Mum had stayed the night before. We were circling around each other doing bits of sporadic tidying and washing up and other day-to-day chores. I was ok, not too nervous, but a little on edge. Mum was watchful, also edgy, subtly keeping an eye on whether I was ok. (She’s a Mum. That’s how it goes. She’s great and I’m definitely not complaining.)
We agreed we’d head out with plenty of time. Parking, you know. And traffic. Ok, so our conversation was rather sporadic and probably wouldn’t have won any awards!
The first coffee of the day was brewed, poured, drunk and the cups washed up. We gathered a pen and paper (well you never know what might happen!), and leafed through the recent post pile to retrieve my letter, and finally got out the front door.
If you’ve been following this blog before you’ve probably guessed already. But yes … it was Approval Panel Day.
Four months earlier when the date was first mooted it had seemed a long way away. It was in the diary before the home study began; before the second lot of training; a long time earlier in terms of my reading and learning. But now it was here. I’d shared this experience vicariously with various of my new best friends on Twitter. I’d talked to some of the new friends I’ve made in real life who’d been through it. I’d had the last-minute realisation that (unlike one Twitter pal who’d bought new stuff deliberately) I hadn’t even engaged with what to wear until bedtime the night before (in the end went for average work clothes, which for me is the middle-of-the-road black trousers-and-a-top: I didn’t see how anyone could complain about that being either over the top or too dress down!).
But now it was here. As with all looming “big days” when it is there it feels, above all … odd. Less of a big deal than it did. Normal, but not. So yes: odd.
We arrived, parked, found our way into the building and, slightly perplexed at the lack of any reception, deposited ourselves on a visible sofa. There were several trays nearby with coffee cups and a plate of biscuits on. It had the feel of the right kind of place. We waited.
I think I was first on the Panel’s agenda; having arrived relatively early, we therefore had the experience of being passed by various people who looked at us slightly curiously (but friendlily) before walking on, greeting each other, pouring coffees and chinking cups on saucers.
I went to the loo, as you do.
After a few minutes the Panel Chair came over, introduced herself, and took us to a room. We were offered coffee and encouraged to help ourselves, as predicted. In fact from that point on I’d say that was the number one subject – we were offered coffee and encouraged to help ourselves every time anyone spoke to us all morning. It was that kind of day – lots of politeness and what felt like genuine friendliness, with the oddity of it all looming in the background.
So we’d made it to the right place, we’d been identified for who we were, and we’d been offered coffee. This was it. The Chair roped in another colleague and together they briefed us (my social worker hadn’t arrived quite yet although she was there a few minutes later – we were still all early). I was told the first question I’d be asked (although apparently it’s always the same anyway in my agency anyway and my social worker had already told me it would be coming!), and provided with a folder with profiles of everyone on the panel. I was asked if my Mum was coming into the panel with me. As we hadn’t even realised that was an option after a moment of thought I said exactly that and so as we hadn’t thought about it before we’d stick with plan A, with Mum waiting for me and being there before and after. This seemed to go down ok (as far as you can ever tell). It did throw me though being asked – indeed it was the second most surprising event of the morning! The most surprising was yet to come …
Despite having known about the first question for ten days or so already (my Social Worker had forewarned me at my last prep meeting) I had nevertheless failed to prepare before, and I failed to concentrate now too. Waffling it would have to be! My Social Worker joined us. Small talk ensued. (Apparently in Panel we then independently referred to the same thing I’d done a couple of days earlier though, which I suppose may have helped it look as if at least we communicated well.)
So. Enough preamble. How did the Panel actually go?
Well, first the Panel convened without any of us. Then my social worker was invited in. That was probably the hardest 20 minutes as I sat waiting, walking over to the window and back to my seat. (It was a small room. There wasn’t really very far to pace. My Mum is endlessly tolerant however, and yet again I had reason to be grateful.). Finally I was invited to join them.
I went in. I looked around, bright but calm, and sat next to my social worker exactly as I had been told would happen. There were introductions. And then the questions began.
I had already decided to treat it like a job interview. By which I mean I thought the best idea was probably to “be me” as best I could, but also do the whole professional conscious thing – looking around but focusing on the chair, sitting up, smiling, making eye contact with everyone etc. Whether that was what everyone does I have not idea, but it worked for me. Maybe I talked too much; it’s an occupational hazard of being me (NB yes, length of blog posts can be seen as a leading indicator!). I was quite analytical and explicatory. I answered the questions as best I could. They asked about what my ideal family looked like; about what I’d learned in the process and whether I’d changed; about male influences and my local support network; and – a topic I should have predicted would come up as it seems to intrigue people – they asked about blogging and Twitter. The opening question (the one I’d theoretically had all that time to prepare) was all about how I’d found the process. Although I hadn’t noted anything down I had already decided it was my best opportunity to throw in anything that I thought might be worrying them ahead of the more specific questions to pre-empt any worries. As a result though the rest of the Panel meant we ended up doing not a small amount of circling around!
Eventually, after nearly everyone had asked a question (yes, I am sure it was set up that way) the Chair smiled and said that was it, I’d answered all their planned questions. And now they’d need to consult.
Internally I frowned. (My face stayed, I hope, bright, engaged and cheerful!) This was the point where I left I knew – my social worker had explained that and anyway, I’d seen it on the telly too! The Panel would now, I knew, discuss me then come out to brief me or I would be invited back in.
Thinking quickly I ran through the options – were those words themselves a cue I should leave? Did I need to wait for something first? Were they going to tell me where to go? Was this a further test? Obviously it would be rude just to up and walk out. Or would it? In the end I simply nodded and looked around looking positive at everyone, and asked the Chair if I should step out, gesturing and half moving as if to stand up.
This was then the big surprise of the day.
Oh no says the Chair. It’s your story, you should stay. If that’s ok with you. They would need to talk among themselves though, I do understand that? She points out tissues on the table in case I need them. I smile, I nod, I say of course and thank you, I glance around the room again (yes, still in interview mode!) and I subside back into my seat. My mind is racing by now, split into parallel thoughts all entwined with each other:
- Strand 1) Behavioural control: stay professional, keep your cool, keep smiling and engaging and making eye contact, be open, be willing to adapt to whatever they suggest;
- Strand 2) Analysis: this is unexpected; they must have had a pretty good idea before I even came into the room. Am I comfortable with this (answer, immediately: yes I can’t see why not)? Is my social worker comfortable with this (answer, based on a very brief discreet sideways glance: er, hard to tell, she is being inscrutable – so perhaps a little surprised, but not uncomfortable?)?
- Plus … Strand 3) Racing through my brain, behind the calm exterior … “THEY”RE GOING TO SAY YES! THEY WOULDN’T MAKE ME STAY IN THE ROOM IF THEY WERE GOING TO DEFER ME OR SAY NO! THEYRE GOING TO SAY YES!”
And thus did it prove. Consultation was proven, in my case, to involve an open question as to whether everyone had a view, responded to with a unanimous, happy, loud, very positive and simultaneous “YES” from everyone. They read out some wording – which they must have prepared in advance – that would go on record to describe why they said yes. One of them asked specifically to add extra words, as did the Chair.
I think I said thank you. And looked happy. And excited. And there was a small amount of small talk. I know just before I left they said to have a great day and celebrate and I told them I had three small children (and their mother) coming to stay so I thought my day might be organised for me which made them laugh and smile back. Other than that who really knows what I said in those few minutes.
It was a truly lovely few moments though. I do remember that. I really felt everyone in the room was giving out excited and happy vibes. They looked at me with real empathy and warmth; they seemed pleased with me and for me; they were in turn thrilled by my own (slightly bewildered!) happiness.
Eventually we got out of the room. There was slight superficial confusion as I went over to Mum with my social worker just behind and the panel Chair behind her, and it was suggested we might want to make our way to a different room and coffee was offered (of course). I managed to mutter privately that they’d decided already, I’d been approved. Mum looked at me in confusion and then in shock as slowly she understood what I was saying. Total awed amazement and happiness then spread across her face. I think she was more emotional than I was! I hugged her and explained that they’d decided without even sending me out of the room.
Mum was teary-eyed; by this point so was I.
It was going to happen. I had been approved. Yes, there was still such a long way to go, but it was a reality.
The three of us (me, my mother and my social worker) ended up in the corner of yet another rather larger, room than the first. We chatted about … well I know not what really. We drank more coffee. We discussed when we’d meet again to look at profiles and it was suggested that I might want to think about Children Who Wait or Be My Parent if I wanted to. We acknowledged there was a whole new game to play now.
Ultimately it was all a little unreal. I had finally, after all the build up, been to Panel. I had to wait for another ten days for the Agency Decision Maker to make her decision, so it wasn’t final. There was still a long way to go.
But … everything that I could do had been done. All the thinking, talking, learning, reading, listening, sharing, hoping had led to here.
The Panel had said YES.
It was time to head home for coffee.