Sally Donovan, author of No Matter What, Billy Bramble and the Great Big Cook Off and The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting, reflects upon her decision to adopt all those years ago, and what National Adoption Week means to her.
Last weekend I went to a reunion at the historic garden I used to work in. I left fourteen years ago. Amongst the staff who had worked there some had lost partners, some had married and had children, several were suffering ill health and one had moved into a nursing home. We all had stories to tell over lunch. Mine was that I had adopted two children, now in their teenage years.
I went through all the highs and lows of the adoption process while I was working there. After the reunion lunch and the group photo on the steps I walked around the garden. Every familiar wall, doorway, tree and view took me back. It was a pivotal time for me. I was happy there in that pseudo-Edwardian world, amongst a warm and slightly dysfunctional family of gardeners, historians, teashop staff and office workers and yet I wanted so much to be a parent. I’d planned at some point to do both; to return to historic gardening as a working parent. It wasn’t to be. Adoptive parenting, or at least the kind that was demanded of me, was not going to share me with anything else.
Long term, high-end adoptive parenting is like walking a tight rope: look down once and you wobble, look down too often and you risk falling off. I try to keep my eyes on the prize. The prize is witnessing our children emerging safely into adulthood with a healthy and thoughtful perspective on their lives. When I take in the long view, I can see that we are getting there.
During this National Adoption Week there will be coverage and comments that present adoption as either the best or the most evil intervention into family life. The faux party atmosphere will jar with the emotionally-charged political, religious and ideological viewpoints. To me, living some of the reality, it can feel a bit off-key and unsettling.
So I tend to lie low during National Adoption Week, do some gardening, try to stay grounded. Anything else feels like self-flagellation. I can do without reading that our decision to adopt was either inspirational or backed by a corrupt ideology. Cruel severance or saintly rescue? In this post-internet age it’s becoming difficult to hang on to an enquiring and complex middle ground position in any debate, and adoption and wider issues around child protection and permanence are no different.
We made the right decision all those years ago. The plans made for our children were, as far as anyone can tell, the right ones. It’s not perfect: adoption is imperfect by its very existence. But we are achieving proper long-term permanence, a safe base and an authentic sense of belonging and none of these are easy wins. All this followed what is often euphemistically but inadequately referred to as ‘a poor early start’, the sort that you could have read about on the front pages of newspapers if the dice had but fallen a bit differently.
Our children’s ‘outcomes’ won’t be measured and compared to others (the post internet age also allows us the privilege of holding opinions untested by research or experience) so no one can say for sure whether there could have been a better option. Common sense would suggest things have turned out pretty well, all things considered.
I won’t be blowing up balloons this National Adoption Week, but neither will I be wringing my hands in a tangle of angst-ridden doubt. When I take the long view, from leaving my strange Edwardian paradise, to now sharing my life with two remarkable young people taking their first tentative steps into independence, I think there is nothing better I could have done with the past thirteen years.
Sally Donovan and her husband Rob adopted two children from local authority care in 2002. Sally is a writer, blogger and commentator on adoption. In 2013 she was awarded the British Society of Magazine Editors Business Columnist of the Year and in 2014 she won the Professional Publishing Association Business Media Columnist of the year for her regular columns in Community Care magazine. She now sits on a UK Government advisory group tasked with improving post-adoption support. She is the author of the classic memoir No Matter What: An Adoptive Family’s Story of Hope, Love and Healing, Billy Bramble and the Great Big Cook Off and The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting.