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What it's like being adopted

It's been 12 years since Zoe was adopted and she recalls the times she has been asked the question "What's it like to be adopted?"

May 11th 2005 marked the twelfth anniversary of my adoption, an occasion which never passes us by without acknowledgement.

Image of white girl smiling
It has always been a very personal affair, a commemoration of yet another milestone. I can recall the countless times when the question, "what´s it like to be adopted?" has been put to me by inquisitive classmates and often I attempted objectivity by asking in return, "what´s it like not to be?"

It was much easier ten years ago; I just tried to explain that, as good as they are, films like Annie, Oliver! or Curly Sue don´t exactly hit the nail on the head as far as addressing the issues surrounding childhood adversity is concerned. Nowadays, it´s difficult to explain without sounding like some sort of martyr.

The truth is that although I was (and am) glad to be asked, I have never been able to answer this kind of question with frankness. Perhaps naively, the nature of the security in my family seems obvious to me. I am still prone to forgetting that not everyone has been as fortunate when it comes to mothers (after all, mine was hand-picked from an elite few). There are many children who have grown up in desperately unhappy circumstances.

My birth parents met in a mental health treatment centre. Having found common ground, they married and produced two children. I spent very little time in their care in the years in and out of foster homes due to my mother´s illnesses and inability to manage, and so barely developed ´normal´ attachment to either parent. Contact with my father discontinued after his conviction 17 years ago and has not been regained since.

Adoption, as I understand it, had always been on the agenda throughout my latter placements and, during the 18 months I spent at a children´s in-patient psychiatric unit, I was continually prepared for this.

By the time I´d turned seven, I was definitely ready for permanent parents. When my social worker showed me a picture album compiled by a 29-year-old Scottish lady called Annabelle, I studied her photographs with feelings of curiosity, nervous excitement and uncertainty. I remember our first meeting vividly and still have the teddy bear she gave me as a memento. I moved to Cumbria a month later, started a new school and a new kind of existence. Life for Annabelle had inevitably changed forever.

She describes this period as a ´baptism of fire´ – it was certainly the most challenging episode of our relationship. Like many, or all, new pre-adoptee and foster children, I was continually testing the limits of my mum´s tolerance and commitment. I was very conscious of the unfamiliarity I was feeling even a few months on. Whilst I was aware of how much happier I was despite the initial struggle, it was difficult to know that I was lacking the stories that other children had with their families. I often realised that there were very few questions about my birth and earlier years that my new mum was capable of answering. This feeling only truly diminished after a few years in her care, by which time we were beginning to make our own history.

It was in the initial stages that I was introduced into the local Christian Fellowship where our social circles extended somewhat. Religion isn´t always regarded as a fundamental aspect of life but, from a personal perspective, I found in faith a different source of support, albeit invisible.

A couple of years later we made our second home in a converted barn on the West coast. Here we stayed for the next seven years, where I spent the best part of my teenage years very happily. My gran moved down from Scotland to a small house in a village near us where we would have tea in the evenings.

As I had been the subject of an open adoption, we travelled to Swindon at least twice a year to visit my birth mother until her death in 1997 when she was 40. The relationship with my older brother still thrives – we have an important connection, as it is one of the few and fundamental links to our pasts.

My birth mother´s death when I was 13 proved to be a turning point. Had it not been for the compassion and support I received, I´m not sure how I would have coped. I do regret not having known her well.

The funeral itself was an eye-opening event, to say the least. We travelled to London for the service, which was arranged and attended by our many aunts, uncles and cousins. The true extent of our birth family was quite overwhelming. Nevertheless, as we collected their contact details, it felt comforting to know that, should we have any questions about our birth mum, there were ten of her siblings to answer them! It was around this time that my adoptive mum was working with Social Services about fostering another little girl. Chantelle came to us in July 1998. I was fully involved in the process, and never felt excluded. The feeling one experiences before the imminent arrival of a ´new´ family member is indescribable, a feeling which was echoed again when we met then-seven-year-old Kayleigh in 2001.

It was difficult in the beginning; I did not bond with Chantelle as I had hoped to. It had been just Mum and I for so long, and I felt a little threatened. But once it had been made clear that I may have something significant to offer this little girl, I started to live up to the big-sister role and found it came quite naturally, recognising in her a very familiar vulnerability. As time passed, she learned to accept me too. Time also allowed an understanding that in giving, there is so much to gain.

We moved again in 2002, to Gran´s village where she joined us. I was 16 at this point, and had just started a Media Studies course at college. This was a difficult period, perhaps because of the nature of adolescence itself. A year later I moved out of the family home and into the city of Carlisle to gain a little perspective and independence. I still go home occasionally when I have the funds, leaving enough time between each stay for the family to miss me!

Kayleigh had begun her new life with us, and in spite of the initial teething problems, has settled considerably. Both girls know they have family security, no matter how much they may feel the world pull against them.

In the grand scheme of things, twenty years is not a long time. Nonetheless, I believe it´s not only our years that shape who we become, but also the people who dip in and out of our lives, and perhaps more importantly, those who stay.

At the risk of sounding unashamedly mawkish, I can safely say that there is something irreplaceable about the notion that I am a part of this family not because of some biological mishap, but because I was striven for. The woman who raised me willingly travelled hundreds of miles to sit through countless meetings, completed document after document, and faced a torrent of intimate questions – just to make me her daughter and replace what was taken.

Originally published in the Be My Parent newspaper in November 2005.

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This article is published with the kind permission of the people involved. You may download it for your own reference but if you wish to use it for any other purpose, please contact Be My Parent for authorisation: Be My Parent, BAAF, Saffron House, 6-10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS. Telephone: 020 7421 2666/5/4.

Last updated: 12 June 09

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