Last Saturday the charity Open Nest held their first conference ‘Taking Care’ in York. A host of august adoption speakers were there. I am proud that we were invited too. It was a room full mainly of adopters, but also of adoptees, social workers and other professionals.
The short version of this review is that Taking Care was a resounding success.
Amanda Boorman’s vision and the team with her pulled together a tremendous day with profound, practical and real lessons shared. The talks were extraordinary, and varied in their presentation. The most profound voices, however, were no doubt those of the adoptees, Jazz Boorman and Fran Proctor.
Amanda began by welcoming us and gave a short introduction to her charity, The Open Nest. And then… well … then she showed us a short documentary about her life with Jazz, her adopted daughter. It was edited down from hundreds of hours of film made over the course of their journey as a family. It was filled with love and heart ache. It was heart breaking. It contained a vignette of Jazz meeting her birthmother. Her voice trembled loudly with laughter and tears, powerful super sounds to remind us all of a hole in our children that we can mitigate, but never fill. Seeing and hearing this pain was an insight that I think shall never leave me. This film has to be seen. And heard. For obvious reasons it is not on general release, so keep your eyes and ears out for a chance to view it.
Al Coates was possibly the only person who could have followed this film. His delivery was slide less, just a man leaning on the lectern or moving about while he spoke with luring elegance and deceptive humour about his own journey and views. He released the mountains of tension in the room with laughter. He made us roar with his penetrating critique of the system and support services, both of which he deemed no longer fit for purpose. He should know. He is a social worker and, with his wife, the father of six. He delivered reams of one-liners like: ‘Coming home to find that the woman you love has been beaten up by a four year old.’ or ‘Telling a Social worker about attachment. Well… That’s bollocks.’ Who could disagree? Bottlefeeding his four year old turned a corner in their relationship, one that could have been turned much earlier. It happened after attachment had been mentioned only in passing, this is after months Al enduring physical abuse from the same child every. single. day. in the small hours of the day. This is to say nothing of how that child felt during all of this!
Al made the same point that Amanda has made earlier: he is not anti adoption (yes he and The Open Nest has been accused of this), not at all, he is just PRO SUPPORT.
Fran Proctor, mother and adoptee, followed with her story of a broken heart and trust, and how she rebuilt her life. In her soft voice she recalled the support that had been helpful, and that which had not. I will not retell the story here, as it is hers to share, but I will say that I am in awe of how – when she finally met her biological mother, facing her greatest fears – she had the strength to listen to her mother’s version of events, only to finish it with ‘I am nothing like you. And I never will be.’ And she could walk away. That doesn’t mean there aren’t scars, or that she isn’t working on them – she is – this was the first time she ever stood up to tell it. It is a powerful reminder that adoption is lifelong. Sally Donovan introduced Fran by telling us how much she herself had learnt from Fran, about her own children. It was clear to see that Fran has much to share, and we adoptive parents much to learn from her. If ever I had been in doubt about the importance of listening to our children, Fran reaffirmed, while speaking on what can go wrong despite the best of intentions.
Sally Donovan, adopter and author of No Matter What fame, delivered another of her deliciously practical talks on self care and how to speak to the schools and education. Sparks were flying from my pen as they noted useful suggestions that could make a real difference to our children in school. She addressed us parents at eye-height. ‘Just. Say. No.’ She told us. To extra duties, like PTA. ‘If you don’t feel you have the energy, step away from it.’ She taught us about ‘me-holiday’, of lower (i.e. no) household standards, ready made meals, day time TV and so on. ‘It’s ok…. Really.’ Because if you don’t there could be consequences, like what could happen if you have been running on fumes for a while. Burn out. Or Secondary trauma. Which is what brought Sally’s own family to the brink. Take care of yourselves! A friend had ventured that the world consists of two types of people: the radiators and the drains. Stay clear of one, and gravitate to the warmth of the other. And all those things you do for the kids… like letting them have ice cream, watching a film etc, treat yourself in the same way. Because as a parent you are the pillar of the family and if you crumble, so will the family. Self care is family care. Everyone benefits from it.
At this point I will be honest and say I wasn’t quite sure I could deliver my own talk, such was the gravitas of what had been delivered. But I went on and reeled off what I had prepared. The feedback from the talk showed that there are many self-made adopters groups out there, and it is clear from them and us, and from the conference as a whole, that we parents really can support each other in ways no-one else can.
After a break with homemade cookies (!), Ella Harris, an adoptive mum and actor, introduced us to her brain child Open Space and made us all brain storm at our tables of 8, on topics and issues personal to us. The lists were long and inspiring. Sally collected them all, to appear in due course – probably via Twitter.
Sarah and Vicky from The Adoption Social gave a well-pitched talk, a very difficult task to a crowd of people with very different experiences and knowledge of the Ethernet and Tweetland. I think my no. 1 tip for adopters is get an alias account to join Twitter. You’ll soon meet them. The support community on Twitter were no less welcoming in person. I agree wholeheartedly with Al’s observation that part of the conference was quite disconcerting. Unknowingly I too had assigned voices, fictitious faces even to the adoption tweeters that had turned up is such great numbers.
A common thread throughout the day from all the speakers was the power of being believed and trusted. And just how devastating it can be for a family when that doesn’t happen. All support, and all care, starts right there. In believing adoptive families when they tell their stories and especially when they ask for help.
After the end of an inspiring conference I felt quite physically drained, ready to just go to the hotel to digest and sleep. But once again the organisers were one step ahead of us: The Disco.
Seeing Sally and Sarah shaking it with Jazz and others they were clearly onto something.
May I add that they were rather good too?