Eight kids and counting…
Sounds like the title of a controversial documentary, right ?
Actually, I am referring to the Bell family. The Bell family is an extraordinary group of children, all of whom have been adopted by Alex Bell, and all of whom have Down’s syndrome, or severe learning difficulties. I have been reading A mother like Alex, by Bernard Clark, which tells the story of how this unlikely family was formed, and how they live their day to day lives, each blessed by each other’s company, enriching Alex’s life with the unquestioning love and affection that they give so freely, just as she enriches theirs.
Like most people, the subject of disability has always interested me, and although it is very rude to stare, I am always curious. Not from a mocking point of view, but from the simple wish to understand the situation of another person, and understand what their life is like and how it is different, be it better or worse, than my own experience. I was very lucky to go to a college attended by young adults from Treloars, where tolerance and diversity was non negotiable. There was a girl in my English class called Lucy. She used a wheelchair to get around and had quite limited ability of speech. She was fantastic, absolutely hilarious and probably the most talented person in our class. When she raised her hand to make a point, our teacher sometimes found it difficult to understand her and we would all yell “she’s saying that he’s talking about Isolation!” or whatever it was that she was saying, and Lucy would laugh and give us a thumbs up to say that we’d got it right.
The point I’m trying to make about Lucy is that sometimes disability can subconsciously make us imagine someone who is less intelligent than us. Which is obviously untrue when you think about it, and I knew that before I went to college, but Lucy totally reinforced this point to me. Every English class in fact, when she would put up her hand and come out with something completely impressive and useful. I was actually sorry not to be able to chat to Lucy outside of class as she would often get the bus back to Treloars, but I saw her recently at the train station and we had a very quick chat. She has an iPad now so she can type what she wants to say, and I wanted to remind her that we always used to understand her in class, and how funny it was when we all used to yell out what she was saying, and she would give us a thumbs up, but I had to run to work, and she had to get on the train.
So, I started reading the book A Mother like Alex, because I realised that I don’t actually know very much about Down’s Syndrome. I could probably recognise someone who had it, but beyond that, nothing. So, as knowledge is the enemy of prejudice, or something, I decided to give it a read.
It’s really good, let me say that right now. It explores the way that the social care system has handled the adoption and fostering of Down’s syndrome babies, both recently and historically, and describes the total lack of support for mothers who are told that their children ‘have Down’s’ One mother was even told that “something terrible has happened to your baby”, before she was given the news. Hardly the reassurance that she needed! This kind of handling of the issue is so terrible because having a Down’s baby is not a terrible thing. In China they are considered incredibly lucky, as Down’s babies are completely loving and eager to please, and they will never leave their parents.
Due, in part, to this attitude, along with a myriad of other considerations, some parents make the heart-wrenching decision to put their son or daughter up for adoption. That’s where Alex steps in. She has never married, “never wanted to”, and instead she has devoted herself to building a family for eight children in desperate need of routine, discipline, support and love. Alex thrives on the love and affection that they bring her and they describe themselves as a very happy, lucky family. Bernard Clark commented on this, and said that many outsiders may see Alex as a martyr figure, ‘selflessly giving up her time’ but the fact is, she is an amazing woman, but she is richly rewarded, she is loved and she is very very happy.
I was so impressed by Alex’s determination. The adoption system is so difficult to navigate, especially “when you’re a single mum who’s already got three disabled kids, and they’re tiny. If you apply to adopt another son, they laugh at you, you’re at the bottom of the list, automatically.” However, Alex knows, and the social workers eventually discovered, that her home is the best place for children who would otherwise be trapped in a cycle of short-term foster placement, drab institutions and ‘special schools’. More than this, she provides the children and their birth families with constant contact, if desired, and once a year they take a huge family holiday, all together, and the birth parents are given the priceless gift of seeing their children thriving and happy in a loving and positive environment. Taking eight disabled kids on holiday is no mean feat, but Alex appears to take it all in her stride. The book introduces each child one by one, which I found fascinating; they are all so different, with different needs and dreams and complications.
At the end of the book, Alex talks about her plans for the future. She would like to adopt two more children; “Twin downs boys, they are so beautiful I can’t resist. But then I’ll stop. I’ll have my own football team by then!” By ‘stop’ she means stop adopting children, but she certainly won’t stop planning and campaigning and fundraising, because she has a plan to build a respite home for disabled children, so that their carers can get some much needed rest.
It was a great read, very uplifting, with some very sad moments. Most of all, I was shocked by how hard Alex has to fight for what is clearly in the best interests of her children. I would definitely recommend this book!
MTG, PV x