Penny has been helping to place babies and children with dwarfism – the condition she has herself – with adoptive families for the last 30 years. She describes herself as “a link person” – her very presence demystifying and destigmatising what the child or baby “means”, lessening fears and making greater things possible. When she has a child come to her, she has a private message she whispers over them when they are sleeping. “I say: ‘You’ll be fine. Somebody will love you, somebody will come for you.’” She tells Paralympic gold medallist Ellie Simmonds this shyly, with an almost embarrassed laugh. She’s never told anyone she does this “daft” thing before.
She tells Ellie now because Ellie, in fact, has heard it before. Penny said it to her 27 years ago when Ellie was a baby in a foster family, having been given up for adoption a few days after birth. The Simmonds family came for her, and the Simmonds family loved her. They added her to their brood, which would eventually number five children.
The exchange with Penny is one of the most moving moments in Ellie Simmonds: Finding My Secret Family, which, even allowing for the fact that it is a programme about a woman’s search for her biological mother, is packed full of them.
Simmonds has always known that she – like the rest of her siblings, all of whom have some form of disability – is adopted, but until recently has never felt the desire to find out about her birth parents. Perhaps because her adoptive ones did – and this is the technical term, so try to stay with me – such an irrefutably bang-up job. It’s also clear in her openhearted, confident manner, and the rambunctious noise that still fills her family home that it was a happy one. The unceasing love and thoughtfulness of Mr & Mrs S is evident in everything from the careful preservation of all the photos and information about her background – kept in case this day should come – to their gentle restraint on Ellie’s rush to find, do and meet everyone as soon as possible.
The question, not quite fully formalised, at the heart of the programme is: how much of a part, if any, was Ellie’s achondroplasia in her birth mother’s decision not to keep her. Ellie knows she was a single mother and initial documents add that she felt something was wrong throughout the pregnancy. They say she didn’t bond with the baby and the dates show that Ellie was put up for adoption very quickly after her formal diagnosis. Ellie, as is her wont, stays upbeat. “You’ve got to try and put yourself in her shoes,” she says.
Her natural ebullience, however, cannot help but dim when, with the help of social worker Glesni, she finds her adoption records – including a report on the new mother’s state of mind. They state that she feels very guilty about the disability and wishes she had had a termination or that the baby had died. “Oh. Wow,” says Ellie. “So … she wanted me dead.” She gathers herself – that Paralympian mental training perhaps suddenly directed to a new purpose – and rallies quickly. “I think … Definitely shouldn’t react straight away. Yeah.” It is, in a strange and twisted way, almost a relief to read the terrible factsheet about dwarfism (handed out only 27 years ago, remember, though it may have been written earlier) given to her mother at the time. Alongside the physical characteristics, it delves into the condition’s cultural associations with “evil” and “stupidity” and suggests that a natural predilection for acrobatics explains their frequent presence in the circus. Like her preceding visit to the national adoption database, whose list of around 1,300 available families drops to barely a handful if you ask for places for a disabled child, it is a revelatory moment for those of us outside the world of disability; shocking markers of how deep and insidious prejudices were – and surely remain.
On a personal level, the factsheet provides valuable information for Ellie about the context in which her birth mother was making her life-changing decision. But it is still very hard. “You’d hope that if your child is different or not what you expected, they’d stick with you because of that [parental] love. Because,” she adds, in an almost bewildered tone, “I’m just small. That’s it. Isn’t it?”
There is a happy ending. Or perhaps a happy new beginning. A reunion happens offscreen and, by Ellie’s reports, is a balm to both parties rather than the cause of more wounding. And though the makers must have been desperate for more, everyone’s dignity and privacy are maintained throughout. My Secret Family stands as a testament to the animating optimism and profound generosity of spirit running through the entire Simmonds family. Not to mention the deep flaws in a world that will call you stupid and evil if you deviate from its norms.
Ellie Simmonds: Finding My Secret Family aired on ITV1 and is available on ITVX.