It’s been a while since I’ve shared a bit more of How to be Adopted. It’s also been a while since I’ve worked on it. This is perhaps one of the more emotionally labour-intensive pieces I’m working on, though despite feeling quite run down with a virus this week I decided to do a bit more on it.
This is part of a section on my relationship with my adopted parents, and my fantasies about who my birth mother could be.
The knowledge sat with me for a time, like a virus lying dormant, waiting to be activated. Instead of saying, “I was adopted,” or even “I’ve been adopted,” we say “I am adopted”. It becomes a part of you. It practically changes your DNA.
The moment came when I was 12 or 13, and my dad had taken me to the library to take out some new books. He had a rather strong obsession with World War I, and by that time I was pretty sure he had read most, if not all of the material on offer in the rather small section available. It was a shame that the children’s and adults’ libraries were separate. While I would certainly have benefited from reading some of the material in the adult library, I found my dad’s interest so dry that I never pushed my curiosity.
It was that boredom that drove me to wander around the library, and it was then I discovered The Poster.
A teenage woman looked out at me, perhaps she was 17 or 18. She had what a photographer I hired to do my headshots once called a ‘social worker’ expression: the concerned smile. The poster might have read something like,
“Are you adopted? Are you over 18? You have a right to view your records. Ask your librarian.”
The white text overlaid the social worker woman. Or the woman who had recently found out about her parents – how did she feel about them? I wondered.
I told my dad, who said something along the lines of it being a decision that we would talk about when I was older, if I still wanted to. I remember affirming immediately that I would obviously still want to.
Nothing more really came of it until I was 17, but in the meantime I started having dreams. Not regularly, but occasionally. For the first time I had allowed myself to wonder: who was she? Who gave birth to me?
Hope can sometimes be the most powerful weapon against the darkness – but it can also be the most powerful way to set ourselves up before a terrible, injurious fall. When I started searching at 18, I was advised to moderate my expectations. She wasn’t going to be superwoman. Of course not. You will only be disappointed.
But there was no telling teenage me that. I didn’t want to see the logic that any woman with magical superpowers wouldn’t need to give their child away, except maybe she was keeping me safe, see. Protecting me for my own good. So that one day I would take up her mantle of saving the world, or something.
Most boys idolise footballers, or comic superheroes. Over years, I had given the woman who had given birth to me a cape, super-strength, and the ability to fly.
When I was 17, I found my adoption record in one of those metal cash boxes my parents kept all key documents in: passports, NHS numbers, that kind of thing. I wasn’t really looking for anything, but I realised that at 17 I hadn’t ever gone through the contents of the box.
I held it for a moment, my heart beating triple-time. What did this mean? Was it time to start looking? I was to turn 18 in a few weeks. I took it and went downstairs to talk to my parents. I did not get the warm wishes and encouragement I had been expecting: instead, I got told to put it back. My mum in particular was defensive about it. I could see why – but this was my right, and it was my dad that showed to me how much of a hero he was. He helped both of us, mum and me, see each other’s point of view.
I have spoken to tens, perhaps hundreds of adopted people now, and friends who know someone who has been adopted. They often say that the reason they haven’t looked yet is ‘out of respect to the parents that raised them’.
That frustrates me a little.
I would like those people to have another think about the reasons why they haven’t searched, because over time it becomes infinitely more difficult to do so. Perhaps the truth is, they just aren’t interested. They don’t really believe in ‘nature’. DNA testing can (or will be able to in the near future) tell them most of what they need to know about family medical history. Or perhaps they don’t want to ever know the person who rejected them as a baby.
All reasons are valid. Not everybody is me. Not everybody wants to know; but the argument of ‘respect’ here is a smokescreen. While the journey is always painful, any good parents will always understand and respect a child’s need to know their identity and background – please, don’t use ‘respect’ as a reason. Your mark of respect to your adopted parents is your continued love of them and loyalty to them even after your search is complete. Your parents love you, and you love them. The dynamic you open up by searching doesn’t have to change that – it’s in your power to draw up those terms.
And then I turned 18.