Where are the UK adoptees?

Where are the adoptees? Why don’t they write? Why don’t they speak?

I have long wondered why there is not a larger online UK adoptee community. I have been active on adoption forums for 10 years now and an observer and then participator in social media for a bit less. I have also been involved in adoption and fostering organisations in real life for quite a while. But I always find myself asking: where are the adoptees?

It’s not that they’re absent entirely. It’s that they are drowned out by the adopters, the charity professionals and the politicians. Many of the UK adoptees I have met have wondered the same thing.

There are of course also those who couldn’t care less either way!

I think that there are many forces at play, both personal and political.

Adoptees who speak about their experiences do so in a world where many people have strong pre-conceived ideas about adoption and adoptees. And it can be quite easy for adoptee voices – especially nascent ones – to be suffocated by thoughtless or ignorant responses. Those who know nothing about adoption can – and do – tell adoptees who do try to speak that they are lucky, or that not all adoptees feel or are that way. These comments, seemingly small, reinforce the ideas and assumptions that adoptees have had to fight their whole adopted lives. They can undo the courage it has taken to speak and can give the impression that adoptee voices are not welcome. Adoptees can be accused of being ungrateful or angry or of ‘fantasising’ should their experiences not fit an accepted narrative. It can be hard for adoptees to make their stories acceptable: they can be denied the right to speak because their stories do not have a ‘happy ending’, but on the other hand they can be dismissed as an exception because they live perfectly happy lives (I have witnessed both scenarios). Adoptees can be told or made to feel that they are irrelevant to modern adoption or that x, y or z doesn’t happen anymore.

Yet adoptees know more about adoption than anyone. Adoptees are the product of adoption – it touches no one else more – and the well-being of adoptees is the supposed purpose of the entire adoption system. All those who work in adoption would be wise to remember that. And no adoptee is irrelevant to modern adoption: all living adoptees are subject to current adoption law. Heck, the descendants of all dead adoptees are subject to modern adoption law. Adoptees’ descendants also adopt an ancestry that is not theirs. The consequences of a single adoption may be felt down as well as across generations. I see this watching my siblings’ children come to terms with the fact that their grandparents are not their biological grandparents. I see them grappling with the complicated mix of birth- foster- and adoptive families and the why and the whens and the ‘will this happen to me too?’. And it is not as though adoption from care is new: there are such adoptees well into their 20s, 30s and 40s already. This is not a pioneering new experiment. The first guinea pigs are already grown up, and sometimes their children too.

And here we have some of the explanation, I think. I am on approximately my seventh family (sorry, “placement”) and it is simply impossible for me to write about adoption without writing about birth families and foster families and children’s homes and issues such as abuse and neglect and corporate parenting – and that is before we even get onto adoption. That is an awful lot of private stuff for me to write about on a public blog. Again, it is no wonder that many adoptees do not write. Many of the younger generations of UK adoptees will have been adopted from care. An adoptee on his third, fourth, eighth or ninth set of parents may be reluctant to ‘rock the boat’ and talk about his experiences. What if this latest set of parents finds your blog? If your very position in your family is felt to be precarious, it can be very difficult to write – especially if you are still dependent on your parents financially or emotionally. What if your adoptive parents perceive you writing about adoption as you writing about them?

But it goes even further. The internet is a very vicious place and many UK adoptees have suffered abuse or neglect or lived in local authority care. Why would someone who has endured all that expose themselves to the vicious world of online discussion? People can say the most awful and hurtful things when a person comes out to them as care-experienced or as a survivor of abuse or neglect – and this can happen face-to-face when the person replying is not protected by the anonymity of the internet. There is enormous stigma attached to being care-experienced and/or adopted and it can be inadvisable to come out as such, even anonymously, as to do so runs the risk of exposing wounds to further beatings.

But it is not only care-adoptees who can be subjected to viciousness. Adoptees relinquished at birth or adopted at a young age can have their experiences minimised or denied, often when are only just starting to be able to articulate them. Adoptees who are past young adulthood may be expected to be ‘over it’ when sometimes it is only after an experience later in life that their adoption is something they think about at all. Indeed, it can sometimes be harder for someone adopted at birth than someone adopted later to receive acknowledgement from others that their adoption has affected them. Yet it is the adopted person who is the sole decider of whether, how far, and in what ways their adoption has affected them. They are the only ones with all the information and collection of experiences.

Adoptees also live in a world of lazy and often hurtful stereotypes. Adoptees are often caricatured in the media as either poor little waiting waifs or as demons hell-bent on destroying adopters’ lives. They are rarely portrayed as fully-fleshed human beings each with a unique mix of quirks and traits. Indeed, there are – gasp! – adoptees who live rather normal humdrum lives. These caricatures, like those painted of most minorities, are not challenged as often as they could be. It can be very corrosive to an adoptee’s self-esteem to come across these stereotypes time and again: some may even begin to paint themselves as such. I endured the sharp end of people’s prejudices when I was in care and find that I am subject to people’s assumptions as an adoptee. Reading about adoption on the internet and in the media often brings up the feelings of shame, inadequacy and self-hatred I was made to feel as a child in care. It is hard to engage in a conversation when virtually everything that is being said about the group you are a part of is negative. Reading most of what is written about adoptees as a group (when it is generalised and not specific to people’s experiences) fills me with self-loathing and doubt – not unlike I used to feel as a non-straight person reading homophobic things on the internet. The message is everywhere: there is something wrong with me; I am damaged; I am to be feared.

I have had to grow a very thick skin in order to speak about adoption. Many of those who met me in the last 10 years know I am adopted, but there are many people I grew up with who have no idea, such was (and is) the stigma. In order to speak, adoptees must speak about the most private things of their lives and risk further stigmatisation (or being patronised). This, I think, must account for at least some of the reluctance to speak.

But there are more possible reasons. Those adoptees who do face extra challenges in adult life may not have the desire or resources to share their experiences. In some cases it may be ill-advised for them to do so publicly or to anyone but a professional. Those adoptees who had the worst starts in life may, as adults, be extremely vulnerable: it is often the case that the voices that most desperately need to be heard are the most hidden and difficult to find. For others, the organisational, technical and literacy requirements of writing a blog may be beyond their capabilities. Some may be battling with darkness every day. Adoptees do not have the luxury, like most adopters, of approaching the complexities of adoption as mature adults: it is formative rather than something they come to when fully formed. Very often adoptees are survivors of more than most of the non-adopted could imagine. I think that it is no wonder that there are not millions of UK adoptee blogs: the life experiences of adoptees works against it.

These are just some of the challenges that I think adoptees face when trying to speak about their experiences. Some, of course, will not want to speak at all and are just busy with their lives. However, I think that there are significant barriers in the way of adoptees who do want to be more open.

What are your thoughts?