Navigating a Journey

Alex Mason (@babytismoffire), mother to one daughter, English SLE and The MTPT Project’s Adoption Advocate explains becoming a parent via adoption has helped her to prioritise self care and improved her pastoral approach with students in the classroom.  You can read her full adoption story in her book The Babytism of Fire.

I am a wife.  I am a teacher.   I am a mum.  And I am me.    

As we all know juggling mum and teacher can be a circus act all in its own right, and as a mum through adoption, I have no idea what it is like to teach class after class of teenagers whilst growing my own human and wondering whether my feet will ever return to their dainty normal ever again. 

I do however know what it is like to silently navigate fertility treatment whilst trying to teach my best, lead my team without showing cracks, all with a load of alien hormones rolling round my body want to burst out in either a torrent of boo hoos or irrational rage at why the kettle takes its time to boil, knowing that it isn’t working at that the only thing you feel like you can do well is teach, because you are failing at bio.  It is here where I started to realise how ‘part of me’ (step aside Miss World) teaching is.

Next stage, starting adoption.  Retrospectively, this is a bit strange, it is the only time you go to your Head or your HR and inform them of your plans to start a family.   

I do not think that there are many times when you step into your Head’s office and utter the words ‘Jackie, tonight’s the night, me and the husband are starting a family’.  But with adoption you do.  And then, for many they quietly take their days off for Adoptive Parenting Training – listening to stories that, as someone who has worked with children for the best part of 20 years, breaks you, lingers with you, frightens you, and reminds you of children you have worked with – not once, but many, many times.  Stage one complete.  You then embark on Stage Two and feel guilty every time you slink off early because your social worker is coming for a visit, or you have another quiet day off because the social workers can’t do after school.  You worry that people will think that you are shirking your responsibility or that you are just skiving, especially if you hold a position of responsibility.  Eventually you go to panel where you sit in front of 8 total strangers, you and your partner, flanked by your social workers, ready to be challenged and quizzed in everything you have said and written down over 6 months of ‘adoption preparation’, knowing that their opinion of you will determine whether you will or won’t become parents.  For 45 minutes you respond, you expand and then you leave having no idea what you have said but hoping that you have said enough.

We only waited 6 weeks after becoming approved adopters to become ‘foster to adopt’ parents to our then 9-week-old daughter.  For us, we did not have a couple of months to prepare work for me going on adoption leave, or to prepare ourselves for introductions and transition.  We had 24 hours to inform my school, and 7 days to prepare ourselves.  You always hope it will happen one day; you never quite believe it will happen so quickly.

Before I became a mum to our awesome teeny wee human, I was a Director of English at a large secondary school with aspirations of becoming an Assistant Principal, then eventually Deputy Head (I have no idea if I ever want to actually become a Head).  An opportunity at my local upper school came up and I applied, (which in terms of family-work-life balance was the dream location) and was employed as an SLE for English, and over the last 12 months I have become KS4 Curriculum Progress Leader: I still have aspirations of becoming an Assistant Principal and eventually a Deputy Head, but I feel as though I have to fight a little bit harder now as I feel the need to compensate for the 24 hours-notice I gave when I became ‘mum’.

I feel that the adoption journey has provided me with opportunities that, unless you are involved heavily in safeguarding, you tend not to appreciate or experience within your career.  Not only in terms of impact of trauma and the importance of attachment, but with regards to managing multi-agencies, navigating cross-county care systems and fulfilling the expectations that I had of myself in my new role, and the expectations that our social workers had of us too.  Our daughter was tiny when she came home, but for young people who are older and are able to understand the world to a certain degree, this navigation of the care system can have such an impact on them and how they able to create and establish their own identity – and this is something that I think translates into separated or divorced families to.

I always thought that I was a resilient person before I became a parent, but learning to managed and navigate the expectations of the care system when you are a parent but with no rights as one until you get permanence, is a type of resilience I didn’t think I would ever have.

I spent my adoption leave searching for the new me: I felt snatched from my working me, thrust into the new mum me, and finding that the me me was somewhere lost between the two.  I always thought that the idea of ‘self-care’ was huggy mumbo jumbo that was spouted by social workers to make you feel less guilty for wanting to do something for yourself, but as my adoption leave continued, I realised that it is vital as a parent.  But, ironically, since returning to work, it is even more vital.  I think that quite often, as teachers, we tend to forget about ourselves in the middle of the maelstrom of workload, expectation, performance measures, accountability, students, stakeholders, parents, your own family, your own ambitions, etc. and actually we need to get better at saying ‘No, if it can’t be done whilst I am at work or within a reasonable amount of time after 3.30pm then it will have to wait.’  I have become infinitely better at maximising my time without feeling as though I am not doing enough, and I will not have work invade my home (unless absolutely necessary or by choice) as that is a safe haven for me, my husband and our teeny wee human.  It is so important that I do not allow our teeny wee human to feel as though we have compromised family time by work commitments, because for many children: whether they have been part of the care system or not, will never be able to understand why work was more important that time with them.

How has the adoption journey informed me as a teacher?  In more ways that I can mention.  Most significantly it has impacted my understanding of behaviour and my ‘handling’ of negative behaviour.  I do not use levels as they are meaningless and are done to a student.  I try to approach behaviour as you would empathic parenting, with understanding that the behaviour is a consequence not a cause, and as the adult in the room it is my job to enable the young person to understand that their reaction is not ideal and that they have the opportunity to reflect and amend their behaviour.  I provide students with opportunity to take time out (if needed) and to regulate so that they can respond in a way that is helpful to them and their learning.

Whilst I was on Adoption Leave I started a blog as a way to help me navigate and process our journey, and then put it into a book called ‘The Babytism of Fire’ which is our journey into parenthood and the first year of being a parent through adoption, in particular Foster to Adopt.  Since returning to work and finding the new work me (I have decided that you don’t return to work the same as when you left, you have morphed into a newer version who still have ambition but with the ability to multitask on a level that only Yoda and Inspector Gadget can truly appreciate) I have embarked taken part in as much CPD as I can – I have done a coaching course through CUREE and I am currently working through my NPQSL.  I still hope to become an Assistant Principal one day, and I actually feel that if the opportunity came up, that I may just be brave enough to take it.