In this month’s PAC-UK guest blog Cat Theresa shares her access to records and adoption reunion journey.
I was adopted in the late 60’s in a closed adoption where I had no access to my birth certificate, social work records or any information on birth family at all throughout my childhood. I was told I was adopted from earlier than I can remember, so I’ve always known and always felt deeply curious about my birth family. As a child, I was conscious that there was a Mummy and a Daddy who existed in the world who were ‘mine’ in some sense, even though I also felt my adoptive parents were ‘mine’. My birth parents mattered to me. My adoptive parents were kind and supportive of my desire to search for birth family, but they knew very little themselves. The small amount they were told was contained in a letter written to them by the Adoption Agency which gave a few biographical details of birth parents with my weight, colouring and date of birth. The letter concluded with a fairly cold final sentence “please come and see her at 10.30am on 4th December and if you like her you can take her home.” I do not want to sound ungrateful to the professionals involved in my care, but they could have made me sound a little less like a rescue puppy! It also made me wonder how many other hopeful couples I’d been shown to, who had taken one look and decided this very podgy, mottled skin baby did not meet their requirements.
Searching for birth family was a compulsion for me. At 18 I had a social work assessment to determine my suitability for being given my birth certificate. I ‘passed’ and applied for my birth certificate which for the first time gave me my name, mother’s name, address of birth and a blank for father’s name. Over the course of a year my search continued and I visited the place of my birth (the mother and baby home had been replaced with a modern block of flats), went through phone books to find my birth mother’s number and late one night, with my friend by my side, actually spoke to my birth mother over the phone. What a huge excitement that was for me, though completely out the blue for her. Over the course of a few months we exchanged letters and arranged that she would travel to my home town for a 3 day visit. My adoptive parents were unaware of my contact with her. I was 19 years old, meeting my birth mother for the first time, on my own, with no one around for support. A family I babysat for lent me their house while they were away for a week and I persuaded my birth mother to stay there too, rather than in a nearby B&B. My family home, where my parents and older brother lived, was only 5 miles away from this friend’s house, yet they knew nothing about the reunion. They believed that I was 60 miles away in my student house in my University town. I won’t go into details here, but suffice to say it would have gone a whole lot better if I had asked for help from an older, wiser person. The reunion happened, but for me was a complex muddle of emotions which pushed me into a frightening place psychologically. Especially as my birth mother was cold, unemotional and left the visit a day early, leaving me on my own in what I now know to be a traumatized state.
I was completely unable to admit to my adoptive family what I was doing and this has bothered me for years as it was so unhealthy of me to reunite with birth family in this way. Why could I not tell my adoptive parents when they were so supportive and kind? When they had explicitly stated they would support my searching. And when coping on my own was so hard. I was emotionally unstable leading up to the meeting date, drinking excessively and my ‘mentors’ were my similarly inexperienced University friends; none of whom were adopted. Letters I wrote to myself around that time are full of tortured thoughts, huge self-criticism and blame. I managed to survive this period, but it still pains me that I felt I had to navigate such a tumultuous event in my life alone, without family or professional help. Especially given that I had what people would think of as a ‘good adoption’ and ‘secure attachments’ to my adoptive parents. I think the answer comes from two things - a lack of control and a sense of responsibility.
I felt a lack of control throughout my childhood about my adoption through having no information, until I was given the Adoption Agency letter when I reached 18. That was 18 years wondering, dreaming, being upset, hating being adopted and given distressing messages at school, such as the girl in Primary who asked me what would happen if my real mummy came back for me? Adoption was something I did not like and was unable to control. In general I also felt a lack of control as I was being parented by a fairly controlling mother. So I was primed to fear losing the control I had of my search and reunion. I didn’t trust that my voice would be listened to. I was anxious that my adoptive parents or social workers would take over, impose their own views and I’d be left reuniting in their way, not mine.
The second issue was that I felt responsible for the happiness of my adoptive parents. I felt I owed them everything because they’d taken me in when I had no one and was vulnerable. There was a sadness that I felt about their inability to have ‘their own children’ so I needed to be as close to the perfect daughter as I could be to justify my place in their home. Being a ‘good daughter’ meant trying to see myself as fully theirs without questioning my identity. I felt guilty about how important my identity was to me, so I tried to hide it. On a deep subconscious level, I probably feared what might happen if my adoptive parents were upset over my reunion - would they reject me? So I didn’t tell them until after my birth mother and I had met and until I’d recovered.
It would have helped during my search and reunion, to have had a space within my relationship with at least one of my adoptive parents where my thoughts and emotions could be identified, listened to and safely held. At 18 years it wasn’t something I was able to ask for. Having my feelings and thoughts ‘held’ by one of my adoptive parents would have enabled me to explore the complexities of my curiosity, desires and fears without having my feelings re-interpreted or dealt with, they just needed to be heard. And then options for reunion needed to be developed with me, with all variations of support considered from a completely managed reunion to an independent one. I imagine that had I felt that control was available, I would have accepted support for the reunion.
Raising birth family issues with my parents was not something I was able to do; I just did not have the words, maturity or the courage. They were the grown-ups in that relationship; the responsibility was with them to understand the potentially damaging dynamic of an adoptee not wanting to upset their adoptive parents and the way adoptees feel they need to be a certain shape to make their parents happy. I understand the complexities around safeguarding adoptees and the very real fears of adoptive parents, but there needs to be dialogue which starts with adoptees’ rights to know birth family. Adoptees need to be centered in all decision making around reunion and empowered to make their own choices, while being offered appropriate levels of support. When I did eventually tell my adoptive parents they were shocked and my mother was upset but it continued being something that was difficult and at times impossible to share. It’s still very hard for me to risk upsetting them; I still manage what I tell them about adoption despite me being in my 50’s and them in their 80’s!
Written by Cat Theresa: Twitter @CatTheresaUK
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