A Day in Hay (on Wye)


Hay collage

I spent yesterday in Hay-on-Wye in the company of a lovely group of adopters, foster carers and a certain Dr Vivien Norris (who is, in my humblest opinion, the kind of Consultant Clinical Psychologist that every adoptive family and foster family needs in their lives).

I presented a day based on my most recent book The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting, which is all about messy, lived experiences and getting it right some of the time and forgiving ourselves when we get it wrong.  We talked about how much of the most difficult aspects of therapeutic parenting are not about delivering prescribed methods but about understanding our child’s inner narrative and experiences and going from there.  We took a long look at how much of this style of parenting is about us, the parents, because it’s difficult, emotional, often provocative stuff, in which our own personal hopes, dreams and values our intricately bound up.

The reason I like getting out of my own domestic bubble is that I am reminded of what an valuable, enormous and often unsupported job adopters and foster carers do.  Many of our children are hampered by what are, to most of the population, unimaginable levels of past neglect and abuse and parenting them requires great skill and fortitude.  Yet we can find ourselves more than unsupported in our role, we can be criticised and blamed.

Of course it’s not all as grim as that.  There are pockets of fabulous support within our local authorities, schools and NHS.  But right now, it feels like that’s what they are: pockets.

Children are profoundly impacted by their experiences of neglect and abuse and they and those parenting them deserve and need far more compassion than appears to be on offer right now.

Thanks to everyone who came and engaged so honestly and with so much energy and humour yesterday.

Good Enough Gardening

Sometimes it’s either make an Angry Pie or it’s disappear into the garden to ponder some of life’s many imponderables, imponderables such as: is it big bin week or just recycling box week? why does Andrew Marr look such a knob on that blue scooter? and why exactly did I click on *that* newspaper article while I was on my holidays?

Physical work in the outdoors is a way of allowing my brain to work through things in it’s own time and to come up with it’s own perspectives on unbalanced infuriating articles challenging issues. It’s my version of mindfulness and I find it suits me better than stillness.

People often assume that because I was a gardener, my own garden will be a picture of National Trustedness.  It isn’t.  Here are a few pictures. And these are by far the best bits.


Gard2Gard1Gard3Gard5Gard4We went away for half term to visit relatives and to do some outdoorsy things in Snowdonia.  It was intricately planned in the way these things have to be, but was successful.  After a difficult few months it was good to feel the wind in our hair again.

CPV – a few thoughts and lessons learned

  • At the core of CPV is violence but it is also about threat, intimidation and control.  Living with these behaviours means living in fear and living on your nerves. It is exhausting and can leave us unable to describe what is happening in our homes.  When we are rendered speechless, it is easy for others to assume we are exaggerating, or not coping because we are weak.  This is the main reason why I’ve written about living with CPV.  I think that you need to live it to really understand it.  Those supporting families who have not lived it need to listen and believe.


  • The first time that a social worker said to us ‘I get that this is more than a meltdown, that it is terrifying’ we felt the biggest sense of relief that someone understood.
  • The social worker who ‘got’ the violence, taught us how to hold our child when he was lashing out and completely out of control.  Together with the therapeutic work that comes with holding this has been the single most effective strategy we have been taught.  I would go so far as to say it has been a game-changer.
  • Underlying CPV is trauma and blinding fear.  It is visceral rage.  During these times, no amount of reasoning works.
  • We have made progress by exploring what the anger and aggression is about. This can only be done after the event and not in the eye of the storm.  I started by wondering ‘this anger feels like it’s about something really huge, not something like whether or not you had any sweets left’.  I went from this to a guessing game, where I had to do the guessing ‘out of ten, how close do you think I am, ok, changing classes?’.  The response may be 5 out of 10.  I would always throw in a few silly guesses to keep things light.  One day I hit on on something significant and it allowed us to explore it in more depth. It was important for me to say ‘that must feel devastating and scary’ because that would often cause a little light to come on and I would see hope and connection in the eyes of a frightened child.  It has also been important to say ‘I understand why you feel so angry, I feel angry for you too’.


  • If an episode of aggression resulted in destruction, we usually cleaned up the the mess together, whilst talking about what had happened.  I have no idea whether this kind of repair was effective or not.
  • When everyone has recovered, it’s important to be curious about what these episodes feel like for the child.  We managed a few dialogues which helped me to understand ‘red brain’ and what I was doing or not doing which either made the situation better or worse.  This ‘we’ll solve it together’ approach has worked for us.
  • We have a plan in place, just in case things get really serious.  I am lucky to live across the road from two police officers who are unflustered by aggressive behaviours and who I trust to help me intervene if ever I need them to. Every once in a while I check in with them to make sure they are still happy to be part of our back up plan.
  • I won’t ever know for sure, but I think that the early work we did around CPV has made our teenage years significantly less violent than they might otherwise have been.  Aggression has raised it’s head a bit lately.  Holding is now impossible so my immediate response is about keeping everyone safe and allowing the raging person to run for cover. I have however drawn a line, ‘if you ever physically hurt anyone in this house I will call the police’ and I mean it.
  • I am uneasy with some of the language around CPV and the term CPV itself.  It’s important to me that we don’t forget that our children are operating from a place of intense fear.  They don’t wake up in the morning and consciously decide to harm us or our belongings.  At the same time I’m not seeking to deny the high impact that these behaviours have on families.
  • Early and sensitive interventions, that involve the whole family and are cognisant of a child’s early experiences are where we should be headed I think.  There needs to be a greater consideration of FASD too.  Those living with violence need much greater support and understanding, plus a break every now and again.  And may I put in a plea for proper research into violent behaviours and what does and does not help.
  • Speaking without any research behind me, I wonder if some children have been so damaged by their early experiences that they cannot function within a family setting.  We need to be honest about this and not place children expecting everything in the garden to be rosy.  Right now, there is no incentive for adopters to speak honestly about their experiences and for the right decisions and interventions to be implemented.  We need to move to a place of informed realism because without it we are stuck with optimism, and when that fails, blame and it’s just not good enough.

Election Reflections of a Floating Voter

I am a floating voter.  My views don’t fit within a single party.  It’s much more of a ‘pick and mix’ situation for me. If I could choose a Fantasy Cabinet and vote for that I would.  My Fantasy Cabinet would look a bit left of centre on many issues and would have MPs from most of the parties in it.  On some issues I change my mind from time to time.  I keep myself informed and I think about politics, the economy and equality a lot.  I’m also a fan of reform and modernisation of politics and the state.

Admitting to being a floating voter is not a cool thing.  We are The Undecided.  The agnostics of politics.  Without sufficient political backbone we blow around in the wind.

And yet, as a floating voter, I am clear about what I believe on many issues and my beliefs haven’t changed that much over time.  I sometimes adjust my views as I learn more about an issue, or if something is particularly complex.  Lots of issues are complex and I’m suspicious of simplistic views (e.g. landlords are greedy, immigrants are taking our jobs). In general, I don’t think it’s me who floats, but rather the political parties that float around me.  I tend to vote for the one who comes closest. Sometimes I vote tactically.

During the 1990s Blair floated towards me and I supported him (before Blair I found voting an extreme version of the least worst choice).  Then Brown floated away and I went Lib Dem. I thought the Lib Dems did a reasonable job of keeping the brakes on the more troublesome policies of the Conservative-led coalition, but didn’t maintain a clear and brave enough vision of what they stood for.  I thought the Conservatives were right to focus on the economy and public spending during the last parliament, but it got a bit ideological and scared me particularly in the areas of education reform and benefits sanctions.  I support staying in the EU, so the anti-Europeans worry me too.  I was cheered by the introduction of same-sex marriage, but wanted more done about tax avoidance.

The Labour party under Ed Miliband, floated further from me, at a time when I so wanted them to come nearer again.  Rent controls and tinkering with the price of oil doesn’t work for me and I sensed too much of ‘business is greedy’ vs ‘the poor are noble’ although the emphasis on addressing the wealth gap appealed to me.  I got bored with the ‘hard working families’ thing which became both meaningless and patronising from both of the main parties.  I always felt that Ed was the wrong guy, although I like him.  I felt the Labour party lost this election when Ed was selected over his brother, although I accept this perhaps doesn’t address the collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland.  The left made too much of Dave C et al being posh. I wanted to hear more about the alternative and how it might be achieved and I wanted to be reassured that the economy would be in safe hands.

Although the SNP are left of where I’m anchored and I think a break up of the Union would be terrible, their campaign appealed to me.  It was a breath of fresh air, it didn’t get repetitive and it didn’t come over as too ‘try hard’.  There weren’t any ‘hell yeah’ s or fist pumps or ridiculous tombstones (a serious lapse of judgement).  I hope that they become a voice for reform, because we could do with some brave ideas.  (Personally I’d start by building a new Parliament for the UK, designed for a modern democracy, but that’s easy for me to say.)

I hope that over this next parliament the Conservatives don’t get too mean and mad and don’t pull us out of Europe or in any way add to the risk of the break up of the Union. I hope that the Labour party chooses a reforming leader who appeals to the centre ground and who can rebuild the Labour party in Scotland.  I don’t think these are mutually exclusive objectives.  It is important that whoever is given the job can form a strong team around them (a single figurehead is not enough) and act as a robust opposition, because we’re going to need one.

Many left-leaning commentators have rushed to blame the electorate for Thursday’s election result, accusing voters of acting selfishly.  It’s no wonder that Conservative voters are ‘shy’ in coming out to the pollsters if this is what they can expect in return for their honesty.  Shaming voters will do nothing to build support for the Labour or Liberal Democrat parties.  As always it’s about presenting a viable, realistic alternative and it’s about the economy (stupid).

Sally Donovan is on BBC Breakfast (hopefully)

My first book No Matter What was written in spare moments between working as a jobbing gardener and parenting the two children my husband Rob and I had adopted from our local authority.  I never knew whether it would flower, but felt compelled to write it.

Our children had been profoundly impacted by their early experiences of maltreatment and yet what I heard (ad nauseum) was ‘they’ll get over it’, ‘you’re being paranoid’ or ‘all children do that’ and not only from lay people.  I didn’t know what else to do other than to write. No Matter What became a kind of 80,000 word response.

I’ve been encouraged and supported by a number of good friends and particularly by my gardening partner K.  She told me to get on with it and aim high.  ‘You need to decide on your aim,’ she said (she’s great at all that).  As gardeners we always ended up being employed to carry out the worst jobs in any given street or village.  During one comically awful gardening job,  I decided my aim was to get on to Woman’s Hour. It felt an awfully long way off.

Tomorrow, if plans fall into place, I should be appearing on the red sofa on BBC Breakfast to talk about my experiences of adoption and adoption support and the soon to the launched Adoption Support Fund. As a news and politics junky it is a dream and I’m going to count it as my aim loosely achieved.

Nerves may well prevent me from getting across what I desperately want to.  If they do, then here’s it, in a rather large nutshell.

  • Children are impacted by early experiences of maltreatment, which inform how they see and experience the world.  They are compelled to behave in ways which those supporting them may find baffling and frustrating, but which make perfect sense when seen in the context of fear, danger and pure survival and self-preservation.
  • Helping children to heal takes huge skill and fortitude.  Adoptive parents cannot parent in the standard way, the way that our parents parented us, or in the way our friends parent their children.  We are elite, therapeutic parents, a role which can be punishing, especially punishing without good support.  I describe all this in my second book The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting.
  • Post adoption support is about well-trained, empathic frontline social work, it’s about good quality training and coaching, it’s about decent, whole family therapeutic help, it’s ‘how are you doing?’ not ‘you should try the naughty step’.  I’ve written along these lines for Community Care magazine. Some of my stuff has won awards.
  • The Adoption Support Fund, which launches in a few days time is in my view a good and well-thought out start.  I’ve been part of the Department for Education group responsible for shaping the scheme, as the ‘voice of the user’ (insert winking emoticon).   The Adoption Support Fund will not be a magic wand but it has been designed to take into account the perverse incentives that litter children’s social care, the fragmentation of services and significant gaps in research and professional understanding.  The push towards robust, long-lasting and unquestioning support must continue though and not just for adoptive families.  And one year of guaranteed funding is NOT ENOUGH.
  • Adoption, done sensitively and well and with appropriate support can be transformative for children and it’s certainly transformative for the adults around them.  I would do it all again, but preferably without all the battles.


Right now I’m trying to tell myself that however terrified I feel, however badly or well the interview goes, I’ll have done my best and that’s what all of us; adopted children and those who are priviledged to share our lives with them, can ever hope to do.  I’ll be thinking of you all.

A Lesson in Self Care

Lurching from one crisis to another finally did for me, and several weeks ago I collapsed into a mess of shattered nerves, frustration, anger and something like grief (again).  If you parent like we have to, you may recognise this particular type of exhaustion; not the sort that gently leads you to the comfort of your sofa, but something rather more unnerving that drags you around the inside of your house and your head, fretting, pacing, unable to venture out, unable to find a place of rest.  A Me Holiday was long overdue.


I’m getting back on my feet, despite the still ongoing crises (crises do not take a break) and for the purposes of reflection and my own learning, this is roughly how I’ve gone about it:

  1. Alcohol.  ‘Your trouble is you don’t drink enough’ was Mr D’s advice and at the risk of sounding like an alcoholic, a sun-downer of my old friend ‘Sloe Gin 2014’ really takes the edge off.
  2. Stare into space. Pace about. Lie around. Sleep. Rage. Cry into a bucket of my own self-pity.IMG_1724
  3. Take a break from the news, social media and any form of electioneering.
  4. Take a break from work.  (Sorry work.)
  5. Read. Read. Read.  Escape from head.  Read.  My neighbour leant me ‘Ingenious Pain’ by Andrew Miller.  It’s about a man who feels no pain.  (Lucky him.)IMG_0090
  6. Crack open husband’s Easter egg, about a fortnight before Easter.  Eat. Feel sick.  Eat more.
  7. Mindless physical exercise i.e. moving two tonnes of compost a long way, by many wheelbarrow trips.
  8. Download some new music.  Sing to new music.  Dance. Imagine oneself gorgeous in music video.
  9. With help of new friend ‘Pinterest’ become obsessed with Japanese dressmaking patterns.
  10. Do dressmaking. The sound of the sewing machine drowns out almost all unpleasantness (‘what’s that? sorry I can’t hear you’).
  11. Become obsessed with Poldark i.e. watch every episode twice, indulge in unreconstructed fantasies involving tricorn hats.
  12. Get sun. Eat well.
  13. Spend some money.  A sweatshirt arrives from the US. Inside the pocket is a message written on a tag.  ‘Feisty’ it says ‘is showing a lively aggressiveness’.  There’s more than enough ‘lively aggressiveness’ in our house but I feel my fight returning.
  14. Plan some good times.

These past weeks I’ve been reminded that self-care is not something to be reached for in a crisis but a daily practice that must be embedded into our routines.  It isn’t self-indulgent.  It’s for the greater good and  it’s the foundation of therapeutic parenting.



Reasons to be cheerful

To mark this week’s #WASO theme, here are my reasons to be cheerful:

  1. It feels like spring and it’s starting to look like it too.
  2. I saw the new Open Nest animation this week and it’s wonderful. I can’t wait to share it.
  3. Our crises here at home may still be frequent but they are short-lived.
  4. I had some professional support this week and it was great, a bit of a lifesaver.
  5. I met with the publisher and illustrator of the book I’m working on and it’s shaping up well.
  6. I had a meeting at our child’s school today and again the support shown was creative, thoughtful and full of empathy – couldn’t wish for more.
  7. Went to the new Expert Advisory Group on Adoption Support at the Department for Education along with two more adopters. We are soon to be joined by an adoptee as well. We are raising the most challenging aspects of adoption support and not being laughed out of the room, far from it. I feel hopeful.
  8. We had some heating oil delivered, it was less than half the price we’ve paid before.

A few days ago I could not have managed to write about feeling cheerful, so thanks to The Adoption Social for giving me a nudge. It’s been a useful exercise.


Not Even Mending

I spent most of yesterday sewing. Not even mending.

Years of elite parenting deals a cruel blow to one’s hobbies until you barely remember you had any. I used to be, I think, the sort of person who made things, drew, painted, printed, knitted and stitched.


I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to work at home, to some extent, during these years of elite parenting. A job is still out of the question. A job means having to commit to being reliable. Elite parenting has turned me into an unreliable person.

Working at home means I can accept long term commitments like writing a book or an article, or delivering a presentation somewhere and fulfil them. There are no clocking in cards and no angry bosses and I am available to mop up when trauma explodes over everything.

For the past many months Mr D and I have barely got our heads above water. One crisis has lurched in after another with little breathing space between. There is spare time, but not good quality spare time. It is spare time for recovery, spent with a hyper-vigilant half an ear open.

‘Do something for yourself’ say the well-meaning. Emptying the contents of the under-the-stairs cupboard to get to the sewing machine, or going up in the loft to find the acrylic paints feels like too much hard work. Sometimes opening a book feels like too much hard work.

Yesterday, both our children were out of the house, at the same time, for a couple of hours. Unusually I didn’t feel the need to vegetate on the sofa in front of Come Dine With Me. I had, I realised, after a week with only one crisis and a minor one at that, some left-over energy and several hours of clear-headed time.

I delved out the sewing machine. I took in a couple of pairs of trousers. I converted a horrible dress, into a decent skirt. I felt like I had temporarily morphed into someone I had a vague memory of.


I was watching TV and the adverts came along. Usually I like watching KFC adverts. I sat on my bed drooling over a bonus banquet, but no this one was different, it was a piss take! Not just because it didn’t come with fries, but this time it was personal, it just got to me, but not in a tasty way, in an angry way.

They were using adopted children to broadcast their business which means they are making money out of children who’ve had a bad time and not just that, but that kid was a normal one, given a script to act as a adopted kid. I don’t think any actor can act as an adopted kid, unless they themselves are adopted!

An adoptive family, need more than some chicken wings, they need support, understanding, hugs, and love. I’m not saying an adoptive family can’t eat KFC, because I don’t think any family can perform without a KFC (personally) But you need more than a kfc in an adoptive family (even if it’s a normal one).

By Jamie 🙂

*All the opinions expressed in this blog, are those of the author, do not take any offence;)*

Back on the Road

There were emails spelling out the end, there was much hand-wringing, uncertainty, questioning and as usual ongoing learning to try and work out what an earth was going on and how this show could possibly be put back on the road.

And here it is, back on the road, my new website with it’s new .co.uk domain.

Yes, Happy New Year said the spreaders of malware, here’s a special present for you, and within a few days my site was infected and had to be taken down.  With a lot of help, it’s back, looking all …. well, exactly like the old one.

It’s been an interesting New Year so far here at Donovan Towers, interesting much in the same way that cyber-crime is interesting.  There have been emails (from school), there has been much stupid use of social media, there has been anger, disconnection, recrimination and a lot of just basic fucking rudeness.  But as is the way of things here, a build up of horribleness is actually a massive, raging boil which at some point bursts and oozes pus over everything and everyone.

I’ve flipped from optimism to pathetic hopelessness and back to optimism  more times than you could shake an intimidating stick at and sometimes within half an hour.  Just a few days of predictability, of living on the level would be brilliant right now, but it is not to be.  We are deep in the teenage maelstrom which is flipping down to a fine art.  Man or boy?  Two sides of a coin which gets flipped so often it’s impossible to keep up.

Support arrived back last week in the form of Mr R, who I have written much about before.  As usual I asked for help ages after I really needed it (that denial thing again) and now realise how badly I needed it. But no time for regret, I’m certain it’s going to provide the best navigation through these next few years of transition.

IMG_0545As a result of 90 minutes of hard talk, with someone who can really throw about and exercise my mind around trauma and attachment I felt myself pull my eyes from the ground level mess and at the longer view.  So the theme of now is boy to man, the changing roles of mothers and fathers, shifting dynamics in physical strength and personal freedoms and a growing awareness of where the ability to influence the future really lies.