Guest blogger Anna Bianchi is a creative activist, writer, workshop teacher and change guide, as well as a grandmother with a 4-year-old grandson who is exploring female gender identity. Anna's last post exploring supporting her grandson's gender identity expression through courageous parenting created quite a bit of debate. Here, in her second blog post, Anna remembers the humbling experience of working with children in the care system when she was a social worker.
Anna’s website: www.annabianchi.co.uk
Children and young people who’ve endured the care system are extraordinary beings. Often, their early years at best, are a patchwork of inconsistent and damaging messages or, worse still, riven all the way through with experiences of neglect. Then they find themselves being ‘looked after’ by a corporate parent, which amounts to a remote attachment at best. Any child who starts from such a place of profound disadvantage deserves our utmost respect.
The fact that looked after children will give adults a second chance is testimony to their courage, resilience and innate drive towards health and wholeness. In all my years as a social worker I never ceased being impressed and humbled by the capacity of these children to simply keep going, irrespective of their actions. Behaviour is a language. So often children who are care experienced are pathologised and labelled with any number of deficits and disorders. Frequently we forget that they may be grieving; for their parents, siblings, pets and toys, for the things we can never even guess. When a child comes into care in one sense they lose everything, because nothing will ever be the same again.
I recall working with a fifteen year old girl who asked one day, “Anna, do you love me as much as your own children? Her question shocked me and pushed me to the edge of my own integrity when I responded. Her vulnerability kept me awake at night. To tell a child who’s been abused or desperately under parented, sometimes for tragic reasons in themselves, “sweetheart, I can’t be your mum,” is a very hard thing to do. In my role as her social worker any other alternative would have set her up for further loss.
Our exchange typified a need that was always active and usually submerged in my relationships with looked after children. They wanted to be loved. And it’s the depth of this unmet need that makes so many of them deeply vulnerable. I cared about all the children I worked with and I got close to many of them. Good-byes were rarely easy for me, often because they were so hard for the young person. But I soon learnt it was preferable for the child to have had a nurturing connection with a planned, sensitive ending than to remain unmoored in storms of loneliness and confusion.
I have immense respect for most adoptive parents who, for numerous reasons, risk this particular relationship journey. To be willing to create a secure space, for a lifetime, where a child from care has the chance to thrive and not only survive is rare. It falls to these people to recreate the attachment process and offer their children unconditional kinship. To adopt a child who brings a history the new family doesn’t share and cannot know takes the experience of parenting to another level. Love is a verb and these circumstances often demand its fullest expression.
Many of us take our attachment to loved ones for granted. That is our privilege and one to be celebrated. At birth, the act of claiming is the first and fundamental aspect of the attachment process. This child is ours. If a child isn’t claimed they are truly bereft. I have a friend who was abandoned at birth, left in a children’s home and had no contact whatsoever with any relatives. When he was eight, he was lined up with his peers, all of them anxiously well-behaved and in their Sunday clothes. A ‘tall lady’ finally chose him to become part of her family. A few days later she returned him because she’d ‘changed her mind.’ Mercifully, despite the flaws that still exist in our institutions, these situations do not. After years of depression, isolation and much anguish, my friend now has a small group of people he can truly call his own tribe.
After claiming, a baby needs attuned caregiving. She has to know, through repeated experiences, that her needs will be noticed, cared about and acted on. If this doesn’t occur then a child lives in a permanent aroused state of anxiety and, sometimes, in despair. Her naturally abundant energy, designed to fuel growth on all levels, will be syphoned off into the single drive to survive. Such is the miracle of a human being determined to live.
Effective attunement is critical, not least because it lays the foundation for the growth of empathy. Without effective attunement we struggle to recognise our own, or others’, inner worlds. Of course every child’s experience is unique and some recover from faulty attachments then blossom in the most remarkable of ways. While others carry the painful legacy for longer and may ‘act out’ or ‘act in’ their distress. Adoptive parents and their support networks must not only accept, embrace and champion formerly looked after children, they must also help heal and transform their wounds. They must enable their child to redefine a sense of self.
I used a mantra with young people I hold to this day, ‘nothing is a life sentence.’ Children from the care system taught me this. This blog post is written as a tribute to them, and to the exceptional families who call them their own.