Last night, after two hours of wrestling with my adopted child over washing, teeth brushing and bedtime, I settled in to listen to Bringing Up Britain on Radio 4, with Mariella Frostrup and a panel of guests including Martin Narey, Nushra Mansuri (BASW), John Simmonds (BAAF) and Professor Julie Selwyn. The discussion mainly rolled on quite nicely and Martin Narey in particular did a good job of bringing the debate around to the realities of modern adoption.
So far so balanced.
And then Mariella started to make smirky statements along the lines of ‘aren’t we all a bit negative about adoption?’ and chirpily announced that she knows loads of people who’ve been adopted and they are all fine, upstanding, well-balanced individuals. I listened to the shouting and banging coming from my own adopted son’s bedroom and imagined her adopted friends, nice, metropolitan media types maybe, probably having been adopted as babies and thought ‘what the fuck’s that got to do with it?’ I thought she may have been picked up by one of the other panel members for this lazy, self-satisfied journalism but she wasn’t. If she was, it wasn’t broadcast. Instead we were treated to a cocktail of ‘yes we are far too negative’, ‘only a small proportion of families struggle with their adopted children’ and a chaser of ‘all children are like this’. (These are not direct quotations but you get the gist. Players of Adoption Misinfo Bingo would have been close to a full house.)
Have we learnt nothing, have we not moved on in our knowledge and experience of child trauma in the past twenty years? The children who are put in care and subsequently adopted in the main have been neglected and abused, big time. And they don’t just shed the harm done to them, like a cashmere wrap, it is a deeply woven into them. Many difficult behaviours they display are deeply socially, dinner party, unacceptable. Raising a damaged child is at the minimum a significant challenge and for many of us a hard, painful, lonely, nerve-jangling slog.
I was left wondering why the really tough issues around parenting adopted children were glossed over so stupendously in this programme (it is after all a programme about parenting). There is a natural tendency to look away from child abuse and its long term impact. It is difficult and makes us feel awkward. But sometimes we must look and examine, because it is the only way our children will get the support and understanding that they need. The over-riding reason for the gloss-job I suspect, is the need to recruit more adopters and the upcoming National Adoption Week. We musn’t tell people what it’s really like because then they might not want to adopt. We must instead gush and come over a bit sentimental and kitch. There is a danger of mis-selling here and it benefits no one.
I’m aware that I am probably part of a self-selecting group: adopters who struggle. Adopters who don’t experience problems raising their children are more likely to get on with life and less likely to seek the solace of twitter, message boards and blogs like this. Have a look around though and there are lots and lots and lots of us. Mariella’s friends are self-selecting too. I think there were nine or ten of them.
I don’t ask for full technicolour, weeping and wailing over the travails of raising traumatised children, there are triumphs and joys along the way for many of us. But I’ll let you into a little secret: you know how there are things which are no longer socially acceptable to say, politically incorrect things which jar? ‘All children do that’ is one of those.