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.
A beautiful friend once complained to me how difficult life can be for the highly attractive. Apparently it is akin to being rich; one tends to be judged on one’s bountiful gifts and not on one’s inner qualities. It was hard to dredge up any feelings of sympathy. I was reminded of this moment when I listened to Woman’s Hour on Friday and learned of the existence of the National Association for Gifted Children. It appears that being a quick learner comes with its own drawbacks amongst which can be boredom, which leads to messing around in class, which leads to a prescription for Ritalin.
As a governor of a small primary school I have often heard parents complaining that their gifted children are not being well-served. There may be some truth in this of course, but their complaints outnumber the complaints of those representing children at the other end of the spectrum, by quite some margin and by most measures they have far more reason to complain. There is something of the sharp-elbowed about it and that is why educators and budget-setters have to be wary of the loud, educated voices of self-interest and balance them against the interests of children who may not have such effective advocates.
Most children who have spent their early years staring at a ceiling are not likely to be bothering the National Association for Gifted Children any time soon. If they are messing around in class then it will have much more to do with fear and self-loathing than about finding the work too easy. Like gifted children they don’t qualify for any special funding at school (the government ceased funding schemes for Gifted and Talented children earlier this year). It is worth spelling this out – a child whose early neglect and abuse renders that child often unable to function in the classroom at all receives no additional help or funding within school. If that child has special educational needs then they will get funding, but if their difficulties are not so easy to label then unless they happen to be in an unusually understanding school, that child will perform far below their potential. And there is more to play for here than dropping a few GCSE grades.
So maybe those of us who parent these children need to sharpen our elbows and become more vocal. There are many complex reasons why that is difficult. Our children take a lot of parenting which leaves little energy left for campaigning. We can be vilified by other parents who are fed up with our children disrupting the education of theirs, which saps one’s self-confidence. And many of us don’t want to go broadcasting the confidential facts about our children’s background around the playground. But maybe there could be a solution which helps everyone. If these children who started life at the bottom of the heap, were to receive the help they so badly need then their life chances would be radically improved. It is likely that classroom disruption would be reduced and the benefits felt by every child. It would be money intelligently spent and the marker of a mature and caring society – a big society.