Paula Coston’s Story: Writing my novel was hugely cathartic

Hello, I’m 59 now. Like many of you, I’ve been through the mill on wanting to have children. In my thirties, I was a so-called ‘career woman’ in London – actually, trying to juggle everything: a job, a social life, family ties, friendships and attempting to find a long-term mate. Somehow, the latter never happened for me. I had relationships, but gradually I saw them dwindle away while friends and my siblings began to ‘settle down’ and have their own offspring.

I loved having nephews, nieces and godchildren, and realised, rather to my astonishment, that I got on with children really well. I yearned, but had no outlet. So I decided to try to adopt as a single adopter. Three heart-wrenching years of bureaucracy later, with about five near-misses (all but one boys), I decided, for my own sanity, to give up. It’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make; but my whole life was on hold, perpetually under scrutiny by the agencies and authorities for any changes that might mean I had to be reassessed again. I just couldn’t take it. Life isn’t like that. So I went into teaching and education instead, and got much solace and enjoyment from contact with children that way.

Meanwhile, I was writing to a little boy in Sri Lanka through a charity (one of those sponsorship schemes: you send money, they team you with a family in a poor region). We wrote for several years. Then one day, because of the politics of the civil war there, the charity pulled out, and wouldn’t let me write to him any more – not even to say goodbye. They’d always concealed his precise location, so I couldn’t get in touch with him myself. They tried to get me to team up with another child somewhere else, but that wouldn’t have been the same.

Fast forward to 2004, and my mother suggested we holidayed on the island. I contacted the charity, and asked if they could help me find the ‘boy’, now in his early twenties, so that I could try to meet him. The weeks went by before my flight, but still they hadn’t found him. In desperation I asked one last time just before leaving: still no joy.

My mother and I had a wonderful holiday. I loved Sri Lanka; the exotic landscapes; the people. But everywhere I went, I wondered if I were passing ‘my’ boy on a jungle lane, a mountain-top, a lakeside. When I got back, I found an answerphone message from the charity: they said they’d found the boy and his family, told them that I was coming, and that they were very excited. But it was too late: they’d mistimed it. I wept for days. I rang them, and pleaded to be put in direct touch to apologise; but they said that for data protection reasons, they couldn’t let me. They claimed they’d apologise on my behalf.

I’ve always been a writer, and four years ago, I went on a writing holiday on the island of Skyros. The novelist tutor tried to get the group writing about parenthood and children and such, until we pointed out that none of us (yes, none of us!) had families. She was abashed, and began to make an effort to find out about us – including me. When I told her the story above, she was adamant: I should stop the novel I was working on, and start writing this instead.

Now I’ve been through some therapy over the years; but it’s writing ‘my’ novel that has helped me the most, agony although it has sometimes been. And I found a publisher! It’s published on 27 June, and you can pre-order it on Amazon in paperback or e-book. It’s called ‘On the Far Side, There’s a Boy’. My dream of a boy became real for me, but only in this sense.

Would you like to share your story? Send it to: [email protected]


  1. Hi Paula,
    The story behind your book is both fascinating and poignant, thanks for sharing. I have been sponsoring a child through World Vision for many years now and understand some of the things you mention. Your experience of the adoption process is sadly what we feared when we considered the idea. Going to an open evening was enough for us to decide against it.

    • Paula Coston says

      Thanks so much for your supportive comments, Nina. I’m interested that you
      also looked at adoption. They tell me that it’s easier now, but I think I’m
      too bruised ever to try again.

      • It is about time too that the whole process was overhauled. According to figures from the NSPCC, there were over 92,000 children in care in the UK in 2013 and so making the whole process faster makes complete sense.

  2. Paula Coston says

    I completely agree, Nina; though I am still a little sceptical. Making new, tighter deadlines doesn’t necessarily mean they can be met – unless the process is sound and efficient in the first place. That’s my worry. I’d be really interested to hear other readers’ experiences of trying to adopt at the moment.

    • Sometimes you wonder who actually makes those rules. Layers after layers of bureaucracy mean that a process which should encourage potential adopters, put them off instead, while children are left to grow up in care. What a shame.

  3. Paula Coston says

    Yes, Matt. I was so saddened during the three years I tried to adopt. As I say, I ‘lost’ about 5 children; but more important, it was made clear to me that at least 3 of those children were, after all, going to remain in care, probably permanently. In one case, I was told that it had been decided after all that the boy ‘was probably completely unadoptable’. How can a committee decide to write off a child’s life like that?

    • The sad thing is that when a system becomes so bloated, the interest of the child takes second stage. How can a child be better off in care than be adopted? My heart goes out to all those children who are being failed by a system that is meant to help them in the first place.

  4. Although we didn’t go through the adoption process ourselves, going to an open evening to help us make up our minds was enough for us to decide against it. The impression we were given was that we were going to be put on trial. The more we heard that night, the more obvious it became that the whole process was deeply unpleasant and that instead of being grateful to people who are willing to take adaption on, they were instead treated too heavy-handedly. Yes children who have already suffered at the hands of their biological parents need to be protected from further damage, however, they are also better off being raised in a good home, not in care. And so, a healthy balance is necessary in order to avoid alienating potential adopters while ensuring that the child is protected at the same time. The problem is that the emotional needs of adopters are too often totally ignored while all the attention is focused on the child, resulting in less and less people willing to adopt while the children languish in care.

  5. Paula Coston says

    I agree with you and Matt completely. Where did bureaucracy become an end in itself in our society?

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