – especially if the children are older like ours – pictures of friends, school, class uniforms and class photos should be included, too. Then the section about a Family Finder looking for the new family… with the good news that the new family is found, then Introductions, first meetings and moving in. Perhaps some photos of the ‘Happy Ever After’ with new mummy and daddy and BOOM, it’s done.
How to start Life Story Work?
I have spoken to my SW friends and also sought wisdom on Twitter about what to expect. ‘Not much when it comes to quality‘ was one comment. Somebody else said ‘Done well, it should be a non traumatic process really. Good practices will go slow, let children lead and let them take the narrative. A good practitioner would also not be mentioning scary names in a first session and would have mummy in the session too!’ I suppose from this last comment you can deduct the fact that I wasn’t invited to attend the session! 😦 (PS I am still livid about this!)
It is also good practice to show the book first to the adopters…
SW practitioners also agree that depending on how much a child can manage in 1 session, it should be limited to a few pages (life stages) per session. Well, you guessed it! Our SW just rushed through the entire bloody book for both boys in 2 hours! (more on this later)
The whole point of this is to help them process all the bad things that happened to them! Sufficient time should be allocated to each life event so the children have time to take it all in; to cry and grieve about the terrible facts they hear, to understand the circumstances, to help them understand it was NOT their fault that their first family couldn’t look after them properly. It is expected that lots of memories will rush to the surface with each mention of an old house, an old name, and old picture… Trauma that is not dealt with can and will cause distress again and again. I am realistic in knowing it is a deeply distressing experience for any child and tears, sadness and some level of dysregulation is ‘normal’, but ultimately this shouldn’t be a traumatic event!
How did it go for my boys?
Well… in short: not well! On the surface they were happy to see some pictures and have an entire book just about them. But right under the surface their distress grew minute by minute. I wasn’t in the room when they started. I was sitting in the kitchen listening. Very early on I heard 8 crying. His younger brother was puzzled and asked SW why was he crying. Then I heard the SW say ‘he is just upset… it’s ok… oh, look at this picture’. I was so upset that I couldn’t be there to comfort my son! Luckily he came out to show me a picture of him as a baby and invited me in.
That was the first time I saw the complete Life Story Book. On the outside it looked lovely! Lots of pictures, drawings, funny font, stickers, glitter…etc. But on closer inspection it was a different story! I had quite a few problems with it, it’s hard to know which one bothers me the most…
The entire album has 30 pages. 26 of them are filled by the Social Worker. What’s shocking is that out of the 26 pages, 10 pages are filled with things I HAVE SENT to her. Pictures I took, memories hubby and I created with the boys!!! The book should have had information up till the placement with plenty of room left for us to select pictures and memories together, as a family of four!
I have seen and read a few Life Story Books plus I know pretty much everything there is to know about the boys’ past so I had a general idea of what will be included. Since we do indirect contact (letters) with Birth Mum with photos, I am not phased anymore by seeing pictures of her. For the boys, however, it’s an entirely different question!
For 7 it was great to see pictures of her, but when he found out one of the pictures were taken VERY recently he was shocked. He thought his birth mum was dead! In a way I can understand; in his head that’s how he made sense of the fact that he was not living with her anymore. To him, she was dead! So naturally it was upsetting for him.
For 8 it was a different experience. While he loved seeing photos of himself as a baby, seeing his younger self with that woman brought back many traumatic memories. He was shaking, lips trembling and suddenly he was transported back to the time those pictures were taken. It was heartbreaking to see it! SW was just looking at him without a word! I enveloped him into the biggest hug I could muster and my usual mantra kicked in (‘you are safe, you are loved, mummy is here, everything is ok’) Eventually he settled so the SW said ‘so, about this next picture…’
There were some very specific issues that I don’t want to discuss here, sufficient to say I thought it was very poor judgement on SW’s side to include some stuff. When I raised it afterwards she told me off saying ‘I can’t just pick and choose what I put in, if it’s part of his story’. True, in principle I agree. However there are different ways of saying things and more information is not always better, just the opposite!
When we got to the part about their several Foster Carers 7 was conflicted. He wanted to say ‘oh, I love them‘ but he caught himself mid-sentence and looked at me with worry in his eyes! He didn’t feel comfortable saying in front of me how he felt! SW was again quiet. I had to reassure him that ‘it’s OK to love more than 1 adult at the same time, I am not upset, I know you have a big heart and there is room for more than just me and daddy in there’.
Then we got to this extra part that most adopters don’t have: discussing their first adoption that ended with a nasty adoption breakdown. Again, 8’s brain was flooded with terrible memories and another traumatic distressed period followed. By this time I thought we had waaaaay too much for one day, but SW kept on pressing ‘here comes the good part’.
The next page was about their last Foster Carer and it included the very first photo we took together in her home when we had the first day of Introductions. It was indeed, a happy memory for everybody. According to the SW the last 10 pages were there to show them ‘their sad start had a happy ending’ and ‘look how many happy memories you have already made with mummy and daddy’. Again, I do not disagree with this statement per se, but this should have been our job to do together!
During the 2 hours she spent in our house I had the nagging feeling that she just wanted to rush through the whole book and treated this as nothing but a tick-box exercise. On one hand I understand she didn’t want to ‘linger’on the horrible events of their early years, but that is supposed to be the whole point of the Life Story Work and in my humble opinion that should be the very reason why you can’t do this in one go!
By rushing through the book she minimised the impact of those traumatic memories and didn’t give sufficient time for my sons to grieve. I feel that my boys are now not healed, just the opposite! She left them re-traumatised and as usual, we, adoptive parents have to pick up the pieces and live with the ramifications!
And to top it off, she is now off for the next 2 weeks, which I frankly find totally unacceptable. Good practice says she should be available for the coming days to come back, spend more time with them and help them process it and taking it all in. I believe it was poor judgement on her side to do this piece of work right before her holiday! She delayed bringing the Books several times, surely it could have waited 2 more weeks in order to come back again very soon to continue with helping the children make sense of their past should they need it – and clearly they DO need it!
Today on the phone she kept on saying to me ‘you need to keep reassuring the boys‘ , but I can’t reassure them if they feel they can’t tell me every part of their past! I can’t continue looking at their Life Story Book with them if it causes them massive distress even just to hear certain names! Baaaah, I feel so helpless!
Needless to say, the boys had a difficult night last night with Night terrors (worse than usual) and presented with very challenging behaviours in school today…
I contacted SW’s manager, not to get her into trouble, but I recommended more training for her to avoid another family going through the same traumatic experience with disastrous outcome. I bet it won’t help our working relationships…