A TPPSG member recounts the wonder of adopting a child

On a wild, wet May morning a few years ago, we became parents for the first time. Like expectant couples everywhere, we experienced the months of breathless anticipation, the shopping for baby gear, the frequent fears that something might go wrong – except I was never pregnant, and our child, when we finally met, was already one.

Adopting a child has proved a revelation in many ways – because parenthood always is; it’s impossible to imagine, before you embark on it,how all-consumingit will be, nor how the love you feel will grow and grow, until it’s rooted deep inside you. We have no other experience of parenthood to compare ours with, but we cannot imagine loving a child more wholly than we love ours. I feel it’s important to state this up front, because the toughest thing about adoption, as it’s turned out, has not been what’s happened within our own four walls, but the attitudes and assumptions we’ve come across.

Every adoption story is unique. There are always hurdles along the way, they just happen at different moments for different people. Many come to it after years of IVF, but that wasn’t the case with us. I had always thought about adoption. The genetic component of parenthood had always struck me as the least important part of the whole thing, that attribution of a child’s traits and characteristics to other members of the family which I had always found personally suffocating.If the genetic difference between us and chimps is something like 5%, what’s with the obsession with ‘flesh and blood’? Luckily my husband feels the same way. Our initial vague plan was to have one birth child and one adopted. After a year or two the birth child hadn’t come along and one visit to the fertility clinic with its complicated instruments and price list in plain view sent us running.We never looked back.

On any journey to adoption there are landmark moments. The first is picking up the phone to make that very first call: “Hello, we’re interested in adoption”. For nearly everyone, that call is to your local authority (all children needing adoption in this country are in the care of their local authority). All too often the conversation doesn’t end well. Ourswas no exception. A clipped social worker on the other end of the line told my husband there was no point even meeting us – all the children in their care were of Afro-Caribbean extraction, and since we weren’t, that was the end of it. Goodbye. We put the phone down feeling utterly deflated. Did that woman realise how many days it took to pluck up the courage to make that call?

I found out later her statement wasn’t even accurate. She described the predominant ethnic profile of the children in their care, but by no means that of all of them. Why this is such a common story is not for me to explain. A loving, stable home is, by a long, long stretch the most important thing for a child. That said, if you look vaguely like one another it does help avoid intrusive questions, and can help the child with a sense of belonging. It can also allow members of the wider family to feel an instinctive identification. The current government has rightly tried to loosen things up, so children of one ethnic profile don’t languish waiting for adopters of the exact same profile to pop up, while other potentially great adoptive parents are put off.

Luckily, for us there was an alternative. We went to Coram, a charity established in the 1700s which can access children country-wide, the downside being that local authorities always prefer adopters they have assessed themselves. Both myself and my husband are ethnically mixed, and Coram welcomed us warmly.

Even Coram at the time were less able to offer hope to white-only adopters. But now there probably hasn’t been a better time to adopt. Besides, we’ve met a good few white UK people who have successfully adopted very young children, either through an agency like ours or through their local authority, often of another ethnicity.There can be a real difference between the official line and the reality on the ground months later, when you’re ready to be matched.

We were assigned a social worker – who sees you through the whole process – and together we embarked on the preparation course called home study, which lasted around six months. Again, you hear horror stories about this, but for us it was pretty easy;one meeting roughly every three weeks with a friendly, sensitive person who wants you to talk all about yourself – hardly a hardship!

We were approved by a panel of adoption experts, and ready to be matched. One week later, the phone rang. It was our social worker, telling us about a baby in foster care somewhere up north. I still remember her calm voice telling me the basic facts she knew about him – place and date of birth, ethnic profile, and his name. With shaking hands I rang my husband to tell him the news. That night, I woke up in the early hours with the child’s name ringing in my head. I just knew we’d found our child.

But once we left the warm, highly professional arms of Coram and were out in the big wide world, things gotmore rocky. The wait to meet our child seemed interminable as his local authority’s bureaucracy seemed to creak and groan on for months. Your experience at this point depends on factors entirely beyond your control – which local authority you’re dealing with, their level of competence (or incompetence), a whole baffling tier of social workers, and the foster carersthemselves.

One of the first things you do is go into your agency to read the reports on the child. This is one of the most painful moments. As you read about the birth family (more usually about the birth mother) you feel a whole gamut of complex feelings: compassion, anger, confusion about your own role….what are you doing, taking someone else’s child? The reasons a child needs adopting are never positive but once we’d worked through the welter of emotions, one simple, undeniable truth emerged. This little child desperately needed permanent parents, and a home.

Then, the child’s social workers visit you, in your own home.We remain eternally grateful to ours for bringing some video footage for us to see. It was a magical moment, seeing him looking into the camera with his big brown eyes, as though looking straight at us. Love at first sight. Another couple we know were treated with far greater suspicion at this juncture. When they asked to see photos the child’s social worker frostily told them she had to ‘think about it’, because she didn’t want them adopting for ‘frivolous’ reasons, because they happened to like the way a child looks. Hats off to them for not punching her at thatpoint.

Finally, what felt like years but in fact four months later, we travelled up north to meet our son. The introductions, in our case spread over a week, stand out as the single most magical, demanding and exhausting part of the whole process. That first meeting was, for us, extraordinarily emotional. We simply walked into a stranger’s front room, and saw our little child-to-be sitting there, dressed in his best, waiting to meet us. The rest is a blur of me bursting into tears and being fed tissues by the foster carer (also, by this point, crying) then picking him up, and the three of us going into the garden, where he immediately fixated on Daddy’s colourful socks. My husband performed the first of many ridiculous jigs. Amazing what you find out about your partner when you become parents.

The week is strictly time-tabled, with certain targets you have to meet (changing a nappy competently, taking the child out and bringing them home in one piece) all under the watchful eye of the foster carer. Ours was a lovely lady who wanted to make the process as easy as possible, but her social worker (yes, the tiers go on and on) decided at a certain point that if we hadn’t managed to get our boy off to sleep successfully, we weren’t to be allowed to take him home. By this stage we were overwhelmed with exhaustion and the whole weird stress of it. We rang Coram, and they quickly sorted it out. Four years later, looking back, that still stands as the most intense week of parenting we’ve had.

Once you’re home, the adjustments and emotions are just like any other parent’s. Our son is now a flourishing, confident child. The trickiest issue we’ve had to deal withis an often subtly expressed one:the media describes someone as adopted when it’s entirely irrelevant or, perennial Radio Four favourite, the middle-aged adopted adult is reunited with an eager birth family. But these stories belong to a previous generation, when illegitimacy was a social scourge. These days, there’s overwhelming evidence to show such reunions often lead to a repetition of the rejection and/or trauma which made adoption necessary in the first place. And the media bias creates a cumulatively dispiriting image of adoption at a time when there are high levels of children in care desperately needing families.

Our choice is to generally keep our story private. We of course tell on a need-to-know basis, but experience has taught us it’s not something to be casually shared. Reactions range from 90% relaxed and appropriate (a quick smile and nod) to 10% quota of embarrassment, awkwardness, or inappropriately intrusive follow-up questions. Worst by far is the language of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ parents betraying deep prejudices and assumptions. Day in, day outadoptive parents love, soothe, mop up after, set boundaries for and worry about their children, just like everyone else. As we all know, there’s nothing more real.

A child’s adopted parents are going to be their only experience of consistent, safe parenting. Every child has the right to be claimed, and anyone who undermines an adopter’s bond to their child is striking a blow against that child. Our greatest worry now is our child being on the receiving end of such blows.

In the playground I overhead a mother gossiping abouta child she labelled ‘the adopted one’ and how another child had commented within that child’s earshot: ‘Jane’s parents aren’t even her real parents.” This mother laughingly recounted her embarrassment but that kind of remarkshould be addressed by simply saying,“Of course Jane’s parents are real. She has two sets, the ones she was born to, and the forever parents she’s with now.”

These are the small but significant ways everyone can help us adopters change attitudes to what is just one of the many ways in which modern families come together.

Useful Contact Numbers.
Coram adoption service: 020 7520 0383
Camden Adoption Enquiries: 08000281436
Islington Adoption Enquiries: 0800 0733344

The writer is happy to talk confidentially to anyone interested in adoption. Contact newsletter@tppsg.org.uk.