Why are adoption services suspicious of our nurturing and attached parenting? asks Andrei Sierpinski
One of my most cherished memories is a family conversation about a bath caddy in our bathroom. Its chrome finish was getting rusty, and while our daughter (2½ years old at the time) was having her bath, my wife and I started discussing whether we should throw away the caddy. Suddenly, our daughter stood up in the bath and made a speech. She obviously cared about what she was about to say, and she wanted it to sound special, so she used arm gestures in the gaps when she could not find suitable words. She said approximately this: “It is white. It is round. It is beautiful. It holds what we need.” We were impressed with how well she expressed herself. We wished to show her that her opinion is important to us. We wanted her to know that presenting a list of arguments is a good thing to do if you want to persuade people. Therefore, we immediately pronounced that the caddy would stay, and that we would find a way of dealing with the rust (and we did).
This example demonstrates the kind of parenting to which we, and probably many readers of JUNO, are accustomed. It can be described as reflective, nurturing and directed towards improving children’s confidence and promoting their identity. You would expect that this is the kind of parenting adoption services would encourage. To our surprise, we encountered an entirely different approach to parenting when we subsequently got in touch with adoption services.
Our family story started with six miscarriages over 14 years. Then our daughter was born. (This is what people with fertility problems call a ‘natural miracle’.) We enjoyed being parents. As time moved on, we were overjoyed to be expecting another baby, but, tragically, our son was stillborn.
After several years of yearning for a family, and before our daughter was born, we applied for adoption and attended training as prospective adopters. This was where we first heard about the importance of attachment for children’s healthy development. The books recommended to us at the adopters’ training promoted attachment parenting and skin-to-skin contact. After being approved as prospective adopters, for a long time we were not linked with any child. Then we put adoption on hold while our daughter was a baby and a toddler, and then when we grieved for our son.
Eventually we decided to try again to adopt. We felt we have much more love to give, and we wished to raise more children in a nurturing and respectful way. Also we thought that now, as experienced parents, we have even more to offer an adopted child. Because several years have passed, and because of the new circumstances of now being parents, we were required to go through the approval process again. The adoption services were assessing us for a baby or a toddler up to 2 years old, since our daughter was 5 years old at the time, and it is recommended that every new adopted child in a family be the youngest by several years. We were being assessed as either adopters, or foster carers to a baby whom social services would recommend to be eventually adopted by us. The assessment process consists mainly of frequent meetings with adoption social workers, whom you get to know really well, and then the adoption and fostering panel, which looks and feels exactly like a job interview.
When we became parents, we discovered for ourselves what we believed are three secrets of having a happy baby: breastfeeding, babywearing and bedroom sharing. Then we reflected again on our adoption training. We recognised that breastfeeding an adopted child may not always be practical for adopters. Jamie Lynne Grumet, famous for the Time magazine cover of her breastfeeding her biological child, also breastfed her adopted child; but not every adoptive mum can produce breast milk, and not every adopted child is young enough to nurse. However, using slings and bedroom sharing, by reassuring and promoting attachment, seem to solve effortlessly many problems parents of young children (including adoptive parents) may have. We felt they could be recommended routinely to adoptive parents.
Yet when we were assessed for the second time, social workers and the panel seemed distrustful of our parenting choices. They expressed concern that “this couple never use punishments.” They were shocked by our reliance on public transport, even when we explained that babies and young children are calmer on a bus or a train, where a parent can easily hold them, feed them and make eye contact. When we suggested that a baby or toddler would benefit from being allowed to nurse (even if only for comfort if my wife will not have milk), and that this could help repair some of the damage of early attachment disruption, our social workers reacted with suspicion, even though this advice is included in the recommended adoption reading.1 The social workers admonished us for considering home schooling if it was beneficial for our adopted child, which is the same option we had considered for our daughter (who is at school, which does suit her currently).
But the strongest disapproval we met with was regarding bedroom sharing. At the time, our 5-year-old daughter had her bed next to ours, and our social workers were not happy about this. They said that she needed to have her own space to escape to when she wanted to get a break from her adopted sibling. We demonstrated that she was free to use many spaces at home, because we feel that our house belongs to all of us. She could choose to play in the living room or go up to her room whenever she wished. She just did not feel ready to sleep on her own. Our social workers replied that it was wrong that our daughter “holds the control” with regard to sleeping arrangements. We tried, but failed, to explain that parenting is not about a power struggle, but about parents responding sensitively to children’s needs while putting appropriate boundaries in place. Ironically, at the same time, at a workshop for prospective adopters, the instructor explained that it is important for the child to spend as much time as possible in the same room as the adults: that this is beneficial for the child’s speech development.
Whereas our social workers were critical about the nurturing elements of our parenting, it is interesting that they were very tolerant about some things we would not necessarily approve of. According to them, it is fine if a child watches television or plays computer games, and it is fine if a child is taken to junk food restaurants. We feel that for any child, and especially an adopted child, who has inevitably suffered trauma and loss, it is vital to have a secure, calm and nurturing routine. We believe that stimulants such as unhealthy food and screen time should be kept to a minimum and that screen time should be replaced by face-to-face interaction with parents, siblings, other caring adults and friends. Even simply washing the dishes with the child playing nearby is calming and nurturing.
To conclude, we can see that our parenting is raising a confident little girl with a strong sense of identity, who reflects on her feelings and actions. Adoption services do a good job promoting attachment parenting via the training and recommended reading. However, when prospective adopters are assessed, they are actually discouraged from attachment parenting in practice. This is a pity, especially since adopted children, due to a difficult start to life, would especially benefit from such close nurturing. However, we are still hopeful. After talking to us for many months, our adoption social workers have now said that although the nurturing parenting we practise seemed to them suspicious, they have now reflected on this subject. They read the passages we quoted to them from the recommended books, and more importantly they said that they are now convinced that we are committed to bringing up happy and confident children, and they now think that we are suitable adopters who could give a good home to an adopted child. The fostering and adoption panel was not of the same view, but the final decision has not yet been reached at the time of writing. Whatever the outcome for our family, we believe that adoption is a positive thing, we admire adoptive parents who give their children a nurturing home, and we hope more parents with such views choose to adopt.
Andrei Sierpinski is a pen name.
- “If it feels right for you, it may be possible to suckle your adopted infant.” Caroline Archer, First Steps in Parenting the Child who Hurts (Jessica Kingsley) p. 21.
Photo: Brett Sayles
First published in Issue 57 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.