Over the last four years I have met with and spoken to hundreds of people affected by and separated by adoption, speaking with adults who were adopted as children, birth parents and first family members who have experienced a child being removed from their care and adopted. Some of the older adoptees I meet know little or nothing about their birth parents coming from a time when closed adoption was very much the norm but I also meet mums who gave birth to a child and might have had them in their care for some months or years before their adoption. It’s very humbling to hear people’s stories and a privilege to offer support, I feel I have learned so much and been able to think about things from different perspectives, hearing from people that few social workers remain in contact with. What does stand out from what I hear is that while experiences pre and post adoption are of course very different, sometimes feelings and emotions are linked and overlap like a reverse lens or reflection. In my experience one is often left wondering about the other but might not be able to share this wondering or worry for fear of upsetting others or because of stigma and shame. Adoptees wondering if they look like their parents, how have their parents been, are they healthy, are they alive? Are they feeling pain or guilt because of the adoption-have their parents ever thought of them over the years? Birth parents and first families wondering are their children alive, healthy and well? Are they happy and being well taken care of? How tall are they now, what food do they like to eat and what is their favourite song or film? Most post adoption contact agreements in the UK consist of one letter exchange or email a year- no photos, sometimes drawings and handprints. One letter a year. Now the whole world faces separation and limited contact wondering and not knowing, maybe not being able to see loved ones face to face, having older relatives who cannot use tech to stay in touch. I wonder if this wider experience of separation and loss, and enforced limited contact might result in a re-think of current accepted postadoption contact.
Denise Smalley, Post Adoption Outreach Social Worker, April 2020
Wondering and not knowing
I lost my son to adoption in 1968. For 27 years we had no contact until he found me 26 years ago. Over the missing years I always felt he was a part of me, and that he was an important part of my life. I would try to reach out to him in spirit somehow or other. At certain times – his birthday, Christmas and other special times – the feelings of grief and loss would overwhelm me to the extent that I would go downhill emotionally. Little did I know that during those years he was also experiencing the same feelings about me. Wondering and not knowing.
I assumed that he would be living somewhere else in the UK and we would be sharing similar experiences in our own completely different lives, which gave me some comfort. For instance, the seasons, the weather, Christmas and birthday celebrations, Easter egg hunts, day and night, TV programmes, the news and current affairs, school holidays. But I just didn’t know, and the wondering was at times all-consuming.
When he found me in 1994 I had to abandon all those feelings that had so comforted me, as I found out that his parents had emigrated to New Zealand when he was 6 years old to start a new life where nobody other than his immediate family knew he was adopted. His birthdays in December, and of course Christmases, had been spent in his glorious mid-summer, when it was day time there it was night time here in the UK. His whole culture, his accent, were so dissimilar to what I had ever imagined, and much as it was a joyful (though emotionally difficult) reunion I felt cheated somehow that I just didn’t know. I had spent 27 years of my adult life imagining and wondering about him. I could have been told. I really should have known. It was cruel that I didn’t.
With the Covid-19 crisis we are now facing birth mothers/fathers/families will be going through the same agonizing situation of wondering if their children are safe and well, but just not knowing. Adopted children and adoptive parents might be doing the same. It’s an anxiety to which there seems to be no solution – unless the letter-box scheme can be revisited and families can exchange letters of comfort and reassurance, at such a difficult time.
Hopefully both adoptive and birth families may be able to take this into their own hands – not only for their own sake, but for the sake of their adopted children for whom this whole crisis is possibly so much more distressing, especially coupled with any other feelings and issues they might have in their adoptive placements which they may feel unable to express. This will be having a huge impact on mental and emotional health.
There can never be a more crucial time for openness and cooperation between all parties. There is nothing worse than wondering and not knowing.
Jill Killington, April 2020
Wondering and not knowing
Reading about Jill’s experience made me cry as I feel the same at birthdays and at Christmas time. I wonder are they doing Easter egg hunts or celebrating Christmas Eve the way we did. Right now due to the Covid-19 crisis all the wondering is making me feel down and in a dark place, not knowing if your child is safe and well is very hard. It’s like having a heavy brick on my heart which makes it hard to function. It is hard for every family at the current time but for birth parents like me I don’t know where my child lives, are they in an area very badly affected? Is there a high infection or death rate? I cannot ask what extra precautions the adoptive parents are taking, or if they are frontline workers. My child has asthma and has always suffered with coughs and colds. Recently I was lucky to get a brief update from the adoptive family via the Letterbox team that my child is safe and well, that the family are well prepared with medical supplies that they might need, and they have agreed to update me if there are any health changes. But this does not lift the heavy feeling of the unknown and the wondering. I know I won’t see her. I am not there to make her safe and give lots of hugs and cuddles. It will also be her birthday soon, a birthday in lockdown. My anxiety is through the roof but I have been thinking about the poems my group made and I have been reading these and keeping as busy as I can. Listening to music has helped me and just reminding myself she is loved and cared for in her adoptive family. When she asks about us as I know she does and she has asked about her grandma and grandad, I hope she will be getting some emotional support- from the reassurances I have received from the adoptive parents I believe this a bit more now
Wondering and not knowing
After my children were removed from my care I found myself broken, I wasn’t coping well with life, they were, are, my life. I always feel like part of me is missing, my heart hurts all the time. Every night I pray to be normal, to have a normal life and to be happy but I don’t get a happy ending, my life will never be normal. I do get one letter a year called letterbox which is written by the adoptive parents, I love hearing about them, how they are, what they have been up to. Around the time my letter is due I get really anxious but I’m really happy when I get it, it is always a mixed feeling in the month my letter is due. Even though I do get my letter once a year, it is hard not knowing if they are okay for the rest of the year. I get scared for them, and worry if they are well or even still alive. I worry loads if my letter is late, I start looking through the news to see if anything might have happened. I look through the death notices page in the newspapers to see if there have been any awful accidents, my mind goes to dark places. It is really hard not know if your blood relatives, your children, are okay.
A lot of my time is spent sitting and thinking about how they are, what they are doing, how big they have grown. My mind is full of the parts that are missing, that I am missing. Christmases and birthdays are hard. Passing places I used to take them or hearing a song they used to dance to, the grief and emotions hit you like a crashing wave. You can’t help but thinking about them night and day. I spend nights watching the sky, the moon and the stars, knowing we are all under the one sky, together. One of the last things I said to them was if they can see stars I will be looking too, they are not alone, I am under those same stars thinking about them. I have found some comfort in spending time in my garden. When my children were first removed I planted some trees to represent each of them and every birthday and Christmas I decorate the trees in their favourite colours and cartoon characters, the trees are quite big now and these rituals help me cope. Now we have COVID-19 and I have not received my letterbox yet or a brief update to say they are okay and it is really hard not knowing if they are safe. It is a scary time for us all and being on my own, not going out due to lockdown, all I can do is worry. Like most birth mums or adoptive parents, we worry about our children. We are all human, birth parents have made mistakes but are not monsters. If anything positive can come out of this time maybe it will be more compassion, it is not a war between birth family and adoptive families, maybe we can come together more and create better communication as our children might worry about and miss us as much as we worry about and miss them.