My little sister has COPD, which affects the lungs, so I’m very worried about her at the moment with the coronavirus crisis going on.
I’d like to be able to check in on her but I don’t know where she lives at the moment – if anywhere. I’ve tried a dozen homeless organisations as well as Her Majesty’s Prisons, but no joy.
Her lifestyle is what professionals call chaotic and, as a result, we’ve had sporadic contact over the past 10 or so years. That’s always been the way it is, as she drops in and out of our lives depending on what’s going on for her. But with the coronavirus I realised I’m not comfortable not knowing where she is or how she’s doing at any given time. Ever the big sister: worrying like a border collie about all my younger siblings and their children.
At the beginning of the crisis I reached out to the charity Missing People who agreed to take on my case. There is no guarantee my sister will want to resume contact with me, they said. Yes, but at least you’ll be able to tell her I love her and miss her and am worrying about her, I said. I can think of little worse than being in hospital with this virus and not knowing if anyone cares about you or is thinking about you.
And it’s not just me who cares. Her daughters are worried about her too. They know about her lifestyle and her mental and physical health challenges. They know those things are part of the reason they were adopted or placed into kinship care. They, like me, just want to know she is ok. They, like me, wonder if she is dead. They, like me, wonder if any of us would count as her next of kin in such a situation.
While I wait to hear back from Missing People I thank everyone who has been helpful and empathetic to me during my searches for my sister over the years. From the man at the Newport hostel who said she’s a nice person and “quite funny, when you get to know her”, to the woman from Craig’s Coffee in Manchester who said she knows only too well what it’s like to have a sibling who struggles with addiction and homelessness. To everyone who said, I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but I saw her just yesterday and she’s safe and well. To everyone who agreed that when a little sister comes into your life through adoption, she’ll always be your little sister – no matter what.
You think you’ve tamed it, the wondering and not knowing, but it’s a wild beast, there’s no controlling it, as much as you might fool yourself you have. My most recent experience of the beast roaring to life was a few weeks ago and started with a friend request on Instagram. A photo of a girl with long blonde hair and her face covered, with a name very similar to my birth mothers. I immediately thought it was one of my birth sisters, finally making contact with me. This is it I thought, she’s curious, she wants to know more. The fantasy ran away with its self and triggered a vivid dream about a beautiful reunion where ALL of me was accepted. The dream did what most dreams do and hazily faded, but the feelings stuck for a lot longer leaving me with an uncertain desire to be seen. Do I make contact again? Do I be less guarded? Do I let them know about my growing family and the highs and lows I’ve been through. Are they wondering whether to contact me and share their gains & loses?
Ultimately I don’t make contact, I put the wondering back in its box. With a failed reunion, one of my only hopes is that they will make contact with me one day. It is a fantasy of course, but its mine and I want to keep it.
What it does leave me wondering though is how different this could have been, would a more open adoption with letterbox, photos and contact have reduced the shame, the wondering, the longing, the insecurity and the secrecy? Would we now all be able to sit in a room like adults and not deny each other’s feelings?
As I support teenage adoptees what I notice is the silence of the wondering. The secrecy of the wondering. How it’s not safe to wonder because the wider world doesn’t understand their wondering. ‘I can’t talk to my friends because they don’t get it.’ ‘ I can’t talk to my parents because I’m scared they will think I’m not grateful, or I don’t love them.’ Being able to own your curiosity about your adoption is no easy feat. It’s all so personal, all very emotive.
In my short time of supporting birth parents & first families what I’ve noticed is the rawness of the not knowing. The question I’ve been asked the most is ‘will I be informed if my child dies?’
Birth parents talk to me about what they want their children to grow up knowing, the nuances of life that often get missed in social work reports. They don’t want to be known only for their mistakes and struggles, but the bits that makes them whole. They don’t want their child wondering if they loved them, because I’m yet to meet a sociopath birth parent. It’s almost never about a lack of love.
In a time where many are grappling for the first time with the loss of control over seeing their loved ones and the anxious wondering about what the future holds for them, for those affected by adoption this is all too familiar territory. It’s a little sharper than usual during COVID-19, but this is our norm. We wonder if this time might provide a space for the wider world to gain some unexpected insight into our world of coping with the wondering & not knowing.
Tanya Killick, adoptee & adoption support worker
I feel a little fraudulent to be writing under this heading, as I am adopted person who has been in reunion with my birth relatives for over half my life, but perhaps the wondering never stops, and the unknown things remains. I can wonder how my life would have been if my birth mother had not given me up for adoption. I fully understand why as an unmarried mother in 1951 who believed herself deserted by my birth father, and from a family whose support was conditional on her being able ‘to put this behind us’, she felt she had no choice. Could we have made it on our own – just the two of us? It would have been tough, probably too tough for her and I may have ended up ‘in care’ so perhaps I can wonder if it was for the best that I was placed with loving, indeed devoted, adoptive parents when I was just 10 days old if the alternative may have been a residential nursery, foster care and potentially adoption as a toddler or older….and with the multiple moves and trauma that would have involved for me, and the isolation and despair that my birth mother, Mary, would have faced.
Mary told me that she was devastated at parting with me, and this was corroborated for me by her closest friend, at that time, 45 years later, but did acknowledge that she came to terms with her loss as society maintained the standards that forced her hand for decades. We both wondered how much tougher it must have been for women in the late 60s and beyond who parted with babies only to see society quickly reverse its attitudes – as one birth mother said to me ‘I was an unmarried mother just before single parents were invented’.
I can wonder how different things may have been if my mother had been able to talk to my father once she discovered she was pregnant. Their communication in cryptic letters for fear their respective mothers might read them, gave little opportunity for problem solving. My mother said she wrote that she was pregnant and he wrote back asking for her share of the rent. My father says she wrote and told him she thought she was pregnant but was terrified her mother would guess, so he wrote back about the rent as a cover to try to find out when she would return to London after Christmas at home in Lincolnshire. He presumed when he heard nothing further that it was a false alarm but enough to have scared her and put her off their cohabitation. When I questioned him about his ‘responsibility’ to follow up, his answer was that this was 1951. When his sister was in a similar position, his father went to see the boy’s father and sorted things out; surely Mary’s father would have been after him with the proverbial shotgun. Mary says her father never knew – her mother said it would have destroyed his position, she made all the arrangements and created the smoke screen that kept Mary …and me …hidden from family and friends. So I will never know if one version is right and another is wrong, or perhaps both were correct in telling from their own perspective, I can wonder if my adoption was a result of class differences in how to handle a pregnancy out of wedlock at that time?
I can wonder endlessly how my life would have turned out if Mary and Roy had been my parents….I doubt their relationship would have survived long; what if Mary had kept me, married and I had grown up with two half sisters instead of finding them when we were all adults? But I know that would not have happened, the ‘good marriage’ Mary made would not have happened if she had her illegitimate child in tow. Mary’s brother and his wife were shocked to learn I existed and welcome me with open arms, they insisted had they known they would willingly have raised me. They went on to have 5 ‘born to’ children and adopted 3 more. One more would not have been a problem… but I would not be here. I would have lived in Canada from when I was 8, so would have to give up all the great things I have enjoyed in the life I have known, to embrace the potential unknown one.
There is so much that is unknown and I could wonder endlessly, as probably every adopted person does occasionally or frequently but perhaps every life, whether touched by adoption or not, is full of unknowns, of ‘what if’s and even ‘if only’. The current lockdown has given me plenty of time to wonder, but also many reminders of how much tougher issues of life and death are for so many other people. I am just thankful that, so far everyone of both my birth and adoptive families has remained safe and well.
Pam Hodgkins, adopted person
Founder of AAA Norcap