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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

‘Indisputable evidence’: Family Assumptions Past and Present

A week or so ago I was catching up with the activities at the Conservative Party conference with the podcast The News Agents. One of the interviewees was the MP for Penistone and Stockbridge Miriam Cates, who spoke about families and the adverse reaction to a recent interview for the Times radio station. (She refers to that interview here). Cates says she is not attacking ‘single parent families’ or adoptive families or same-sex parenting, yet – as Emily Maitliss points out on the podcast – the language used and emphasis in on different sexed and biological parents does not appear to support that view. Now, of course, I am the sort of liberal that Cates wants to outrage. I’m not outraged but I am sad; sad about this type of ‘debate’. The article and interview contain all kinds of culture war dog whistles (‘drag queens’ for example) and contributes adversely to exactly the ‘kind of political culture’ that Cates claims to be reacting against.


Having adopted a child, had biological children and been involved at the edge of parenting groups for over a decade, I do not recognise Cates’ emphasis on the ‘individualistic’ rights of adults or neglect of children’s rights. If anything it is the reverse. Her emphasis that ‘adult freedoms’ undermine families and family structure does not acknowledge the economic impact of austerity and dismantling of our social infrastructures. Or that love – and families should be bound by love not bound for the national economy – is at the heart of attachment and supporting people to be parents and supporting children. A family where both biological parents living together is likely to be wealthier and have support systems in place thus affecting education, health etc. On the surface my family appears to be this sort of ‘good outcome’

The backs of two children sitting by a lake

family with two different sex parents and children, yet our eldest child is adopted, his younger sister died at 8 days old and our youngest was born just over a year later, we rely on a support network of family and friends for childcare. A family like ours is historically more typical.


In 2010 the social historian Pat Thane wrote a report on the historical and sociological formation of families in Britain. This gave ample evidence that over the last two centuries families have been formed in different ways, and predominantly not in the conventional nuclear family, with two differently gendered birth parents having two to three biological children. Thane illustrated with numerous examples that much more common were examples of lone motherhood, or families with step-parents, separated parents, same sex couples living together (not necessarily as sexual partners), step-children, step-siblings, half-siblings, cousins, older relatives and honorary family members, as well as other forms of family. In the mid-twentieth century, adoptive parents wanted and were encouraged to fit in and look like the supposedly typical family - but that supposed normalcy was a myth. The key to this ‘fitting in’ was to shroud the adoption itself in secrecy, and the result was the adopted child lost an important part of their identity, as did both the birth and adoptive parents.


That old kind of secrecy is now almost impossible within an adoptive family and is actively discouraged. However, outside the immediate limits of that family, there is often discretion and secrecy because of potential risks to the children. If nothing else, the child does not need their personal past broadcast to everyone. This discretion doesn’t help the fact that, among people who do not have direct experience of the adoption process, there are often widely held misapprehensions about why children are adopted and the issues involved. When I went on maternity leave, a number of people told me how brave and self-sacrificing I was by adopting. I was taken aback because I did not see how adoption was a ‘self-sacrifice’. It is not easy to correct such assumptions, or to call out comments such as that ‘blood is thicker than water’ or referring to a ‘real’ mum or dad, without opening yourself - or your adopted child - to further scrutiny.


Here’s an example of how pervasive this issue can be. Two months before lockdown in 2020, I took my son to the cinema to see The Personal History of David Copperfield. Among the adverts beforehand was one that extolled the ways BT broadband and mobile services were ‘connecting people’. One of these ways involved a teenage girl asking about her birth dad, as if she didn’t already know anything about him, then having an unsupervised video call with an older man. Sat in the cinema, my son - whose school had run classes in being safe online - asked how the girl could know that this man was really her birth dad. I asked him if he felt the girl should be contacting an older man online on her own anyway. My son emphatically shook his head. Even as a child, he saw the potential danger here. I was also upset by the implication of the girl being on her own in that call: that her adoptive family were not supporting her in this important emotional moment. In this simple, short advert I could see many of the assumptions wrongly made about adoption. In fact, I learned later that BT had already amended the advert after by, among others, Adoption UK. As originally screened, the teenage girl asked about her ‘real’ dad. Of course, I’m sensitive to that word ‘real’, as if my care and love for our son is somehow inauthentic, or less that the care and love I feel for his sisters - my biological children.

David Copperfield itself is a book about parenting and how David forms and eventually accepts his unconventional family. Sarah Knott uses the term ‘mothering’ in her cultural history and memoir Mother: An Unconventional History, which was in turn adapted it from what African American feminists call ‘other mothering’, where children are often looked after by relatives and members of the wider community. Knott argues that ‘mothering’ should not be limited but apply to the support and love ‘offered by care-givers of every persuasion – adoptive, biological and employed; female, male, lesbian, gay, trans and the rest.’ I like this acknowledgement, this inclusivity, but I don’t think the word ‘mothering’ can be entirely separated from gender (yet) because the concept of a mother is itself so imbued with biological assumptions and cultural stereotypes. As Sister Song, the campaign group for indigenous women and women of colour, point out, Reproductive Justice is also about the human right to ‘parent the children we have in a safe and sustainable community’. We need to move beyond a damaging focus on one woman being a mother to support different forms of family and community networks that can give children the secure base they need. This kind of support would assist both adoptive families and those parents and families trying to keep their children and stop them going into care.


Little did we know, when we walked out of court with our son officially ours, how much we would need to return to the professional agencies seeking further support as issues have arisen. We fought to get our son in the first place in a way birth parents simply don’t, and this has helped us to never stop fighting on his behalf. It’s not been easy. But every time – there have been multiple times – we fight to get our son the support he needs, we encounter the difficulties with the so-called ‘care’ system or education structures.


There is a malign neglect of poor people and the infrastructures designed to support them in contemporary Britain, which protects an economic and social system where, if the poorest suffer, it’s just too bad. Writer Kerry Hudson recounts reading through her own child protection order from the 1980s, which was made when she was three. Hudson reflects that the struggle for children to escape a brutalised life begins ‘if the mother is defenceless and poor’ from a baby’s first breath but ‘there is no policy that takes into account poverty and social work interventions together’. The poor social and practical infrastructure that we have affects us all materially, physically and emotionally.


Further Reading

Deborah Cohen (2013) Family Secrets. Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day

Sarah Knott (2019), Mother: An Unconventional History.

Kerry Hudson (2019), Lowborn. Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns, London: Chatto & Windus.

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