A Roll of the Dice

There is nothing like a General Election to make me reminisce and ask some fairly fundamental questions.

I was born into disadvantage and initially grew up in what I would call loving but far from ideal circumstances.  I spent the first third of my childhood living with the family that I was born into and the next third in local authority care. I spent the final third as the adopted child of wealthy and loving middle-class parents. I have lived most of my adult life amongst the privileged (with some exceptions) although my complicated family crosses the social-economic spectrum; it includes the rich and powerful as well as the poor and struggling.

I have not found this mixed upbringing, as I call it, a complete headfeck. Rather, my politics are born from it.

I cannot forget what it is like to be poor or to be a child and to know that I’m poor. I cannot forget what it is like to be in care. I cannot forget what it is like to be the least important. I cannot forget what it is like to have the state in control of my life – and to be both dependent on the state and to fear and hate it.

I also cannot forget what it is like to be one of the wealthiest children in my class. I cannot forget what it was like to be treated differently based upon what people assumed was my background. I cannot forget what it was like to have opportunities suddenly open up before me.

I cannot forget the moment I started thinking: why is everything different for me now? Why couldn’t I have had all this before? Did I have to be adopted to be deserving?

I know, more than anyone, what a roll of the dice life is. I was born into something, tumbled around somewhere else, and then plonked in another place entirely. I had to become ‘as if born to’ middle class parents in order to enjoy the privileges that I now enjoy. It would not have happened as a child of the state: one needs well-resourced and caring parents to even get near the ladder. My corporate parent was not really up to it. This is not a comment on any individual foster parents, but a comment on the whole. It is sad, really. I did not have an emotional need for new parents. No: I had an opportunity need for new parents. I needed adoptive parents because I needed a lottery ticket. Even if that wasn’t anyone’s intention, because of the structure of our society that was the effect. If my life experiences have shown me anything, it’s that good parents, wealth and connections are lottery tickets, far more than they should be. I needed adoptive parents because the best way to get on in life is to have well-connected and wealthy parents. Family background is worth far, far more than it should be.

And, you know, it is so, so sad. I needed to belong – and to be owned by – parents in order for them to invest in me. The state was not going to invest in me because I wasn’t theirs. I have a few horror stories which demonstrate just this – a corporate parent actively quashing opportunity because it cost too much and the long-term investment could not be seen. I still remember when I was not worthy of investment – unworthy of a leaf from the Magic Money Tree.

As journalists go on about politicians’ backgrounds, I find myself asking: who am I? Where do I come from? Who are my people? But really it’s about: Who do I want to be? Who do I think we should be? What are my responsibilities? What are everyone’s vulnerabilities? What about the most vulnerable? Those for whom the state is all they have?

Every single time a politician speaks of equality of opportunity and says ‘it shouldn’t matter who a child’s parents are’ I think: what if they don’t have parents? What if YOU are their parent? What if YOU were the controlling mind behind the amorphous group of individuals and entities which make up a ‘corporate parent’?

I read somewhere that a person can leave care, but that care never leaves a person. In my experience this is true. No matter what else is happening in my life – no matter how privileged or glitzy – it really just comes down to this:

What if I had no one to turn to but the state?

What if the state was still my parent?

Goldfish Bowl

 A Riddle

I live my life in a goldfish bowl. I am observed and monitored from all sides. The things I do – and the things I don’t – are recorded. The things I say – and the things I don’t – are written down. I am carefully studied. All my actions, except the important ones, are deemed to have significance. My private conversations are the subject of people’s discussion. My flippant remarks are kept on file for a century. People interact with me in a choreographed manner: the state, books and others tell people what to say to me, what to do, and when to do it, all in an attempt to steer (or manipulate) my relationships. Those relationships that I do have need Official Approval to exist. I have no privacy. I say something – or I don’t say something (I am not told the rules) – and a game of whispers seals my fate. State representatives make decisions and hang them on my words. I must tread carefully: I am surrounded on all sides. Microphones are everywhere, ready to magnify my words beyond my intention. I am being observed. I am being scrutinised. I am being watched.

Who Am I?

Like most graduates of the care system, I knew very little privacy when growing up. I spent my time in a goldfish bowl being monitored by parents, carers, the school, social services, and everyone else I came into contact with. Everything I did was carefully studied and recorded. Actually, let me correct part of that: some things I did were carefully recorded. Actual facts (often irrelevant ones) were recorded alongside half-truths, blatant fabrications, bizarre interpretations, benign misunderstandings, and… whatever it is that got redacted. The post-truth era really was alive and well back then.

But I am not talking about the lies, the half-truths, and the redactions. I am talking about the horror of living in a goldfish bowl. Because let me tell you something: constant observation is horrific for the observed.

(Do I exist if I’m not being observed? I sometimes wished I didn’t exist. I wished I could be invisible like other children. Like normal children. Like actual children.)

Living in a goldfish bowl causes a lot of strain. Your relationships are affected as you know that all adults can and probably will inform social services about everything. The state’s thirst for knowledge about you is more important than your privacy.  Every time that you speak, you must remember that it’s not a private conversation: you may in fact be speaking to your social worker (or indeed any other similar person), who may write down a garbled version for posterity. It doesn’t matter if what you said is a safeguarding issue or not, it will have made its way to be recorded in Your Files.

It is particularly stressful if you are aware, as I was, that one wrong movement and your life might blow up in your face. When you are a child of the state, great weight is put onto everything you do (or don’t do – who even knows) by pseudo-psychologists. I once made the mistake of getting out a book and reading it to my birth mum during a contact session. This was of course recorded, and then interpreted negatively with regards my relationship with my sibling. Of course! No child in care ever liked reading! And no child in care had a contact session where – gasp! – the birth mother encouraged reading! Nope: it must be that there is something wrong with the sibling relationship.

And, of course, there is also the state representative – with no particular qualifications – who observed me for an entire hour and then came to a conclusion which they then repeated several times, with increasing authority each time. For, as we know, if you say something enough times it becomes true, and if you type it on official paper it becomes true quicker.

Observation doesn’t necessarily stop if you’re adopted. I found to my horror that adoptees can be gawped at and written about just as much as children in care. My parents would write things down about me (in my presence) and then put it into their file about me (without letting me see what they wrote). I found this odd then and I still do. I remember wondering if they were using it as a power thing. Of course, they interpreted most of the things I said or did (and also anything I didn’t say or do that was on their criteria of things I should say or do) as relating to my adoption, which is not only incorrect but utterly bizarre. But the effect was to make me feel as though I was not in a family home but in a psychiatric setting. That, in fact, goes for a lot of my care experience: you are constantly monitored and analysed, as though you are in a clinical, and not a domestic, setting.

These (mis)interpretations can have life-changing consequences. As an older child, I was acutely aware of this; I wasn’t stupid, even if some people assumed I was. The stress was exhausting. I remember trying to figure out how to act in contact sessions so as to get more contact sessions, and how to act around my new adoptive parents so as to have contact with my previous foster carers. It’s unbelievable when you think about it. Especially when you realise that no, it wasn’t paranoia: I was being observed, and important decisions were being made on the basis of these observations.

(How far does being observed change the thing being observed?)

(Are you paranoid if what you’re paranoid about is true?)

I remember being watched (sorry, ‘supervised’) during my Goodbye Contact. For the uninitiated, a Goodbye Contact is when a child who is going to be adopted says goodbye, for the last time, to their birth family. My Goodbye Contact is the last time I ever saw my own mother. (Goodbye Contact deserves capitals for this reason, Goddamit. Although my preferred name is Funeral Day. It is the day you say goodbye). Imagine, for a second, that you are seeing a dying relative for the last time and that everything you are doing and saying during this meeting is being watched and you know that it will then be recorded, discussed with other people, and then left on a file somewhere. (And, of course, that this whole scenario has been dreamed up by The Powers That Be for your own good. And, of course, that years later you have to fight The Powers That Be to see the records of this day, for reasons that remain obscure). Insult, injury, and kicking a dog when it’s down all come to mind.

There is no such thing as a private moment when you are a child in care. There is no such thing as tenderness, grief, privacy, or emotion. We are all robots, ready to take on whatever exterior is demanded by our latest set of carers, whether they’re atheist, Jewish, Catholic, strict, easy-going, Tory, Labour, or rich or poor.

There is also no such thing as a normal relationship. I was very aware, at times, that the adults around me were acting in a particular way because they wanted to cause a particular effect. People attempted to control or re-orientate my relationships by choreographing my interactions with them. For example, I was painfully, excruciatingly and embarrassingly aware of how everyone was acting during my Goodbyes (sorry, ‘introductions’): they were all acting as they were ‘supposed’ to act in order to make it easier for me (newsflash: there is nothing that can make it easier). This was of course all confirmed when a month after I moved in with my new parents I came across a book about children moving from care to adoption. My parents had underlined some parts about where and when visits with the previous foster carers should be and that sort of thing. I felt sick – sick and controlled. I felt sorry for them that they had to look at this book rather than talk to me. But I’m glad I found that book because it helped me understand where my parents were coming from. But above all it made me realise that they really didn’t get it. I could see through the manipulation (I am not making a value judgement with this word, just describing) before coming across this book and it was, to use a phrase I didn’t know at the time, to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic. I felt that they were trying to stick to a script in a desperate attempt to make everything go right: – if only we do P in X, Y, Z order, then all will be fine. Alas, that’s not how it works or how it worked. I don’t doubt their sincerity of intention, but all it did was add to my feelings of being watched, monitored, and manipulated.

But we all participated in this. I was also conscious of being observed, so I read the book in order to figure out how I should act (and not act) so that my parents would understood what was going on. We all participated in the dance – dancing in the goldfish bowl.

My experience of being constantly observed affects me even now. I cannot stand it when my GP makes notes: it is, again, someone in a position of power making a record about me. Interviews are hard for the same reason! I once picked up a book because of its title ‘panopticon’. I didn’t even know what it was about but the title struck me like a truck-load of falling bricks.  I knew what the word meant but had never come across a book with the title. Why did it strike me? Because I felt that the word encapsulated my experiences as a child in care – my experiences of being under constant observation. As it happens, the book has a theme about care. Who’d’ve thought?! When I saw the title, I thought about care – and it had a theme about care. That shows not only the power of words but it also suggests that I am perhaps not the only person to have ever made such a connection.

But what strikes me most is this: in spite of all their watching, they did not really see.

Answer: I am, of course, a child of the state. I am a LAC, a CIC, a PP child. I have corporate parents and am a public child. But I am, really, just a child.

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?