Our Story: Maddy and Maisie

“When you’re pregnant, let’s call it Sprout,” said my partner.

We were in the kitchen preparing dinner, laughing over some of the names friends were using to refer to their unborn babies. We’d talked before about how we might go about starting a family, but this was the first time I actually felt confident it was going to happen.

The dream was short-lived. There was a string of appointments at the women’s hospital for form-filling, blood tests and ultrasound scans to check my fertility, and everything looked good for having a baby using donor sperm. But it was not until the night before the appointment with the consultant to discuss options that my partner dropped the bombshell. She had decided it was time to end the relationship.

Looking back, of course, I know it was the right thing to do. I had tried to ignore all her increasing signs of insecurity and focus on the positive days. But now when I think about the eight years we spent together, I remember all her controlling and bullying behaviour more strongly than the good parts. Calling me useless, stupid, abnormal; frowning and gesticulating as she listened in on calls to my family; stopping me going out with friends; screaming at me until I couldn’t even think in words, let alone speak. She even convinced herself (wrongly!) that I was having an affair with my line manager and began threatening to tell his wife. Was she ever serious about us having a family, or was it only an empty promise to keep me investing in the relationship? Either way, despite the fact she was only ever a dream, Sprout still feels like my first child and even now there is a hole inside where she should be.

Fast-forward 18 months and I am on another continent, sitting in another doctor’s clinic, nervously awaiting more test results. I took a job overseas when we split up, and after a lot of counselling, I felt ready to again pursue the dream of having a family. I’d come to terms with the idea of conceiving using reproductive technologies when I was with Mia – the big difference now was facing a future of raising a child on my own.

The doctor was pretty blunt when he broke the bad news. “You have very low AMH. Your chance of success is five, maybe ten per cent. Don’t waste your money.”

While visiting family at Christmas, I went for a second opinion at a private hospital in London. The doctor there was much more willing to discuss technicalities with me. “Well, most of these tests are carried out on women that have been struggling to conceive. So a low result in someone who has never tried to get pregnant doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing. There is no reason not to try.” So I tried. And after only one round of IVF, I was pregnant! I went back home to Kenya with a huge bag of drugs and a lovely warm feeling of contentment.

The next big decision was where to have the baby. Although I had initially taken a short-term contract, repeated extensions meant that I was now settled in Kenya, with a lovely and supportive group of friends, a comfortable little house, and even my cat, shipped out from the UK. I wanted to stay, but the big unknown was always the job (and hence the visa), scheduled to end shortly after the baby was due. However, while I was mulling over my options, my boss confided some exciting news. They had just won a new project, and there would be six positions at my level. I would be an ideal candidate, and probably get a three-year contract. Perfect! I set about planning for the birth and a future for me and the baby in my Kenyan home.

Maisie arrived safe and well, and I was completely enchanted from the first. We soon settled into new patterns, and I was busy learning all the new things that come with parenthood and loving all of it. Everything looked bright, until the next cloud appeared on the horizon. The leaders of the new project had decided they would use the money to expand and take on some new staff. I could have three months employment once I came back from maternity leave. After that… “Well, we’ll see.”

I was absolutely furious. I felt like I had been lied to yet again, to keep me where I was, and this time I wasn’t going to stand for it. There didn’t seem any prospect of finding another job in Nairobi, but I was offered one in the UK, so once again, I was faced with moving continents. This time, it was a real wrench, dismantling the “nest” that I had spent months preparing for Maisie and me. The new job was in Surrey, and all I could afford to rent was a tiny one-bedroom flat. I was miserable, missing my friends, knowing no-one and feeling squashed into a place I grew to loathe.

We moved again last year. Not back to Kenya, but to Kent. At least here, I can just about afford to rent a house and pay the costs of childcare. It’s still lonely – we moved only six weeks before lockdown, so we have met very few people as yet, and with Maisie now almost three and a half, she is clearly longing for some friends. But we both love our house and garden, and our cats, who Maisie always talks about as part of our family; and have been lucky in finding a wonderful childminder and another new job, this time with a supportive management and an open-ended contract.

For me, it has been a journey not just about the people, but also to find the environment that supports our little family, and I hope this time we have found a place where we can be secure and grow together.

Our Story: Helena, Andrew and Elliott*

Our nephew Elliott came into our care aged 6 months in 2019, and we were granted a Special Guardianship Order in 2020, a year to the day he was dropped off in our house, looking quite nonplussed in his car seat. Before him we had never heard of special guardianship. Well, we are experts now!

To be honest, I had never even thought about the fact that there were official structures in place for children to be cared for within their family network, known broadly as kinship care. Very rarely do we come across people familiar with the term “special guardian”. Elliott is permanently placed with us until 18, like adoption, but the birth parents retain contact with him throughout. For us, this is 90 minutes twice a month, but it varies wildly amongst kinship carers depending on what the local authority expects, what the children and guardians can manage, and what the birth parents can sustain. Some kinship carers don’t get a Special Guardianship Order, as they prefer to remain foster carers and retain more support from the local authority, and others have private arrangements, but the challenges are often the same.

When I was thinking about what to write in this blog entry, I started off by explaining our personal story, but it didn’t quite fit. We have told the story so many times, to friends and family, to various social workers, to colleagues, to the nursery, and so on. Long story short, the journey to kinship care is by nature never a happy one.

So, instead, what do I wish people knew about kinship care? Well, the thing that I learnt first and am reminded of most often is that our experiences vary so wildly. There is a shared point, of course, in that kinship carers take on children from their family network because of problems in the home environment. But that is often where paths diverge. Kinship carers can be any age, but often they are grandparents. As a couple in our early 30s, we’re unusual. And it doesn’t stop there: the number and age of children taken on, the familial relationship between the carer and the children, the reason for removal, the children’s relationship with the birth parents, the trauma suffered by the children, whether they were in foster care beforehand, how many siblings are together, if the carers already have children, the carers’ relationship with the birth parents, the emotional and physical wellbeing and capability of the birth parents, the support given by the local authority, the financial entitlement from the local authority, the likelihood of reconciliation with the birth parents… I have not yet met another kinship carer with a remotely similar story to ours.

The most challenging aspect, by far, is contact with birth parents. A relationship without some form of tension is gold dust, and guidance on it is very thin on the ground. We are early in our journey and my biggest worry is what happens once Elliott is old enough to understand his family structure. At the moment we are lucky because his parents are well, he is not even two, and we generally have a good relationship with his parents (his mother is my husband’s only and much-loved sibling). But I do wonder how it will be for him once he starts school. I have taught French for many years, and describing your family is usually one of the first topics when you learn a new language. The traditional textbooks and learning materials are not set up for his kind of family structure, which is just one of the myriad small ways that idea of the “typical” family is subtly reinforced.

Another significant challenge that, because children have stayed within a family network, the carer has most likely shared in the trauma before the children arrived. My husband had directly lived the family trauma for seven years (and, in a way, his whole life), and I had lived it indirectly for four. By the time Elliott came to us, we were exhausted and traumatised in our own way. A new story had begun, but we were wrung out from finishing the old one. We also had very little notice, because his parents had appeared to be doing well, but it went wrong very quickly. Children’s services asked us on the Tuesday if we could take him. He arrived on the Thursday and the poor lamb was in nursery by Monday; there is no adoption leave for kinship carers.

In most cases, kinship carers are not looking to have (more) children. For the majority who are grandparents, they had thought their days of 5am wake up calls, potty training and school runs were long gone, and then have to re-start that journey when they are just about to retire. It was certainly a shock for us to lose our childless status almost overnight and there have been periods of intense resentment and sadness.

Elliott’s other option apart from us was adoption, which is usually the case, and usually why kinship carers make the decision to keep the children. Nevertheless, we often feel guilty for secret feelings of resentment and frustration, and for those times we silently wish we hadn’t agreed to become a kinship carer. It’s hard, for the reasons I’ve mentioned above. And I wish I had a story that ended up in more positivity, as I suspect many other blog posts will, but that would be dishonest, and doing a disservice to kinship carers.

All I can hope is that, in the long run, it will benefit Elliott to have remained in his family network, and that we can be good carers for him, that his parents stay well, that he understands and accepts his life story, and that he can go on to be a secure person who is able to do well in the world and consider having his own family in the future, however that may look.

*pseudonyms used throughout

Our Story: Diana, Tim, Daniel and Annie*

There was just one other family in the playground.

“Hello” I said as I approached their parent, they replied, “My children aren’t adopted by the way, we just all look very different” I was a taken aback but I replied, “Oh ok, mine are”. She didn’t reply and shortly after we were distracted by something or other and life moved on.

We are a family bought together with the assistance of social workers, paper-work, loss and joy. It was a process we had thought and thought about yet still felt unprepared for the level of detail required.

We always knew we wanted to be parents, I used to daydream of seeing my husbands features in our child and as soon as we started to trying to conceive, I used to walk down the road sure that I was pregnant, that this month was the month when our lives changed. The sense of grief when month after month it never happened was more than I could take and soon I felt like less of a person, attached to a sofa, staring at cracks in the walls. I felt I had failed.

Finding out why, did not appeal, we knew that adoption was the route for us to take. After some research we found the agency, spoke to existing adoptive parents we knew, and began to tell our wider family.

The application process is rightly long and intrusive into all areas of your life, during this period I found it really hard to talk about anything else and it doesn’t last for the 9 months of pregnancy, for us the application process was about 18 months and then you enter the roller coaster stage of family finding – looking at profile after profile of kids in need of family, looking for what might be a good match and jumping whenever there is a new upload or communication – this stage just takes as long as it takes. It takes over everything and just as you begin to let hope in, that maybe one day you will be someone’s mummy or daddy you are reminded it may not happen and how hard it will be. At the time it feels like a journey with no end, and at times you think it will never result in the family you long for.

Years later it remains the hardest and best adventure of our lives. We are blessed with two incredible children, but the constant context of our family is their beginning and the loss that so many experienced regardless of the circumstances. This doesn’t affect us day to day, but we hold that loss, and it appears from time to time in unexpected ways. “Mummy, was I just left on the street?” “No Sweetheart, you were loved and” … so we say the story again, even though it has been heard before.

Trauma can affect us deeply, and it has affected our children and us in ways we could not have imagined. Seeing it and learning about it on a power-point does not prepare you for the reality of violence, resistance, poo-smearing, attachment disorders or self-harm. The challenges of parenting children with lived experience of trauma are hard beyond belief and most of it is done slowly and quietly and behind closed doors whilst others tell you how your children are just like any other child and that you are overreacting. Often our children will put on a show in front of others but at home, when they feel safe their worries rise to the top and they need extra nurturing.

Many days are filled like any other family, bike rides and trips to the playground, school runs and crafting. Adoption appears and disappears naturally; we are not ashamed of how we came to be. I regularly tell my children “You didn’t come out of my tummy, but grew in my heart and we could not have created more perfect children”. Their arrival into this world is only one part of their creation, they are nurtured and loved by us each and every day. As a family we continue to collectively develop our own library of expressions, our sense of humour, the way we like to do things and the things in life we value – whether you call that growing, bonding, attunement or what you will. We are in their smiles, their phrases, their jokes and even how they sulk. We are a family and when I look in my children’s faces, I can see my husband’s expressions, I can see my smile and hear myself in their words. My dream from long ago came true.

This is our family.

*Pseudonyms used throughout.

Share Your Story

If your family departs from the traditional structure, whether you are a single or LGBTQ+ parent, an adopter or kinship carer, part of a blended or co-parenting family, or someone who has benefited from assisted reproduction, we’d like to hear about your experiences. Sharing your story can help to reassure people who’ve had similar experiences, or are thinking of starting a family. It can help others to understand that families come in many different forms, and you may find it helpful to process your own thoughts, feelings and experiences.

To contribute, get in touch via the contact page. Your stories (300 – 1,000 words) will be displayed on this page, which is public and accessible to all, and shared via the public @MFOproject Twitter account. In order to protect all participants, you will be asked to use pseudonyms, and any comments from the public will be moderated. The main aim of the page is to share stories of diverse family life in the UK; posts may also be used for research purposes in the future.