The stuff you don’t say

“If you were a man, Mum, I’d be exactly the same. I’d still expect you to do everything for me”. I’d thrown out a casual accusation of sexism, something about not helping with the washing up, and always expecting me to make the tea. This had provoked an angry and vehement denial. For a moment I’d thought he was going to storm out of the flat. He’s right of course, I have to smile inside and acknowledge that I’ve been unreasonable. J is not sexist, just a bit lazy sometimes, and not any less helpful in the house than many other nearly 16 year olds.

J’s observations can be very acute. He talks to me sometimes about Christian and Muslim fundamentalism at his school, and the strange beliefs that go with it: stuff about the roles of men and women, desperate homophobia, the place of religion in this world. He waves his atheism there like a red flag. When I was his age, bullying and anti Semitism were commonplace but neither of these seem to have a place in his school*.

Teachers assaulted students in the Barcelona, Gaudi houseclassroom from time to time, when I was his age. I have talked to my sister about my memories of a deputy head who struck a girl hard across the face in my class, for answering back, and of another male teacher who became so enraged that he pushed a desk over and onto a boy, terrifying us all. This was in the 1970s. At one of my primary schools, my teacher taped up children’s mouths. We remarked on the fact that not only had I never shared what happened with her, but I had never told our parents either, in fact I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing so. I don’t think we had particular problems communicating. It’s just there were some things you told adults and some things you didn’t.

Terrible things happened to J in the years before he was taken into foster care. He was removed from home at a young age, but how many children continue to suffer in silence because there are some things you tell adults and some things you don’t?

Sometimes I wonder what the things are now that J chooses not to tell me.

* Correction from J: anti semitism is not diminished.

Barcelona. Gaudi house

I am linking this post to the Weekly Adoption Shout Out #93 which this week is on the theme of Secrecy.



  1. mmmm . . . in my head, one of the working titles for my manuscript was “things I never told my mother”. If I wrote on that theme, I may have ended up with a trilogy. Part of growing up I guess. Unless you are dealing with an iceberg effect. Bizarre or anti-social behaviours that are driven by problems in the 90% of the iceberg that can’t be seen. From what you write though, it sounds as if J is in a secure place, and just busy being a “normal” teenager?

    1. Great working title!! Mostly, you’re spot on, and it’s regular normal teenage behaviour. Not much better and not much worse than most of his peers. Actually, I’d say he’s pretty easy (lovely) to be around really. But there are sometimes also behaviours which are off the scale, which I’m not sure I’ll write about, but which are rooted in his troubled early years. Being a teenager is hard, isn’t it!

      1. I think you are wise not to write too much on that theme. Teenage hood is difficult, all that trying to work out who you really are, and where you fit in the world. Straddling the arc between being a child and learning independence. If you have any of your old diaries or letters from your teen years, you probably cringe when re-reading them as an adult. In my personal opinion, recording too much of his struggle – while it might be valuable for others in the adoption community – might stray into that area. But I could be speaking well out of turn . . .

        1. You’re not speaking out of turn at all. I wrestle with this. I think it’s different looking back on his childhood, and sharing experiences, and you’re right, there is a supportive adoption community out there which gains great strength from sharing. But J reads what I write (posts, not comments), in fact I’m sure I couldn’t write here without securing his support, so I have to be mindful of that. Like you, I look back on my teenage AND my adult diaries and cringe with embarrassment. He’s just started writing a diary, so has that pleasure to come!

  2. locksands · · Reply

    Having been a teacher until a couple of years ago I can assure you that most of the problems remain. Many kids are anti anybody who is a bit different whether by race, sexuality or hair colour. But at least teachers no longer inflict physical punishment on kids. At least, I hope they don’t.

    1. I’m sure you’re right about kids not changing. But as well as zero tolerance of physical violence (which is what we experienced, rather than punishment, it was so random), schools these days also seem to be much more actively anti bullying than when I was at school. I think J’s school is excellent by the way, with an amazing team of really committed teachers. In case they’re reading 🙂

  3. Shiver…that took me back to my primary school in the 70s and the things that teachers did that filled me with fear! I too wonder what my children don’t tell me. I try hard to listen with a ‘neutral ear’ to what they tell me at first, to encourage them to tell me stuff, before I give my opinion or thoughts (which I try to do gently but mostly fail!). But I am sure there are lots of things they keep to themselves.

    1. Oh dear, you too. There were a few bad eggs clearly… Yes, I suspect that however much good listening we do, there will be stuff that is never shared. I’m always a bit skepticals tbh of parents who describe their children as their best friends (and vice versa). Really? You want them to share enough to stay safe but i think that is also too much to hope for from teenagers especially….

  4. Oh gosh 😦 It really is a frightening thought.

    1. Yes…. Except I think it’s pretty normal for teenagers to keep some things from us… however much we might not like it. All part of the separation process…. 😦

  5. What an interesting post, got me thinking about my own school days. With an eleven year old now at high school, I’m trying really hard to create space and time for us to just talk so that he feels he can tell me things. Like you, I suspect there is stuff in his head I’m not hearing about but I can accept, to a degree, that this is normal for his age. Doesn’t stop you worrying though.

    Thanks for linking to #WASO

    1. It doesn’t stop you worrying at all, and the only way I can stay sane is by reassuring myself that it is normal .. And by making sure he has opportunities to talk with responsible adults who are outside the family (mentor at school, counsellor/therapist, youth group leaders … At different times). Not sure those opportunities are used though!

  6. Wow reading your post reminded me instantly about one of my old teachers who actually taught my mum and aunty as well. He used to throw chalk at anyone who was talking, not listening or even giving the wrong answer – my sister was fortunate enough to not have him as he retired the year before she joined. At the moment I would give anything to know what is going on in Waxy’s head so I can help him more but for now all I can do is keep providing him with the space he needs and let him know that ‘my door is always open’ if he needs to talk.

    Thank you for sharing

    1. I’m starting to worry that I have aroused rather a lot of repressed memories! I don’t know about you but I hadn’t thought about these teachers for years. I don’t remember now what reminded me of them, but it just shows how deep we can bury these bad feelings, only to emerge years later. I guess it’s sometimes the same for our children. I really hope Waxy makes use of your open door before he gets to an age where you’re the last person he’d want to tell!

  7. Some things he may never even remind himsel about let alone tell you, the brain can suppress some things to maintain emotional wellbeing.

    It’s great that he has you andI imagine as an Boult he may start wanting to address his past judging by the older kids I’ve worked with in foster care.

    Thanks for joining my #singleparentlinky

    1. He certainly seems to have put his past behind him, but I have tried to help him understand what led to his being placed with me, and he is interested in and would like to know more about his half siblings, who he doesn’t know and hasn’t met. His birth mother might be key to helping him piece together the parts of his history that Social Services haven’t been able to tell us about. But I think you’re right, that’s a long way off for him. Many adopted children are well into their 30s and 40s I think before they seek much more information.

  8. Gosh yes! I remember my 1970s primary education and seeing one of my cousins being shaken by her shoulders, by a teacher who was angry at my cousin for guessing the answer to a question. I remember being horrified at the time and wanting to rise up and give the teacher a piece of my mind! I was probably about 7 years old and my cousin was about 5 years old at the time.
    Shocking stuff indeed.
    And yes, thankfully, teachers don’t (usually) physically assault children nowadays. Unfortunately though, there’s all kinds of emotional damage done to our vulnerable adopted / looked after children through adult’s ignorance of their needs.

    1. I am starting to be quite shocked at how many of us shared these experiences. Times really have changed. We’ve been very lucky with schools. J’s primary school here had a strong culture of nurturing, with Place2Be at its heart. His secondary school has also been excellent and have been quick to support J with mentoring and referrals where necessary. But I know that many adopters have quite a different experience and have to deal with a level of ignorance about attachment that is just scarey. Time for change!

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