“I am a single professional woman in my late 30s who has just adopted a 10 year old girl, Mary. Mary and I get on extremely well with each other. She is now my main family because I live without a partner and my parents are dead. I was well prepared for the scepticism of some colleagues and neighbours over my wish to adopt. Indeed, the adoption agency helped me with that. However, Mary has been upset by children saying I must be “queer” to want to live alone with her. This has been especially difficult to deal with as there was sexual abuse from her father in her early life which led to her being taken into care.”
Until relatively recently severely traumatised children were not considered suitable for adoption. The experience they had of “home” life was so painful that the relative impersonality of a children’s home could sometimes be seen as safer. House-parents did not usually offer the same possibilities of attachment as foster-parents or adoptive parents and for some children, who had experienced abusive attachment, that was a relief. Others, however, lost the potential they had for growth and development without the involvement of a parent.
Mary and Miss S have gone through the stringent stages needed for adoption to be made legal and appear to benefit from each other’s involvement. However, a major problem for children who have been abused by a parent is the fact that the person who loves them is also the person who has hurt them. Where that has occurred in the original family the child often expects that same mixture to be present in the new parent. It makes little difference that Miss S is female and Mary’s father wasn’t. For perhaps from Mary’s point of view the parent has to be an abuser- regardless of gender - and if her parent is now female then she must be an abusive female. Agencies that hope to avoid the impact of abuse by specific gender fostering or adoption are underestimating the nature of the problem.
Childline have just revealed the terrible extent of verbal and physical bullying in British schools and vulnerable children like Mary can easily be bullied. However, it is likely that Mary is hurt by her peer-group’s words precisely because they reflect what she herself is fearing and expecting. Mary might need therapeutic help in processing her past experiences if Miss S does not feel she can deal with these issues alone. Sometimes, simple direct speaking is enough. Mr A, for example, was able to say to his 12 year old foster-son Tony “You really worry no-one can love you without abusing you”. Where the parent can contain the underlying fear the child goes a step further in recovering from trauma.
What about Miss S? Does she need further help in thinking about the meaning of her single-parent adopting? Whilst the infertile couple who adopt a child have to face the pain of not being able to conceive their own biological child their status as a would-be parental couple can be easier. For the single adopting parent, questions about infertility might be much easier to answer than issues about their lack of a life partner or their sexual inclinations let alone dealing with societal fears, prejudices and assumptions.
Child psychotherapist Mrs Margaret Rustin, from the Tavistock Clinic’s Adoption and Fostering Workshop comments “If you are not part of an extended family where you may fulfil your parenting functions by being an aunt or uncle, single- parent adoption means some people can offer something very important to a child. For a child who has lost everything and has to start again there could be a fair match in a single adult who also had not found someone. However, there has to be truthfulness about the meaning of the shared losses”.
Mrs Sheila Miller, former co-convener of the Tavistock Fostering and Adoption Workshop agrees. “Although in many cases single parenting is successful it has its particular complexities for birth children as well as adopted children. However, post adoption is much more complex than was thought previously and if Miss S finds it too hard to work on this herself she can get help.”
David Cook’s novel on adoption aptly crystallises in its title “Second Best” the way the non-biological single parent and the abandoned child can feel. However the novel ends with the adoptive father knowing and insisting that he is first best despite the difficulties. Miss S seems to feel that her daughter is first best but is shakier about her status as a mother. Exploring this side of the equation by psychotherapy may strengthen the pair. For herself psychotherapy might be of help.
“Second Best” by David Cook, Faber & Faber, œ 13.99
The Adoption & Fostering Workshop, The Tavistock Clinic, 120 Belsize Lane, London NW3. 071-435-7111