By Jenny Molloy
As a child living in a chaotic home, and later in care, any act of perceived kindness was welcomed. As an adult, however, I realised that I had set a very low bar as a child for what constituted kindness.
I would believe that someone speaking to me without anger, without shouting or without aggression was kind. As a teenager, I thought it was kind when an adult, sometimes my parents, offered to buy me alcohol – and an adult buying me drugs or hiding me when I was missing was the ultimate act of kindness.
‘A light in a dark world’
I realise now, though, that these acts were far away from what kindness should look like. You see, when a child has such low expectations and self-worth, anything which doesn’t hurt your heart can appear like a light in an otherwise dark world. Social workers and carers are in the honoured position to alter this belief and create a space for us to learn what we, as precious children, should receive as acts of kindness.
Memories from my time in care spring into my mind immediately:
A pre-arranged visit to my parents with my care worker. My parents do not turn up. My care worker treats me to a strawberry milkshake.
Being unwell as a child in care and the cook makes me hot Ribena, and brings me in a magazine.
Hot sugary donuts waiting for us when we get home from school.
A hot water bottle on cold nights.
I tell the staff that I am going to have a posh corner bath when I leave care. My care worker applies to take me home for the weekend where she has a corner bath of her own.
What I wanted was a normal life – my life had been anything but normal – and I got a glimpse of this through being in their home.
There are so many acts of kindness that I received, far too many too mention, and that in itself is an act of kindness. With the complicated life of working with vulnerable children, the simple things can be overlooked. Resilience is built in many ways, and feeling special by receiving kindness is one of them.
It is excruciatingly emotionally painful to feel unloved, with deep shame flooding your soul, holding on to secrets which belong to adults, wishing that you could end the pain once and for all.
To receive the unexpected gives us as children the opportunity to build up a bank of positive memories, which can be pulled out of the memory bank when the painful memories return.
As an adult, my foster parents as a teenager got back in contact. The ultimate act of kindness was taking care of my children when I had a long period of illness resulting in multiple crisis hospital admissions. They certainly weren’t getting financial support for this but they kept my children out of care, for I had no birth family to fall back on. I learned through them what it is to truly support someone through desperate times, a quality I use today with my adult children.
‘I needed to be protected’
I often hear that social workers or carers have no time to go out searching for children when they are missing. I was lucky, mine did. I picture clearly my social worker finding me at my brother’s flat. I was tired, scared and hungry. I was happy to be found, my compulsion to run at times of change led to frightening and dangerous places – I needed to be protected although I had no wisdom to understand from what.
Instead of anger or frustration, I was bought food. If it were the police who had found me, food would have happened much later. I remember crying, really crying, you know sobbing. I desperately didn’t want to go back to the kids’ home that had taken away my keyworker, bedroom and just about everything that I felt attached to.
The drive back gave him time to share with me how I could fight against my habit of going missing, to not allow my anger to spoil the hard work I had put in at school and, most importantly, his acceptance of the injustice I was feeling.
The conversation often pops into my head when I feel the loss of those important professionals, my social workers. The loss is no different to losing a relative, the cross no easier to bear. The losses stay with you forever and they, in part, shape you as an adult – but in my case, through the many acts of kindness, they didn’t break me.
Jenny Molloy is a care leaver and author of ‘Hackney Child’ and ‘Neglected’