Sunday 23 October 2016

I don't know anyone whose family wasn't in some way odd

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

Whenever I hear of a newborn baby being found abandoned - and it happens everywhere - my hope is that the infant will be placed with an adoptive family as soon as possible.

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I think it's cruel to try and hunt down the birth mother, when she has made it plain by her actions that she either doesn't want the child, can't cope with it, or just hopes to forget the fact that she gave birth.

Early life experience is hugely influential. A baby born in unfavourable circumstances needs a loving and stable family ASAP. Yes, it could be a loving and stable single person too: as Alan Shatter has written, what matters most in a child's life is attachment, and his novel Laura, though not likely to win any literary prizes, nevertheless describes a tug-of-love family situation he would have encountered as a lawyer. (And it's the adoptive family who emerge as the winners in this story.)

Birth parents can always be traced at a future time - and Joan Burton, herself adopted, has promised to proceed with a "Philomena's Law" which will make it possible for both parties, parents and adopted children, to find their roots and be reunited. (There are some difficulties if either party doesn't wish to be traced, but Ms Burton calls this "a process" which can be worked through.) Fine. But during a young child's lifetime, it's not roots that matter: it's having a loving family.

Ever since Freud began to delve into childhood trauma, we have known that early memory is crucial to the formation of the individual. However, every older person knows this through personal experience anyway. The older you grow, the more childhood memories return to you, and with a quite unexpected vividness.

Forgotten or hidden flashbacks illuminate something that happened in early life, and you never quite understood it before. Then, you begin to come out with expressions and ideas that you heard in childhood that were buried in the back of some level of the unconscious mind.

That's because the "neural pathways" in your brain have been formed in early life.

Families come in all shapes and sizes and mine was a peculiar one; indeed, I don't know anyone whose family wasn't in some way odd.

There's a brilliant poster, which shows a mother lecturing a little girl, saying: "Remember, as far as anyone knows, we're a nice, normal family".

Much of my childhood was spent in fosterage with an aunt and uncle, who were kind and conscientious, but very different from my birth family. And it's fascinating the way I hear both my mother's voice, and my aunt's, almost in equal measure, now sometimes emerging from my own mouth.

One of my Aunty Dorothy's favourite sayings was: "If you can't afford it - do without!" If you didn't like the food you were given (or any other choice), she would say: "If you don't like it - do the other thing!" That's to say, just put up with it!

For Aunty D, having been born initially into a Tipperary Protestant family with all those upright virtues (quite attractively mixed with a fondness for horses and a tendency to put their shirt on a hopeless nag), "waste not, want not" was a favourite aspiration. I sometimes hear myself uttering that now, though it goes against the grain of my natural instincts.

Everything experienced in childhood remains on deposit in the unconscious. Everything. Few childhoods are truly idyllic, and - perhaps following my Aunty Dorothy's robust notion that children should be kindly treated, but not turned into "milksops", who "can't say boo to a goose" - it would be unrealistic to imagine otherwise. Most of us can work up some form of indignation about some childhood deprivation, slight, or even trauma we had: "buried memory" really does exist.

Do mothers and fathers constitute a better family structure than some more unusual patchwork - such as having two mothers or two fathers? A neglectful mother or a brutal father are a lot worse than an unconventional family which is loving, stable and successful at forming attachments.

One of the happiest and most balanced men I ever knew was raised by three maiden aunts (after his natural parents rejected him because he had a disability). Whether you would advise three maiden aunts to deliberately commission a child by surrogacy is a different question.

I did miss not having a father when I was a child, but not at the time, because children are the ultimate practitioners of "what is, is". Only in retrospect is it all now returning to me, as the very early, half-forgotten, glimpses of my father now appear on the radar.

Early childhood matters.


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