What do you think adopting a child means?

When you hear the word adoption, in relation to children, what do you think it is? Chances are that for every reader of this there will be a different answer. Depending on the era you are thinking of, the country or culture you live in, whether you are a parent, an adoptee, a social worker, a therapist, religious, conservative, progressive, a victim of circumstance or master of your own destiny the word can be taboo or celebrated, condemned or hopeful. The reality of epigenetics is largely unknown or unconsidered by the public at large, we still reduce things to a binary ‘nature or nurture’, either maintaining that genetics are the only important thing or that it doesn’t matter at all.

My grandfather was adopted. OK, so this was back in the UK before the First World War, when there was no official legal term of ‘adopted’. But he was, by the modern definition. He was bought up by a mother and father who he loved, but they weren’t his biological parents. He didn’t know that until he found out by accident in about 1931 or 32. He barely spoke a word to them after that for the rest of his life, and emigrated to one of the Empire’s Dominions a few years afterwards, not coming back for over 20 years. The rest of his life was spent wondering about his birth family and having what might be described nowadays as identity issues, wandering around the country, never settling anywhere for that long really — never ‘belonging’ anywhere until he had a family of his own. Even then it was constant moving. And of course he may have never found out; his parents certainly had no intention of telling him. You just didn’t do that in those days. Adoption was common in the twentieth century (with over a million acknowledged official adoptions in the period 1926–1990), but a lot of people had no idea they were adopted. ‘Family’ was just seen as those who bought you up, regardless of biological ties.

So is ignorance bliss? Does not knowing if you are adopted, or not knowing your birth parents, matter? Even nowadays in the UK it is estimated that between 1% and 3% of children today (adopted or not) do not have the biological father they think they have, and will never know him. So maybe 400,000 children under 18 years old alive right now will never truly know their family genetic history, often because the mother makes a decision when naming the father using capability rather than biology as the determining factor, or simply just names her current partner. The names on the birth certificate are a convenient legal ‘truth’ but not necessarily the biological truth or the names of the people who performed the role in practice. Your parents lie to you, shocker (and to the government). But however certain you can ever be of the tie to a named parent, most adoptees in the UK want to meet the people named as their birth parents and get to know them. It is a way of finding roots in a confusing world where you feel out of control. It is part of a process of self-discovery that everyone goes through at some point in their life. And this isn’t an issue that solely affects adoptees. I’m interested in my grandfather’s birth parents too. It is obviously a little late to meet them. But I’d like to know more and I never will. My own family tree follows his adoptive parents’ trees. I’m fine with that, I don’t have any cultural or emotional baggage that demands a blood relationship with my ancestors. But I still want to know about a significant event in my family, only 2 generations ago. Epigenetics suggests that event could have affected me too.

So what is the point of this article? Well, I’m an adopter. A term which generally speaking either raises hackles or attracts well-intentioned but rather ignorant comments. I just wanted to explain what adoption in the UK actually means, right now, for most new adopters and adoptees. If you’re into your identity politics, then this is my ‘lived experience’ (or meaningless anecdote depending on whether it fits your narrative or not). The necessity for adoption nowadays, as explained to me when my wife and I applied, lies on three assumptions; 1) that a child can recover from abuse and then thrive, but needs a positive parental bond to do so, 2) that if the abusers are the legal parents then it is not in the child’s best interest for them to continue being the parent and (usually) even seeing the child for the foreseeable future, because 3) the child hasn’t got a true parental bond with either of their current legal parents; if it exists at all then it is based on toxic dependency (much like the assumption that is made in adult domestic abuse situations). So if the abusers happen to be the parents then a new parent has to be found, either the state, i.e. foster care, or another individual. The benefit of adoption being that the parental support is there for life, rather than finishing at 18 as it would if a child is in care (this can be up to 21 in some circumstances). The benefit of foster care being that if there is a good chance of rehabilitation of the parent then they can continue to be the parent a few years’ time, assuming the child wants to return — the child has more legal choice in foster care although of course they are generally much older by that time anyway. There is a lot of debate and handwringing about whether any of those assumptions or conclusions are valid, and whether *any* abusive situation can be considered to be the parents’ fault, but that is the current system we have as I understand it. And of course the child currently in the system can’t wait around for the eggheads to make their minds up.

I’m a father by adoption of an 11-year-old boy and have been for 6 years. My wife and I are not infertile, and neither were any of the other couples in our ‘prep’ group, unless you count the gay couple in the group, and even they had a child from one of their previous relationships. We weren’t motivated by a ‘saviour’ complex although I have to admit to thinking in terms of civic duty and the environmental necessity of not bringing more children into the world, so perhaps not the most child-centred approach initially. I was quickly disabused of that! I’ve fuzzified the details here to protect his identity (he isn’t 11 in reality for instance) although his is not exactly a unique situation so it probably wasn’t really necessary. You can never be too careful though, and that is the first difference between twenty-first century adoption and the past.

He remembers his birth parents, as do most adopted children in the modern UK system. His memories of them are perhaps not as positive as his birth parents might fondly imagine, but part of the adopter’s job is to reverse that (contrary to popular opinion) and try to get the child to understand what led their parents to do what they did and, if not accept it, at least learn to live with it. His much older adult sister is in the care system, with not long before leaving, and with the state having parental responsibility. They frequently see each other in person. His parental bond before us was formed with her rather than a birth parent, due to the circumstances under which they found themselves. It is sad that they were split up, but it was necessary in this case according to the experts at the time. That bond still exists with her, along with us. It hasn’t been ‘erased’, but she was in no position to be a guardian herself, not the least due to her age, and so adoption was really the only realistic legal option left. Our movements, although not restricted legally, have had advisories about avoiding certain areas of the country and not emigrating, for his wellbeing and the continuation of their relationship. We have all had family therapeutic help to assist him understanding the whys, whats, and wherefores. He experienced trauma when moving to our new family. He experienced much more trauma at the hands of birth parents and other adults, all of which was proved in court, and none of which I’ll go into here. He has his birth certificate (well a copy anyway), we have his medical records from Before, and the conversation around adoption happens a lot in our household, especially as he gets older. We don’t keep his status as adopted secret (bit difficult to hide the sudden appearance of a 5 year-old in the house anyway), but equally we don’t tell others about his backstory — that’s his, and it’s why you don’t see it here. All his friends know he’s adopted, he has never been happy about his status, but he has never been embarrassed. Reunion with birth parents might well happen, once he is old enough to understand the context and implications of their history together. We’re not going to stand in the way. I record this, not to sound like a smug holier-than-thou know-it-all but to list all the things that adoption is nowadays, and who adopters are. It isn’t Call The Midwife anymore. It isn’t what many adoptees from other times and places, birth parents or even some social workers who are maybe victims of their own euphemisms would have you believe. The gaslighting and misinformation online is endemic and risks undermining the current child protection system. It feels like there is no acknowledgment of the changes that have happened over the last 20 years. There is a reason why a child is given a new identity and moved to a new location. It isn’t done for a laugh. It isn’t a conspiracy to give childless middle-class couples a baby. And it isn’t solely done by adoption — my son’s sister being a case in point.

But going back to the beginning. Maybe especially because of my own family history I am anxious to give my son a sense of place and understanding about his status in society and in our family. Despite doing everything we can to help he still feels rootless. We think. He is not quite mature enough to fully articulate that, but as a parent you can kind-of tune in to it. He still questions his identity, still regularly goes back to look at what little he has from his first 5 years, to try and make sense of it. And he has his sister — someone who has first-hand shared experience of that time — to help him once she has recovered from her own trauma, but he needs more. I see lots of parallels with her and my grandfather actually, only the last time we met her she was talking about emigrating with her new identity and starting again. She needs something like that, just like my grandad did. I hope that we never lose touch, and not just for my son’s sake, we’ve established a great relationship ourselves too. But it’s not guaranteed, because of the way their first family was blown apart. My son will probably always be looking for something lost, but perhaps never really finding it. And you know what? That loss isn’t inflicted by the adopters. It isn’t inflicted by the ‘system’. It is easy to turn reasons for abuse into an excuse, then criticise the system and the people who volunteer to look after the children at the end of it. Rather that than accept that for some children there is nothing else that can, or could, be done. Because that would mean there is a dark heart in humanity that we don’t want to think about. We’re avoiding the issue rather than dealing with it. Sometimes I think it is forgotten what adoptees are actually victims of, and who are the perpetrators.

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