Alice Ellerby talks to Ben about the gift of starting a family through adoption
Ben, now in his 50s, describes himself as part of a generation of gay men, many of whom grew up not thinking about parenthood. But when he was in his 30s and 40s, the thought began to emerge quite strongly that he wanted to have a family; he wanted to love and care for a child. He and his now husband, Adam, hadn’t been together long when they started to discuss adoption. There were 18 months between Ben and Adam picking up the phone to their local adoption agency, and their son, Sam, aged 2, arriving to live with them. I ask Ben what the adoption process was like during those intervening months.
“It’s feels lengthy, but I would act as an advocate for the adoption process in the UK because it has to be very thorough. There are times when it feels unfair – you just want to become a parent but you have to go through this process – and it can feel overwhelming, but I found it fascinating in many ways. During the assessment, you’re looking at where you have arrived at in your life. What has brought you to this point where you feel like you want to be a parent through adoption? And I think you learn that you really do want a child, you really do want to start a family. It’s getting to the point of believing in yourself, and through the assessment period you learn how to be the best prospective parent you can be. It’s your time to find out if it’s right for you. But it’s difficult when you enter the adoption process because you just don’t know the feelings that are waiting for you on the other side that will make it all worth it.”
I ask Ben what it felt like when he did finally get to meet his child. “However much you try and prepare yourself for the moment when you start your family, actually meeting your child for the first time is mind-blowing. In the lead-up to the introduction, we exchanged a lot of photos and messages and videos with our son, so he was able to begin to get to know us, to hear us and see us, and seeing him for the first time at introductions was quite incredible. We arrived at his foster carer’s house and he was at the window, waiting for us. And he was just so beautiful. Every parent thinks that about their own child, but he really was. And he was smiling – he had the most amazing smile – and beautiful eyes. It was a profound experience.”
Ben talks about the journey he, Adam and Sam have been on since that moment. As with many new families, it took time for them to settle in to their new lives. “Wanting to raise a child and love a child, that all came flooding out of me when Sam was placed with us. It was a massive rush. I wanted to love him, I wanted to cuddle him, I wanted to look after him, I wanted to pick him up – all the time. My feelings were in overdrive.
“And then we went through a definite period when we struggled. I felt like I couldn’t parent in the way I wanted to parent, my partner was hospitalised, we were miles away from any family, and legally we hadn’t yet been through the courts. It was really difficult. I was grieving for my old life, I just didn’t know it at the time. And, with adoption, you’re frightened of acknowledging that, because they’re not legally yours yet. You feel like you’re not sure you can do it. That you shouldn’t be feeling like this. But what you’re feeling is a lot of what birth parents go through, with the first child particularly. When you’ve had your career and your identity and then suddenly there’s nothing else about you apart from you’re raising a small child. And I think adopters don’t feel like they can say that out loud.”
Post-adoption depression is now talked about much more openly, as a common early experience for adoptive parents, similar to postnatal depression. Ben hopes other adoptive parents will be able to speak up about their struggles. “Your social worker will be able to talk to you about that and they won’t judge you if six to nine months in you say, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’” For Ben and his family, that difficult period passed. “Now the dust has settled, and we have settled into our new order and new routine, but we needed to go through those first two stages to arrive at where we are now.”
I ask Ben if he thinks there are particular qualities that make a good adoptive parent. “There’s so much about being an adoptive parent that is the same as being a birth parent, or any other type of parent or guardian,” he says, “and that is that you love your child unconditionally and you just want the best for them. But you do have to do things a bit differently with adopted children, which is not always possible.” He talks about PACE, a parenting model that adoptive parents are encouraged to follow. It stands for playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy. “The curiosity bit is to help you reframe things,” Ben says. “If your child is being difficult, or even too compliant, it’s thinking about why they are doing that. That’s good for all parents to do, but adoptive parents especially.”
But aside from the practicalities of parenting, Ben suggests that it’s helpful if people considering adoption are able to, as he puts it, “broaden the mind a little bit in terms of what your family might look like.” He says, “You have to be able to see beyond the adverse experiences of their early childhood and see the child within that. That’s really hard to do when you’re going through the adoption process because it’s abstract but, if you can think big about the kinds of children that are out there, and think about where those children have come from, how their needs might be different to what a birth child might need, that’s a really good place to be when you’re thinking about adoption.”
While in the past, some adoptive parents may have chosen not to disclose to their children the fact of their adoption, today, parents are encouraged to recognise the importance of ‘life journey work’. Ben describes it to me: “It’s to explain to your child where they’ve come from, how they’ve arrived with you and that, crucially, you are their parents. No adopted child has just one story. Our son has multiple stories that involve the birth family, a foster family, the hospital that looked after him for weeks and weeks when he was born. He has these stories and these families; he doesn’t have just me, Adam and him. And life journey work is about addressing that age-appropriately.”
I ask how you approach life journey work. “You use very tangible, real things,” Ben says, “like, ‘You did have a mummy, but it was really hard for her, and for lots of reasons she couldn’t always make you your tea or give you a bath. She really loved you, but she couldn’t do those things for you – but we can.’ They’re real things that he can get hold of, so he remembers, ‘I’m adopted, Dad and Daddy are my family, but someone else gave birth to me.’ It’s a way of your child taking ownership of their story. It’s a way of it being positive not negative, not shameful but something to be proud of and comfortable with. You keep it very real as you raise them.”
Ben explains how hard he and Adam have worked to help their son create a secure attachment to them. “A massive fear for adoptive parents is that their child is not going to be able to go out into the world, safely knowing that you’re always going to be there.” And Ben says one of his greatest joys is “seeing Sam make friends, seeing him enjoy himself, seeing him run off and really show us that he has attached to us.”
It’s moving to hear Ben talk about his son and what it means to him to be a parent. “It’s made my heart sing in a way that I didn’t know. The old way of looking at adoption is, they’re really lucky to have you. And I think it’s often the other way round: you’re really lucky to be given this opportunity to raise this child. It’s a gift. There are a lot of gay men who didn’t get to have this experience, though I have to say, that has changed massively. Not all of us choose it – people do different things with their lives and find fulfilment in all sorts of ways – but, for me, that’s been the thing: that I got to do it.”
The National Adoption Service was launched in November 2014 to improve services for all those affected by adoption in Wales. It is still delivering its services for anyone about to start, or already on, their adoption journey, via phone, email or video calling where appropriate. For more information, visit adoptcymru.com. Adoption support is also available to those who need it, now or at any other time.
Photo credit: Emyr Jenkins
First published in Issue 68 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print. Some names have been changed.