Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Christmas, fatherhood, leaving care, new beginnings, son
I remember the lights and colours and stacks of presents under the tree with their tiny tears. Peeking was as much a part of Christmas as turkey and sprouts.
When I look back to those Christmas’ before I went into care nostalgia takes hold and pulls me under. It takes me all the way down to a place that is free from the times that followed. That place is still pure. Perhaps purer then it ever really was. It is a sanctuary that I am now allowing myself to return to because for a long time I banished it from my mind.
I feel myself being shaken out of the darkness. The world coming into focus through the face of my mum who is rocking me awake. Her eyes are wide and filled with excitement. ‘Wake up, wake up.’
Soon me, my little brother and mum are sitting underneath the tree. ‘We’re just going to open one each’, she says. The clock says we’ve only just crept past midnight. We open them all.
The memory breaks into pieces and starts to scatter. I can’t hold on to it. Bright reds and greens and golds and silvers swirl. Before it is all gone I see us in our dressing gowns. I am pouring water into the top of the train. I push the switch and we all watch in amazement as it chugs across the carpet pumping out real steam.
Then things change. You have no control. Just a pawn on a board in a game you have no clue about. You hold onto the hope that this is temporary, but as time passes that hope fades. In its place you build walls. You duck down and dig in…and then Christmas comes.
It strips everything back. It amplifies everything in its very nature of being a time you share with those that are the most important to you. The people that you love. Your family and your friends. Even if they annoy the hell out of you, or you find it difficult to be around each other, this is the time you come together.
This can be an incredibly difficult time and, for me, it wasn’t isolated to my time in care. It carried deep into my adulthood. That amplification never went away. It acted as a reminder of what was taken away from me. I know that nostalgia plays its part, but I also know that Christmas was always a very special time at home.
We did not have much, but at Christmas we had everything. Mum moved heaven and earth during that time of the year to make it special and that stays with me. The beauty in that memory however became corrosive over the years. Until I had my son.
This year feels different. I see the excitement in my son’s eyes and it rekindles the same excitement I felt as my mum rocked me awake that night. Together with my wife, we are building Christmas anew. We will create new memories that will amplify their own story as time passes.
Christmas will forever carry an echo of those times I spent away from my family, but as I have written before, these echoes carry the message of how important right here and now is, and that we have to take our own destiny in our hands and build our own future. At this time of the year I want to build something magical for my son. I want him to see the same excitement I saw in my mum’s eyes back at the beginning.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: care, care leavers, confidence, employment, insecurity, leaving care, parents, self-confidence
I never really believed I could get the job. After I was shortlisted for the interview there was a moment when hope dared to flutter into my thoughts, but I quickly buried it under my concrete insecurities. The role was far too out of reach for me. I didn’t have the right experience. I would get found out in the interview. My wife and my friends at work cheer led from the sidelines as best they could, but I became increasingly afraid as I thought about the next stage in the process.
It takes me two scans through my care file to find it. ‘On 3rd October, 1988 [mum] phones Social Services saying she had left both boys with a neighbour and that she had no intention of collecting them as she could not cope’.
I have tried to remember that day a number of times throughout my life. I have even attempted to write about it and have sat my brother and myself on the neighbour’s sofa with our feet dangling over the side. He is crying and I am scowling. The neighbour is in the kitchen washing up and waiting. What must she have felt back then I now wonder. It is a story I’ve told myself so much that it almost feels real.
This was not the first time I went into care, but was the last time. After this occasion I never went back home to live as a child. This experience and all the moves that followed chipped away at a self confidence that was once brutally strong. It was a confidence that had me challenging anyone to a running race in the playground, a confidence to scale up the sides of any buildings clothed in scaffolding and a confidence to run around with kids older than me and hold my own. This all before I reached ten.
In care this confidence was smashed. I became hollow. I tried to reach out, but I did not know how. One set of foster parents, that I spent a considerable amount of time with, wrote in my file that I knew what pleased people and that I could be a ‘bit of a creep’.
I remember them calling me that and at the time it was seen as funny. But things like this only contributed to the distancing I felt – between me and other people and, most importantly, the distance I felt open up between the me I knew, and the me I was becoming in care.
I was embarrassed by being me because I was in care. The fact that I kept being moved only enhanced this feeling and a sense of abandonment, first by my blood and then by the system.
As I get older, my childhood is something I have continuous dialogue with. I admire that boy and that he came through that experience. He is my champion, but there are times when I struggle to make the leap to the man I have become.
On the outside I have crafted a number of roles I play to the world. They even have me fooled from time to time, but still the memory of the rejection lingers.
When I received the phone call letting me know that my first interview and presentation had gone well and that I was shortlisted with one other for a second interview a relief flooded over me.
I had not made a fool of myself.
The worst of it was over and for a moment I did not care about the job, I was just so happy I had survived and come through it. Then I quickly set about preparing for the final interview with the help of two friends at work that throughout the process shrugged off their support as nothing, but who kept me afloat.
I remember the rugby player Brian Moore once talking about his career as a top rugby player and representing his country and how he never felt good enough, but it was this feeling that pushed him on to achieve so much. He talked about the positive use of negativity and how you can either use it or let it use you.
After the second interview I walked out knowing I had done as much as I could. Again I felt relief that I hadn’t embarrassed myself, but I also felt proud of what I had achieved to get to that point. I still held back the belief that I could get the job, but now it was over in my head there was nothing more I could do.
The next day as I was sitting at my desk the phone went. I knew it was about the job and took the call outside. I braced myself because in that moment I was so close and I suddenly let it all go and I desperately let myself want the job. On the other end the voice talked about some areas for development and that I lacked certain experience. My heart sank as I agreed on the phone. ‘But taking that into account we would like to offer you the job’. I wanted to scream, but replied ‘that’s fantastic news’.
When I came back into the office my two colleagues who had been so supportive looked up at me expectedly. I smile stretched across my face and said ‘we did it!’
I know that I will always carry a lack of confidence that I believe was profoundly brought about by being in care, but I also know that it is the war I wage with this negativity that has kept me pushing on into places I never thought I belonged. It is important to add that growing up in care does not give me a monopoly in the ongoing struggle for confidence. I think that is very much part of being human. We all carry that fear that likes to wake up from a slumber just in time for job interviews, school or work presentations and any kinds of public speaking.
As somebody who has grown up in care, I know there is so much that wants to turn us away from a life we deserve, there is so much that wants to push us towards being a stereotype and being part of the statistics that tell us we are less likely to achieve good grades at school, that we are much more likely to become prisoners and prostitutes and drug users.
But none of us have to become slaves to our experiences.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: child, childhood, children in care, families, mentor, mentoring
My intention for this blog entry was to rewrite something I had composed sitting in my garden way past midnight some time ago. I had just dropped Daniel (not his real name) back to his foster carers. It was the first time he had been to my house. He met my wife. We talked in the garden, ate lasagne and then spent the rest of the night cracking up to Richard Pryor.
When I got back home I went out into the garden and sat on the bench bathed in the light of the security lamp. I was exhausted. That’s when the feeling comes. It comes from a long long way and drags so much with it. It is part of the deal. I accept that. Right now all that text I wrote without much thought sits under the line I am now watching drag itself across this computer screen. Those words down there feel too far away now, like someone I once knew, but have lost touch with.
As always, the beginning of my writing is a struggle. I often start with a voiceless feeling that aches to be more. It aches into a ripple, a ripple into a tide, a tide of words. Words the last gasp of that original feeling and a poor substitute because what I feel put into words is always running away from what I’m really trying to say. Every word dilutes these feelings. I wish I could paint.
How can I introduce Daniel and our relationship? On the forms I fill out after our meetings they say I am his mentor, which makes him my mentee. Both terms jar in my throat and whenever they leave my lips in conversation an apology immediately chases them down.
I know what I am supposed to say about our supposed roles and I could reel off all sorts of things about what my ‘function’ is supposed to be. But we’re just two people in a strange situation and I am trying my hardest to let him know I am here, and I understand.
But increasingly I see I can’t understand like I thought I could. Everybody’s care experience is different. I can read reports and case studies and study statistics, but Daniel has his own story. Whilst it’s true that we share the experience of being in care, that is not always a bridge. He does not want his vulnerability to be put on show.
When I first met him with his social worker, Daniel sat slouched in his chair and looked disinterested. It took me back. I couldn’t help but remember all the times I sat just like that with my ‘I don’t care face’, all the while listening, watching and processing it all. I felt helpless and so out of control. I looked into his eyes as he sat across from me and I wasn’t fooled by his apparent disinterest.
We have got on from the beginning. Laughed and joked. We have set boundaries, but both creep over them from time to time. He tests me, pushes me and when he asks if I have ever taken drugs or if I smoke or asks about women I stumble through my thoughts of what to say.
He stands at almost 6ft and I have to remind myself he is 14, but I also have to remind myself that everything we build is on trust. At the beginning I avoided some of his questions and fell back on the ‘that’s private, I’m not saying yes or no’, but that has faded as we have got closer. He opens up to me and tells me things that make me laugh, but then also scare me.
But this relationship is much harder than I ever thought it would be. In the training before I started they warned me that it would be tough at times. There would be let downs and the relationship could possibly break up. This is not for the faint-hearted or the fleetingly altruistic.
There are times when you want to give up because you feel you are not making a difference and it can really hurt. You can give a lot and get nothing back, but as Angela (who runs Stepping Up UK who I mentor through) said ‘he keeps turning up doesn’t he? So you must be doing something right’.
Those words carried me a long way. I have to admit at the beginning I thought it would be different for me as somebody who had grown up in care. I thought I could clamber my way through all the barbed wire that I knew would be between us at the beginning. But, of course,there are no free passes. Trust takes time and lots of hard work. Trust is probably the most important thing to somebody in care; trust and time.
I am getting used to long silences and one word answers to questions. I also constantly remind myself he is 14 and this comes with the territory. I am getting good at stealing smiles off him through my own stupidity. He is teaching me to be a better father to my son and also how to listen better.
We both take turns to teach and learn, though I wish I could have more influence on him. He has so much potential. Words that are plastered on all my school reports. I was too busy trying to get through my childhood to realise that potential. I regret that now, but also understand why he rejects school at this stage in his life.
I hope the future will look after him, and give him time and education like it did me. There are people around Daniel that care about him and want him to do well, so he has a chance. He is intelligent, but like so many of us is afraid. I keep trying to tell him we all carry this fear, but what separates people is what they choose to do with it. Again, I have to remind myself he is just 14.
Mentoring is a challenge. Working with young people in care can be incredibly hard whatever role you play, but Daniel’s life has been hard, harder then most. Some of us are lucky enough to fall into our families when we fall. It’s something many of us take for granted. Why wouldn’t we?
But to wake up in another person’s house and to be raised by people that do not share your history or your dark brown eyes can be isolating. Instinctively the reaction is to withdraw. When you’re young, feelings can often be hard to articulate, so we say little or nothing at all. Our care experience can sometimes seem to pollute our identity and corrupt our memory of our childhood.
Of course there are people where the total reverse is true and being taken into care can act as the turning point they need in their lives. It is the breath of air, the ray of light, but even in these situations to be uprooted from what is, ultimately, home (no matter what the outside sees) is incredibly difficult for a child to process.
I have to tell myself these things a lot now. I have to take myself back and remember. So when I sit across from Daniel in a restaurant and I can’t get him to speak I have to think that is ok because in the end no matter what the most important thing is that I am there and he keeps coming. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have the words, as long as we have each other’s presence. There will be time to talk when and if he wants. My role is to be there.
I am, as always when writing this blog, a little bit lost. So I am going to finish it with some text from the original blog entry I wrote, as I feel closer to it now:
‘I care about him. I have told him, but it’s difficult to convey that to a child. I’m tempted to delete that and say ‘young person’ because that would probably be more politically correct, but even though he does go out to all hours and does drink and does smoke, he is still a child and that should be protected.
‘He would hate that, because he wants to escape childhood as quickly as possible, but I feel there is a responsibility to try to let children be children. In care you have to grow up too fast. You see too much. Feel too much. It is hard to see the child in him, but we need to help them hold onto that for as long as they can.
‘I want to do more. Help him more. Sometimes I feel weak and helpless. Sometimes I just want to hug him because I can feel that hurt, but I don’t. It is a kind of hurt that doesn’t want to be hugged. It wants to be buried. It’s taking time, but I’m starting to learn that I can’t fix him. I thought after my experience I could. I was blind. But it’s not about fixing. It’s about presence and being there. Especially when they act like they don’t want you there.’
Filed under: Moving on, Moving on, Uncategorized | Tags: children in care, family, identity, lac, relationships, The Who Cares? Trust, Who Cares?, Who Cares? Trust
First an email asking if I would be interested in filming a small piece about fatherhood.
Then there was a phone call. This turned into a mini interview with an assistant producer from Channel 4’s ‘4Thought’ programme – the series of two minute pieces they show after the news.
Then there was some to-ing and fro-ing, over dates and whether the filming would be in London or Manchester.
Then I was on a train heading to Manchester with my girlfriend Clea, and my son Dylan.
If I’m honest, I never really stopped to think through what I was doing properly. My only real thoughts and concerns were for my own parents, especially my dad.
When I told my mum in the kitchen on one of her weekly visits to my flat, she broke down. ‘I’m still so ashamed’ she wept.
‘Mum we’re not those people anymore,’ I said trying to fix the moment. But we both knew we were still those people or, at least, that we still carried those people within us.
The boy who couldn’t understand why nobody wanted him. The mother who was afraid of what she might do to the boy if he stayed: ‘I know you have to do this, I just wish things were different’.
My mum has fought a war with herself ever since she made that decision, twenty five years ago.
I have watched from the sidelines, unable to help her because ultimately this is a civil war, and only she can call the truce that will end it.
I have tried to let her know, while I can never quite understand how she came to that decision, I can somehow, in some way, appreciate it.
I know her story and I lived some of that story and the truth is I think she is amazing to still be here. Scarred and weary, still struggling at times, she is an inspiration everyday.
But she would never accept that.
I didn’t tell my dad about the programme until after I had filmed it. I was afraid. Not of him, but for him. Together, over the last few years, we have built bridges that have become strong.
We have built something brand new together. We couldn’t fix what had passed, but we could make something new and we did. Since my son was born this has only got stronger and, at the same time, he has softened.
He is vulnerable. He is human. He’s my dad.
I wanted to protect him as he is now, but I knew I had to talk about him as he was then.
I knew talking about the past would be difficult for all of us. As I lay in the bath that night after filming, I decided to phone him. He listened as I told him about the programme and how I had been approached.
I felt like I was stabbing him in the back. He had changed. We had changed. It felt like I was digging up the past, but at the same time I wanted to tell a small part of my story and his story: a story of change and resolution.
After I stopped talking there was a pause. ‘It’s ok’ he said ‘we’re all in harmony now’. A weight lifted off of me.
When the programme was filmed I spent 30 minutes in a chair talking about being in care, my dad, how I found Jesus for a bit as a substitute for a dad and then I talked about being a dad myself.
The whole thing was a blur.
Before the interview, I asked that they make sure that they included that my dad and I were in a very different place now, but they didn’t. As expected, 30 minutes was cut down to under 2 mins, but in the edit my dad was left battered and bruised.
Bits and pieces I had said to balance the story were now missing. I felt my story had been twisted, but at the same time I was proud of the piece as a document. At the end they showed my girlfriend and my son, and the experience of filming it together is a memory of now that we can cherish and protect.
I was worried, after seeing the film, about my dad. But he took it on the chin with a joke about how it being an ‘assassination’.
As I sit here now typing this out I think he is completely right, but probably not in the way he meant it.
It was an assassination. The man I talk of as my father in that film is dead. People do change. Families that are broken can be remade different, remade anew.
We still carry all the bumps and bruises and we still carry the people that we were. But I don’t hold onto this past because although that is somewhere I have been, it is not where I am now.
I dedicate this blog to my mum and dad. Thank you for living the change that it is so important for us all to believe in.
The 4thought piece is available to watch online.