Secrets and lies keep families in the dark

Clare Short's story shows the need to make adoption an open book, says Suzanne Moore
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The Independent Online
It was wonderful for me to meet Clare Short and her son and feel the waves of happiness radiating off them. I hope now that they will be left in peace, but I doubt it.

As we speak no doubt there will be those raking around to try and turn a good news story into a bad one. Clare Short may be a politician but this is not a political story or one that should be used to score points. You would have to be inhuman not to be delighted for Clare, who has after all been for some time one of the most human public figures we have.

The issue of adoption raises all sorts of complicated questions, and I hope that if anything comes of this we might begin to have a more open conversation on the subject.

It just so happens that some of my best friends were adopted. My mother was adopted. Her cousin was adopted. As a little girl it was always drummed into me that I must put money into Salvation Army collecting tins because "That's where Nana got Mummy from".

I never understood how my mother had fitted into such a small tin. Everyone used to say how much I looked like my grandmother, and indeed I did, which was strange as we were not blood relations.

Her son Bobby died at 14 of diphtheria and even though she was getting on she was desperate for another child. At her age she thought she couldn't cope with a young child and would try to adopt an older one. She and my Grandad went to the Salvation Army orphanage and as they walked in they heard a baby crying. She was six months old and my grandmother fell in love with her immediately. They took the baby and later realised that as they were going up the stairs they had passed a young girl going down. She was 16 and she was my real grandmother.

I don't know her . My mother never chose to trace her, saying that she had the best parents in the world. I have often wondered though whether the gratitude she had towards her parents wasn't in its way unnatural.

Most of us are grateful to our parents, but what we owe them is passed down to our children rather than directly reciprocated. We do not have to spend our lives paying off a debt.

I was special, my Mum used to say, they chose me. While my mother always knew that she was adopted, her cousin was never told, and found out in the playground. The effects were disastrous. She felt terribly betrayed, and would have little to do with her adoptive parents for many years. She never got over that primary rejection feeling that her mother never wanted her, and in turn rejected her well-meaning adoptive parents.

There are those of us, too, who as children are dissatisfied with the parents we've got and secretly yearn to find out that we are in fact the offspring of someone far more exotic and glamorous.

Clare Short and her son Toby's story will doubtless be hard on many fantastic adoptive parents who have cared for children all their lives. Why should the natural mother get all the limelight, they will say? We have received telephone calls from those expressing just such an opinion. While some view women who give up their children, because of their difficult circumstances, with enormous sympathy, others continue to blame them.

This story, with its marvellously happy ending, will also prove difficult for those who have made contact with their natural parents only to find that they were uninterested or in psychiatric hospitals or were chronic alcoholics. Not everyone will find that their real mothers are as warm or as famous as Clare Short.

Sometimes, even after the emotional initial meeting, some natural parents find it hard to maintain contact. It may be too painful, it may be impossible for them to fit their rediscovered child into their new lives. They may be too overwhelmed by feelings of loss and shame to be able to form a new relationship. There are other cases, too, where the sense of an immediate and intense bond feels dangerously close to sexual attraction because it arouses such powerful feelings.

There is not a simple lesson to be learnt from all this except that the more open we are the easier it appears to be. If adoption is a dark secret it is much harder for all concerned when the truth comes out. There is something so absolute about the process that tends to hurt all those concerned. If we feel, as we do, that children must "belong" to one set of parents, that they are property, then they must be signed over for life. Is that really what we want?

It may be idealistic to hope that some contact with the natural parents can be maintained, but that surely is a more enlightened approach. With increasing re-marriage, more and more of us are bringing up children who are not our "own". Certainly those who foster children, which is accepted as a less permanent relationship, are often able to understand that however fraught it may be, it is better if the child can continue to have some sort of relationship with its real parents.

In my experience of working with children in care, it is not that natural parents are somehow always better or superior in any way than foster or adoptive parents, it is simply that children express their wish to be with their natural parents however bad it is has been for them. One little boy I used to work with had had nearly every bone in his body broken by his parents. When asked where he wanted to be, he would always say "Home".

As long as children maintain this fundamental desire then the very high break-down rates for fostering will continue. As long as the myth of the happy family prevails, children will have all kinds of fantasies about their real parents even when they know the reality is quite different.

Does it have to be this way? Clare herself told me that in some parts of Innuit culture children are often brought up by others for reasons of sheer survival. I'm sure they have a special word or 16 for it. The community knows from the outset so it is never a secret. Honesty really must be the best policy even though we may be afraid of the complicated feelings that may arise. I wish that we could be honest about these complexities for the sake of children who are adopted as well as those who adopt them. I wish this, even though it is now too late, because of my Mum and her mother, wherever she is.