You've probably seen Annie or Oliver so you know about adoption? The tear stained lovable but unloved child that overcomes adversity to make good with some benevolent and well healed adoptive parents. Happily ever after I suppose. Perhaps. I've been an adoptive parent for 18 years and my family's lived reality unsurprisingly doesn't quite reflect that narrative.
It's an uphill struggle to get the truth about the reality of contemporary adoptive life out. When people realise I'm an adoptive parent they mist up, smile and tell me I'm doing an amazing thing as they gently pat my forearm. I try to tell them about the reality and the challenges of parenting that are unique to adoption but they're not having it. Issues of identity, hyper-vigilance, stalled grief and the long-term physical, emotional and behavioural challenges are often unpalatable and unimaginable, after all little orphan Annie was ok wasn't she?
Popular perception of adoption remains influenced and reinforced by films like Matilda and themes in films like Lilo and Stitch and Elf, where happily ever afters are always possible, even after a little struggle, hold sway. Added to that, popular programmes like Long Lost Families present the 'it will be ok in the end' narrative, where much loved children are reunited 50 years after they were given away under duress. All is fixed in the end, the music swells and presenters discretely step back to offer privacy in this special moment.
The reality for many children adopted now is very different. The threshold for placing children adoption has raised since the 1950s & 60s and now a much larger percentage of adopted children have lived through abusive and traumatic experiences that cast long shadows across their lives. Shadows that cannot be erased by the application of a little love, clean sheets, routine and a song and dance number. Ask an adopter why their child isn't 'over it' yet and don't be surprised if you're given short thrift.
Before we adopted, my wife and I bought into the 'happily ever after' narrative and were convinced that it'd all be ok for the children that came to us, surely love would be enough. Yes, I had seen Annie. 18 years on and I see that there's a complexity in our lives that is not reflected in the non-adoptive families around us. There is lots of good stuff in our lives and yes, we have been known to spontaneously break in to a song and dance routine with unrestrained joy on occasions. However, as a family with six adopted children, we manifest a range of parenting challenges from the thoroughly normal to the type of parenting that would have Supernanny drop the F bomb on live TV and rescind Supernanny status in a flash. In some of my children I see the darkness of negative early life experiences present in their daily lives and subsequently worked out in our daily life.
As I said, it's not all bad, but it is certainly a long way from the public and perception of adoption. I try to tell people I meet that the impacts of trauma, loss and separation are lifelong and that sometimes hurt children hurt. Listeners glaze over, I swear I can hear them humming 'The sun will come out tomorrow'. I can quote facts and figures about adoption breakdowns with one third of adoptive families experiencing extreme difficulties, adopted families living under siege and struggling to find support for their children. High numbers of adopters living with children who are violent, children whose strategies for surviving in their early life linger long into middle childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Parenting these children can be hard and this can be exacerbated by the mind-set that surely things should be sweetness and light for families living the 'happy ever after'.
This blog is a moan but I don't want your sympathy or tears, all I want is for you is to lower your expectations. Enjoy your films and TV but remember that they're entertainment. They're not social realistic depictions of contemporary adoption and I don't want them to become that, I mean, I love Annie.