Classic fiction and adoption-related plots

I wasn’t sure what to write about this week. My brain isn’t in sonnet mode at the moment, and most of my attention has been focused on getting round the local 10k road race whilst trying not to swear too much (I managed it, got a PB, and am spending the rest of the weekend sitting down). But two threads on Twitter have been playing on my mind this weekend. One is about the classic fiction we’d recommend to younger readers, and how problematic these recommendations are. There’s a nostalgic rosy glow surrounding many of our childhood favourites, but when we go back to them, it’s not long before we start to see images and ideas that we really shouldn’t be passing on without any kind of health warning. The other was sparked by a tweet by a YA writer about her favourite adoption tropes. There were lots of OMGs from the writer about adopted children bringing joy to the hearts of adopters, lots of excitement about adopted people being rescued from error and misfortune – and lots of absolutely rightful pushback from adopted people pointing out that their lives shouldn’t be treated as a plot device. The writer of the original tweet subsequently posted that she hadn’t thought about it that way, and then deleted the whole thread, but really. How can anyone involved in the creative industries, in 2022, not recognise the problem of reducing a group of people to plot tropes, and tweet about it as if those people didn’t exist in the real world? Come on.

There’s a clear intersection between the two threads, because classic fiction is, of course, full of adoption-related plots. Lemn Sissay’s installation Superman was a Foundling lists some of the many, many fictional characters who are adopted, fostered, orphaned or abandoned, and is an eye-opening starting-point if you’d never realised just how widespread these particular themes are. Look more closely at some of these characters, and the tropes will hit you thick and fast. Bitter adopted child intent on destroying adoptive family: hello, Heathcliff. Adopted child helping to soften and humanise a misanthropic outcast: there’s Eppie from Silas Marner, and I guess we could even include William from Goodnight Mister Tom as well. There’s sour and surly Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden; there are the countless plucky orphans who populate Charles Dickens’ novels and the characters who – like Posy, Paulina and Petrova in Ballet Shoes – are collected like souvenirs and blaze through life like stars with never a thought for their families of origin. Adopted children who are resentful misfits; adopted children who are prodigiously talented; adopted children who make the sun shine and the birds sing because their main role in life is to make other people happy, like Pollyanna with her Glad Game. And that’s before we even get to that sodding boy wizard.

Extract from ‘Superman was a Foundling by Lemn Sissay, Foundling Museum, London. Photo taken by me in October 2017.

One novel that always comes up in recommendations for classic children’s fiction is L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, first published in 1908. Anne Shirley, adopted at the age of eleven by brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, is probably one of fiction’s most famous adopted characters. To generations of readers, Anne of Green Gables is most memorable for the series of scrapes that Anne gets herself into. She gets her ‘bosom friend’ Diana Barry drunk on currant wine, thinking it’s raspberry cordial, and flavours a cake with liniment, believing it to be vanilla essence. She walks along the ridgepole of a roof for a dare, falls off, and breaks her ankle. She hits Gilbert Blythe over the head with her slate when he taunts her about her hair. She almost drowns when she and her friends try to dramatise the Arthurian legend of the Lily Maid of Astolat, and her boat springs a leak. She tries to dye her hair black, and ends up turning it green. Anne is a little girl with a vivid imagination, turning an avenue of apple trees into the White Way of Delight and the Barrys’ pond into the Lake of Shining Waters. The only thing she professes herself unable to imagine away is her red hair.

On the surface, Anne of Green Gables is a charming story. It has featured in numerous charts of the most popular novels of all time: it has been adapted for stage, film, radio and television, and every year thousands of people flock to Prince Edward Island to visit its settings. But there is a much more complex story underneath, one that needs to be viewed through the lens of adoption. There’s a reason why Anne needs such a vivid imagination, and it’s because her life has been singularly awful: difficult, lonely, and abusive. Orphaned at three months old, she has been taken in first by a Mrs Thomas, who has a drunken husband, and subsequently by a Mrs Hammond, who has eight children of her own, including three sets of twins. Her place in the Thomas and Hammond households was to be a domestic help, rather than a loved member of the family. When Mr Thomas is killed falling under a train, his mother offers Mrs Thomas and her children a home, ‘but she didn’t want me’. When Mr Hammond dies, his wife divides her children up amongst her relatives, but ‘I had to go to the asylum at Hopeton, because nobody would take me. They didn’t want me at the asylum, either; they said they were over-crowded as it was’. She has had to imagine companions for herself, imagining that her reflection in a bookcase is a little girl called Katie Maurice, and that the echo of her voice is another little girl called Violetta. And she is in danger of not being wanted again, as the Cuthberts wanted a boy to help on the farm, not a girl.

Adoption, in the novel, is surrounded by stigma. Mrs Rachel Lynde warns Marilla about adopted children who set fire to their adoptive families’ houses and burn them to a crisp in their beds, or alternatively poison them by putting strychnine down the well. Anne eventually becomes a much-loved member of the local community, but she has to earn this position. Marilla intends to train Anne to be ‘a useful little thing’, and Anne herself vows to ‘try to do and be anything you want me, if you’ll only keep me’. And she works hard, although the most important work she does is not physical but emotional, bringing joy to shy Matthew and softening the heart of flinty old Marilla. She’s not alone. Time and time again we see adopted children and orphans in literature carrying out this kind of emotional labour in the lives of their new families.

And significantly, Anne is not allowed to forget that being adopted makes her an outsider. Her place in the community is not a given: she has to make herself acceptable and is reminded that she must bow to convention. When she turns down an offer of marriage from Billy Andrews, his sister Jane warns her that she might live to regret the chance of joining an established Avonlea family, as she is ‘merely an adopted orphan, without kith or kin’. Later, when one of her stories is published in a local newspaper, a disapproving acquaintance tells her that ‘she was very sorry to hear she had taken to writing novels; nobody born and bred in Avonlea would do it; that was what came of adopting orphans from goodness knew where, with goodness knew what kind of parents’.

It’s important for us to be aware of these tropes and stereotypes. It’s important, because they still exist. As I’ve mentioned before, the Dude was once told by another child that ‘all adopted people end up in prison’. (The Dude, bless him, retorted by pointing out that actually, most superheroes were adopted, but he shouldn’t have to feel that he has to be a superhero: he shouldn’t have to be anything, apart from himself.) And it’s important because adoption-related storylines often fly under the radar. Another thread I’ve read over the past few days concerns text choices at GCSE: I’ve already written about Blood Brothers and the appalling doomed-adoptee trope that it plays around with, but here’s a reminder not to use that godawful Blood Brothers resource that asks students to imagine they’ve just found out they’re adopted. Teachers of English need to be just as careful when teaching adoption-related texts as they would be with any other texts that address sensitive issues. Being separated from your family of origin, whatever the circumstances, is trauma. Waiting lists for post-adoption support and therapeutic life story work are hideously long. Support for adopted adults is pretty much non-existent, although organisations like Adoptee Futures are working hard to change this situation.

And yet, adoption-related plotlines continue to roll around, earning millions for the entertainment industry. Hey, wouldn’t it be excellent if some of that was ploughed back into counselling and therapy? What if ‘apologetic writer sees the error of their ways and seeks to make amends’ became a trope? I won’t hold my breath.

We need to talk about The Woman in Black

She’s scary, that woman. Look at her, standing there at the back of the church without a prayer book, or in the abandoned graveyard. Or, rather – don’t look at her. You never know what you might unleash. Keep your head down, keep walking, and carry on as if you never saw her in the first place.

If you’ve ever taught Susan Hill’s 1983 novel The Woman in Black, ever seen the stage play or the Daniel Radcliffe film or the 1989 ITV adaptation, you’ll know just how frightening Jennet Humfrye, the Woman in Black, actually is. Jennet, with her wasted face and malevolent gaze, haunts the lonely churchyard and marshes of the isolated town of Crythin Gifford, and casts an eerie spell over Arthur Kipps, the young solicitor who has been sent from London to sort out the papers of the mysterious Mrs Drablow after her death. Her fleeting appearances in the stage play have audience members shrieking in their seats.  In the television adaptation, scripted by Nigel Kneale of Quatermass fame, she swoops down like a grinning harpy over Kipps as he lies in his bed, and screeches in his face.

Me, confronted with another set of adoption stereotypes

The Woman in Black is incredibly popular in schools. It’s a set text for OCR and Eduqas at GCSE, and it’s also used widely in Key Stage 3, partly because it’s a brilliant introduction to the Gothic, but also because it’s a cracking novel in its own right. We do it at the beginning of Year Nine, and students enjoy it: they rise to the challenge of what is a relatively ‘adult’ novel, and are intrigued by the way Hill controls tension and builds atmosphere. Living as we do on the edge of the Fens, they also find Hill’s descriptions of misty, marshy landscapes extremely evocative. We spend time looking at the way she conveys the delicacy of the light, the weak winter sun and the calls of distant birds. Last year, one of my students showed me a photograph he’d taken during his journey to school one foggy morning. ‘Look, Miss’, he said, ‘it’s just like that bit we read where he’s on his way to Eel Marsh House.’ And it was.

But The Woman in Black is also problematic. Like Blood Brothers, which I wrote about last year, it’s a text whose plot turns on an adoption, and therefore, it has the potential to unleash some extremely complex feelings in students who are adopted or in care. It’s also a text whose representation of adoption – in particular, of the birth mother Jennet Humfrye – needs careful handling.

When she first appears, at the funeral of the reclusive widow Alice Drablow, Jennet Humfrye is a mysterious, brooding presence, dressed in black and bearing the traces of ‘some terrible wasting disease’. Arthur’s first impulse is to feel sorry for her. He wonders whether there’s anything he can do to help. As the novel unfolds, we discover that Jennet and Alice were sisters. We learn that Jennet had a relationship with a young man, became pregnant, and was coerced by her family into giving up her son Nathaniel so that he could be adopted by her sister and brought up in a ‘respectable’ household.

As such, Jennet can be read as an example of the Victorian ‘fallen woman’, and as a representative of the many thousands of women who have been coerced into relinquishing their children because of the stigma of illegitimacy. Arthur suspects that part of her fate is due to the fact that she is a ‘daughter of genteel parentage’: if she had been a servant, she ‘might perhaps have fared better’. As it is, she has been ‘coldly rejected’, her feelings ‘totally left out of the count’, in order to preserve her family’s reputation. Hill makes the agony of Jennet’s situation abundantly clear:

I felt sorry for J, as I read her short, emotional letters over again. Her passionate love for her child and her isolation with it, her anger and the way she at first fought bitterly against and, finally, gave despairingly in to the course proposed to her, filled me with sadness and sympathy.

The Woman in Black, p. 176

In class, Jennet’s plight can be used to open up multiple conversations about the treatment of women and children and the injustices that have been perpetrated in the name of ‘morality’ and ‘respectability’. Students are often horrified that Jennet’s relatives were allowed to do what they did, and even more horrified when they find that even nowadays, women are being coerced into giving up their babies so that they can be given a life that is supposedly better than the one they might have had otherwise. These experiences have been highlighted by the ongoing campaign for an official apology to the thousands of British women forced to hand over their newborn babies for adoption. It might be instructive to read The Woman in Black alongside some of their testimonies: accounts of being slapped, refused pain relief, forbidden to say goodbye. Jennet’s story belongs to living memory, not the distant past.

But. Here’s the difficult thing. Jennet, as everyone who has read or watched The Woman in Black will know, is not allowed to remain as the recipient of sympathy. She’s an avenging spirit who terrifies those who see her. Her loss has fuelled not just sadness, but a destructive rage, a ‘pent-up hatred and desire for revenge’ that leads her to ‘take away other women’s children because she had lost her own’. After the death of her son in a tragic accident, she goes ‘mad with grief and mad with anger’, roaming the streets of the small town of Crythin Gifford ‘like a walking skeleton – a living spectre’. In death, she haunts the isolated Eel Marsh House and the landscape around it. The sight of her reduces Mr Jerome to a state of abject terror. We learn that soon after she appears, a child will inevitably die, in ‘some violent or dreadful circumstance’. She’s an abomination, a monstrous Other, a bogeywoman. And that’s the problem.

It’s a problem for two significant reasons. The first is because if you have any adopted children in your class, their feelings about their birth parents will – inevitably – be incredibly complex ones. Some might have vivid and possibly traumatic memories of living with their birth parents. Some might have ongoing contact. Others will have had to rely on their adoptive parents for information about their birth families, and while all adoptive parents are taught, in their preparation, about how important it is for children to know their life stories, it’s clear that not all adoptive parents are assiduous in having these conversations. (‘Why do you talk to him about that stuff?’ one acquaintance asked me, about the Dude. ‘Does he really need to know?’ Yes, he does. Shut up.) There’ll be a tangle of emotions that – depending on circumstances – might include anger and fear and guilt but will also include grief and love. And having the figure of a birth mother presented as an object of terror could be extremely damaging.

And what about if you don’t have any adopted children in your class? The other reason why Jennet Humfrye is such a troubling figure is because she feeds into the general hoard of myths and stereotypes that exist around adoption. If you don’t have any experience of adoption in real life – and let’s face it, many people don’t – you will rely on fiction and the media to build your mental model. There are hundreds of examples of adopted and care-experienced people in fiction, and therefore also hundreds of examples of fictional birth parents, adoptive parents and foster carers. And many of these examples are hugely problematic.

What might be useful, then, if you’re teaching The Woman in Black, is to consider why it is that the figure of a birth mother – the victim of a terrible injustice – has been treated in this way. Whose interests does it serve, to demonise a woman who has already suffered? In what ways could we see Jennet Humfrye as part of the culture that would still prefer to forget that birth parents exist, to write them out of adopted children’s stories and see them as objects of a profound, atavistic fear?

Last year, I talked to Al Coates of The Adoption and Fostering Podcast about the ways in which adoption is represented in fiction and popular culture. One thing Al said was that what adoption needs is its own version of Cathy Come Home, a story that presents the reality: not the unicorns-and-rainbows fairytale of adoption recruitment campaigns, not the superhero wonder children and not the demons. Too many stories rely on adoption as an easy source of tropes and plot twists. The Woman in Black can open up some conversations about adoption, and can help to shed light on some of the injustices that have taken place. But the way it treats Jennet Humfrye should also make us feel profoundly uncomfortable, and if we’re teaching this novel, then we need to be aware of its flaws.  

#youcanadopt, but that doesn’t mean you should

National Adoption Week begins in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Monday 18 October. In the past, this week has largely taken the form of a recruitment drive for prospective adopters, and while this year’s event is giving more space to the voices of adopted adults and birth parents, the event’s web address – – still places the emphasis on persuading people to make that initial contact and take the first steps on the road to becoming an adoptive parent. Photos of angelic-looking children, soft-focus film footage of happy families on the beach, the occasional celebrity wheeled on to talk about their experiences: it’s the starting-point for countless rescue fantasies, a sugar-coated vision of a beautiful, unproblematic future.

I did wonder, a few days ago, whether I should write about National Adoption Week at all. I am an adoptive parent, but National Adoption Week shouldn’t be about adoptive parents. How To Be Adopted has written very powerfully about what it’s like to experience National Adoption Week as an adopted person, and to realise that National Adoption Week isn’t actually about you at all. I am very aware of the feelings that many adopted people have about adoptive parents taking up more room than is really theirs in public discussions about adoption. Shut up, Atherton! Equally, though, I think it’s important to point out that we don’t all support the view that adoption is a beautiful way of providing children with loving families and seeing them all live happily ever after. There’s a stereotype of adoptive parents as starry-eyed and naïve, all in favour of closed adoption and perpetually threatened by the thought of our children’s birth families. I have no doubt whatsoever that many adopters fit this stereotype. But lots of us don’t, and I think it’s important that we stand up and shout about it, as an act of consciousness-raising for adopters who buy into the myth and to show our solidarity for adopted people. Is there an equivalent of ‘fogged’ and ‘unfogged’ for adoptive parents? There should be. Blimey, this is complicated.

In fact, complication is going to be the theme of this post. I’ve been involved in adoption for over seventeen years now, most of them as an adoptive parent but also, latterly, as a writer and researcher looking at the history of adoption in the UK and at the way adoption is portrayed in fiction and popular culture. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that adoption is not one simple thing. I’ve started dividing it into three broad areas. There’s the general concept of adoption, the placing of children into alternative families to whom they are not directly related, which has happened since time immemorial, often on an informal basis unregulated by any kind of legal framework. There are the individual adoption systems, often very different from each other, that exist and have existed in different countries around the world. Finally, there are the millions of adoptions that have taken place as a result of these systems, and the people affected by them: birth parents and extended families, adoptive parents, and most importantly, the children whose lives are changed irrevocably by what they experience.

Adoption is a murky business. I think all prospective adopters should know something about this, because it highlights our responsibility to be aware of the traumas that lie at the heart of adoption (and, depending on where we are in the world and what kind of system we’re adopting through, our complicity in perpetuating some of these traumas). Many of the adoption systems that have existed around the world have been grounded in practices that are corrupt and coercive, guilty of perpetrating widespread generational trauma and abuse. The thousands of Native American children placed with white adopters in the name of ‘assimilation’; the unmarried mothers pressurised into giving up their children in the so-called ‘baby scoop’ era; the babies who are trafficked, placed in orphanages and adopted by people in distant countries who think that they are giving them an unproblematic chance of a better life. In some countries, apologies have been issued to recognise the wrongs of the past. In February 2008, the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology to the ‘Stolen Generation’, the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage removed from their families, although this came after a decade of resistance by the previous Australian government. The Irish Taoiseach Mícheál Martin apologised in January 2021 for the appalling treatment of unmarried women and their children in the country’s mother and baby homes between 1922 and 1998. In the UK, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has launched an inquiry into the experiences of unmarried women whose children were adopted between 1949 and 1976 in England and Wales. These injustices haven’t gone away. Many adopted people around the world are still denied access to the most basic of information about themselves: their original birth certificates and medical records, details of their life stories and birth families. And in some adoption systems, an awful lot of money changes hands. Researching this post, I googled ‘US Adoption Agency’ to see what came up. The first hit, for the private adoption agency American Adoptions, told me that a typical domestic adoption would cost between $60,000 and $70,000. (One agency offers ‘credit repair services’ for prospective adopters whose credit rating might be ‘below standard’, and invites people to get a ‘no-obligation quote’, as if they’re thinking about getting their double glazing replaced. Another offers helpful ideas for funding your adoption, like holding a bake sale or car wash, or starting a crowdfunder.)

The stigma and coercion that caused so many women to lose their babies to adoption is now, thankfully, a thing of the past in the UK, although I know that this is not the case elsewhere in the world. We are told, though, that forced adoptions still exist in this country, in the form of those children who are removed from their birth parents by order of the courts, because – under Section 31 of the 1989 Children Act – the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, as a result of the parents’ lack of care. ‘Significant’, in this case, is defined as ‘ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development, including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another’.

I’m uncomfortable with using the term ‘forced adoption’ to describe this situation. There, I’ve said it. Yes, it involves the removal of a child against the birth parents’ wishes, and the permanent severing of the legal tie between parent and child. But there’s a world of difference between coercing a scared young woman into giving up her baby on the pretext that it’s the best solution for everyone, with the threat of family estrangement and ostracism in the background, and removing a child from a situation of neglect or abuse. If you go on BAILII, the website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, and browse the Family Court Decisions, you can see the records of cases where children have been removed, and where judges have decided that adoption is the most appropriate way forward. Sometimes, this is a straightforward decision. Think of the child protection cases we hear about in the news, when sadly, it’s too late. At other times, it’s much more complex. Judges have to balance the capacity of a parent to make necessary changes with the needs of a child for stability and security. Many cases involve birth parents whose own lives have been desperately difficult. The message we received when we did our prep course, almost seventeen years ago now, was that birth parents are, overwhelmingly, ‘sad, not bad’. But there will always be situations where it is not safe for children to remain with their families of origin. How do we give these children the nurturing and support and love they need, in order for them to grow and flourish? How do we, as a society, help them to heal?

There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether adoption is a proportionate response to situations like this. Of course the primary aim of any kind of intervention should be to preserve and support the family. This should go without saying. If this can’t happen, then of course social services should try to place the child within the extended family, or if not, with foster carers who will facilitate contact with birth parents until the child can return home. But what comes next? Some people point to long-term foster care as an option. That way, they argue, the legal bond between parent and child is still there, and there’s always the possibility that the child might be able to return if – in a few years’ time – the birth parents have been able to make the necessary changes to their lives. And that all sounds brilliant. But foster care is not permanent. Some children in foster care are able to stay in one long-term placement until they reach adulthood. But they’re in the minority. Placements break down, and children are moved elsewhere. Imagine being eight, and having to move on from your school and your friends, not just once in a year but potentially several times. Imagine it being October, and not being sure where you’ll be spending Christmas. Imagine not having any say in how your bedroom’s decorated, because you know that really it’s not your bedroom: living in a house where there are pets that you want to love but know you shouldn’t get too fond of, because you don’t know how long you’ll be staying. Think of a child you know well: your own child, maybe, or your niece or nephew. Is this the kind of life you’d want for them? Thought not. If they’re particularly unfortunate, they might be placed, at the age of 16, into an unregulated setting, dressed up under the guise of ‘a stepping stone to independence’. And then, once they turn 18, that’s it.

Adoption, then, is not a beautiful way of creating a new family, not unicorns and rainbows, but something that is needed in those cases where all other options have been explored and where children cannot remain within their birth family. It involves trauma and sadness and a whole lot of anger and grief. And none of these feelings go away. They might get buried, they might be hidden behind a mask of being ‘grateful’ or being told that you’re ‘lucky’, but they’re still there.

So. At the risk, now, of being accused of making this ‘all about the adoptive parents’, I’m going to list four things that I’d want to be a part of all adoptive parents’ preparation and support. Because if we want to support adopted people for the long term, we need to make sure that the people who adopt them as children are fully aware of the ramifications that adoption will have throughout their lives.

  1. An understanding of the ethical complexities involved in adoption, and of those times and places where adoption has involved appalling injustices. There are countless books, documentaries and websites that could help with this. My Name is Bridget by Alison O’Reilly, about the Tuam Mother and Baby Home in County Galway, is an absolute must-read.
  2. Training in and ongoing support with therapeutic parenting. Formal support stops, at the moment, when an adoption order is granted. Post-adoption support is patchily available and hard to access. But we need help. I am currently reading Dr Amber Elliott’s brilliant book Superparenting, which absolutely nails the difficulty of parenting a child who has experienced developmental trauma: ‘The stress of looking after a traumatized child who is defending against shame and suffering from the effects of toxic stress creates one of the most challenging environments for rational thinking there is’. Saying that we need help isn’t putting adoptive parents first: it’s recognising that if we want to help adopted people in the long term, we need to help adoptive parents.
  3. An understanding that adoption isn’t just about childhood. This should be obvious but I think there is a feeling amongst some adopters that their children will eventually forget that they’re adopted. It won’t dissolve into the mist. Organisations such as Adoptee Futures are doing a vitally important job in raising awareness of the lifelong consequences of being adopted and this is a drum that needs lots of banging.
  4. An understanding of the importance of heritage, keeping in touch with birth family, and the feelings involved in reunion. How To Be Adopted has written brilliantly about the fetishization of blood ties and genealogical links. There’s a lot of work to be done on maintaining links with wider birth family, and on supporting adopted young adults to negotiate the feelings involved in tracing and being reunited with birth relatives. As adopters, we need to recognise that our adopted children can maintain their relationship with us whilst also exploring and forming relationships with their birth family. It’s not an either/or.

I didn’t mean to write this much. I’ll shut up now. Deep breath, and let’s hope this week passes without too much stress.

Adopting is hard

Oh, come on, world. There I was, all ready to blog about teaching King Lear and then go off and pick blackberries, and you had to bowl me an article about adoption to respond to, didn’t you? Cheers. King Lear will have to wait, bless him: he’s over there grumping in a corner with the Fool, right now.

Here’s the article in question, if you haven’t already seen it: My wife and I were desperate to adopt, but the application process was so gruelling we gave up. The writer, John Rutter, runs through a number of well-worn complaints. The assessment process – the ‘home study’ – is long and intrusive. Friends, family and employers are all involved. Your medical and financial history are explored. You have to talk about your past relationships, and former partners might be interviewed. Your home has to be assessed for potential health and safety hazards. And so on. It took Rutter and his wife over eighteen months to be approved, and they eventually withdrew from the process a few months after their approval, because they didn’t think they’d ever have a child placed with them.

The adoption home study: yes, it’s hard. (Source: “Maze” by SanguineSeas, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

I have a whole ton of things to say about this, as you might expect. Here’s the first thing. Rutter says that he and his wife turned to adoption after trying to have a child, and failing. Infertility is one of the most horribly isolating experiences imaginable. I’m not going to go into, now, just how awful it is, because that’s for another post. We were luckier than most, if you can put it like that, because we didn’t spend years going through exhausting rounds of treatment. We found out pretty early on that my eggs were so catastrophically rubbish that there was basically no point. Once we made the decision that we weren’t going to go ahead with any more investigations, the sense of relief was immense. So I can imagine how hopeful the Rutters were when they embarked on their adoption journey, because we were too. It was a new start, the chance to actually succeed after a pretty miserable few years. And I can imagine how it must have felt to pull out, to decide to build a life for themselves that didn’t involve parenthood. People who haven’t experienced involuntary childlessness can be very glib about the situations of those who have: witness all the comments about children being a privilege and not a right, the availability of NHS funding for IVF, etc etc. The conversations that led to that decision must have been pretty bleak. I genuinely hope that the Rutters have been able to make peace with their decision, and that they are finding a way forwards.

The issue I have is with the widespread idea that the adoption process should be made easier, and that it should be made easier to speed things up for adopters. There’s a popular belief that the adoption process is deliberately complicated. It’s one of those things that everyone seems to know about adoption, including people who’ve got no connection to adoption whatsoever. Often, these people go on to complain about how unfair this is. If you want to give a home to a child in need, the social workers should welcome you with open arms, rather than asking you lots of difficult questions. Just think of all those people who have babies after one-night stands, they’ll say: they never have to jump through all those hoops, do they?

The process isn’t designed to put people off at all, but one thing that prospective adopters have to learn very quickly is that adoption isn’t about supplying them with the perfect baby to replace the one they couldn’t have. Instead, it’s about finding homes for children whose early lives have been unbearably traumatic. The decisions that are made about these children – where they live, and with whom – need to be made with real care. And when you first start to find out about adoption, it’s extremely sobering to discover what kinds of experiences some children have had, and to think about how these experiences might affect them.

Another thing that prospective adopters need to learn is that adoption is lifelong. It doesn’t dissolve after a few years; it doesn’t cease to matter. Adopted children become adopted adults and their feelings about being adopted will affect them in different ways at different points in their lives. Their feelings about you as their adoptive parent will change, too. You will have to be prepared to do many things as they grow up, including becoming an expert in the long-term effects of early trauma, advocating for your child through nursery and school and even into the world of work, and helping them to negotiate their relationships with members of their birth family. There will be times when you are exhausted beyond belief by trying to negotiate support packages and explain your child’s needs to people – including professionals – who just don’t get it. There will be times when you will feel rejected but have to put your feelings to one side because you’re not the important one in all of this. Adopters are sometimes portrayed as having saviour complexes – look at me, doing all of this for a poor neglected child! – or as exaggerating the difficulties to paint themselves as heroic, but the reality is that it is really bloody hard. I’ve lost count of the number of adopters I know who’ve needed counselling, or been prescribed antidepressants, to cope with a day-to-day reality whose pressures can be relentless.

(As a side note, I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve read about how important it is to centre adopted people, and not adoptive parents, in these discussions, but there’s a point where it’s not as simple as that. The reality is that adoptive parents need support in order to be able to centre their adopted children. We all need help here.)

The result of all of this is that anything that sheds light on your capacity to parent a vulnerable child needs to be viewed as fair game. It’s the needs of that child – rather than your squeamishness about your personal life – that must come first. Talking about your previous relationships will illuminate how you deal with rejection. Talking about bereavement gives your social worker an insight into how you’ve coped with loss, and therefore how you might support a child who is grieving the losses they’ve suffered in being removed from their birth family. Interviewing your boss: how driven are you, how addicted to your job, and how hard would you find it if you had to go part-time or give up work altogether in order to support your child? Interviewing your wider family: how do they view adoption, and will they welcome your child wholeheartedly or make them feel as if they don’t really belong? Having a medical, being open about your finances: is there anything at all in your life that might have an impact on your ability to provide an adopted child with a safe, secure and stable home, not just now but well into the future?

The health and safety stuff, by the way, should be obvious. When a child is placed with you, the state is still the child’s corporate parent, and responsible for what happens to them, so of course they’ve got a duty of care to check. And quite frankly, if you’ve got a garden that children are going to be playing in, you should be checking for poisonous plants and covering up any ponds anyway.

So yes, it’s difficult, and yes, it might seem unfair. But it’s difficult for a reason, and given what the reality of adoptive parenting is like, it’s absolutely right that it’s all so hard.

We need to talk about Blood Brothers

Yay! It’s another adoption post.

One thing I bang on about a lot is the number of adoption-related texts there are across the various GCSE English Literature specifications. I’ve written about this in my article ‘Images of Adoption: Adoption in Literature and in the English Classroom’ (in Teaching English, issue 16) and I’ve spoken about it on the Loco Parentis podcast and for a forthcoming edition of the Adoption & Fostering Podcast. Of all of these texts, the one that crops up most frequently is Willy Russell’s 1983 play Blood Brothers, which you can study for GCSE English Literature with AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas and CCEA. It’s one of the most popular texts with all of these boards, coming second only to the classroom stalwart An Inspector Calls. It also appears as a text for study in GCSE Drama with AQA, OCR and CCEA, where it’s consistently the most frequently-studied play. In theory, you could end up doing Blood Brothers for both GCSE English Literature and GCSE Drama. You’d hope that English and Drama departments would coordinate things so that students weren’t doing the same play for two different subjects, but then again, some English departments introduce texts at KS3 and then teach them again at GCSE, so nothing would surprise me.

Thicker than water? (Source: Creative Commons)

I’ve been meaning to write about Blood Brothers again for a while now, largely because I continue to be astonished by how many schools teach it and how unproblematically it’s viewed. Recently, in response to the discussion about Kate Clanchy’s book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, Alex Wright tweeted that ‘If one reads a depiction of another, who, for whatever aspect of their personhood is depicted in a way that lessens them, one can and will internalise these depictions. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root.’ This really nailed what’s at the heart of my discomfort with Blood Brothers. It’s a play about social class, inequality and injustice, and all of these are important themes to explore. But at the heart of all of this is the adoption of a child, and it’s the use of adoption as a plot device – and the simplistic way in which it’s treated – that, for me, makes Blood Brothers a really troubling text.

The plot of Blood Brothers is simple. Mrs Lyons is unable to have children: her cleaner, Mrs Johnstone, has found herself pregnant with twins even though she already has ‘seven hungry mouths to feed’. Mrs Lyons persuades Mrs Johnstone to give one of one of the twins to her, but insists that this has to remain a secret, as twins who are secretly parted must never learn the truth: ‘If either twin learns that he was once a pair, they shall both immediately die.’ The two boys – Mrs Johnstone’s son Mickey, and Mrs Lyons’ son Edward – grow up in different households, with different opportunities and expectations. Nevertheless, the two become friends, each unaware of the relationship between them. Together with Mickey’s neighbour Linda, they form a trio who play together, roam the streets and get into trouble with the police, who treat Mickey and Edward very differently. Edward does not know that he is adopted, but – like the vast majority of adopted people – he struggles with his sense of identity, and feels much more drawn to Mickey and Mrs Johnstone. Later, Edward goes to university; Mickey and Linda get married. Mickey loses his job in a factory and goes to prison for his role in an armed robbery. On his release, he is depressed, unable to cope without antidepressants. An exhausted Linda turns to Edward for comfort, and Mickey confronts him with a gun. Mrs Johnstone appears, and tells Mickey that he and Edward are twins, but the inevitable happens: Mickey’s gun goes off by accident, killing Edward, and Mickey is then shot dead by armed police.

It’s easy to see why Blood Brothers became so popular with schools. It’s a play that works on uncomplicated stereotypes about social class and privilege, with plenty of opportunities for students to compare and contrast the presentation of Mickey and Edward, Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons, and the ways in which life has treated them. Take the incident where the children are apprehended by a policeman for throwing stones. Mrs Johnstone is told that Mickey was ‘about to commit a serious crime’; Mrs Lyons is reassured that ‘it was more of a prank’. Or the conversation between Mickey and Edward when Edward returns after his first term at university: Edward has had a fantastic time, and is looking for parties and a chance to celebrate: Mickey has just been made unemployed. Edward tells him that ‘if I couldn’t get a job I’d just say, sod it and draw the dole, live like a bohemian, tilt my hat to the world and say “screw you”’. Edward doesn’t have a clue. But on a more complex level, the play offers scope for the exploration of political theatre and classical tragedy. The disturbing figure of the Narrator, for instance, breaks the fourth wall at crucial points to underline the theme of superstition and fate that runs through the play, reminding both Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons of the consequences of their actions. The message the Narrator offers is clear: the separation of the twins has disrupted the order of the universe, and the balance will only be restored with their inevitable deaths.

We studied Blood Brothers in GCSE Drama when I was fifteen, back in 1988, when the play was still relatively fresh. I have a vague memory of playing Mrs Lyons in the scene where she persuades Mrs Johnstone to give up one of her twins, doing my best to put on an RP accent and holding a cushion up to my front, pretending to be pregnant, Oh, the irony. We loved Mrs Johnstone – salt of the earth, of course we did – and hated Mrs Lyons, with all her middle-class selfishness. We were teenagers, and this was Merseyside in the 1980s, and our sympathy was always going to be with the underdog. Of course Edward was really Mrs Johnstone’s son: of course Mrs Lyons was possessive, grasping, wanting what she couldn’t have and using all the force of her social and economic privilege to get it. What’s the problem?

This is where I go back to Alex’s words. ‘If one reads a depiction of another, who, for whatever aspect of their personhood is depicted in a way that lessens them, one can and will internalise these depictions. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root.’

Adoption as a whole, and adopted people in particular, aren’t served well by popular culture. There are so many hackneyed tropes, so many predictable storylines. Adopted people threaten the natural order of things. They’re cuckoos in the nest. Think of Mrs Rachel Lynde in Anne of Green Gables, warning Marilla Cuthbert of the horrors that await her if she adopts a child, telling her of adopted children who put strychnine in the well and set fire to the house while their adoptive families were asleep. Think of Heathcliff and Edward Cullen. Adoption might bring material advantages, but it also means that – like Edward in Blood Brothers – you’ll never really fit in. And as for adoptive parents – well, they’re just weird. There are very few positive representations of adoptive parents in contemporary fiction and drama. The Brinks in Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, the appalling Averys in John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, the Donaldsons in Anne Tyler’s Digging to America: adopters are naïve and selfish at best, loveless monsters at worst. No wonder they couldn’t have children of their own, you can imagine people saying. When you look at Mr and Mrs Lyons, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that they were never really meant to be parents in the first place.

Blood Brothers does not make any claims to realism, and the Lyons family is – obviously – light-years away from the average adoptive family in the UK today. Edward’s adoption is both unofficial and illegal, and Mr and Mrs Lyons escape the lengthy process of assessment and approval that all prospective adopters in the UK have to undergo. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this play represents the most significant fictional model of adoption that many of our students will have encountered at this point in their lives. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root. Many teaching resources choose to focus on the play’s adoption theme and hold it up as an oddity, something outside students’ own lives. One resource on Teachit asks ‘Do you think that it is ok for women to give up their babies for adoption? What reasons do women have for doing this?’ Another asks students to ‘create a short improvisation in which a teenager discovers that he/she was given up for adoption at 1 week old. He or she only discovers the truth when going through an old shoe box kept in the loft. How do you feel when you are told that your mum and dad are not your real parents?’ Imagine being an adopted teenager in this classroom, faced with this activity: lives like yours reduced to outdated stereotypes, painful family histories turned into an exercise for open discussion. Adoption, and families formed by adoption, are persistently othered: adoptive families are weird. (Adopted children are actually told this, by the way, by other children. The Dude certainly was. I have no idea where the other kid got it from, but it must have been from somewhere. Another kid told him that all adopted people end up in prison. That kid must have got that from somewhere, too. I have lost count of how many misconceptions I had to correct during the Dude’s school career.)

And adopted children have quite enough to cope with already, thank you. All adoption is rooted in trauma, and this is particularly the case in the UK nowadays, when the vast majority of adoptions involve children who have been taken into care because their birth parents were unable to keep them safe. The effects of this trauma can be lifelong. Some children will have very vivid memories of the events that led to their removal from their birth parents’ care. Others will have been very young, but early trauma – including that which is experienced prenatally – leaves its mark on the developing brain.

And yet, even now, adoption provides a seemingly endless set of tropes for entertainment. Just this week, a post shared on my Twitter timeline spoke of social media posts by parents joking about coping with their children during the long summer holiday, and how they were tempted to ‘have them adopted’. There’s a children’s novel called The Unadoptables, a supposedly ‘joyful’ Gothic romp about a group of orphans in nineteenth-century Amsterdam who are rejected by prospective adopters for a variety of reasons: one has big ears, one is south Asian, one has twelve fingers, one is mute and one is a girl who happens to be feisty and outspoken. Memes and jokes and plot devices, all riffing off a topic that is hugely complex, with no idea of the ramifications involved. (The Unadoptables was widely criticised by adopted people, adoptive parents and child welfare professionals when it was published in 2020: this Twitter thread, by Nicole Chung, will give you a sense of the debate. It was, nevertheless, bought by Penguin Random House for a ‘significant’ six-figure sum that would have paid for many hours of post-adoption support.) How long will we have to put up with this kind of thing?

So, as we approach the new school year, a favour. If you’re going to be teaching Blood Brothers, please think really carefully about how you’re going to handle the adoption-related elements of the plot, whether you have adopted or care-experienced students in your class or not. Pay these parts of the story the same kind of attention that I hope you’re paying to problematic depictions of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability – anything, in fact, that might cause students to feel less valued and less important, singled out because of their difference. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root. For many of our children, the education system is difficult to negotiate. Texts like Blood Brothers make it a whole lot harder.


I can’t remember when I first came across the term ‘Gotcha Day’ in relation to adoption, but I remember my reaction was one of instinctive, unfiltered hate. I’m not holding back here. Adoption is such a complicated thing, involving so much loss and so many ethical tensions, that the whole idea of ‘Gotcha Day’ is like finding an injury that’s stubbornly refusing to heal – perhaps one that’s a bit septic and inflamed – and ramming a great big triumphalist fist right through it.

Part of my loathing is because ‘Gotcha Day’ is all about the adopters. The children don’t seem to figure, except as an object. Separated from everything you’ve ever known? Scared about these new people you’re going to live with? Not sure whether they’re going to let you eat your favourite foods or sleep with the fluffy toy rabbit that has been the one constant for you through all those changes of foster placement? Worried about whether you’re ever going to see your siblings or your grandparents again? Well, stop whining, because we’ve got what we want. Gotcha! And if you’re a birth parent – well, tough. You had your chance, Gotcha Day seems to say, and they’re ours now. Look what you could have won!

Aside from all the greedy grabbiness, the other thing I can’t quite wrap my head around is the idea that the transition from foster care to adoptive family is a simple act, a single event. There’s a pervasive myth that adoption offers a happy-ever-after solution to the problem of children who need homes and adults who want children. Like Paddington Bear with his marmalade sandwiches, the child rocks up, you’re told to look after it, and hey presto, you’re a family. One couple on our prep course planned to take their children on an instant trip to Disneyland. Someone I talked to just before introductions couldn’t understand why I wasn’t going straight back to work. After all, children are adaptable, aren’t they? They’ll cope. Just stick them in school, or nursery if they’re still young, and get on with your life as before, just with this new additional trophy that you can show off. Gotcha!

In reality, those first few weeks and months of placement were the toughest time I’ve ever lived through, and I was a competent adult with a pretty well-honed capacity for resilience. I can’t imagine what it would be like from the other side, as a bewildered small child who’d had no say in the matter. So here are all the things I wish I’d known before placement, to help bust the myths and give you an insight into life as a newly-formed adoptive family.

  • You will worry that people think you’re a kidnapper. Seriously. You’re not used to your child, your child definitely isn’t used to you, and everything will feel so odd at first that you’ll be convinced that people will think the toddler you’re trying to wrangle into a car seat isn’t actually yours People who’ve become parents the conventional way can unfold pushchairs with practised ease and change nappies one-handed. You’ll still be struggling. It took me months to get out of feeling like a hapless rookie.
  • It will be exhausting. As a new adopter, you have to practice ‘funnelling’ – meeting all your child’s needs yourself in order to build their attachment to you, and not letting anyone help with bathtime, meals, bedtime stories, soothing bumps and grazes, helping down from slides, anything. You have to keep things simple, and introduce new people and places very gradually. For the first few weeks, it should be just you. It is knackering beyond belief and there will be times when you want to curl into a ball and sob. If there is anything at all that you can outsource – laundry, shopping, cleaning – then do.
  • Keep everything very, very simple. I remember the first day after the Husband went back to work. I got the paints out and thought we’d spend hours creating beautiful works of art. In reality it all lasted half an hour. HALF AN HOUR. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except our painting session started at eight in the morning. I remember the day stretching ahead of us and not having a clue how we’d fill it. In the end, we made noses out of Play-Doh, and in the midst of this the Health Visitor turned up and must have wondered why I looked like Gonzo from the Muppets. After that, I made lists of things we could do, so I didn’t run out of ideas.
Source: Magnus Franklin, licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0
  • The physical demands on you will be huge. Keeping your child active and occupied, going out for walks, playing in the park … it will all add an extra layer of tiredness and you will need to flo in a corner occasionally. You’ll get an extra work-out if your child is of an age to be picked up and carried. Most parents are able to build up their muscles slowly: you can’t. If you’ve installed stairgates, you’ll get an extra treat, as it’s often easier to hurdle over them than unfasten them. This is great for toning your core. I lost two stones in the first six weeks after the Dude moved in, despite all the cake I was hoovering down to help with the funnelling-induced exhaustion.
  • You will feel lonelier than you’ve ever felt before. This is especially so if you work in a busy environment. I went from talking to over 150 people in an average working day to just the Husband and the Dude. Funnelling cuts you off, too. I hadn’t been prepared for how hard I’d find this and how much my sense of identify would change. Social media – including adoption support groups – will be a lifeline.
  • You will feel judged by absolutely everyone you meet. Adoption made me realise how much parents – and, in particular, mothers – are judged by other people (in particular, other parents, and unfortunately, other mothers). I remember the first time we braved a toddler group. You know those wildlife documentaries where a pride of lionesses spot a new lioness and her cub, and you can see them deciding whether to welcome them in, or eat them? That’s what it was like. It was the kind of toddler group where everyone else’s child is on water and rice cakes. The Dude was firmly wedded to orange squash and Custard Creams. I even got told off by a very solemn little boy for not knowing the words to ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’. Total inadequate, obviously.
  • You will be incredibly grateful for people’s kindness. Lovely people brought us casseroles and cake. One of my best friends made robots out of cardboard boxes with the Dude when it was my birthday, so I could have a couple of hours of much-needed sleep, and then came over for the whole day a few weeks later when I was floored with a virus and the Husband couldn’t take a day off work. You will want to hug everyone who holds open a door or brings you a coffee. Really.
  • People will say ‘oh, but all children do that’, and you’ll want to explode. Yes, all two-year olds are demanding. Yes, all pre-schoolers can throw diva strops when they’re not allowed to control everything around them. But the reasons behind this behaviour can be completely different. Your two-year old might be grizzly and needy because he’s tired, or can’t have another snack, or wants a cuddle and is trying to get your attention. A newly-placed two-year old might be grizzly and needy because they’re scared, because everything around them is new, and they’re sad about the people they don’t see any more and don’t know how else to express it. Same behaviour, different reasons. That means I need to handle my two-year old in a different way. Trust me that I know what I’m doing.
  • You’ll find out who your friends are. Trust me. You really will. Some people will be utterly brilliant. Others will melt away. Some people will find the idea of adoption absolutely fascinating but will shrink from the reality of a traumatised child. You can’t necessarily predict who they’ll be.
  • You will cry when your social worker visits, at least once. Real snotty tears. Lots of people assume you’ll want to get rid of your social worker as soon as possible, because social workers are associated in the popular mind with nosiness and interference. If your social worker is a good one, they’ll be a lifeline in those first few months. For me, the tough point was about three weeks in. Don’t be ashamed. It’s bloody hard.
  • Don’t expect to feel instant love. People will want you to say you do. They’ll want magical moments with sparkles and unicorns. That’s not how it works. Love will creep up on you, gradually, but don’t beat yourself up if it takes a while. Adoption isn’t a heart-warming story; it’s a major life change with far-reaching implications for everyone involved. So don’t punish yourself if you find it difficult. And remember that post-adoption depression is a thing, and get help if you need it.
  • Your child will amaze you. In the midst of all this disorientation, there will be moments when you’ll be struck by how brave and resilient this small person is. Children who’ve been through difficult early life experiences have to have a huge amount of courage to survive and keep themselves together. For me, the real lump-in-throat moment was overhearing the Dude in his cot one night, listing the toys who kept him company. Bear. Bear. Tractor. Bear. He needed to know who was there so he could check they’d still be there in the morning. Moments like this will punch you in the guts and remind you how important it is to give a child security and stability.

Secrets, complications, and long lost families

A new series of Long Lost Family started in the UK this week. If you’ve never seen it, its format is easy to explain: members of the public contact the show asking for help in tracing estranged relatives, the show’s researchers track them down, and – if they consent to meeting up, and being filmed – there’s a reunion. It’s a hugely popular show, and I know lots of people love it, but it makes me uneasy. The situations that Long Lost Family focuses on are varied: an absent father, a brother who moved away, an aunt who emigrated and stopped getting in touch. But many of them involve adoption, and that’s where my squeamishness comes from.

There’s no doubt that Long Lost Family does an important job in helping people to search for birth relatives, and in making its audience aware of how such searches can be carried out. In doing so, it honours the importance of family connections, and helps to break down the sense of shame with which adoption was once surrounded. The adoption stories it features centre on people who were adopted during the ‘classic’ era, when adoption was widely seen as something to be kept secret. There was the stigma of illegitimacy, the stigma of being infertile, and the belief that children who were adopted as tiny babies somehow – shockingly – ‘didn’t need to know’. It wasn’t until the passing of the 1976 Adoption Act – described by a journalist in the Daily Mirror as ‘one of the most important pieces of legislation involving children since we stopped sending small boys up chimneys’ – that adopted people had the right to access their records, or even their original birth certificates. Their past, and their parentage, would no longer be a mystery to them. They would, potentially, be able to trace their birth parents, and be reunited with them.

To us nowadays, the idea of denying people information about their own lives seems so fundamentally unjust that it’s hard to believe how controversial this aspect of the 1976 Act was at the time. Yet there were many people who argued against it. Some pointed to the thousands of birth mothers who had relinquished their children in the belief that they would remain anonymous. The agony aunt Marjorie Proops wrote of the ‘terror’ and ‘torture of discovery’ experienced by women who had given up babies for adoption many years previously and gone on to create new lives for themselves – ‘women who have believed for years that their secret was safe and their past forever buried’. The desire to search was also seen by many as ‘ungrateful’ to adoptive parents. One woman interviewed by the Daily Mirror in 1975 was told by a solicitor that she should be ashamed of herself for wanting to know who her birth parents were. There must have been thousands of people who put the feelings of their adoptive families above their own desire to complete the jigsaw of their personal history.

Long Lost Family goes all out to tug at the heartstrings, with soulful piano music and cliffhanger endings to each segment that keep you watching even though you feel slightly icky for doing so. The people who appear on it will all have given their consent, and they will have access to counsellors to help them process the difficult feelings that surround searching and reunion. Many of the searches it carries out don’t actually make it to television, because they are deemed too sensitive or complex for public airing. The issue I have with the programme lies more in the image of adoption that it conveys to the viewing public. As I’ve said before on here, there’s still a widespread belief that adoption involves newborn babies relinquished by women who have no other options. There’s also a sense that reunion is a straightforward happy ending, the natural conclusion to a story of separation. Who wouldn’t want to believe that what is lost can always be found? So in turn, there’s a feeling that search is an inevitable part of being adopted, that all adopted people will one day want to trace their family of origin.

Nowadays, adoption is different. That means that reunion is different, too. For one thing, the whole idea of only finding out the truth about your past when you’re an adult – that scene in the social worker’s office, beloved of so many reunion narratives – simply shouldn’t happen. All adopted children should know, in as age-appropriate a manner as possible, what their story is and why they can no longer live with their birth parents. Many will have ongoing contact with birth relatives, whether via letter or face-to-face, and many will have conscious memories of their lives before adoption. For another, children who have been taken into care as a result of abuse or neglect might find the idea of reunion extremely traumatic. Even if birth parents’ circumstances have changed, the emotions involved will still be incredibly complex. It’s not as simple as sliding that last piece of the puzzle into place.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies: awkward.

People who know me well will know that I can bang on for ages about the way adoption is represented in popular culture. One of the most powerful representations of search-and-reunion that I’ve seen is in Mike Leigh’s 1995 film Secrets and Lies. Itscentral character is Cynthia, played by Brenda Blethyn, ‘a sad-looking middle-aged woman’ with a low-skilled, low-paid job making cardboard boxes in a factory. She lives in a shabby rented house, drinks cheap whisky and is permanently on the verge of tears, stuck in a life that nobody would want. And then, one day, she receives a phone call from Hortense, a young woman who has found out that Cynthia is her birth mother. Hortense is an optometrist, an intelligent, middle-class professional who is happy, contented and successful. Her adoptive mother has recently died, and she has decided to seek out her birth family. It initially seems that Cynthia has forgotten all about the daughter she gave up for adoption, but then, as the reality dawns on her, she is ‘horrified and terrified’. She hangs up, and vomits in the kitchen sink. Eventually, she agrees to meet Hortense, but there is another shock in store. For Cynthia is white, and Hortense is black. When Cynthia and Hortense meet, outside a London Underground station, they walk past each other several times before Hortense finally approaches Cynthia. (Cynthia’s shock is heightened by the fact that Blethyn had not met Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who played Hortense, until this point: she did not know that her screen daughter was going to be black until this scene was filmed.) Their first conversation, in a café, is shot in a single take of over seven minutes. They sit uncomfortably, side by side, and the frequent pauses draw attention to their awkwardness. It’s a scene that gives the lie to all those narratives of happy reunions, the jigsaw finally being completed. Leigh’s message is that reunion is not a one-off event: it’s a complicated process, with steps backwards as well as forwards, that needs to be worked at.

I’m aware that it’s often difficult for adoptive parents to talk about the relationship between children and their birth parents without seeming possessive, or defensive, or reluctant to engage. It can seem as if there’s a binary choice involved, as if searching for birth parents necessarily involves a rejection of adoptive parents. I think some adopters do see reunion as something they’d rather not think about, something that’s so far in the future that it might never happen, and that’s wrong. The social worker who did our initial visit nearly seventeen years ago now – an adopted person himself – said that searching and reunion was something that adopters needed to consider right from the beginning of the adoption process. And roots are important. Look at how many people use websites like to trace their family trees: online genealogy is a multi-million dollar industry. People wouldn’t do this if a sense of their past didn’t matter. I’ve known for years that one side of my family was part-Irish: what I didn’t know, until I started searching online, was that my great-great-great grandfather was one of the hundreds of Irish people who came over from County Mayo during the famine of the mid-1800s to work in the cotton mills of Lancashire. Finding this out gave me a sense of rootedness, a feeling of where I came from. These things matter. Why would we deny them to our children?

The issue of searching and reunion has been made even more complicated, in recent years, by social media and the fact that young people can now do their searching alone, in their room, without telling anyone they’re doing it and talking through the issues it might involve. Our children shouldn’t feel that they have to do this on their own. Reunion is something that adoptive parents need to be prepared for, so that their children know that wanting to search is okay and that they’ll be supported if they want to do it. And it shouldn’t be up to the child to make the first move. As adoptive parents, we need to raise that possibility ourselves.

So I’ll be viewing Long Lost Family with a wary eye, aware that reunion isn’t all hearts and flowers. It’s messy, and painful, and difficult. But I’m not sure any television programme could ever do justice to that.

Barometers, microscopes and fine-toothed combs

People have lots to say about the adoption process. When we were adopting, I had an unwritten game of Adoption Bingo ticking away in the back on my mind. ‘Ooh, you’ll probably get pregnant now!’ some people would tell me excitedly. Or ‘It’s alright for you – you’re doing it the easy way.’ This latter was usually thrown in my direction when one of my then-pregnant friends or acquaintances was complaining about stretch marks or swollen ankles, and I’d smile through gritted teeth and then go away and mutter to myself in private. People would also ask questions about the process itself, especially the home study. ‘Why do they have to put you through all that?’ they’d want to know. ‘Isn’t it all a bit intrusive?’

The home study is probably the part of the adoption process that generates the most curiosity. It’s easy to see why. During the home study, you have a series of meetings with a social worker whose job is to find out about you as a person and assess your suitability to be an adoptive parent. You will explore just about everything from your own upbringing to the present day: your family relationships, your education, your friendships and your working life. You’ll consider what makes you tick; the experiences and values that are most important to you. You’ll reflect on how you weather difficulties and cope with change. If you’re adopting as a couple, you’ll also think about what binds you together and how you handle disagreements; how you make decisions and support each other; how attuned you are to each other’s emotional needs. You’ll talk about your financial circumstances: how effectively you manage your money, whether you live within your means or run up debts, what impact adoption leave will have on your household income. And you’ll talk about things that are potentially extremely painful: bereavement, loss and previous relationships. Ultimately, your social worker wants to know whether you have what the charity CoramBAAF describes as the ‘resilience, emotional maturity and capacity to parent a troubled child’. It’s tough, and wide-ranging. It feels, at times, as if you’re turning yourself inside out.

Prospective adopters, that’s you on the slide. (Source: Creative Commons)

Why does the home study have to be so intensive? In short: because adoption involves trauma, and if you want to adopt a child, you have to recognise the trauma and loss that that child will have experienced and acknowledge your role in helping them to begin the healing process. All adoption involves trauma, because being separated from your family of origin – and the sights and sounds and smells that you’re surrounded with – is traumatic, and being placed in foster care and getting used to another set of sights and sounds and smells is traumatic, and then moving to another family – your adoptive family – is traumatic again. And that’s even before we start to think about the neglect or abuse that children might have experienced, or about the fact that many children who go on to be adopted experience more than one foster placement. We are really only starting to understand the long-term effects of this trauma. And adoptive parents need to be fully aware of the responsibility they bear for supporting their children, not just in the weeks and months after placement but years into the future.

Today, the charity Adoption UK published its Adoption Barometer, an overview of the state of adoption across the UK. It has called for ring-fenced funding for adoption support, support plans for children that take account of future as well as current needs, and the extension of support for adopted people until the age of at least 26. Adoption is often viewed – by people who know little about it – as an easy solution, as if that’s needed is a loving home for everyone to live happily ever after. In reality, the loving home is only a starting point. Adoptive families need much, much more.

So, prospective adopters do get put under the microscope, and their lives are examined with a fine-toothed comb. But that’s entirely right. We don’t get the stretch marks, and the home study’s never going to leave you with your pelvic floor in tatters (at least, not unless your social worker’s doing something they really shouldn’t be). But it is hard, and we owe it to our children to make it hard.

Adoption, apologies, and various thoughts

I’m a huge fan of the Adoption and Fostering Podcast, hosted by Al Coates and Scott Casson-Rennie. One of the things I like most about it is the way it makes space for a wide range of voices and perspectives, reflecting how complex adoption is and how practically everyone involved has a different point of view. That was particularly apparent in their discussion this week of the recent call for the UK government to apologise to the many women who lost their children to adoption between the 1950s and the late 1970s. This is often referred to as the era of ‘classic’ adoption, when young unmarried women gave up their babies shortly after birth, and it shaped the lives of thousands of people: in 1968, the peak year for adoption in the UK, over 24,000 children were adopted.

I used the expression ‘gave up’ in that last sentence, and of course it’s not that simple. There are appalling accounts of women who were coerced into giving up their babies; teenage girls told that they had brought shame upon their families and women who were abused and insulted while they were in labour. ‘Giving up’ implies freedom of choice, and it’s clear that many women were given no choice whatsoever.

Al and Scott raise the point, very sensitively, of what it is that the Government would be apologising for. In Ireland, an apology was made earlier this year by the Taoiseach, Michéal Martin, and by Eamon Martin, the Catholic primate of all Ireland, expressing remorse for the role played by the church and state in running the network of mother and baby homes to which unmarried mother were consigned for most of the twentieth century. In the UK, where mother and baby homes were run by churches or charities, there was no such state-organised network. What about the role played by these churches and charities? What about the parents who were complicit in sending their daughters to these institutions? What about the extended families, the neighbours, the people behind the networks of whispers and gossip? Can a government apologise on behalf of a whole society?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The podcast also touches on the expression ‘forced adoption’ and the way it has become a rallying-cry for opponents of adoption. Over the past few decades, these opponents have become increasingly vocal. But as Al and Scott point out, this often silences those voices that raise alternative points of view. I’ve been thinking, during these recent debates, about the women for whom giving up their babies was a free choice: the women who, in the days before free contraception and legalised abortion, welcomed adoption as the only way out of the circumstances in which they found themselves. I’ve also been thinking about the way that ‘forced adoption’ is used to describe the contemporary adoption system in the UK, where voluntary relinquishment is now extremely rare. ‘Cruel forced adoptions are still happening today,’ says a correspondent in the Guardian, and I don’t doubt that to birth families facing the removal of a child, involuntary adoption will seem appallingly cruel. Not for nothing has adoption been described as the most draconian measure a court can impose, short of the death penalty.

But. Neglect and abuse do happen. Some families do not engage with the support that’s offered, and do not make the changes that need to be made in order for their children to live with them safely. The timescales involved have to be tight. Six months might not seem long enough to recover from addiction, or break a pattern of abusive relationships, but it’s a long time in the life of a toddler, and huge amounts of developmental damage can take place during that time.

Adoption always involves loss. The birth family loses a child, or even multiple children. The children lose their ties to their biological family. Ongoing contact and life story work can help with this, but adoption still means growing up in a different family and being legally separated from the one into which you were born. In many cases, there are losses of culture and heritage. The ways in which these losses are felt will vary from one child to another, and from one stage of life to another. We can’t pretend that they don’t exist. But neither can we claim that every child can remain with his or her birth family.

It’s often difficult, as an adopter, to write about the ethics of adoption. After all, we’re the ones who get to make choices. We decide to adopt: nobody forces us to do so. We get to be parents, and that’s something that many of us might be unable to achieve otherwise. As adopters, we’re in a privileged position. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like that: when we’re struggling to access the support that our children need, or coping with disordered behaviour, or helping our children to negotiate difficult aspects of their life stories. But we do need to recognise this position, and grapple with the ethical issues it involves.

Social workers have taken a hammering too, this week, as a result of the recent review of children’s social care in England and Wales, which claimed that social services were overly focused on investigating allegations of abuse and neglect at the expense of supporting struggling families. It’s a scandal that social workers do not have the time, or the resources, to support families in need. But it’s absolutely right that allegations should be investigated, because while some allegations may be vexatious, and others unfounded, there will be children who need the state to step in. The hashtag #SocialWorkAtItsBest has been trending on Twitter today, with people sharing examples of the ways in which social workers have supported children and families, and I think it’s about time this kind of practice was shared more widely, to counter the narrative of bonus-chasing social workers snatching babies on demand.

Adoption, eh? It’s a massively complicated thing. All power to Al and Scott, who have been podcasting for over four years now, and to everyone who’s trying to raise these issues and do justice to the nuances involved.