Although I may have always known I was adopted, I didn’t until about the age of eleven, quite understand what the words meant. From small, I had assumed my adoptive parents discovered me in a supermarket, sitting in a vegetable crate, and partial to my size and colour had put me in a paper bag and carried me home. My confusion would deepen further, when after every ‘supposedly’ naughty moment or episode, my mother would threaten to take me to the local dog’s home. I did truly believe, for many years, that disobedient little children were bagged and tagged and dropped off at the local dog’s home, the reminder of their life spent in a sort of canine purgatory. No doubt my mother thought this an appropriate threat, after all, she also taught me to be afraid of policemen, informing me they took bad little kids away and without a definitive list of the types of behaviours likely to merit an abduction by a police officer, it left me feeling decidedly nervous around them.
One day at school, when I had just turned eleven, our teacher instructed us to draw our family tree on the chalkboard. We had already made books about our families from tacked together pages of A4, in which my parents had been quite surprised to find they featured very little at all; it seemed my family consisted of hamsters, flowers, teddies, books and the odd sticky chocolate wrapper. I found talking about my family difficult. Imagine a wooden dolls house: each room meticulously planned, furniture and accessories positioned just so, and each doll placed perfectly into each scene. This is how I understood my family and how I saw myself. Something about us all felt artificial and contrived and it felt uncomfortable to showcase people I didn’t really know and people who didn’t really know themselves.
When we ordinarily have children, they arrive in our world as a crisp, brand new page and it’s up to us to begin to stitch their story together. It’s different if one is adopted because we are tethered to a past, a past we may or may not know but ignorance of a thing doesn’t change its existence. Even if we are adopted the day we are born, we still have a biological mother and father and a heritage that cannot be undone. I think for some adoptive parents this is inherently difficult to cope with. It causes them great pain. They want to be our parents from the very beginning, to take the chalk rubber to everything that came before and not being able to do so threatens their legitimacy as parents.
Finally, I Understand:
So, I am sitting at the back of class between a boy I get on well with and an annoying girl who has a plastic spider for a pencil case. I don’t like spiders. Children wander to the chalkboard to draw rudimentary family trees. I watch them, their fingers covered in dusty white chalk, faces puckered in concentration, trying to remember who is related to whom. There is a knotty feeling inside my chest and my stomach feels like a fizzy bottle of lemonade. I don’t know why I feel as I do, but as people walk back to desks and the teacher starts asking them questions one by one, I think I might be sick on the table.
Eventually I am called. I shuffle to the front of class, my cheeks tight balls of pink. I hold the chalk, warm from umpteen sweaty hands. I stare at the board. My thoughts whirr in my head like the typewriter in the secretary’s office. I draw a long, straight line and stop. I look across at the teacher who stands with her hands on her plump hips, an old rag in her hand. I hear children behind me begin to fidget. I start to cry.
After school, my mother was called into the classroom. When I’d begun to sob, the teacher, a cantankerous old bat reminiscent of Miss Trunchbull had stomped across to me with an impatient face and informed me of my silliness. Mother, who of course loved the word silly, joined in upon her arrival, and she may have continued except for the fact her mouth stopped working when the teacher told her the whole class now knew of the ‘adopted situation.’
The idea that my mother could be ‘my adopted mother’ rather than ‘my mother’ appeared too much to bear, a climb down in the social hierarchy, a loss of standing in the school community in which she spent most of her time. Never having come to terms with her own infertility, not having worked through the emotions or understood how it impacted on her sense of self as a wife (or as a once hopeful mother), she carried a deep pain within her, a mixture of rage, disappointment, resentment, jealousy and shame and all the corners of her broken dreams.
Mother told me never to mention it again and if the kids asked questions to tell them I had made it all up because, apparently, I liked telling stories. When I asked why I should not talk about it, mother projected her own shame on to me, asking why I felt the need to tell people anyway and inquiring why I must have so much attention, especially when it caused others so much pain.
To say I felt confused would be an understatement. I’d blurted out ‘I am adopted’ as I sat back down in my chair at school, not because I wanted to share the information with others, not because I craved attention but because I was sharing those words with myself, hearing them, understanding them, feeling my way around them really for the first time. All of my questions and their often shadowy answers, the words such as ‘special’ and ‘chosen,’ the strange terms, all the things said and not said came together as a simple dot to dot in that one fleeting moment and I knew many of the things I struggled with finally made sense. The feeling of being different. The fear of rejection and abandonment. The worthlessness. The pervading sense that I had been put down somewhere I didn’t belong, with people I didn’t belong to and now would forever be lost like a discarded teddy on a landfill site. I did think sometimes, before this, that if only I could go to the sea and put a message in a bottle, maybe just maybe I could send my mum a love letter, but I never did.
Closed adoption creates precise paths for each person to walk, deemed necessary so each individual can move forwards without friction or trouble. In the 70s, my mum would have been told to ‘get on with her life’ and ‘put it all behind her’ and assured by social workers that I would be going to a good family. My adopted parents would have loved fulfilling the role of earnest respectability, after all, mother loved arranging and rearranging the outward appearance of her family like a stage set, making sure all secrets and unappetizing titbits of life were hidden behind a powdered face and a crimson lip.
Being adopted is tricky enough to navigate but just like biological families, adopted families have their own neurosis, their own wounds and hurts, a lifetime of personality and behaviours shaped by all they have experienced. We are not a new page as adopted kids but not a full story either and our adoptive parents are more akin to a novel read three quarters of the way through. As they begin the next chapter, we try and read the same text to see if we can somehow fit into their well-read story.