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 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.

A Review of 2014

It sounds to trite to say 2014 has been a year of highs and lows, but nevertheless it’s true.  If I’ve learnt anything it’s the importance of the long view.  In our house the short view is too inconsistent to risk hanging any sense progress or otherwise on, swinging as it does from cautious optimism to eye-popping fear.  So here is my look back at the past twelve months.

Pride was my cinematic highlight of the year.  It is nostalgic, tragic and hopeful and the soundtrack made me want to dance in the aisle (I didn’t).  The streaming of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II into cinemas meant that many who can’t make it to live theatre could watch something of high quality.  It was fantastic and reminded me why I like Shakespeare.

Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves, a Swedish drama which depicted the devastation of AIDS on the Swedish gay community in the 1980s, was the most beautiful and touching piece of television of the year.  A close second was A Poet in New York about the final months of the life of Dylan Thomas.  I also enjoyed Grayson Perry’s Who Are You? for its compassionate insight into the lives of others.

Youngest child and I rather belatedly got into Modern Family this year.  As we’re done with book bag wars we snug up and watch this before bed.  I’ve demolished another series of Parks and Recreation and remain wondrous that UK television has not embraced it as wholeheartedly as it deserves.

I’ve read some shite this year so there’s not much to recommend. I enjoyed rereading Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy and The Cider House Rules by John Irving.  My booky highlight was Affinity by Sarah Waters.  I saw her speak at a book festival and her reflections on the process of writing made me feel less like a floundering amateur, so that is a highlight too.

Dr Bruce Perry was as funny and encouraging as I’d hoped and made pitching up despite numerous obstacles well worth it.  The Open Nest conference Taking Care was a highpoint for lots of reasons.

The ‘birth’ of my second paperback child The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting is a career as well as a 2014 highpoint.  I’m proud of it and happy to see it head off and make it’s way in the world.  Winning a Professional Publishers Award for my Community Care articles was a ridiculous and amazing thing.  And this was the year I stepped out into big conference presenting and training.  They’ve been knee-weakenly terrifying at times but have got me out of the house.  Thanks to Sunderland University, We Are Family and The NW Adoption Consortium for taking a chance.  Final highlight is being involved in the Department for Education Expert Advisory Group for the Adoption Support Fund for the huge amount I’ve learnt, the interesting folk I’ve met and the difference it should make to adoption support (everything crossed).

I continue to gain enormous support and encouragement from connecting with others through social media which has grown and grown over 2014.  Most of us find ourselves in dark places from time to time and being able to reach out easily and quickly has made a significant and positive difference to me.  Thanks to hat knitter J – that was a touching highlight too.
Taking the children to London to see the poppies, plus an unexpected and fabulous personal tour of Westminster Abbey (thank you!) was a highpoint and the success of the day was a measure of how far we’ve come.  There have been continued glowing embers  of progress in particular a club joined, a meal cooked and some friendships made.


Looking Ahead
If Wolf Hall isn’t heading up the best bits of 2015 I shall be very disappointed.  The book blew me away and I hope the TV series does too.
With a following wind they’ll be a new book from me. I shouldn’t say too much but it’ll be something different.
The diary is starting to fill up with conference and training bookings which look exciting and spine-straightening.
As for family matters, I’m confident we’ll be continuing to move in the right direction, albeit with I’m sure the occasional detour into the woods.
All in all I’ll be trying my best to stay connected in 2015.

I know this season can bring both happiness and hardship to our families.  Whatever it brings you, don’t forget to #takecare and I wish you a happy and fulfilled 2015.

Walking Off Anger

GloriapicWhen the strain of keeping my composure, buttoning my mouth and retreating from potentially incendiary situations becomes too much, when I feel razor blades of venom about to spray from my mouth, I grab my phone and my earphones and I walk.

I walk the Anger Walk.

The Anger Walk takes half an hour, less than that if I’m top grade angry.

The Anger Walk is my way of processing the adrenaline which if left to course freely through my veins would bring the house down.  The soundtrack is very important.  The playlist is called ‘ANGRY’.  It starts angry, then gathers rhythm and energy and then attempts to repair and uplift.  Sometimes I’m not done stomping and fuming when I should be uplifting.

This afternoon as the sun was going down, a solitary figure strode along a muddy road, earphones poking out from beneath a woolly hat.  There was out loud singing.  Shouty singing.  Singing with punk attitude.  It was the sound of Vivaldi being murdered in the English countryside.

It was dark when I got home and the house was quiet.


I need a new bag.  I need a bag which is big enough for an A4 pad and my A4 sized laptop.  It needs to have a few pockets for train tickets, keys, a tampax and earphones.  It needs to be hands-free.  Not a big ask I thought to myself TWO YEARS AGO when I started looking for one.

I do not need a small glittery clutch bag.  I will never need a small glittery clutch bag because they are completely fucking useless.  No, I need to carry stuff, you know stuff which one needs to earn living with.  I need something like a ……….. man bag, WHICH IS ALL I CAN FIND.  Either that, or a shopper for fuck’s sake.  Is that all you think women do, clutch and shop?

Neither do I want a black shiny nerd bag from the land that taste left behind. Nor do I want a plastic nightmare with gold clasps which looks like something my gran would have used.  And I’d rather not have a wipe clean ‘retro’ bag with cup cakes all over it.  I BLOODY HATE cupcakes.  Cupcakes do not say ‘please take me seriously’.

Will you please, shops, start making bags for REAL WOMEN WITH JOBS AND STUFF.  And while I’m on a roll, you could look at your shoe collections too.  Some of us actually walk in ours.

That’s better.

The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting

My second book ‘The Unofficial Guide to Adoptive Parenting‘ was published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers this week.  It took twelve years to produce; one year of writing and eleven years of research.


Adoptive parenting of children who have experienced loss and often neglect and abuse as well, is not like normal, average, everyday parenting. It took me a very long time to realise this and then to work out what that meant in real, practical terms.  I’ve been on loads of courses and workshops, I’ve read books and scoured YouTube for advice and much of this has been very good, but tends to be heavy on the ‘why’ and the ‘what not to do’ but a little less forthcoming when it comes to what to try in real life situations.  Most of us are the experts on what not to do and have the self-flagellation sticks of blame to prove it.

What I’ve always been desperate for is positive advice; strategies, ideas, techniques and clues which recognise that the front line of therapeutic parenting is messy, imperfect and mammothly difficult, but ultimately hopeful.

In The Unofficial Guide I’ve gathered together everything which has made sense and been effective, not just in our adoptive family but in those around me as well.  It covers everyday challenges like mealtimes and education and the more difficult stuff like stealing and anger.  It recognises that we don’t all feel super-therapeutic all of the time so there is forgiveness, repair and self care in there too.

Despite how hard adoptive parenting can be and has been for us at times, I remain relentlessly optimistic about the benefits of creating a therapeutic environment around a child who is hurting. It takes a lot of energy and it takes support.  The support around adoptive families is often woeful and confused with blame.  Blame is the opposite of support.

My greatest hope for The Unofficial Guide is that adoptive families find it supportive and authentic.  It’s been conceived of from our domestic frontline in all it’s brilliant and sometimes terrifying beauty; written and drawn and blogged and lived by all four of us.  It’s a bit sweary and raw in places, it’s rude and it’s jagged but it’s our paperback child and we’re very proud of it.