Lisa thinks our house may be haunted. We arrived with no children and the couple we bought the house from had been here a decade and were also childless. The house is exactly one hundred years old and, recent history aside, there is no reason to suspect why a large three-bedroom house would not have been home to dozens of children in that time.
We’d naively pursued our new home with visions of kids – our kids – bouncing around spacious rooms within a few short years. I would still catch Lisa, imagination in overdrive, staring up at the high ceilings, wondering if these walls have ever heard a baby’s cry. Once again, as so often, our circumstances were a mirror reflecting our childlessness back at us.
Still, the scars were healing and Lisa particularly was bravely tackling a wasp’s nest of hurt, guilt and grief. And yet, the house seemed bigger than ever, the wooden floors never keener to reverberate to the rap and scrape of heels around large, cold rooms. Echoes of emptiness; seeds of doubt. What an act of blind ignorance, even arrogance, it seemed in retrospect, to purchase a home so beyond one’s needs, in dumb expectation of the patter of tiny feet.
Just as our own home began to mock us, conversely we began to warm to the language of adoption. However, our attendance at an open evening hosted by a local adoption agency had been a chastening affair. The social workers who greeted us spoke with optimism and warmth about ‘little ones’ and ‘forever families’ and children whose needs were greater than our own. It was a language we barely understood and a world away from talk of reluctant ovaries and hormones, the currency of recent years. We were, I suspect, a rather reticent audience.
Surprised by how far we had yet to go before we’d be ready to properly consider adoption, we retreated to our oversized house, with its ghosts, and took stock. The journey to become adoptive parents can be a long one but there were no real moments of revelation or sea changes in attitude or circumstance. Just incremental almost imperceptible steps in the right direction that are only clear looking back.
But we’d already begun to learn to trust our judgment again and knew that although the open evening had shown us we weren’t quite ready to move on, we soon would be and we’d know when.
When I was a boy, my late grandfather would have me help him in his shed, knocking together wooden toys and knick-knacks. I was the eager apprentice to his master craftsman and he’d always tell me how and when we’d do things. “You’ll know the sign when you see it,” he’d often say.
Lisa and I gradually began to discuss adoption more openly and as a result our neighbour offered the name of an adoption agency through which her friend had recently adopted three children. And so it was that one day I retreated from the daily gossip across the garden fence with a scrap of lined paper, torn from a pad, on which were written the words ‘Adoption Matters Northwest’.
Like so many notes, actual or metaphorical, this one sat around for a while. Eventually, it moved from being the ‘elephant in the room’ to being on the to-do list. And then to the top of the to-do list.
Whenever we get a new gadget, a digital camera perhaps, Lisa is the one to methodically review all the bumph that comes with it. She checks the guarantee, reads the instructions and tells me all the wonderful things it can do, by which time I’ve already filled it with poorly taken pictures of the dog. Adoption Matters Northwest, like the majority of agencies, has a good website and Lisa spent a lot of time reviewing the content, looking for testimonials and trying to understand the process. Bumph read, we submitted an inquiry via the website.
Within a few days, a professional-sounding social worker called to schedule a visit at which both Adoption Matters and Lisa and I would have the opportunity to check each other out before deciding on whether to proceed. Before we knew it, we were just a day or two from an actual social worker visiting our home – to judge us! And so began the mother of all spring cleans.
I’d had nothing to do with social workers or social care at any time in my life and had no idea what to expect. All I had was the media’s inference that social workers were all dangerously overworked, overwrought and overcautious when it came to the care of children.
Much of the trepidation we’d felt about the adoption process centred on the mistaken belief it can take ‘years’ to qualify to be adopters and that social workers, being ogres, would clumsily traipse through every aspect of our relationship, no matter how private, even asking about What Went On In The Bedroom.
This is, of course, bunkum. Utter nonsense. The Adoption Matters team has, at every turn, been warm, patient, polite and understanding, yet always informed, professional, direct and honest. And for us it began with Anna’s visit.
To my amazement, Anna turned out to be a completely normal human being! It is not rose-tinting the memory to say that having met her, we’d hoped she’d be our social worker forever. But she was not. Not that it matters, it turned out there were many more kind and brilliant Annas out there lining up to guide us.
A fortnight or so after the visit, we received a letter stating that Adoption Matters Northwest would be happy to proceed with our application. We just needed to complete the paperwork and send it back. Another small step. Next, we’d be assigned a permanent social worker and then there was the rather daunting prospect of ‘groups’, the five days of orientation and education hosted by the agency.
Things were moving forward and, after a year or two of inactivity, we picked up the DIY gauntlet once more and began lavishing some care and attention on our house. We stripped the wallpaper in the second bedroom – now, potentially a kids’ room – and found hidden beneath, in glorious red and black marker pen, all over the plaster, the scrawls and ‘woz ere’s of the people that lived here in the 1970s. And their many children.
“You’ll know the sign when you see it”. Good old granddad. Maybe I’d get to tell that to my grandchildren one day after all.