I am not like that

There have been many articles about adoption recently. The most recent one in today’s Times has broken my back and forced me to write something. I have recently felt overcome by an avalanche of negativity towards adoptees and care-experienced people. Part of this has occurred for personal reasons and part of this is because of the media. However, it is exhausting when the only coverage is either patronising or demonising. It is not as exhausting as actually being in care or being an adoptee, but it is exhausting nonetheless.

I should start by saying that speaking of recent coverage, I am not saying that there is not a very real problem with families suffering acute distress and not having the support they deserve. I’m not saying that that isn’t true. Rather, I am talking about something different.

I am talking about what it is like when your face is only reflected back at you in articles which say you’re violent. I am talking about what it is like when all those who went before you are presented to you on a platter of damning statistics. I am talking about what it is like when you overhear colleagues making sweeping generalisations about people like you – except that they don’t realise it, because they have no idea of who you are. I am talking about what it is like when you turn on Radio 4 on your way to work only to feel as stigmatised as you did whenever you moved school in care. I am talking about what it is like when, as an adoptee or care-experienced person, most things that you read about yourself either patronise you or demonise you.

I am talking about what it is like when you daren’t “come out”, because you know what all these people think about people like you.

And it is unrelenting. From today’s Times, regarding family placements: “some families have bad news written right the way through them”. Well, maybe that is true and maybe it is not. But how do you know whether a family member has bad news written through them like a piece of rotten rock? How do you know unless you assess them? Unless, of course, this ability to know whether an entire family is rotten through-and-through (and few people are rotten by the way) is because you just “know”? Perhaps because of blood or genetic inheritance? Or care-experience? Or poverty?

I have no doubt where people with such opinions would place me: a care-experienced adoptee from a family with multiple generations of social services involvement. That’s the rotten pile for sure. The badness runs through me like a wretched piece of rotten rock.

I was rotten in care, rotten as an adoptee, and will be rotten should I ever need to be a kinship carer. Rotten, rotten, rotten.

Maybe if I was an adopter I could distance myself a little bit more – different genes and all that – but as the person who actually has the bad blood and the bad experiences, I clearly can’t distance myself from anything. Rotten, rotten, rotten.

I clearly have bad news written through me. I didn’t always. Once – bless my little cotton socks – I was a poor little child in care being advertised in an adoption magazine. As we are told in The Times today, I was waiting, and every month I waited my happiness drained away. Forget for a moment that I never once waited, but lived in a suitable, lovely and loving foster home whilst all the legal and ethical necessities were sorted: I was waiting and longing. I was a wretched little thing. Wretched, wretched, rotten, rotten.

But you know what? Forget that. My message to The Times and the world is: no, it was not like that; and no, I am not like that.

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You know you’ve been adopted as an older child when…

…your new adoptive parents think you have identity issues, but in fact you’re not thinking “Who am I?” but “Who the f*** are you?”

…you have to stop yourself starting sentences with “When I first met my parents…”

…everyone thinks you’re confused and can’t handle your very complex set of family relationships, but really they’re the ones who are confused and who can’t handle them

…you struggle to breathe under the weight of everyone’s low expectations

…due to the many families you’ve lived in, you have more insight than your mono-cultural adoptive parents do into the fact that their beliefs regarding etiquette and rudeness are not in fact universal and obvious

…you find yourself thinking about how your new parents’ “firm boundaries” are just as arbitrary as the “firm rules” of everyone else, and not really that different, revolutionary, or helpful

…you know that it’s not birth or an adoption certificate that make a family, as your foster families are important too

…you have a unique insight into teachers’ expectations, assumptions and prejudices as you experienced going to schools where they knew you were a child in care and also ones where they assumed you were the birth child of professional and articulate middle class parents

…you know, through experience, that there are many ways to bring up a child – and that in spite of criticisms one set of parents might have for another they’re all OK as long there’s no abuse or neglect

…you find yourself sighing as a child because everything you do is interpreted as being because you’re adopted. Because, as we know, nothing adoptees do is normal or like things other, non-adopted, children do. This is especially so if you were adopted as an older child. Apparently

…like all adoptees, you are always a child, even when you’re 25, 35, 60 or 100.

…your “relevance” to adoption, your voice, and your ability to access post-adoption support has a shorter shelf-life than those adopted at younger ages. You reach the magical cut-off ages of 21 or 25 much sooner. After these ages you’re no longer deemed relevant to adoption or given a voice by any mainstream organisation. This is in spite of the fact that other adoptees who were adopted on exactly the same day that you were are still considered relevant and given support – because they were younger than you were when they were adopted (and are thus still under 25). Yet you have been adopted for exactly the same length of time. Weird. Especially when one could argue that many of those adopted at older ages require more support. And, even if they do not, they definitely do not require less support and they are not less relevant to “modern adoption”. The ARE modern adoption

…you don’t have a birth order. Well, you were born as a first, middle or last child but you’ve lived in every position possible in the 5, 6, 7 or 8 homes you’ve lived in. You grew up as the eldest, youngest, and everywhere-in-the-middle child

…internet memes and stereotypes about birth order make absolutely no sense – and annoy you because you’ve lived in absolutely every combination under the sun

…you know you’re not as important as your adoptive parents’ birth children because maintaining their birth order is important, but your birth order within the family can be changed to suit everyone else

…you know more about your childhood than your parents do

…you know more about your childhood than your parents think they do

…you write half your life story book yourself because your social worker has missed bits out

…you correct the spelling and grammar in your Be My Parent advert and your life story book because your literacy levels are higher than those who have responsibility for you

…you are able to see the inaccuracies in your files and realise that they’re utterly useless and that it’s good you kept all those diaries and remembered everywhere you lived, because if you didn’t you would have no idea about anything

…you know you’re not going to be believed or ever win if it’s ever you versus your parents’ birth child or another child. Don’t forget: adopted children are a danger to all other children and are liars – and older child adoptees are the absolute worst

…anything bad you do is because of your birth family or your <whisper> experiences, but anything good you do is because of what opportunities your adoptive parents gave you

…if you don’t succeed it shows that older child adoption doesn’t work, but if you do it demonstrates that adoption is A Good Thing

…you’re an adult before you can start a conversation with your parents with “Remember when…”

…your adoptive parents treat you like a little child when you first arrive, even though you’re already into boy bands and reading the classics. It’s quite excruciatingly embarrassing for everyone as you pretend to like toys and books for young children

…you read the books your parents are reading to help parent you and even at that age you think it’s all b****cks. When you look back when you are at an older, more mature, age, you adapt your opinion slightly and think it’s all dangerous b****cks

…you find you have less freedom as an adolescent than you did as a pre-teen because your new parents are stricter than your foster parents

…you pretend not to be into teenager stuff just yet because you are acutely aware that your new parents didn’t really want to adopt a teenager – and that you’re what they got stuck with

…you’re advertised by the social worker as the ‘Buy One Get One Free’ child

…your adoptive parents are still more or less strangers when you have to tell them about starting your period or dealing with facial hair

…everyone – and every book and every film and every adoption advert ever – is telling you that you’re lucky that anyone even wanted you

…you were a non-adopted child for longer than you were an adopted child, and can compare the two

…you’re old enough to remember your birth name and the addresses and phone numbers of your birth and foster families

…for some reason it’s OK for your new adoptive parents to “fake it ’till you make it” in terms of giving you the impression that they love you when you’ve only just met, but if you do that it’s manipulative and a sign of attachment disorder. Or something.

…because you’re an older child adoptee, your intelligence is mistaken for manipulation and calculation

…it messes with your head to use your adoption certificate in place of your birth certificate because it means, administratively speaking, that you were born in adolescence

…you didn’t have a strict, liberal, religious, or secular upbringing, but all of them

…the questions ‘were your parents strict?’ or ‘were your parents religious?’ make absolutely no sense in the context of your life

…you have to cut short anecdotes when speaking to acquaintances because you realise halfway through that it makes no sense unless you explain that you were living with six children’s home siblings at the time

…you forget how many brothers and sisters you’ve told someone you have so you worry they’ll think you’re a liar if you start talking about them again

…you forget whether you’ve told someone about your birth, foster or adoptive heritage, and therefore can’t remember if they think you’re Irish or Jewish or Polish or whatever

…you’re like a chameleon and can fit into all sorts of situations – or be equally uncomfortable in all of them

…you’ve known someone for several years and they stop a conversation short halfway through and ask for clarification about which sibling is which

…you realise that other people class ‘older child adoption’ as referring to children who were nearly a decade younger than you when you were adopted

…you answer questions about your childhood with ‘Well, it depends on which parents you mean…’

…most adoptees are adopted at an age when you were still living with your birth family and social services weren’t even in your life yet

…you feel an affinity with both care leavers and adoptees, but you don’t quite fit into either box

…virtually nothing written or said about adoption, even about so-called “older child adoption”, reflects your life in any way whatsoever

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?