by Joanna Moorhead
Unable to have a child of their own, Sarah and Thomas Wilson signed up for a revolutionary new adoption programme that places vulnerable babies with potential new families while their birth parents are being assessed. The couple tell Joanna Moorhead about how they fell in love with a daughter they knew they might have to hand back
Holding tiny newborn Eve to her chest, Sarah Wilson whispered the truest words she could into her ear. ‘I love you, but you’re not mine. And it’s going to be quite a while before we know whether you ever will belong to me.’
Like most parents, Sarah and her husband Thomas had fallen in love with their child the moment they set eyes on her. But, unlike most parents, that encounter didn’t take place in a hospital delivery ward when Eve was born; instead it was ten days after her birth, when social workers brought her to live with them. And Sarah and Thomas knew from the start that they were going to have to cope with an uncertainty many couples couldn’t contemplate.
Because, although they longed to adopt Eve, it would be several months before they knew whether they would be able to keep her, or whether they would have to hand her back to her birth parents.
In the past, most adoptions happened because unmarried mothers gave up babies they would have been stigmatised for bringing up alone. These days that’s extremely rare: far fewer babies are adopted, and those who are tend to be taken into care by social workers because their birth parents are unable to look after them.
Usually in these cases, babies are removed from their birth mother and father in the early days or weeks of life and placed with foster parents while attempts are made at supporting the birth parents so they can have them back. Only when social workers are certain it’s not possible to help them to become ‘good enough’ parents is their baby put forward for adoption – and at this stage the child sometimes moves to another foster family before, some months down the line, being matched with their ‘for ever’ parents.
But it doesn’t help a baby to have to move from one home to another, so the Coram charity has pioneered a revolutionary new approach – and Eve’s case was dealt with as part of this scheme.
It involves placing a baby with would-be adopters as soon as possible after birth, while their biological parents are still being assessed.
If appropriate, the child will be returned to them, but in the meantime they can bond with the people who will probably go on to be their parents for life. The emotional risks for the couple are colossal – they may have to face giving back a child they’ve fallen in love with, often after many years of longing for a baby. But from the child’s point of view, it’s win-win: either they end up being raised by their birth parents or they stay with the couple they’ve lived with from the start.
For Sarah and Thomas, who found out several years ago that Sarah would never be able to conceive because of a genetic condition, the scheme made perfect sense despite the possibility of heartbreak.
‘When we knew we would need to adopt a child we did lots of research, and we really liked how child-centred the Coram scheme is,’ says Sarah. ‘With the conventional route, babies are taken into care at birth, and it’s only after the possibility of them being raised by their birth parents is exhausted that the search begins for adoptive parents. They might have had three different foster families by then. And you think: there has to be a better way from the baby’s point of view.’
The Wilsons decided to take the courageous approach. ‘We knew we would love our baby, and that the time she spent with us would never be wasted, because whatever happened we’d be laying emotional foundations for the rest of her life,’ says Sarah. ‘We decided we could do this, we could pour out our love and care for her, knowing that maybe it would all work out beautifully – or maybe we would end up in pieces on the floor.’
Sarah says she took the view that life is messy, and things don’t always work out to plan – and she and Thomas were prepared to live with the messiness and risk for the baby who would be placed with them.
‘We had been longing for a child since getting married five years earlier,’ says Thomas. ‘We went through the process of being approved by Coram, and within days we were told there was a baby about to be born who was being allocated to us. We were over the moon. It was incredibly exciting waiting for her to arrive. We did what all new parents do – we went rushing out and bought a cot and clothes and all the things she needed.’
For her first days, Eve stayed in a supported unit with her biological mother, while social workers assessed whether she could care for her. But by the second week, it was clear the birth parents couldn’t cope. Babies taken into care usually come from families where there’s a history of neglect, abuse, drug abuse, domestic violence or mental health problems – and often, as with Eve’s family, it’s a mixture of all or most of these.
The birth family were given the chance to prove they could overcome their hurdles, but everyone around them, the Wilsons and Coram included, knew the odds were against them; so no one was surprised when social workers decided to make arrangements for Eve to live with Sarah and Thomas.
The couple will never forget the evening Eve arrived at their cosy flat. ‘We opened the front door and there was a social worker clutching this tiny bundle, and I could just make out her curly hair,’ remembers Sarah. They brought her into the sitting room and handed her to Thomas. ‘I found myself holding a tiny baby for the first time ever, under the gaze of four social workers,’ he says. ‘It was a bit unnerving.’
‘I remember just longing for them to go, so that the three of us could be together,’ says Sarah. ‘Eventually they did go, and Thomas and I looked at one another and said: “Help! What do we do now?”’
Like all new parents, the Wilsons – both in their early 30s – muddled through. ‘We were learning as we went along, as everyone does with their first baby,’ says Sarah.
‘When Eve arrived we were sent lots of cards and flowers, and our families came rushing over to meet her. They were delighted for us – but they all knew Eve’s story, and that nothing was certain. It was tough for them too, especially the grandparents – Eve was a first grandchild on both sides.’
The early months with Eve – during which time her future still hung in the balance – were much harder than the couple anticipated. ‘I’m sure some of it was just normal new-parent shock, but it was heightened by not knowing whether or not we’d be keeping her. I didn’t know whether I was ever going to get a chance to be a proper mum, and it weighed heavily on me.’
Every other day Sarah, who ended up taking 18 months’ leave from her work as a nurse, travelled several miles across town so that Eve could spend time with her birth parents, and they could learn to care for her and try to demonstrate that they could be capable parents. The encounters were emotional for everyone concerned.
‘We always arrived with Eve in her buggy, because handing her from our arms to theirs would have been too tough on all of us,’ says Thomas, a teacher, who accompanied them on days when he wasn’t in school. ‘We kept a diary about everything that happened in Eve’s life and we’d give that to her birth parents each time we met, so they could see what was going on for her.
‘We’d have a chat when we handed her over, telling them when she was likely to be hungry or need to have her nappy changed – and then we’d leave the three of them with the Coram contact worker. They’d be able to look after her, change her nappy, feed her, play with her and take her out for walks in her buggy.’
For Sarah, these visits were often difficult. ‘Taking her to the contact centre and handing her over made me feel as though I was Eve’s babysitter. I kept thinking, is this all it’s going to be? Will I ever get to be Eve’s proper mum?’
After all the uncertainty, Sarah couldn’t be more delighted that things worked out for them to keep her – from the earliest days, she says, she felt in her heart that Eve was her and Thomas’s baby. But the birth parents are never far from the couple’s thoughts. ‘Their story was a tragic one – they never had much of a chance to make things work with a baby. But knowing them was a privilege. It has meant that when Eve is older, we’ll be able to tell her so much more about her birth parents because we won’t have to rely only on social workers’ reports – we can remember these people we actually met.’
Sarah and Thomas say they were well prepared by Coram for the ups and downs of the adoption scheme, which is known in social worker speak as ‘concurrent planning’. ‘They told us that part of the process is uncertainty, that no one would be able to second-guess what would happen. And while that was unnerving, it was also truthful, and that helped.’ The couple were also introduced to other adopters who had taken on babies only to have to give them back. ‘They had been shattered by it, and I knew if it happened to us we would be, too. We spent a lot of time just keeping our emotions in check, and thinking: we have to just keep on going, and hoping,’ remembers Sarah.
The moment they had been longing for came when Eve was three months old and a judge ruled that she should be adopted by the Wilsons because her birth parents weren’t able to cope. ‘We had been warned that there was unlikely to be a decision in the court hearing taking place that day, so we were completely unprepared for the news,’ remembers Thomas. ‘We got a call to say: Eve is going to be legally yours. It felt amazing.’
First, though, there had to be the heartbreak of a final meeting between Eve and her birth parents. ‘It was very tough for them,’ remembers Thomas. ‘We left them alone for a while and then we went back to spend some time with them. They said some very precious things to us about what they wanted us to do for Eve, about how much they hoped we’d be able to give her a happy life. And we promised we would tell Eve about that when she’s older, about their dreams and hopes for her.’
A few months later the adoption was official, and Sarah and Thomas were joined by family and friends for a special ceremony at the court followed by a celebratory afternoon tea.
Today they look like any other family – but, says Sarah, Eve’s past is something they know cannot be overlooked. ‘What’s different about our family is Eve’s story. And we know that, as she grows up, we have to help her to understand it.’
She is now 18 months old and twice a year her birth parents have letterbox contact. ‘We send them pictures, and we’ve had beautiful letters back: very affirming of the adoption, really powerful,’ says Sarah. ‘I hope it helps them that they got to know us a bit.’
When Eve is 18 she’ll have the right to contact her parents – and if it’s something she wanted to do earlier, says Thomas, they would certainly be open to the idea of contacting them through social workers.
Jeanne Kaniuk, managing director of Coram’s adoption services, says that in the past babies were treated like ‘some little parcel’ and passed around from one home to another, which was often very harmful. ‘We’re talking about the most vulnerable babies in our society, because they have already come from families where there are incredibly difficult situations.
‘Their “pre-life” has already been disruptive, perhaps because their mother was an alcoholic or a drug-taker or the victim of domestic violence – so they [of all babies] most need the calm and stability of a settled home, and the chance to form an attachment as early as possible to the parents who will care for them for the rest of their lives.’
It takes a certain kind of person to take the risk, says Kaniuk. ‘They’re invariably very child-centred and generous people, and they go into it with their eyes open. We tell them they’re going to have to live with uncertainty: often there’s a long period when it looks as though things might go the other way, and the child might be returned to the birth parents. That’s extremely hard to live with, because these couples fall in love with their babies and they’re people who desperately want to be parents and to keep the child, so it’s a big ask.’
A big ask but, crucially, a win-win situation for the most important person of all: the baby. ‘We thought of ourselves as Eve’s safety net,’ says Thomas. ‘The worst thing that could happen, from her point of view, was that she would stay with us.’ And the worst thing for Eve was clearly the best thing possible for him and Sarah, who can hardly take their eyes off their delightful daughter as she toddles around their sitting room.
So would they do it all again to add to their family? ‘Absolutely,’ says Sarah. ‘But next time we will have to take Eve’s feelings into account, too. It would be hard on her as well as the rest of us if we ended up having to give back a baby we had grown to love. We’ll have to make sure Eve understands that’s never going to happen to her. We know this way is a hard way, but parenting is always hard, and life is unpredictable. We took our chance once, and we’ll take it again, to give another baby space in our home and our hearts.’
To find out more about concurrent planning, visit coramadoption.org.uk