Sally Dawson-Couper and her serving wife Zoe share their journey to adopting three boys…

WE MET when Zoe came along to my rugby club, writes Sally. At the time, I was training to be a teacher and Zoe was looking to move out of the block. I needed a lodger so Zoe moved in and we’ve been together ever since.

Zoe trained to be a nurse and then commissioned as an officer. We’ve been posted to Birmingham, Portsmouth, Gütersloh, London and Aldershot.

Sometimes patches have been welcoming and other times a bit wary of us. We often found that our story arrived before we did and this could at times be accompanied by prejudice.

We entered into a civil partnership on the first day it became legal in 2005. The Army accepted partnerships from the off, but the computer system couldn’t cope at the beginning and on a number of occasions   my gender was changed to male.

Expanding the family

We were already thinking of a family and adoption seemed the sensible choice. We approached Birmingham City Council, but they were nervous about us being part of the Armed Forces and also being gay and turned us down.

Zoe had heard of SSAFA’s adoption agency through work and when we approached them, they welcomed us with open arms.

Following our initial phone call, we received a home visit to check that we understood the process and were suitable to proceed – somehow, they decided we were. The first preparation weekend was an eye opener as we were the only gay couple there. It’s nice to know that this has now radically changed. Zoe and I became the first same-sex couple to be approved as adopters   by SSAFA.

We then met our social worker and began a long and emotional journey, which involved completing numerous forms, creating a family tree and our support network diagram.

References were taken and our friends and family were visited. The culmination of this process was the Prospective Adopters Report – the document used at panel to decide whether or not we were suitable.

During the process, we had to think about the type of family we wanted. We found this difficult to agree on. Zoe wanted three children, being one of three herself, but I wasn’t sure.

Our social worker would always pick out groups of four or five, like the Army would just give us a house big enough!

In the end, the adoption panel, made up of people who have professional or personal experience or interest in adoption, approved us to adopt any number of children of any age.

Finding our boys

Zoe was training to deploy to Iraq and whilst she was away, we received a flyer for   three boys. That was it, I knew we’d found them.

I phoned her and said ‘I’ve found our boys’ and it was almost as simple as that.

The timing wasn’t perfect; Zoe had to explain to the Army that she couldn’t do the tour and needed to commit to taking on the boys.

They were understanding and allowed her to do this. We had just moved to Portsmouth and we realised that we were about to change our lives forever by becoming mothers of boys aged three, four and nine. We met the boys gradually whilst staying in a holiday cottage; first as a group for an hour, and then every day for a little longer.

It was a confusing time, feeling elated at meeting our family followed by worries over whether we would we be good enough parents. Would we cope? Would the boys love us? We still ask ourselves those questions now.

When the boys visited our home they seemed to like it – the eldest was over the moon at his own room. We realised we needed a bigger car when we finally brought them home for good.

The fun and games of establishing routines began. Food was interesting – simple questions like what they would like on their toast – jam, marmalade, Marmite? The resounding answer was Marmite, but the boys had no idea what Marmite was and they all hated it!

Lesson learned – make sure they understand what you’re offering before you make it.

Zoe took additional adoption leave. I had two weeks for half-term and one week of parental leave and I felt so guilty going back to school.

Zoe was at home with two of them, the middle one started school but there were educational issues with the eldest and his start was delayed whilst a teaching assistant was arranged.

During this time, we were visited by social workers. Ours was great, she bonded well with the boys and would just listen. Friends were also supportive.

Establishing routines

We were warned about the honeymoon period and in hindsight we got off lightly. The two youngest, who share a room, were chalk and cheese.

The youngest was a night owl and would be up organising his toys or drawers, anything but sleeping, then he’d be tired in the morning.

The middle one slept at night but would rise early excited to be starting a new day, so it was a source of problems. We didn’t think the bedroom situation could get any worse but the eldest decided he was scared and wanted to share with his brothers.

We established strict bedtime rules, decided on times and stuck to them for many years, adding fifteen minutes every birthday. It just about worked, and we managed to get some much-needed adult time once they were asleep.

SSAFA has always been there when we needed them. We often give them a ring to ask for advice.

Educating the boys has been one of the challenges, but SSAFA has been supportive on this too. It’s important to talk to the school, make them aware of the difficulties faced by adopted children and make sure they have plans in place.

SSAFA did some training with the school I work in and I can honestly say it was one of the best sessions we’ve had.

Adoption advice

Has it been easy? No. Would we do it again? Possibly not; we are just starting to get some time for ourselves.

Friends with birth children seem to face similar difficulties. There are some issues with adopted children, but they are different challenges rather than additional ones. Would we recommend it to others? Definitely.

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