Monthly Archives: October 2011

National Adoption Week

Today marks the beginning of National Adoption Week - seven days of media coverage aimed at gently nudging prospective adopters to make that all important first phone call to their local authority or adoption agency.  With increasing numbers of children in our care system waiting to be adopted, there is no doubt that the recruitment of adopters needs to remain a focus.

Adoption had lurked in the back of my mind for a long time and so when Rob and I struggled to start a family and then decided that IVF was not the path we wanted to take, it stepped out from behind the furniture, waved at me and looked familiar.

The training courses were well run and informative and I couldn’t fault our social worker, she was all we could have hoped for.  We were approved as adopters within nine months and were matched with two children within the year.  Bar a minor hiccup with the matching process it went as easily as it could have done.  Our local Social Services were efficient and professional.

Our two children, Jamie and Rose, were three and one when they moved in with us and changed our lives forever.  They quickly became the parts of us we knew had been missing.  We fell truly in love with them.

But the birth of the adoptive family is just the very start of the story, made all the more difficult by a society which prefers to think of this as the end, when the file is closed and sent to the archives.

We have brilliant times, the four of us, unexpected joys and successes, raucous fun and bellyaching laughs.  But if adoption is to really work, there must be, as part of the recruitment of adopters, a good dollop of healthy honesty.

So here is my offering.  Parenting children who have suffered neglect and abuse as most children in the care system have to some degree, is hard, relentlessly hard and there is no point beating about the bush over it.  It is joyful and it is exhausting.  It is fun and it is damaging.  It is rewarding and it is isolating.  It has given me the best times of my life and the worst.  I have both treasured my family and wanted to put oceans between us. There have been some really dark times when I have stood at the front door, car keys shaking in one hand, credit card in the other.

Now I know where to get help and support and have found schools which understand the difficulties which children with early trauma experience, life has got mostly easier.  But as the years of swings and picture books and jelly babies gives way to computer games and the push for independence, the challenges change.  The small frightened child is becomes the big frightened child, hormones turbo-charge the anger and the power of words is well-understood and well-exercised. 

I often tell our children that I love them, very much, no matter what.  They squirm and put their fingers in their ears.  They feel unworthy of a good life, think that everything will eventually return to shit and they go to great pains to prove they are right.  But at least once a day I will hear how much I am loved; I will drink the tea made for me, I will eat the chocolate cookie bought for me from the school canteen, I will cherish the drawing with ‘For Mum’ written across the top.  Despite everything, adopting our children has been the best thing we have ever done and I’m glad we went into it with our eyes open.

For more information about National Adoption Week follow the BAAF link on this website.

Encouraging Our Boys to Read

Much is spoken and written about the difficulties of encouraging boys to read.  As with many of these modern day (dare I say middle class) parenting worries, the adoptive parent will want to shout to the world ‘you have NO IDEA what my life is like!’.  For many of us, sitting our sons down with an improving novel comes way way down the list of priorities.

So for what it’s worth and with no professional qualifications in the matter whatsoever, here is what has often, but not always, worked in our family:

  • Picture books

Picture books, picture books, let me say it again, picture books.  They are fun and interactive and they take the pressure off.  Some have a fair few words in too.  We like ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book’ by Lauren Child.


  • Funny Voices

I have read Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series voicing Moonface as Derek Hatton and the Saucepan Man as Dot Cotton.  It was hard to keep up at times and sometimes Moonface became more Liam Gallagher than Derek Hatton, but it was dead funny.


  • Enid Blyton

Many literary types disapprove of Enid Byton’s books because she doesn’t use enough long words. And even as a big fan I must agree that some titles, which I can’t even bring myself to write here, have quite rightly been mothballed.  But we love her.  There’s just enough danger in her books and the children always come home safely.  And there’s usually a know-it-all or a kid who doesn’t like getting dirty to sneer at together.


  • Jokes

The Mr Gum books filled a gap that nothing else would.  They are bizarre and imaginative and surreal and they provide a useful supply of ludicrous catch phrases.  There are lots of pictures amongst the text and they are quick to read.  Just remember though THE TRUTH IS A LEMON MERINGUE.


  • A Page Each

After a long day at school not sitting still and arguing with your classmates, the last thing you need is your naggy mother nagging you to sit and read a stupid book.  Much better if your naggy mother shares the reading with you.  It gives you chance to snuggle up to her and realise that she’s not that bad after all.


  • Know What to Avoid

In our house Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket and anything too overtly about adoption (sadly the squirrel books, although well-intentioned, are way too obvious).



  • Poems

Good for when times are really hard or the book is languishing in the drawer at school.  We like Spike Milligan.


  • Have Some Days Off

‘You must read with your child every day’ say the schools.  Don’t tell the teacher, but we don’t.  There are some days when it just ain’t gonna happen.  There are some weeks when it ain’t gonna happen.  It doesn’t matter.  Bond in front of the television instead.  My son and I have recently bonded over The Great British Bake Off and Educating Essex (recorded of course, it’s on far too late).


  • The Dead, by Charlie Higson

This is my son’s suggestion for this list.  He is eleven.  He has fought against reading for a long time and this summer he read this book, by choice.  Result.

Seven ways in which adopting children has made me a better person

In my last post I outlined some of the ways in which parenting adopted children can be an isolating experience.  So here are the ways in which it has also made me a better person.

1.  The road to adoption, via the cul-de-sac of infertility has been a long and difficult one.  All children are precious.  I have the privilege of really understanding how precious they are.

2.  I have been tested and stretched and challenged every day.  I am now a fit, fearless and muscular parent.   

3.  I know the reality of parenting the children in the NSPCC adverts, I know what most do not.  I am in a unique position to destroy the myths forever. Like it or not, every adoptive parent is a campaigner.  I enjoy being a campaigner, it is what I was born for.

4.  I have met people I would never ever my life have come across.  I am frequently forced out of my comfort zone.  It has both toughened me up and taught me empathy. 

5.  I see the enormous achievement which goes into what might look like small successes.  Average is now fantastic.

6.  My children are little bundles of surprise.  They have talents and interests which enrich my life everyday.

7.  My children and I have the shared the deepest of secrets with each other.  We know each other, really know each other.


Six Ways in which Adoptive Parents are Erased

1.  We are pixellated out of existence

Want to use Facebook?  You can’t.  Photograph going into the local paper?  Stop.  Want to write and blog about adoption?  You will have to create a clever alter-ego, cover your tracks, worry worry worry about being tracked down. 

2.  We are embarrassing

We are not able to take part in perfectly normal conversations.  ‘My little Billy spilt yoghurt down himself today and then said ‘bum’ to me, just like that, well I couldn’t believe it,’ is a common enough type of playground opener.  When normal in your home is dinner on the floor followed by ‘f*** off, I hate you, you’re not my real mother’ there is a lack of common ground.   And sharing experiences like this at social occasions is like throwing down a sack of tumbleweed.  Awkward does not even begin to describe it.  So we smile and learn to keep quiet.

3.  We have ‘naughty’ children 

Our children make friends with the one child in the school that all other parents warn their children against.  This makes our child socially off-limits.  This makes us socially off-limits too.  Our children will behave differently, they will struggle with relationships.  Our children will not get invited to parties.  You will have to witness the public giving out of the invitations, in the playground as you watch your child ‘putting on a brave face’.  The playground becomes a horrible horrible place to be, you dread it every day.   

4.  We are crazy

We all know that early neglect and abuse produces damaged children, don’t we?  No it seems that many teachers do not know this.  It seems that many doctors do not know this.  They express surprise when we seek help in managing our damaged children.  They tell us that our children are now in a loving home and should be alright by now. They blame us, we who have chosen to parent the abused.  They are the all-powerful.  We are the delusional, the attention-seeking, drama queens, the lots of us.  We are fobbed off with ritalin and antidepressants for f*** sake!  We are silenced.

5.  The adoption fiction

There are not enough adopters.  We are asked to help promote adoption.  Suddenly adoption is on the tele, in the newspapers, on the internet.  But hang on, what is all this kitch guff about angels being born in my heart, people look starry-eyed into the camera ‘my angels’ they gasp, ‘my family has been completed’.  Have they been medicated?  But their story is fluffy lovely and palatable.  Don’t tell the truth, people might not like it.

6.  We are tired

That hollow-eyed exhaustion, that punch bag brain feeling with which we are familiar is not a great social asset.  We turn down social invitations, if we ‘make an effort’ and go out we sit in silent oblivion or drink too much and become embarrassing. 

We attend meetings at school, trying to lobby for better support for our children, zombie-eyed, confirming the pre-conceptions that we are woolly brained, making a fuss.  We need maximum confidence when we are knackered and alone.


A Letter to My 16 Year Old Self

Dear Me,

You have a great figure, be proud of it, flaunt it.  Your skin is great, DO NOT cover it in that awful cheap make-up.  You may want to save this particular piece of advice for a few years, but have a bit more ‘fun’, there are a few missed opportunities that you may grow up to regret.

You will make it to university (I know!) and you will almost turn yourself inside out trying to fit in with the, let’s say, better off students.  Don’t bother, seriously, they will only ever see you as someone bred to clean their dorm.  You will be friends with the other two students who went to a comp and who don’t have a car.  One of them will become the most wonderful friend a girl could wish for. 

I won’t spoil too much more for you, but I will say that you will never sit still for long, there will always be the next job, the next project and you don’t always make things easy for yourself, but you will find your thing. 

You will never carry a child, so try to skip over the times of yearning and heartache because, trust me, they will lay waste to many years which should have been happier and more fulfilling.  But you will have a husband and children and they will give you the most wonderful and unexpected life.

And you know that gut-feeling, that intuition you have?  Trust it.

Love from Sally xx




The Traditions That Glue Families Together

What makes a family?  For many people this question doesn’t ever need asking, but for those of us who have assembled a family through adoption it is a relevant one.  So many things do not make our families.  They are clearly not made by a shared genetic heritage.  I am no more biologically related to my children, than I am my husband.  There are many aspects of our own experiences of being parented which we cannot hand down either and so we have had to learn new ways of parenting.  But nevertheless, the Donovans, the four of us, are a strong family unit.

Our esteemed Social Worker, Mr R who has helped us through some tricky times, recently talked to us about family traditions, ‘you know’ he said, ‘the sorts of things that are particular to your family, little phrases, particular names for things, days which are marked in special ways’.  He described these family oddities as the glue which sticks and binds and is the starting culture of a shared heritage.

Of course, when put on the spot for something like this, the mind goes blank.  (It is like being asked what your favourite books or albums are and inexplicably your brain is only able to access the late 1980s – ‘yes I very much enjoy The Bone People and kd Lang).  So to Mr R, Rob and I both looked as though we lacked the imagination to create even the flimsiest of traditions.  The obvious family traditions are woven into the Big Days such as birthdays and (breathe out first) Christmas.  But for many adoptive families, the Big Days are littered with landmines, which are exploded by the trip wires of vague memories, broken attachments and shame. So for our families, more than most, our traditions have to be rooted in the every day, the mundane and also the bizarre.

Here are a selection of some of my favourite Donovan family traditions:

  • the person who creeps downstairs early in the morning and eats biscuits and cake decorations is known as ‘the cupboard fairy’, we all know her human form, but we do not speak her name, for she knows who she is
  • the cloth which removed all signs of food around tiny mouths after mealtimes was affectionately known as ‘the magic flannel’, it has gone out of use, but it’s memory continues
  • ‘I’m Thinking About My Doorbell. When You Gonna Ring It?  When You Gonna Ring It?’ by the White Stripes is the family anthem, we all know the words and can air drum along to it, the little Donovans are yet to understand the true meaning of the lyrics
  • we have our own Donovan family ranking system for swear words which starts with ‘arse’ and ends with, well, a word which came up when whilst we were reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the eldest Donovan child, which I shall leave for you dear readers to deduce.

And all these strange terms and quirky little songs and the memories which they hold, all play their part in giving us a shared language with which we can celebrate the good times.

BBC1 Sunday Morning Live debate trans-racial adoption

I sacrificed myself this morning, for the greater good and watched Sunday Morning Live on BBC1.  It is a shouty affair which is not conducive to a slow and sleepy Sunday morning but they were having a debate about trans-racial adoption and so I thought it my duty to take a look.  There were three people on the stage: a shouty American woman, a not too shouty black man and Derek Hatton.  The referee was the BBC newsreader Susanna Reid.

There were lots of opinions, most from within the studio and some beamed in skype-style.  As with most BBC debates, no matter the complexity of the issue, there had to be two opposing sides and the twain was never going to meet.  On the liberal and mainly white side of the discussion was the view that adoption should be ‘colour blind’ and that children from ethnic minorities ‘languishing’ (let’s please stop using this word) in care should be available for adoption by white parents.  On the opposite side of the debate was the view that white parents may not understand the cultural and ethnic issues of raising a white child, not least the racism which they would be likely to encounter.

A good part of me believes that it is generally better for a child to be adopted, rather than brought up in the care system.  I also believe that it can be in a child’s best interests to be adopted by a couple of a different ethnic background, rather than left in the care system.  But a rush for white singles or couples to adopt children of a different ethnicity leaves me feeling uneasy, mainly because, with all these thorny, complex issues IT IS NOT THAT EASY.

The (mainly) white debaters on the show claimed that the UK is much changed over the past 25 years and that our society is not riddled with the same levels of racism as it once was.  This was not confirmed by the black speakers, who had themselves grown up in care.  And who are white people to tell black people that racism has diminished?

As is usual in a debate about adoption, everyone is an expert, whether or not they have any experience of the subject.  And as is also usual, the phrase ‘a loving family’ was passed around like a fluffy rabbit at a petting zoo.  It is a common misconception that all adopted children really need is ‘a loving family’.  In reality raising children who have experienced neglect and abuse (as most children in care have) is exceptionally difficult and requires a level of professionalism not demanded of most parents of biological children.  It is also a misconception that Britain is a multi-cultural country: large parts of it may be, but not here in Mudtropolis where we live.  If a non-white child grew up here, they would not see anyone who looked remotely like them from one day to the next.  And just ask Barack Obama how that would feel.

Most surprisingly it was left to Derek Hatton to speak some words of sense ‘all I’m saying’ he said, ’is not every white person is fit to adopt a black child, but more could.’

The Great British Bake Off vs a day with Aidan: killing the 1950s for good

This week I went with friends on a day course to a craft bakery, to learn how to make bread.  With a flick of a dirty t-towel and a wipe of his nose the baker, Aidan, demonstrated how to mix dough, in a plastic box, from a pound shop.  The word ‘roughly’ was used a lot; ‘roughly a third’, ‘roughly half a jug’, ‘roughly five minutes’. There were no recipe notes, no scales and no rulers. 

My friends and I started the day fussing a bit over quantities and questioning why we were slopping in water from a cracked plastic bucket and not adding careful measures of hand-hot water.  Aidan was very polite but his message was clear, ‘relax, this is not brain surgery, no one is going to die from lack of precision here’.

We learnt to make a sourdough mix by (gasp) leaving a flour and water mix …… open to the AIR ….. FOR TEN DAYS.  We made white bread, foccaccia, soda bread and pizza, all were phenomenal.

Relaxing over that day, learning to slop in a bit of this and a bit of that into my plastic box, I thought about the 1950s housewife, cup cakey thing, which this experience was so far removed from.  She has been stealthily worming her way into our psyches, drugging us with her over-sweetened baking and her sage green vases of pink roses, her spotty table cloths and her well-executed crafts.  She whispers into our ears that only perfection in the home is acceptable, that anything less is failure.  She drains away our confidence with her bossy cookery books and sets us one against another with her smug high standards.  Her influence was evident in the final of The Great British Bake Off last night.  It was all dainty cakes, piping bags and rulers.  Mary Ann may have a name from the fifties but with her experimental ways and hands like shovels, she was never going to win.  She was way too wholesome and well …… confident. Holly is the spawn of the 1950s housewife, all precision, perfection, practice and homework.  And the winner Jo was suitably meek, selfless and grateful to win.  This was the first thing she had done ‘just for me’ in probably twenty years.  She is a great cook, no doubt, but the praise served up was patronising to her and the rest of us.  The 1950s were singing in our ears, luring us away from the boardroom and into the kitchen.    

My day with Aidan the baker has changed my life a little bit.  Not only did I learn to make the best bread I’ve ever tasted, with the minimum of fuss, I’ve chased away the 1950s housewife for good.  If she tries to get me again I’m going to smother her with dirty t-towels and drown her in a bucket from the pound shop. 




How The Simpsons offered a surprise opportunity to talk about worries

‘You’re mean, you’re a retard, I hate you, I’m going to ring Childline about you meanies,’ shouted my 11-year-old son on Friday morning as I wrestled him into his school jumper and forced his feet into his school shoes. 

Somewhat chastened and feeling guilty about his latest set of outbursts he snuggled next to me that evening to watch The Simpsons.  Due to his superior olfactory skills the Simpson family pet, Santa’s Little Helper was recruited into the police force as a sniffer dog.  Busting drug dealers and chasing down burglars became too much for the little dog who would come home after a long days work and take it out on his owners, barking and growling at them and on one occasion biting Bart. 

‘You’re a bit like Bart’s dog,’ I ventured, ‘you have a hard day at school every day and then you come home and bite everyone.’  There was a short silence. ‘Mmmm.. yes, I am a bit like that,’ he offered, with the stress on the word ‘bit’.  ‘I think you’re finding it stressful at school having to meet so many new people, having to find your way around, having to cope with being around lots of big children.’  I left the thought hanging for a while.  He cuddled into me.  ‘Do you think if you talked about how you’re feeling at school, it might help you feel less stressed?’  He shuffled, burrowed his head into my side and finally conceded ‘I am feeling worried at school, but I’m keeping it together and trying hard.  I’m sorry I’ve been mean to you and it does help when I share.’

Coming at an issue from left field often works with our children.  I find they don’t see you coming and don’t have time to construct the usual defenses. The element of surprise can help to unlock some sticky issues.

At the end of the episode Santa’s Little Helper leaves the police force and decides it was better being a family dog. ‘See Mum, that means I’d be much happier if I just left school.’

Sometimes a comparison can just be stretched too far.