For some reason I’ve had this one sitting in my drafts folder but can’t quite get my head around writing it. (For the uninitiated, it relates back to my mammoth question-asking post here.)
Warning: This is long! If you fancy reading it rather than just letting it float around in the ether, please go to and get a cup of tea and a biscuit (or a G&T, depending on what time of day it is where you are) and settle in for the long haul!
I think it’s because I feel like there are so many different experiences in this situation that it’s hard (and pointless) to generalise. All I can do is describe my own experiences. I read a lot, and I also read a lot about adoption. I’m the kind of person who generally reads a book a day, or if I’m really busy, a book every 2 days. I rarely go to sleep without having read something on my Kindle… The good thing is you can read it in the dark! When I was little, I used to read under the covers and my dad would tell me it was bad for my eyesight. He was right, as I’m blind as a bat.
Anyway, I digress. The thing I’ve realised about adoption is that there are all these different voices from all parts of the adoption triad and on a general level, much of adoption is about creating mythology. History is written by the victors, and in the case of adoption, for many years it has been written by adoptive parents and adoption professionals.
The old mythology
When I was adopted, which was over 30 years ago, it wasn’t the done thing to have a child out of wedlock. Even as a child in school in the 80s, I can remember the two children who had divorced parents. (Each of the caregiver-parents got together with the other child’s parent, so they had a new melded family based on having been in our class together, but that’s not my story to tell!) It was really strange to think that anyone would have children outside of the agreed norms of a married mother and father.
In the 80s as a child I wasn’t aware of alternative families, even though I was in one(!) – I pretty much had the expectation that everyone’s mummy and daddy had been married before they had them. It would have been scandalous even then for people to have babies when they weren’t married. And it was completely acceptable, then, as part of my own adoption mythology, that I’d been adopted because my mother had me “out of wedlock”. That was a good enough reason to relinquish a child and nobody questioned it as a reason.
My mythology was: I was born [overseas] to a “young, unmarried mother” and she had found herself pregnant without being married, which meant she obviously couldn’t keep “the baby” (ie me). She went to the Home For Unmarried Mothers which was run by [American] Christian missionaries in my birth country and they looked after her and all the mothers there knew that they would give their children “a better life” with foreigners (mainly Americans and British, although my mythology – courtesy of my father the family historian – is that I was almost German). My mother and father loved each other very much and wanted a baby, but they couldn’t have a baby of their own after being married for a long time, so they adopted me, and later my sibling.
Every adopted person has this kind of story. The story their [adoptive] parents told them about how they came to be theirs. And nowadays there are books and things (none of which I had) and poems (none of which I had) and guidance from social workers and adoption workers about how the subject should be broached with adopted children (none of which my parents had). But back then… It was enough to say “She was unmarried so she gave you up for a better life.”
Can you imagine? By the time we’d hit the 90s and (in the UK anyway) the old taboos had been broken down, half of the children in my class had divorced parents, and I even had one child in my class whose dad had become a woman… I began to be much more aware that everyone wasn’t the same. I’d already had my own epiphany* where I had at the age of around 9 suddenly come to the realisation that I didn’t really believe in Christianity. I couldn’t disprove it, of course. But having been brought up very religious – I used to pray for what seemed like hours every night – I had this dawning realisation that it probably wasn’t the way I actually saw the world.
(* Yes, I’m aware it’s ironic to use the word epiphany to describe a loss of religion. Perhaps it should have been a Eureka moment instead. Briefly to describe my view on religion here: I’m what’s probably called a religious apologist rather than a Dawkinsian atheist. I think religion is good in many ways – charity, for example, and a sense of responsibility for others in your community. I know Christianity more than I know other religions, but I don’t think in themselves they are bad. However personally I don’t believe, and I think some of the things done in the name of religion are very sad, and I don’t think there is any reason to live our lives based on it, but I don’t want to prevent anyone else believing in what they want to believe in as long as they aren’t causing anyone any harm.)
The point was, social norms had changed. The main reasons for us being given up for adoption were religious and social, and both of those had changed by the 90s.
Single mothers… everywhere!
Anyway – back to the 90s and the sudden unashamedness of pregnancy outside of wedlock. The first time I really remember realising that it was no longer anything to be ashamed of was when All Saints were on Top of the Pops (a billboard music show in the UK that ran for years and years and was – in the pre-iTunes days – required watching on a weekly basis). One of them – Melanie Blatt – was pregnant, and she was wearing the combat [cargo] trousers which were super trendy at the time, and a tight vest, with her unashamed, extremely pregnant belly poking out. It was kind of a big thing. Until then we had really thought that a) pregnancy was something to be ashamed of, and you should just stay inside, and if you really needed to go out, wear a muu muu or something; and b) I’m pretty sure she wasn’t married. Maybe she was. Maybe she wasn’t. But she didn’t care. She was #1 and in the biggest pop group of the time and she was pregnant and it nobody was suggesting that she should “give up the baby for a better life”.
Then the 90s really got going, and so did the demonisation of single mothers, and the idea that every single mother churned out babies to get a council house, an idea that’s still propagated by the Daily Mail (Britain’s right-leaning middle-England favourite-of-the-bigoted – plus those of us who like to read the comments section for a laugh – newspaper). When I was in senior school (like High School) it was all the rage for people to vilify single mothers and talk about how they should have been responsible and use contraception, otherwise get an abortion – but nobody suggested that they should have the baby and put it up for adoption. (Why would you do that when you could get a council house and keep the baby and not work? – I say this provocatively.) The point was – it became almost a norm that people wouldn’t really bother getting married before having babies.
The new mythology
Things change and it’s now not even the Noughties. It’s the Teens, or whatever we call the decade after 2010. It’s now pretty easy in the UK anyway to get contraception, abortion, keep the baby, get government support to look after the baby… etc. Even now with my group of 30-something peers, I would say nobody is shocked when someone has a baby out of wedlock. It just seems antiquated now. (I myself am doing it! Well, technically I’m still in wedlock, but not to the father of my hopeful-baby… but that’s another story…) People have made their new norms. Nearly everyone lives with their partner before marriage. It would be considered really odd not to. And also, it’s now broadly accepted that some people live with people of the same sex. And they can get married too. People just aren’t so bothered about social norms any more, or they’ve made their own norms.
However there’s now another way of getting your children from you: Social Services. The difference being that it’s not “voluntary” relinquishment of your children. (I know, it’s debatable whether it ever was.) We now have state sanctioned removal of children from parent(s) who are deemed unfit carers. These children go into the care (“care”?) system and some of them, “the lucky few” are adopted.
To get to adoption now, it’s a longer more drawn out process than it used to be. Not for the post 2010 baby a swift handover after birth. The SS may swoop in and confiscate a child after birth but there has to be a reason why… and very few mothers now voluntarily give up their newborns for adoption. For example, the average time between a child entering care and moving in with their adopted family, for those who have been adopted, was 540 days in the first half of 2014-15 (source). A quick calculation from these stats tells me that only 5.7% of all “looked after” (in public care, foster care, awaiting adoption) were subject to adoption orders in the last year. That includes children adopted by relatives and step-parents as well as adoptions from care. That means that if you end up without a parent to look after you, you’re very unlikely to make it as far as adoption. I don’t know what the stats are for my country of birth but I get the impression that in the 70s it was very much considered the norm for children without parents who could look after them to be put up for adoption.
This means a few things for the new adoption mythology:
- Contraception is freely available and there is little stigma attached to women using birth control such as the contraceptive pill. Women are on the whole better educated about reproduction and know that they might get pregnant if they have intercourse.
- If a mother finds herself pregnant now and without a husband or partner, she’ll probably have a reasonably good expectation that she’ll keep the baby. In the UK she will most likely get government assistance to keep the baby, in the form of housing benefit and money to replace her inability to work.
- If she doesn’t want the baby, it is quite easy to get an abortion.
- If she wants to go through with the birth, the baby may find its way into the public care system if nobody in her extended family is willing to look after it. Most likely the baby would go to foster carers and would be relatively quick to be adopted if it came to that. (Babies are still in demand.)
- Many children in care and who become available for adoption have been taken into the care system when they are older than babies. Therefore they have more “history” and may in many cases remember their biological family.
- Recent changes in the law and societal norms mean that it is increasingly likely that adoptive parents need to maintain contact with the birth family in what is known as “open adoption”.
This is why I say to many people who tell me “You can just adopt!” in response to my infertility that it isn’t that simple. Adoption has changed massively since the time I was adopted. You don’t get a tabula rasa baby to make into your own child. You generally are looking at a child who has a history, who has prior knowledge of his/her birth family, and who has an acknowledged right to have access to his/her history and in many cases, contact with his/her birth family. And that completely glosses over the reasons why an older child might be taken into care. In many cases there is significant trauma including many different types of abuse and addictions. The child’s parent(s) probably didn’t want the child to be taken away. That’s a lot different to being a child whose mother voluntarily put you up for adoption.
How does this affect adopted adults?
I think all of this is context for the world we’ve grown up in and are growing into. A world which was very closed when we were adopted, in general. A world which is far more open now and where there is almost an expectation that getting it all out there is good. Knowledge is power and we have the world at our fingertips. Most adults now who were adopted as babies didn’t know a great deal about the circumstances. The expectations were different then, but the technology has changed and we can find out a lot more through the internet than we could back in the days of having to find paper records. Facebook and social media are pretty universal. Many adopted adults have tracked down their first families via the internet or social media. Crowdsourcing information is a thing. Nobody takes no for an answer any more!
I can describe my own experience of having waxed and waned in my interest about adoption throughout my life. (Apparently there’s a thing where adopted people get to a certain age and they want to know more, and there’s also a view prevalent in the adoptee community that you must be somehow repressed if you haven’t searched for your roots or feel bad about it.) I’ve always been mildly interested, for instance I’d read anything available that mentions adoption. But I also have the understanding that things were different when I was born, and I can’t look at the circumstances of my adoption through the lens I use now. Times were different. I was adopted under different expectations – there was no expectation that I would ever again have any contact with my birth family. I’ve always been pragmatic and I’ve generally subscribed to one of my dad’s maxims “There’s no point worrying about things you can’t control”. Because there really isn’t.
I’m the kind of person who doesn’t set myself up for disappointment. I know there’s very little documentation around my adoption, and it’s all in a language I have no hope of understanding. So I didn’t really think I should spend a lot of my life worrying about it. It wasn’t until much later that I thought perhaps there might be an expectation from my birth mother that I would come looking. I never really had that idea when I was younger. I still don’t know if I do now I’m older.
There is this kind of trope in the adoption community called the Happy Adoptee, or the Grateful Adoptee. This is all tied in with a number of adoption clichés including the Fallen Birth Mother, the Perpetual Child and the Saviour Adoptive Parents. The Adopted Child as a Gift. The child more as the wanted than the wanting.
To be honest, I’ve probably subscribed to several of these throughout my life and I’ve not knowingly suffered for it. (Not the Fallen Birth Mother, I might add… but I did have this idea of the Happy/Pragmatic Birth Mother, which may or may not be true.) This kind of simplistic view of the world where we’re lucky to be alive, lucky not to have been aborted, lucky to be wanted by someone [even if it isn’t our birth parents] is something I think many adopted people have been brought up with.
For many of the people I know (including 2 very close to me – my sibling and my partner), this idea that adoption is a huge trauma is generally hotly contested. We’re all functioning adults. We all had our niggles through childhood but who didn’t? (In mine and my sibling’s case I think we always attributed any problems to being a different race rather than being adopted.) We are all in long term relationships. We’re just… well… normal.
When I chat to people who were adopted, most of the time we’re at pains to stress that we’re normal.
What about the primal wound? What about the separation from your genetic heritage? What about never knowing anyone you’re biologically related to, until/if you have children? What about thinking that instead of being special that maybe you were a reject?
We all have our wounds. And if you look online and in the adoption literature, you see that there’s an entire spectrum of experience, from good to bad… and if you dig around a bit, a lot of it seems on the surface of it to be quite bad. Even the quite good stuff usually results in an adopted person going through some sort of odyssey to find their “real” family and then jacking in their old identity, the one they’ve had all their life, and reclaiming their old one. (That’s something I never understand. Maybe I’ve been indoctrinated by the adoptive society but it seems odd to go and reclaim something you only had for a very short time and to negate the identity you’ve had for the rest of your life.) It’s as though there is one adoption story rather than many, and so much of it comes down to the adoptee’s search for self.
We have our chats, the “happy” ones and I. We talk about how it’s not all bad, how we have had a good life, how we’ve had opportunities. We reassure one another that we’re normal. We’ve found somewhere in life that we’re very reassured that we’re wanted. We aren’t going to be rejected again. Often it’s people who have not searched for their birth family who are “happy” (although I know people who have and would still be counted as happy). Those who seem angry rather than happy are those want to search but are somehow thwarted, or who have searched and not liked what they’ve found, or who’ve searched and found something they feel angry that they’ve lost.
I think it comes down to two things: Identity and Loyalty.
One of the central questions an adopted person has is this idea that he/she might have been someone different. And I think that’s quite a big thing to get your head around. I think it comes down to whether you think the essence of yourself is something that is more to do with upbringing and surroundings and culture or it is more to do with genetics and family.
For me things have changed over time. My sense of my first identity has been quite fluid. I was adopted at only a few days old so there was never any identity (that I knew of) that I lost. I assume I still look pretty much how I should have looked. (Maybe a bit fatter due to Western diet and I probably dress differently due to UK style, or lack thereof.) I didn’t have any opinions that I know of. And I still think the bit that makes me Me is probably still there. It’s not a language thing or a cultural thing or anything to do with who I grew up with or how. It’s the essence of me. My character.
For example… I’m very hot headed, I’m passionate, I’m sort of creative, can be quite obsessive, I think a lot, I take in a lot and spit it all out again in a mixed up way, I’m loyal to my friends and family, I love very quickly and very hard, I make stupid decisions and comments sometime but I’m always happy for my view to be challenged and changed, I’m flexible, I want to please, I like the excitement of change and I like the comfort of sameness. I’m clever but sometimes not very smart. I have a running commentary in my head. I think the people I love are the best people in the world. I can be scathing of people who are mean or rude. I like making things. I like cuddles but only with certain people and animals and not uninvited – they make me cringe. I speak my mind without always thinking of the consequences. I build whole scenarios in my head and a lot of the time they come out how I thought even if I have never done them. I always want to be loved the best by someone. I have a fear that I won’t have that one someone to love me. I worry that something will happen to people/small furry beings that I love. I want to control things but then when it gets too much I relinquish all control.
I could go on. What I mean is, the things that make up the essence of me – I feel like those things would have been me in whatever language and culture and family I was brought up in, though perhaps would have been expressed in a different way. You can never tell what you might have been, apart from perhaps you could extrapolate in a twin study, but a person is more than just their DNA – even twins who share DNA are different people. A person has what religious people might call a soul. So you can change the flavour of me – I could be British or French or German or Spanish or any other nationality, but there are some parts of me that I think would still be me.
That’s why I’m okay with it. I think in that adopted person’s conundrum I have a way of being at peace with it. I’m still the me I would have been, but with a different flavour (language, culture, style, upbringing and experiences). Of course my experiences have made up the richness of my life. I may not have had those experiences. But I would probably feel and think in a similar way. I still think I’d be the kind of person who worried about being loved the most, or worried about something happening to those I love.
This is the big one for adopted people. I’m sure that most adopted people who were brought up in a nice family (rather than an abusive one) feel a strong loyalty to their family and in particular to their [adoptive] parents. After all, they were the ones who took in the child when they were “unwanted” by their birth family. Raised the child as their own.
The conflict for adopted people is that in order to be a Good Adoptee you will show loyalty and acknowledgement of the love for your family, the only family you’ve ever known if you were adopted as a baby. And so that means that any other feelings towards the birth family are often subsumed or repressed. So the logic goes.
In this kind of dichotomy of “Happy Adoptee” vs “Angry/Sad Adoptee” this means that generally the “good” ones don’t go looking for their birth families, because to do so would be somehow disloyal to the adoptive family. It’s a bit of a psychological feat to be able to hold in your heart two families, two sets of parents, and the idea that “mother” or “father” could refer to more than one person. It violates the sanctity of the parent-child relationship in many people’s eyes that someone could have that same special relationship with more than one mother or father. This is even before you include any of the expressed or implicit wishes of the adoptive parents.
For my part, as I mentioned in a previous post, my parents never prevented us from talking about being adopted, and were always very positive about it and open. However I know also in my heart that they wouldn’t like the idea of me going on a search. I think they would feel that they’d failed somehow, and my mother especially wouldn’t like it because to her, motherhood is pretty much the most important thing in the world. However I also know that they would support me and they probably wouldn’t say that they didn’t like it, and they’d only be worried about me being hurt and that there might not be a positive outcome. I know that my mother lives and breathes for all of her four children whether they’re adopted or not, and it would kill her to think that there might be a situation she couldn’t make better for us. She would hate to think of me being upset by it or being rejected.
Why don’t I search? Why am I not angry?
I don’t not search out of loyalty (if that isn’t too many double negatives!). I do feel loyalty to my parents but I’ve also always been a very headstrong person, and I’d probably go ahead and do it on my own if I really wanted to, and not tell them about it until I knew more. I also know that they would support me, and whilst they’d be worried about me, they’d probably be quite interested. They took my sibling to our country of birth a few years ago – I chose not to go. (It was an expensive trip and I’d have had to pay for it!)
For me, a lot of the anger and the grief expressed by adopted people is because of this loss, and often seems to be related in literature and online with wanting access to information about their birth and heritage. I don’t know why I’m not angry about this. I think because I always knew that there was something that happened a long time ago – I was relinquished and adopted – and I had no control over it and I couldn’t let it carry on affecting me because I never knew anything else. I guess in that sense I’ve been very passive about it. A lot of the “anger” with adoptees is about reclaiming their voice, the active voice, and about getting that information and going to reunion and being able to ask Why. Maybe because I think I know Why, I’m less looking for answers than other adopted people might be.
I think also I have a lack of curiosity about something I perceive I can’t change very much and has a low chance of success. Perhaps if I knew for sure that my birth family was out there and wanted to meet me then that might change my mind. But I’m still conflicted about this idea that adopted people somehow aren’t complete without going through a search and reunion. That seems a lot to put on someone (who wasn’t even involved in the initial decision making to set their life on a different track). And as I said above, I don’t feel like I have some massive hole missing in my identity because of it. There is something missing, but it doesn’t affect my day to day life to the point where I can’t function without going on a search.
Selfishly I am more focused on things that will give me a greater chance of success and mainly in things that will give me a greater chance of happiness. I see these stories online and in books and I find them interesting and I find them poignant and sad a lot of the time. And I read some of the angry stuff and I feel a bit alarmed. That isn’t me or anyone I know who is adopted. I think maybe that there is a slight skew in the written word towards the adoptee voice being quite forceful, opinionated, angry, sad… because for a long time the prevalent voice of adoption was everyone apart from the adoptee. It was always told from the positive voice of the adopted parents, or the adoption agencies, or children in care needing families… and over the years, adopted people have spoken up.
Often when I’m speaking with the “Happy Adoptees” about adoption, there’s this idea that people don’t hear the good stories because the happy ones are just going about living their lives, being happy and normal and so on. I don’t know if this is the case or it’s some kind of adoptee magic smile that we’ve pasted on our faces, but for me I think it’s hard to picture it being another way because I’ve only known this way.
I think you can react many different ways to things that happen to you, and this is a fundamental thing that’s happened, this divergence from who you were originally going to be.
Sad: I think it’s universally acknowledged that all adoptees carry some grief somewhere about the separation from their parents and family of birth. There’s something specific about adoptee grief which is different from the grief of losing a parent or parental separation – it’s the knowledge that your parent(s) relinquished you. And whether they did it willingly or unwillingly, both ways are equally as wounding to think about. Either someone didn’t want you, or someone really did want you but was forced to relinquish you. To internalise that message from a young age, even if you’re “happy” is a difficult and specific task for an adopted person – the specialness of being “chosen” doesn’t erase that first loss. So much of the adoption narrative focuses on needs and wants (especially of adoptive parents and families) and not so much on the loss. It assumes the child has already lost and is at rock bottom and needs “saving”. For all those things, and however happily it turns out, that child has lost something fundamental.
Angry: Many adopted people go through a stage of feeling angry, and it’s understandable when you think about what they’ve lost. As I alluded to above, there’s this kind of unacknowledged [very often] loss which you’re just expected to suck up and be grateful for. There’s anger at the authorities who may have aided and abetted your relinquishment. Maybe if you find out that you were given up unwillingly it seems all the more awful. And there’s anger at the birth parents who couldn’t/wouldn’t keep you. I never knowingly was angry about adoption, I really wasn’t. But I was angry at the world for a time. My adolescence heavily featured me stomping around in Doc Martens angry at the world. My sibling #2 who was also adopted directed anger inwards… self harming and getting very sick in the process. But… People who aren’t adopted also experience these things. Did we ever consciously think that this was a result of adoption? I don’t think so. We generally attributed our difficulties to growing up a different colour than white in a predominantly white community. But maybe somewhere there was something to do with adoption. I don’t know what would have helped. We had to come through it and come out of it in our own time. We both did. Perhaps some never do.
Happy: I would say apart from a fairly rocky adolescence that I have generally been what’s termed a “happy adoptee”. I am that trope. I’m generally fine with it. Yes, I have a good old weep at adoption in film and literature. I seek out mentions of adoption in books and online. I intermittently do a bit of research. But I’m not actively searching and I don’t feel, day to day, that there’s a hole in my life because of adoption. I think my family is a little bit crazy but full of great people who I love and I don’t feel like I have to make excuses about loving them or being okay with that, because we are just a normal family. (What’s normal anyway? We are a weird family; we have our own foibles, but we all love each other and we root for each other and we like each other. We know we are linked by something other than how we’re linked to our friends, even if it’s not blood.)
Am I grateful? Yes, I feel like I am. A lot of the stuff online about adoptee voice makes you feel a little bit guilty for feeling that way, like you’re letting the side down. Like we don’t have anything to feel grateful for – we shouldn’t be somehow indebted to our parents for “saving” us. That as an adopted person I shouldn’t feel an obligation to feel grateful just because I’m adopted. And honestly, I really don’t think that my parents look on themselves as my saviours. And equally they don’t look on me as saving them from infertility. To them, I’m just one of their kids.
I look at it a different way. I’m grateful and I happen to be adopted. I think any nice human should have a certain part of themselves that is grateful for being alive. I’m thankful that my bio mother didn’t abort me, because how could I be wishing to have been aborted? I’m happy that I have a nice family, even through all of their craziness and the things we’ve gone through – I don’t think we differ significantly from any other family, bio or not. We’ve all had our things to deal with and we’ve all had our fun. Some of us like our families (I do) and some of us don’t. I’m grateful I live in a country that allows people some basic liberties and looks after people who can’t look after themselves and isn’t at war. I’m happy that I’m in a nice relationship with a guy who makes me laugh and is caring and is a great flatmate for Dog and is the father of the child I’m carrying now. I have frustrations in my life but nothing I can’t deal with. I’m grateful for being alive. I’m happy my mother chose life for me. I’m happy my parents chose for me to be a part of their lives. In the whole scheme of things, I have very few things to complain about and a whole lot to be grateful for.
I was adopted.