Ten years ago, No Matter What was published. It is a fictionalised memoir of my formative years as an adoptive parent.
The memoir slash campaign for change was an amateur project, made from sparse resources – a kitchen table, a laptop, some frazzled time. It was powered by a consuming need to change hearts and minds in the way my heart and mind have been changed.
My old, pre-parent self was way too bought into the old reward, punishment, control way of doing things. I’d have probably done alright as a regular parent. As an adoptive parent I sucked, until I had no choice but to change myself. It is after all the only power we really have and that’s really what the book is about.
The book shows what childhood trauma means in real life – in the home, in school, in wider relationships, clubs, sports, celebrations. It shows that children can be incredible, talented, caring and be traumatised. And it demonstrates that once you understand childhood trauma, the behaviours that come from it are explainable and don’t make a child ‘bad’. And if you had experienced childhood trauma, you’d have traumatised responses too. There but for the grace …
Any family coming together as a result of a child having had the worst start in life should bathe in the brightest and warmest light that society can muster up. That the reality being the opposite of this was what I was furious about. I took every shitty encounter, every black cloud, every missed opportunity and used them as writing fuel.
Fury aside, the central thesis of the book is that the important relationships in a child’s life must be rooted in ‘no matter what’. No matter what, I love you. No matter what we have lifelong connection. No matter what, I’m by your side. Children with smashed attachments and learnt, devastatingly low trust in adults will not believe in ‘no matter what’. We will spend our lives showing our treasured children what that means. And you can only show, not tell.
No matter what sometimes gets misconstrued. It is not ‘anything goes wreck the place it’s fine’. There are strong boundaries around it and a real-world ebb and flow. It’s imperfect because all of us taking part in the relationship dance are imperfect. We tread on each other’s toes, we lose the rhythm and sometimes we need a rest from the dance floor. It’s about nuance, flux and doing our best, all of which have experienced a battering in the social media rush to the extremes of the past few years.
The strength of storytelling is that in the show and not the tell, it can make the reader care. It can make them care about people who are not connected to them and once emotionally invested, to feel the injustices and the cruelty, the squandered opportunities and the strength and resilience. The hope is that readers take this new perspective into their lives and apply it to real children in the real world.
I don’t know if No Matter What changed anything, but it was part of a groundswell of change that is still underway. Ten years ago, the word ‘trauma’ in relation to poor early life was laughed at. The big wins have been in the field of neuroscience, which is seeping (not quickly enough) into real life practice. That groundswell is meeting some pushback, which I take as a sign that it is gaining momentum. Change, especially when it is about entrenched attitudes and strongly held beliefs is sometimes painfully slow, but it is taking place. In 2013, when I waited nervously for No Matter Whahttps://www.sallydonovan.co.uk/books/no-matter-what/t to be released into the world, I’d have easily settled for that.