Last month, Baby Maria was discovered on a Dublin roadside. Newborn and wrapped in a fleece blanket, someone had placed her beside a gate at a field’s edge. Since then, the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, have received ‘dozens’ of calls from people who want to care for her. If there is ever a ‘right’ time to be abandoned, Baby Maria’s parents seem to have managed this at least.
In Ireland today, infants in need of homes are like gold dust. If Baby Maria was up for adoption (she isn’t. Parental permission is always required for adoption) she’d have up to 14 hopefuls in the application queue. Similarly, if she is placed in long-term foster care, her age will be a positive factor in helping to identify a suitable home. There are currently over 6000 children in the Irish care system but in childhood, as in life, the implication is that younger is better. Younger has the potential to adapt, integrate and grow. Younger means hope.
If Maria was a teenager in need of a home, she’d likely join the hoards of Irish kids who are moved between short-term foster homes until the age of 18 (when many find themselves on the roadside again). Or, she might become one of the 341 children who currently live at a residential facility being supervised by a team of overworked and underpaid shift workers. She could just as easily end up living at a hostel. She might even be sent abroad. Even with parental permission, she’d face little or no chance of being adopted. Teenage Maria would no longer stand for hope, she’d stand for reality.
Part of the reality is that the abandonment or relinquishment of a child to the care of others can have a long-lasting impact on that child. Nancy Elisabeth George in her popular book ‘The Primal Wound’ explores the evidence that age alone is no buffer against the many issues that these children and their new families may face. Younger children can carry the same type of hurt as older children, the important difference being that young children simply can’t name it. They can’t articulate what they’re feeling. They can’t outwardly ask prospective parents or carers to leave their romantic expectations and idealisation of what it means to ‘have a child’ at the door. Unlike teenagers, younger children will allow you to pretend, for a while at least, that their pain does not really exist.
I was raised in a household with adoptees and fostered children and I remain interested in caring some day for a child who needs a home. One of the most useful pieces of information ever given to me by an adopted child was this: adoption is when you marry a child. Though her words referred specifically to the process of non-familial adoption, I think of it as the best description I’ve yet heard of what a formal commitment to the care of a child who comes to you from another family entails. It helped me understand that like any other relationship borne out of choice, this union with a child includes – among many other things – hard work and an element of risk.
George argues that even young children have an unconscious awareness of this risk. Many older children will have a conscious awareness and should be allowed to work through their feelings of fear and hurt. When a child falls and cuts a knee, we expect them to respond to the physical pain. We may even worry if they don’t. Yet, when the wound is emotional or psychological, we tell each other that the child’s response is unnecessary. It’s “challenging behaviour” or in everyday language “acting out” or “looking for attention”. In our deeply romantic and sanitised view of what is acceptable from a child we reprimand these teenagers for what could otherwise be described as a perfectly logical response to pain.
As prospective parents or carers to children who have in some way been abandoned many of us want our own version of the storybook child. We want the opportunity to facilitate a storybook childhood. But let’s remember, childhood is a difficult time. Even in the most functional and secure of families, being a child is not easy. It is a vaguely confusing and uncertain period. A child has no power or control. A child has no real say in what becomes of them. Children are regularly shuffled around in the world by adults who try, and often fail, to get things right. It’s with a feeling of relief that most of us reached our 18th birthdays. That symbolic key signifies more than release and freedom, it signifies new safety.
Baby Maria is only one child, one who deserves care and unconditional love, but there are hundreds of other kids in the Irish care system too, who are at a great disadvantage – not just because we live in a world where increasingly adults are selecting children for their families according to gender, age and ability – but because they have the language to speak the truth and the skills to process what they’re feeling through actions. Should these older children be seen as any less desirable simply because they can communicate what is hard for us to hear? Should they be any less wanted because they disrupt our fantasies of what parenthood involves? Just because a child is too young to express hurt, or because he/she will grow into an adult who can keep it buried out of sight, doesn’t make that hurt any less real.
Annemarie Ni Churreain is a poet and writer from Donegal. She also writes for http://thethinair.net/
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