In this guest blog, Suzie Smith (pseudonym) shares her personal adoption experience, exploring; identity, influence, theories and lessons learned. A huge thank you from all at PAC-UK to Suzie for writing this piece for us.
Reading previous guest blogs on the PAC-UK website, it seems that some of the thinking about adopted children is rather deterministic – suggesting that because you were adopted, you will almost inevitably experience a range of difficult issues.
Whilst recognising that many adoptees do suffer trauma, I wish to challenge such a prescriptive narrative. My experience of adoption, and of finding my birth family, is a predominantly positive one, and I would go so far as to say a privileged one, giving me the opportunity to think about questions of identity which non-adopted people would not normally consider. It is complex and not without its challenges, but I believe every adopted person’s experience should be listened to on its own merit, not viewed through the lens of someone else’s theory or experience.
I was adopted at 10 weeks old and had a very normal and happy childhood. It wasn’t perfect, but there was plenty of love, family in-jokes, joyful school years, heaps of laughter and mischief, and a string of friends and family constantly coming and going. I was enrolled in every kids’ club in existence, giving me confidence, diverse interests, and a wide social circle.
I’d always known I was adopted. But from around the age of 20, I increasingly found myself staring in the mirror and wondering who I resembled and whether I had siblings. The need to know my genetic origins became overwhelming. Thus, I found myself on a train to London to meet people, for the first time, who shared my blood.
I was lucky. Getting to know my birth family was an exciting and life-enhancing experience. I was welcomed into the family and had the chance to get to know my kind and thoughtful birth mother, my Dennis-the-Menace-loving kid brother, and my feisty, quirky aunt and cousin, and to be part of their lives in the years that followed. For me, meeting my birth family in adulthood meant that it's not the same relationship as it would have been if I’d grown up with them. It’s not always plain sailing. But that doesn't mean that it hasn’t been be a predominantly positive experience and I feel fortunate to have them in my life.
Identity and influence
Meeting my genetic family has meant an expanded understanding of who I am in various ways. The first mental conundrum was how, for the first 10 weeks of my life, I had a different name. Learning my birth name was fascinating and for a long time I mentally played with the idea of being “Emily” rather than “Suzie”. How much of my sense of “me” is tied to my name? Then, there was the fact that, after 20 years as an only child, suddenly I had a “sister” identity. My excitement at discovering my brother’s existence was unsurpassed! I could now buy birthday cards with “Brother” on them, and sign them “Your sis”. And after 20 years of thinking of myself as a Northumbrian girl, I suddenly had this genetic inheritance of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Jewish blood, as well as English. It felt very exotic!
I spent a long time tracing my birth family history, endlessly intrigued by the stories and characters that emerged. There was a sense of connection to my blood family and ancestors, but I have equally a strong connection to my adoptive ancestors in the shipyards of North-East England. A family bible in which members of my adoptive mum's family are listed, dating back to the 1700s, is one of my treasured possessions, as these long-dead people are my ancestors too. They shaped my adoptive mum, and therefore shaped me.
Discovering the influence of nature as well as nurture has been enlightening. As well as the freaky experience of meeting people who looked like me for the first time, meeting my birth family revealed where my linguistic and musical leanings came from. My values, on the other hand – share with others, help people, be kind, consider people's feelings, keep your promises - came from my adoptive parents, and my call-a-spade-a-shovel approach and politically-incorrect sense of humour undoubtedly come from growing up in a down-to-earth, no-nonsense North-East community.
But tracing the source of our characteristics isn’t always binary. We are complex beings with many influences upon us, from many sources. Regretfully, both ‘experts’ and the general public can be too quick to attribute any negative characteristics or difficulties to 'because you were adopted'. I'm a little prone to anxiety: is that because I was adopted and I'm suffering some deep-down feeling of separation from my birth mother (as the 'experts' would say) or because my adoptive mum was an anxious person and my anxiety is learned behaviour, or, did I simply inherit an anxious nature, and it's nothing to do with life experience?
Challenging the theories
Some theories say that my so-called genetic memory and separation trauma will likely result in a range of problems. They assume that I will have difficulty bonding with my adoptive family because I can’t trust that they won’t reject me, and that I might display challenging behaviour towards them in order to test whether they really love me.
My reality does not reflect these theories. I was close to my adoptive parents and thrived in our close-knit family unit, and the challenging behaviour I displayed towards them was for quite the opposite reason: I knew I could get away with being a teenage monster precisely because I was secure in their love for me! And I loved them deeply and still grieve for them over a decade after their deaths. Growing up with them, I never felt different, rejected, angry or resentful about being adopted, or that I didn’t belong, and I certainly didn’t grow up constantly fantasising about who my ‘real parents’ were. Only the cruel teasing of other children, who pick up on anyone who is ‘different’ caused a sense of embarrassment at being adopted.
But the truth is, for the most part, my being adopted just didn’t feature in my everyday childhood. So, imposing theory onto individuals without first listening to their experience is doing things the wrong way round. It’s also deeply frustrating when people make the assumption that I must be harbouring trauma at some level, whether I recognise it or not. It seems other people think they know my mind better than I do!
I have every sympathy for those adopted people who live with ongoing anguish. But adopted people are not one homogenous group of people all walking round scarred by their experience. There isn’t a guaranteed chain of consequences, one event automatically leading to another. We’re all different – we all have different life experiences, different personality types, different psychological make-up, and an element of free-will to choose our response to events.
I have been lucky. I was welcomed by my loving birth family and was cherished by my adoptive parents. I feel blessed and privileged to have so many different influences feeding into who I am. At times it has been tricky, not wanting to hurt either family, and I have not always had the skills and sensitivity to manage that well. I wish, when I was tracing my birth family, that I had been more sensitive to my adoptive parents, but I was headstrong and young. There was never any possibility of my forgetting them and running off into the sunset with my birth family. I wish I'd worked harder to reassure my adoptive parents of that. Equally, the fact that I had a happy upbringing while my birth mother suffered such distress at giving me up, and the fact that it’s impossible, in adulthood, to create the intimate bonds that would have been natural had I grown up with my birth family, are issues which it’s difficult for me to be ‘real’ about without rubbing salt in the wounds, and no doubt at times I have unintentionally done just that.
Every child has the right, if they wish, to know who their biological parents are and to have their genetic parentage acknowledged. For that reason, I would oppose anonymous sperm donations, which deprive a child of such fundamental self-knowledge. But while blood is important, it's not the whole story. Humans need strong, supportive, accepting relationships with dependable people. We should expand our understanding of 'family' and recognise that it is multi-faceted. Family is about the closeness of the bond, where you have a sense of belonging and safety, and the journey we travel together. That may include blood relations, adoptive family, or friends. It may be all or none of those things.
These are my experiences and the conclusions I’ve reached. We are all individuals and we are all a complex mix of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, combined with our unique life journey. When it comes to adoption, let's listen to each other's individual stories – and not make assumptions and judgements.
Suzie Smith | May 2023
Please note, all content published on this page is provided by our guest blogger/s, based on their real-life experiences. We invite you to discuss this blog via PAC-UK's Twitter profile and ask you to tag @PACUKadoption in to your posts and use the hashtag #PacukBlog
This blog is the twenty-sixth of our regular 'guest blogger' platform which we started in 2019. We would love to hear from adoptees, birth parents (and relatives), adoptive parents/carers, special guardians and professionals who are interested in taking part in future blogs. If this interests you please email firstname.lastname@example.org.