#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 – https://www.youcanadopt.co.uk/NAW/ – 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.


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 Ancestry.com 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.

What schools need to know about adoption

My son, the Dude, finished his school career a few weeks ago, and is enjoying a blissful summer before starting college in September. (Well, not entirely blissful, as he’s broken his hand, but he’s managing). It’s fair to say that school can be a difficult place for adopted and care-experienced children, and we’ve had our share of issues to cope with over the years. As an adoptive parent, you have to spend a huge amount of time being your child’s advocate, and this often involves having to explain things about adoption that you’d hope education professionals would be aware of already. So here’s my list of things that schools need to know about adoption, based on fourteen and a half years of adoptive parenting.

A long, long journey: the Dude, aged two, shortly after his arrival
  1. Adoption has changed since the 1960s and 70s. It’s no longer about young single mothers giving up tiny babies because there was no other option available to them. The vast majority of children adopted in the UK nowadays have been taken into care as a result of abuse or neglect. A court then has to be convinced that there is no possible chance of them returning safely to their birth parents. For this decision to be made, a huge amount of evidence has to be built up. That takes a long time – time when children might have been in harmful situations or in the uncertainty of foster care. All of this will have had an impact.
  2. Linked to this is the fact that children don’t have to have a conscious memory of the events that led to their adoption in order to be affected by them. Early trauma – neglect, abandonment, exposure to harm – disrupts the formation of secure attachments, and leaves its mark on the developing brain. Some of our children will also experience the consequences of poor antenatal care and exposure to drugs and alcohol before birth. It’s not a question of whether our children ‘remember’ any of this.
  3. Adopted children are not lucky. Even if they’ve been adopted by the most supportive and loving of parents, who can give them experiences and material advantages that their peers don’t have, this doesn’t make them lucky. In order to be adopted, they will have been through a whole raft of pretty horrible experiences. Living through circumstances that are so bad that a court has to separate you permanently from your family of origin does not make you particularly fortunate.
  4. Adoption doesn’t make everything okay. The effects of early trauma mean that some of our children will continue to need support for years into the future (and some adoptive parents will have to fight for every bit of this support, because accessing it isn’t easy). So don’t roll your eyes and claim that adoptive parents are making a meal of it when they remind you that you need to make adjustments.
  5. The classroom can be a scary place. This applies especially to children who have only just been placed with their adoptive families, who will be facing a whole bunch of new situations and people and sensations, and might well be in a different part of the country. But even children who are relatively settled in placement might still find the school environment overwhelming. Give them a safe base and clear routines that don’t involve having to make too many choices. This is particularly important in the early years, when free flow play can present children with so many different options that they end up completely bewildered: it’s like having too many puddings to choose from.
  6. Some areas of the curriculum can be extremely difficult for adopted children. Anything that involves bringing in photos of yourself as a baby, talking about your family tree, reading about children who are displaced (Goodnight Mister Tom, I’m looking at you), talks from organisations about trauma and abuse. If you’ve got adopted or care-experienced children in your school, you should do an audit of your curriculum and, if necessary, liaise with parents or foster carers. There’s a surprising number of adoption-related set texts on GCSE English Literature specifications: make sure your students aren’t blindsided by the vengeful birth mother in The Woman in Black, or the appalling worksheet on Blood Brothers that asks students to imagine only finding out that you’re adopted when you discover your original birth certificate at the age of sixteen.
  7. For many adopted children, shame can be an overwhelming emotion. Shame about what happened in their past; shame about whether it was their fault; shame about having a different kind of family. This can then bleed over into other aspects of their lives (being told off, losing a game, doing badly in a test, being teased in class). Help them to manage their reactions, but be aware that this is a difficult thing. Don’t expect them to just laugh it off, or chide them for not being able to take a joke. And don’t tell them it doesn’t matter, because it does.
  8. Social thinning is a very real thing. Many adopted children struggle to form friendships, and will need support with this. Nurture groups, friendship benches, extracurricular activities: they’ll all help. If possible, help our children to build friendships that will extend beyond school as well. Those cliques at the school gate will often exclude our children from playdates and parties, especially if their behaviour marks them out in class as being different. Anything you can do to combat this would be brilliant, and adoptive parents will be extremely grateful.
  9. Do pass on information. Make sure everyone involved in the child’s day-to-day school life knows everything they need to, including any relevant information about developmental trauma and triggers to watch out for. It sounds obvious, but it doesn’t always happen.
  10. Don’t expect adopted children to be spokespeople for adoption. They might not want to talk about being adopted. They might not want their friends to know. That’s fine, it’s up to them. It’s not a secret, but it is private. They might find anything that sparks memories of life-before-adoption really scary. They definitely shouldn’t be put in a position where they’re asked ‘What’s it like to be adopted?’ in front of a whole class of their peers. If they want to talk about it, that’s different, but make sure it’s a safe environment.
  11. Jokes about adoption really aren’t funny. The only funny adoption-based joke I know is the late Jeremy Hardy’s comment about how some parents like to cook and eat the placenta, after their child is born: adoptive parents don’t have that option, so they might want to cook and eat their social worker instead. He was allowed to say that because he was an adoptive parent. Don’t say ‘I bet your mum wishes she’d given you up for adoption’ to a random kid in your class who’s just done something mildly foolish. Really. Just don’t. Even if you don’t have any adopted or care-experienced children in your class. It’s still all shades of wrong.
  12. Adoptive parents are real parents. We went through a lot to get here. As one of my friends eloquently put it: ‘You had to go on courses and be assessed and everything; most people just have a shag.’ Our children might not be genetically related to us, but we love the very bones of them. And they’re bloody amazing, so help us to look after them.