Life Story Work: Taking Control

There are two types of adoptive parents; those who effortlessly weave their child’s birth family into their own (‘Good Parents’) and those who do not (‘Bad Parents’).

‘Good Parents’ have books of photographs of birth family members around the home for all to see, they chat effortlessly about their child’s pre-adoption life and are emotionally intelligent and well-balanced people.

‘Bad Parents’ are secretive, jealous and do not act in the best interests of their child.  In fact they are damaging their child for life by adding to shame and taking away from identity.  They probably have unresolved attachment issues themselves.

At our adoption training it was made very clear which we should be and to illustrate the point a lovely woman who had adopted a new born baby a year ago talked to us about how important it was to be a ‘Good Parent’.  She had pictures of her baby’s birth family around her home and that is where they were going to stay.  That settled it: I was certainly going to be a ‘Good Parent’.

Wind forward twelve months and my physically and emotional scarred, soon to be adopted son Jamie was visited by a student Social Worker, whom he had met once before.  She showed him his new Life Story Book.  It contained pictures of his birth family, the house they had lived in and some narrative on his life from birth to the present day.  Jamie would not sit still or look at the pictures.  He shouted and threw things.  The Social Worker went home and we never saw her again.  We were left trying to pick up the pieces. For days after this Jamie was highly distressed and virtually uncontrollable.  Nevertheless we persisted.  As advised we put the Life Story Book on a prominent book shelf, where it would be seen many times a day.  I would often ask with a note of fake excitement ‘Jamie shall we sit down together and look through your Life Story Book?’. He would run away and hide.  I tried to casually drop bits and pieces into conversations.  They always resulted in a meltdown.  Meltdown is not what anyone needs in those early months of an adoption when the focus should be on establishing feelings of safety and bonding.  And at that time Jamie was grieving hard for the foster family he had just left behind.  It was all too much too soon.

Back in those days I was inexperienced and tired.  But eventually I began to realise that the Life Story Book was a object of fear and that maybe this ‘Good Parent vs Bad Parent’ thing was not as simple as I had been led to believe.

On the advice on one particular Social Worker in whom I have an enormous amount of trust, we put the book away.  And we decided to give Jamie a rest, a break from having to think about the past, as this is what he seemed to be trying to tell us he wanted. It was as though a weight had been immediately lifted.  Jamie was no longer under imminent danger of Life Story Hijack.

Very slowly and in his own time, he began to talk.  One evening, as I was tucking him into bed he shared with me his memories of an horrific event.  He drew me into his world, urging me to believe him.  I knew it was a key moment and it is one I shall never ever forget.  He taught me a lot that night about fear and trauma and the very complex feelings and emotions around being harmed by those who should protect you.

Then he started to open up on car journeys.  The theme was usually kidnap.  Could they put a ladder up against our house at night and come into my room and take me?  Would you hear them?  What would you do?  Would you fight them?  Then there were other more complex questions; are they in prison, why not, how can someone who does that to children not be in prison?

From that we moved on to the complexities of his large and complicated birth family tree.  He has difficulties understanding it even now.  There was no hope he was going to manage it at 5 or 6 years old when he struggled to get his head around even the basics of family relationships.

I have learnt to be guided in the most part by Jamie.  When he’s asked questions we’ve talked sometimes briefly, sometimes at great length and most times I’ve given him a little bit more information to assimilate. Twelve months ago this process led to me referring to his Form E and some photographs which were taken by the police.  He asked to see it all.  I sat with him at the kitchen table and we read every word.  The following day he asked if he could show the documents to his teacher.  I am grateful to her for agreeing to do this.  Again, once he had been allowed to share and explore at his own pace more weight was lifted.

This has taken eight years so far.  Jamie has seen all the information we have.  But there is still plenty more work to do. Jamie’s voice has been absolutely key to the process so far;  sometimes that voice is acted out through behaviours which have to be unpicked and sometimes it rings with clarity but it has always been strong and brave.  Now that he is older he says that he doesn’t want his Life Story Book on show but he knows where it is.  He doesn’t want pictures of his birth family on display in our home either.  They are his birth family members and some of them are his abusers too.

I came under pressure particularly in the early days and at times felt I was misrepresented as the ‘Bad Parent’.  Perhaps I am lucky that Jamie has such a strong voice or maybe I have chosen to tune into it and listen and trust.  I could of course be doing it all wrong. Either way, I’m confident now that the process we’ve followed is the right one for us. I’ve taken control: sometimes mum does know best.

6 thoughts on “Life Story Work: Taking Control

  1. You’re absolutely right. I think more often than not we take the professionals advice and follow it to the letter, without actually questioning it or thinking about adapting it to our children. When you think about it, there is no way that their sweeping statements and general life story advice can apply to all of our children – they are of course, all different. Different ages, different backgrounds, different people.

    It’s taken us 4 years to realise that we need to take our son’s lead on life story work, and if I was good before (by having easy access to a life story book, photos of birth parents on display and doing what the social workers suggested), then I’m even better now for removing them and slowing it all down so Mini can cope with it.

  2. We have to be such strong advocates for our children and gaining in experience and confidence only helps us in this role.
    Thanks for your comment and thanks too for starting the twitter debate.

  3. Totally with you on this one. We took the other approach and felt that our children needed an opportunity to adapt to the present and look into the future rather than have the past tormenting them. We had much pressure from social workers and professionals saying that the children needed to keep the past as a prominent part of their lives but we stood our ground as we felt they had enough to deal with with the here and now. Then one day, our eldest who was about 8 at the time, 4 yrs after being adopted, asked what his birth mother looked liked and that gave an opening for us to introduce the life story book. We felt he was getting more confused by having fuzzy memories than he would having the facts in front of him. We’d always answered everything they’d asked honestly but sensitively but pictures speak a different language. We gave each child their book, they flicked through it and asked a few questions. Then we asked each of them what they would like to do with the book, giving the options of them having them in their rooms, on a communal bookshelf or putting them in the sideboard. They both went for the latter and neither have spoken about or acknowledged their exsistance…….till last night! About 2 years later! I promised that we would look at them today and interested what other questions, if any, will follow. Of course being Mothers day tomorrow is the catalyst and is a bit of a kick in the whatsits for many children and adults alike!

  4. Yes I think we should all be child led. We should not be the ones “popping” birth families into their heads. We should wait till they ask.
    Also it’s strange how often children “disclose” something from their past whilst talking to the back of your head in the car. Many times I have experienced this.
    You are the good mother the mother your kids need.

  5. And you are a very great help. I went shopping yesterday and bought a big bag of fruit. I have yet the explain the concept of ‘corporation pop’ but I’m still laughing about it.
    Thanks for your comment wise lady.

  6. Your article is spot on. Trust your instincts. When I started on this journey, I was told that the ‘needs of the child comes first’. So, with that in mind, and after reading your article, I am going to trust my instincts. My daughter is three and in June, would have been living with me for a year. I am mindful that while I give her a secure, loving and safe home, it is still early days. I don’t think that this is the time to start a conversation about her pre-adoption life as it would be too confusing for her. When we receive my daughter’s life story book, I will bear in mind the advice from the social work professionals but most importantly, LISTEN to my daughter, her level of understanding and trusting my own instincts while we both continue on our journey of forming secure, loving and safe attachments. Good parents or bad parents? I opt for being a sensible parent!


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