Three sisters, three stories, three lives
Clare strongly believes that accepting her three adopted daughters’ pasts is hugely important to them and to the family as a whole.
“When we were first thinking about adoption,” says Clare, “we became very aware of the benefits of involving birth families.”
Clare, who is of English descent, adopted three girls of dual Asian and white ethnicity with her partner, Nita, of Asian descent. For Clare and Nita, the issue of the children’s identities was hugely important, and they wanted all three to have the opportunity to learn about their backgrounds.
“This is why we sought some form of contact with their birth families,” says Clare. “And now each one has a different relationship with her birth relatives!”
The couple’s first child, Lubna, was nearly nine when she came to live with them. She had lived with her birth mother until she was four years old, and psychologists had concerns about whether she would ever make attachments to other adults, so Clare and Nita wanted to do everything they could to help Lubna settle.
“Lubna already had a mummy, and we were clear that she could call us by our first names,” says Clare. “As soon as we told her that, you could see the pressure lift. And as far as we were concerned we were the ones who were parenting her, so what she called us wasn’t an issue. We felt that if she lost her strong sense of attachment to her birth family, she’d never be able to form new attachments to us. The past still existed and was very important to her.”
For this reason Clare and Nita felt that it would be helpful for Lubna to have contact with her birth mother, who was now living in India, but their social worker was reluctant to provide information about her whereabouts because she had mental health problems. However, these details had to be made available when the adoption went to court. “I think people make judgements about birth families, but when we met Lubna’s birth mother, we found she was articulate and educated and would much prefer that her daughter was living with her, but, sadly, has times when she’s too ill too care for a child.”
In an ideal world Clare and Nita would have liked to have met Lubna’s birth mother first and then prepared for the contact between her and Lubna. Also, there was no-one to support Lubna’s birth mother before or after these meetings, and Clare would advise both parties to have someone independent to support them, if at all possible. Fortunately Lubna’s contact with her birth mother went very well.
“I think we met in a hotel lobby the first time – it was neutral ground,” Clare recalls. “After that we met several times during that first visit to India. We made sure that Lubna and her birth mother had time to spend on their own. Her birth mother was so happy and so grateful we had brought her daughter to see her! The meetings were just like any other family reunion, with the adults chatting away and Lubna getting bored after a bit and going to do her own thing.”
Lubna made enormous progress after the visits. “She knew her birth mother was OK and there would be chances to see her in the future. We felt these visits gave our daughter the message that her past wasn’t a problem, there was room for her birth mother within our extended family.”
The family has returned to India every other year since this initial visit. During the second visit Lubna met her birth father and paternal grandfather, who lived in a very inaccessible part of India. For the very first time in her life, Lubna found herself among people who shared the same distinctive facial features as herself.
“She’s the image of her birth father. And they were all so welcoming, accepting Lubna as family. We were taken to the ancestral village and a ceremony was held for her. People in that part of India live as a tribe and she was welcomed into her tribe,” Clare says. Lubna was presented with clothes and textiles, one of which she keeps on her bed. She also discovered that her birth father had two other children she didn’t know about.
Following these visits Clare and Nita watched “layers and layers of stress and anxiety peel away” from their adopted daughter. Clare believes that every child needs a link back to where they started from, to help them feel secure about where they are now. “Lubna’s done the normal teenage thing of saying ‘Must we go and see them?’ when we’re visiting her relatives in India,” adds Clare. “Recently she got a place at university and we’re asking her, ‘Have you told your birth mother about this yet?’, because they have email contact, and she’s saying ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll get round to it!’ It’s all very natural, whereas if she hadn’t met her relatives, they’d be some really big deal in the back of her mind.”
Neelam, the couple’s second adopted daughter, was just over a year old when she joined the family. Clare and Nita were keen to meet Neelam’s birth mother and her birth father, even though he was in prison. “Having been through what we went through with Lubna, we know it’s hard to help children make sense of their adoption without meeting their birth parents,” Clare explains.
The meeting with Neelam’s birth mother was a very emotional one, and Clare and Nita took lots of photographs. Unfortunately it hasn’t been possible to stay in touch with the birth mother, and the family no longer know where she is.
“Every year we send letterbox material to the agency,” says Clare. “We save photos all year round – so if Neelam is in a school play or has passed a swimming certificate, we keep records. And if Neelam writes a card to her birth mother when she’s on holiday, we add it to the rest.”
This year, Neelam, who is eight, wrote to her birth mother saying that she would love to receive a photo of her and to know that she is OK. “We’ve had to help her understand that maybe her birth mother isn’t feeling well enough to do this,” says Clare. “We know she feels a bit jealous that Lubna has met her birth mother, but it’s also nice that when we visit her, she treats all our daughters the same.”
After much perseverance, Clare and Nita finally met Neelam’s birth father in prison. They had been told that he was very hostile towards them as a same-sex couple, but they found him very welcoming, although feeling guilt-ridden that he had let his child down.
The couple weren’t allowed to take photos in the prison, but he gave them photos to keep. “It was so helpful to see him because we could see that Neelam looks like him. We’re able to say to her, ‘You’re going to be tall like your dad.’ We also found out about Neelam’s grandparents and where they came from. Even how Neelam’s name had been chosen."
Saima, the couple’s youngest daughter is only four, and was voluntarily put forward for adoption by her birth mother, who felt that she could not cope with another child and an absentee partner. In fact, Saima’s birth mother chose Clare and Nita from other prospective adopters because she wanted her child to grow up in a family who reflected her daughter’s mixed heritage, and where she would have siblings.
“It was really helpful to meet her,” Clare says. “She told us this incredible story about how she, as a white woman, had fallen in love with an Asian man and started a family with him, when he already had another family. And she hadn’t realised she was pregnant with Saima until she went into labour! She wanted to become independent from her partner and had found a job, so she couldn’t care for a fourth child under five years old.”
Because of her circumstances, Saima’s birth mother has chosen not to have face-to-face contact with her daughter but agreed to letterbox contact. At present, she doesn’t return this contact. “As she grows up this could be hard for Saima. It’s also going to be hard for her to accept that her brothers and sister live with her birth mother when she can’t. But because we know the full story we can help her understand it.”
Feeling comfortable with the past
Clare says that whatever the circumstances of a child’s birth family, it’s much better to know who they are, so you can help a child make sense of their history. All three of their children have photo albums of their birth families, which they readily show to visitors. Saima especially likes to see pictures of herself with her birth mother, holding a toy that she still has.
“I think if you aren’t comfortable with the life story of your child you shouldn’t be adopting them.” Clare says. “In all the cases I know of adoptions that have broken down, the adopters either didn’t pursue contact or were negative about it. And there’s no need to feel threatened: your child is with you every day and nobody is going to take that away. If you are critical of the people who are a part of your child’s make-up, then you are rejecting part of them. But if you accept and empathise with the past then you can make a good life for your child. The gains are enormous.”
All names have been changed. Interview by Henrietta Bond. Also see Knowing where you come from.
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Originally published in the Be My Parent newspaper in March 2005. 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: 04 December 07