Not since the captivating opening scene of Walter White driving a Winnebago in his underpants at the start of Breaking Bad can I remember being so gripped by the beginning of a new drama. Elena Richardson, played with understated perfection by Reese Witherspoon, sits on the back of an ambulance watching her sumptuous house in the upper middle-class Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights burn to the ground. Her daughter Izzy, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found. So begins the unpicking of the myth of the perfect family living in uninterrupted bliss behind white picket fences and a manicured lawn. Indeed, in Shaker neglect of a front lawn is a finable offence – but what about the invisible neglect of a child?
This is one of many huge questions raised in the adaptation of Celeste Ng’s 2017 bestseller, Little Fires Everywhere. While lockdown has brought all sorts of family tensions to the surface, thankfully few of us have families quite as dysfunctional as the Richardsons, or as complicated as that of her new tenant and housekeeper Mia Warren (played with surging raw emotionality by Kerry Washington) and her daughter Pearl.
Little Fires Everywhere is a drama about the complexities of motherhood. Who gets to be a mum? Is the surrogate a real mother? Is the adopter? The woman who turns her back on her pregnant adult daughter – is she still a mother? What about the teenager who has an abortion? Or the woman who spends her life wishing she had had an abortion? One woman gives up her dreams to conform to family expectations, another woman gives up her family to pursue her dreams – which one is the better mother? While everyone tries to prove their way is the best, fathers in all shapes and sizes mooch in the background of the series, and children are swapped around like hand-me-down clothes from one family to another looking for love and attention.
As if that wasn’t complex enough, things come to a head within the wider circle of friends surrounding the identity of a Chinese baby swaddled like Jesus in a nativity play and left in the snow at a fire station. It’s a small town and the truth will out. The ethical dilemma it raises affects everyone involved. Does the baby belong to her impoverished biological mother, or the infertile adopting mother? Who gets to decide? What would you do?
It’s a brilliant plot development and ultimately the catalyst for Elena and Mia to come to terms with their own flaws. I have frequently witnessed the wrongful demonisation of parents who relinquish their children or have them removed by social services in my own work in fostering and adoption. The majority are themselves victims of incredibly difficult circumstances with their own stories of lost childhoods. Accepting that you can love a child but need help to care adequately for them is a very real and painful experience for far too many people and cuts right to the heart of each episode.
Our family binge-watched this series in a week. Ironically it was the same week American YouTubers Myka and James Staufler explained that they had “rehomed” the boy with additional needs they had adopted from China three years previously and named Huxley. However skilfully you try and rebrand adoption disruption, “rehomed” children have to live with the double legacy of breakdown trauma. It must surely be even worse for those children who experience this in an already controversial international adoption arrangement. Huxley’s baby book may contain 1000 names of donors his adopters recruited to pay for his needs, but, as Little Fires Everywhere makes very clear, a loving experience of childhood cannot be bought at any price.
I can’t pretend that Little Fires Everywhere didn’t get under my skin with its portrayal of family breakdown and racial injustice especially when my own fourth child is adopted, of mixed white-African-Caribbean heritage, and has her own fiery personality. I particularly struggled with the show’s portrayal of adoption as the stealing of children away from birth parents. This is just not the case in the UK care system. Something catastrophic has had to happen to a child for them to come into care and only after every effort has been made to keep a child with their birth family or kinship carers are they made available for adoption.
My family has fostered thirty babies and children over the past 15 years, each staying an average of six months with us. Of those we have helped only six moved on to new adoptive families. Most have been able to live with members of their birth family. The rigorous assessment, welfare and legal processes that seek to ensure a permanent solution in the best interests of each child are not infallible, but the situations are complex, and time is on nobody’s side.
There are currently 2750 children in England waiting for adoption. Many of them are waiting with siblings or have some additional needs, and children from BAME backgrounds wait disproportionately longer. They desperately need people to come forward for them, not just couples struggling with fertility issues, but anyone who is willing and able to welcome a vulnerable child into their life forever.
There is clearly still a place for adoption as a lifeline for children who experience neglect and abuse in the UK. Perhaps this series’ portrayal of injustice and tragedy will inspire little families everywhere to step forward to adopt local children who need an accepting, loving home.
Dr Krish Kandiah is an adoptive father, a foster carer and the founding director of the charity Home for Good