‘We were dreading the preparation groups…’
From the very first meeting with a social worker, the prospect of getting involved with ‘groups’ filled us with dread. For so long, our grief had been very private; something we had worked through away from the glare and expectation of others.
We knew that we’d need to let in the light sooner or later, not least as an inevitable and worthwhile part of our recovery but our hand was to be forced. And so, on a sunny midsummer morning, the first of our five orientation days – or ‘groups’ – loomed on the calendar with a grim inevitability.
Whichever path potential adopters choose, there is a good chance that one way or another they will find themselves attending a cluster of four or five day-long group sessions. The agency or authority will probably schedule these sessions two or three times a year and, along with a selection of other prospective adopters, they’ll attend a set of these days – maybe in the same week, maybe spread out – to learn more about the process. These are not group therapy sessions and adopters are not required or expected to share private experiences. Still, the prospect of a room full of what some might imagine to be grieving, childless couples overseen by a team of elite, simpering social workers made Lisa and I feel sick to our stomachs.
As is so often the case with the adoption process, our trepidation at what would happen next proved both unfounded and tainted by lazy stereotypes. Yet we still sat in the car outside the church hall that was hosting the group days full of nerves. The prospect of a room of mostly childless couples looking back at us – to see ourselves in them – was terrifying. But, as always, we kept going. Just kept putting one foot in front of the other and keeping our heads up. It’s all you can do sometimes: keeping calm, carrying on. They should put that on a poster.
We should have known by now that groups were never going to be as bad as we feared. In fact they weren’t ‘bad’ at all. I think we even enjoyed them. The room we were shown to was like a small church hall and we were the last of the six couples to arrive. A team of three social workers from our agency – Jo, Allison and Anita – were busily making (very welcome) cups of tea and offering biscuits. The chairs were arranged in a horseshoe, with the 12 of us sat facing a table and three further chairs at the front. There was a projector set up and a screen perched precariously on a stand.
Armed with tea and custard creams, we muttered pleasantries about the traffic and the lovely weather and just how nice this cup of tea was. Jo checked our names and we each wrote sticky name badges for ourselves. Then, fairly randomly, we parked ourselves in a pair of seats and waited for someone to say something.
Anita appeared to be the senior social worker running the sessions and she set out the agenda. We were there for two consecutive days the first week, then the Saturday, and then back again for two days the following week. We were to be encouraged to talk a lot, get to know each other a little and make sure that any questions we had were answered; either within the group or privately by one of the Adoption Matters NW team.
There’d be visitors too, parents who have adopted through the same process would talk about their experiences, warts and all, and on Saturday we would have a special session about ‘living with uncertainty’. This was an educational session, mostly about children with HIV or hepatitis, or with similar conditions.
It was encouraging to look around the room and see ten others who, in many ways, were just like us and yet seemed to be a fairly typical selection of wannabe parents. There were couples from all walks of life and a cross-section of ethnic backgrounds. There were academics, tradesmen and -women, professionals, housewives (and househusbands), young and old. We looked a reassuringly normal bunch, which was a surprisingly comforting notion.
There was a lot of gently interactivity – we stood and talked and swapped stories and joked and laughed (and cried) and did a fair bit of role play of one kind of another. Before you run for the hills, this role play wasn’t ‘acting’ in any sense, more responding to a range of scenarios about how adopted children may react differently (or not) to any set of circumstances.
Across the days, we learned a lot of useful, factual information; adoption breakdown rates, some truths about HIV and AIDS, many statistics on adoption in the UK and beyond. But the most valuable lessons were the ways in which adopted and ‘Looked After Children’ are different. How a range of fairly standard parenting techniques don’t apply – or apply differently – in cases of adoption.
The greatest, single, most valuable experience has to be the lunchtime sessions with adopters. We met with two couples and a mum who, on separate days, sat in the middle of our horseshoe whilst we picked at sandwiches and more custard creams, and relayed to us – with remarkable frankness – their experiences of adoption. We quizzed them and they tried to answer every question; they sounded like experts. It was enlightening, heartbreaking, humbling and wonderful.
At the end of the days a bond of sort had formed across the group. I’m not suggesting that lifelong friendships were formed (though they may have been) or that there were tears as the groups came to a close, but there was real warmth and camaraderie in that room by day five, and not just with the other couples. Jo, Allison and Anita with their knowledge, warmth, understanding and no little humour did their profession a grand service.
The end of groups was not unlike leaving a plane after a long flight. All a little weary, there was nonetheless a sense that we’d all moved forward despite initial misgivings and, even though we had farther to go, were all much nearer our destination. With a thankful nod to the crew on the way out, we each emerged in the sunlight with a sense of achievement and relief.
Certainly, Lisa and I felt more optimistic about the weeks and months ahead. To meet prospective adopters and hear from those who’d been through the same process and come out the other side – and to see ourselves in them – was to be a turning point in our story.
Watch out for the next instalment coming to the Adoption Matters Northwest website this March.
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