Adoption Thoughts
6 min readDec 21, 2022

For the Western world it is the time of year to think about food. And it is probably the time of year that most of us worry about food too. For some of us maybe we are concerned about whether we can afford the big blow-out; especially this year — the year where fossil fuels in Europe finally ran out, which apparently no one could have foreseen. Others might be worrying about the health aspects of eating too much sugar or drinking too much alcohol. Or maybe some more first-world problems like whether we can get that online delivery slot or are we going to have to brave the last minute chaos in person? And just how sustainable are my food choices for the environment? What does my food choices say about me; goose — too trendy, turkey — too trad, veggie — too woke.

Culturally we all have these kind of relationships with food, and can be quite a source of stress for many people. But this article is about a very different relationship with food, the one that a lot of adopted or care experienced people have.

Think about that nice Christmas meal, with your whole family getting ready to eat. It is smelling great and you are really hungry. The turkey and roasties, brussels and parsnips, loads of gravy. Mmm. Your mum is dishing it out, first to herself, then maybe dad, possibly your brother. Lots of smiles. Then you don’t get any and you are told you won’t get any. No reason given (and is there really a valid reason anyway?), no smiles now.

How does that feel? Maybe to you as a resilient adult you’d just feel angry. But to a 4 year old child all you’d hear is that your mum isn’t giving you food, and you are hungry. You’ve no idea when or if you’ll get any that day. And you see that your brother has got some. And you don’t know why any of this is happening. You might have to beg at a neighbours’ house to get anything. My guess (well, not really a guess) is that the 4 year old would get extremely stressed about it.

The anxiety this causes can translate into all kinds of apparently rude, spoilt or frankly just bizarre behaviours that can last long into teenage years, even when placed in a safer environment as those behaviours will have become baked in during those terrible early years. Maybe the child will not be able to resist stealing food, as that might be the only way they would have got any. Perhaps they’ll get more and more stressed and hyper-vigilant the closer to a meal time it is, and the behaviour get worse accordingly. They might not be able to wait until the meal starts before they start eating the dinner. They could eat very quickly to make sure they’ve had it before it is taken away again, or eat much more than they really should because they can’t be sure when their next meal will be. Or perhaps they’ll demand at least as much food as you on their plate, even from a young age, because they are so used to having to toxically compete with siblings for their birth parents’ munificence, and cannot tolerate having less. Or they’ll eat nothing because of what used to happen when they did eat ‘more than they should’. Maybe they won’t be able to stay at the table after they’ve eaten (or even during eating) because of the worry about what happens at meal time. Perhaps every time they feel hungry it will unleash a whole tsunami of fear and panic which they themselves might not understand the reason for. Perhaps they’ll develop curious quirks about what food they’ll eat and when, which change all the time, to try and assert control of a situation that they are hardwired to think of as hostile.

‘Aha’, I hear you say, ‘but that is just your adopter interpretation of events. What if the birth mum [cos what is the point of talking about dad] couldn’t afford the food’? Well yes, there are already stories in the press this year about the likelihood of more children being taken into care because their parents can’t afford to feed them, due to the cost of living crisis. This is really sad and upsetting as the parents literally have no other options but to ask the state to do it. But it isn’t the kind of circumstance that would lead a child being placed for adoption. Why would it? Adoption (and I can imagine some social workers’ and birth parents sighing/swearing at this, but I’m going to say it anyway) is not there for when a parent can’t look after a child. It is there for when they won’t. Most poorer people (my own family was similar) would feed the kids first and the parents last. For the cases we are talking about that eventually lead to adoption the parents feed themselves first and don’t feed their kids at all.

Why would a parent do that to a child? It is pretty unimaginable to most people. I don’t think there is a single answer to this. If you need to express so much control over your children that you don’t even feed them then there is a lot going on. A sense of personal worthlessness perhaps? Maybe the same thing happened to you and you are just continuing the culture? Perhaps an enjoyment of seeing people beg you for things, a power trip? Maybe you find it funny? Possibly you just forget to feed the kids because they are not really in your mind, other things are more important and they’ll just sort themselves out anyway? Perhaps you favour one over another to the point of homicidal behaviour (something like that was illustrated by the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes case last year)? Of course all these things will have underlying reasons behind them too. It takes all sorts to be a parent who won’t look after their child.

Activists will insist that with just a bit more support attitudes like those above could easily be remedied and fixed. I think there is a certain charming naivety in that idea, presumably born out of some fantasy middle-class cliché about the rosy-cheeked, boisterous but ultimately wholesome and good poor; cos it is only poor people who are targeted for adoption apparently [citation needed]. Salt of the earth and all that. Everyone can change etc, etc. Could we really help people who have made a decision to deliberately starve their kids? Do we want to? The ethics of the care system and adoption are not easy to follow really. It is not a question of which is the best option, but which is the least unethical. A parent might have had all kind of reasons in their own lives for (for instance) leaving the kids for a couple of days with a tin of baked beans to fend for themselves while they go partying. But that kind of attitude is entrenched, will take years to ‘fix’ (if ever), and is certainly not keeping a loving, healthy bond going with their kids. Is it less unethical to keep a kid in that situation or less unethical to take them from that and find them a new family (with all the constraints that adoption has nowadays such as keeping the birth family links going)?

As an adoptive parent of a child with food issues what can you do? Our social workers initially told us to just feed our son any old crap. Just get the calories in him. But you can’t do that forever and still be a responsible parent. That does happen in foster care, my son’s sister’s experience is a perfect illustration of that, and her food issues were almost legendary in the local social services department, but adoption is meant to be the more ‘family-like’ alternative. There are the usual parenting techniques that you can use, such as gradually introducing your child to new food by leaving some on the plate and not trying to get them to eat it, let them decide when to taste it. But for the serious psychological issues there is nothing really you can do other than what you must do for just about every issue your child will come to you with. Be accepting, just provide an environment where they don’t have to worry about food, have curious and empathetic conversations about food, and just give it time. Lots of time. In times of stress it will get worse, but the overall trajectory will be upwards. And that is all you can ask of yourselves. Leaving the child, once they reach adulthood, in a much better place than they would have been with the other alternatives. The quiet rebuke to the haters.