As I write, I am on holiday with my two children. They are playing outside in the sunshine, laughing and talking about the fun they will have in the outdoor pool later, jumping in off the side and diving for hoops.
This is the dream of parenthood. Summer holidays soaked in sunshine, family time, and long lazy days enjoying being together. Like many adoptive parents, though, I am also aware that this dream has been—and still is—somebody else’s nightmare.
In the UK, there are very few adoptions due to relinquishment of a child. The vast majority of children who go on to be adopted have been removed from their birth families by children’s services. Some of these children will be able to go straight to live with family members, which may become a permanent arrangement. Others will go into foster care, while decisions are made about their futures.
I fostered both of my children before I adopted them. I will not tell their stories here, nor the stories of their birth families, but I know from my years of fostering, and all the infants and toddlers that have come through my home, that their stories are not untypical. They both came to me very young and, in both cases, we spent months working towards a possible return to their mothers. In both cases, this did not work out.
A foster carer walks a strange middle road between the professionals involved with a child, and the child’s birth family. I have never had any say in the long-term care plan put together for the children I have cared for. The social workers have never sought my opinion on any aspect of the birth parents’ ability to care for their child. I take the children to see their birth parents usually several times each week. We chat at handover, I pass on any news from the week, and over time a relationship develops between us. All this happens amid the ebb and flow of the official decision-making process that we all know is going on around us.
Sometimes I will take a child on a visit, knowing that a social worker has given that parent devastating news earlier that same day. I see them on the edge of tears, but trying to control themselves for the sake of their child. Other times, I will witness the joy on the face of a parent who has been told their child will be returning home, and we can share our impatience at how long that part of the process can sometimes take; when a day feels like weeks.
I am forever grateful that I had the chance to know my children’s first families. Adoption is not a straightforward thing. In many ways, it is one possible solution to an impossible problem. I am certainly not alone as an adoptive parent in wanting reassurances that my children’s first families were given proper support and every chance to be parents before the decision was taken to permanently remove their child. As their foster carer, I was able to witness that support in action and see the results. My oldest child was actually returned to his birth mum for a short time before it all broke down again.
Having built a relationship with these women over many months, I have a very clear picture in my mind of who my children’s first mothers were and are. They are not profiles on paper to me, nor are they the caricatures of birth parents that we so often see in the media. They are whole, complex, three-dimensional people, with lives and tragedies and experiences of their own. As I talk to my children about their first mothers, I am able to talk about real people, with successes and failures woven through their lives, not fantasy figures of cartoon baddies and goodies. I hope that as they grow older, my children will be able to understand the humanity of the mothers who bore them in all its complexity and find their own peace with the decisions that were taken on their behalf.
I also hope that knowing where their children are and who they are with gives some small comfort to their first mothers. Both told me that they were at least glad that their little ones would not have to go and live with strangers. It’s not much to hold on to in the midst of devastating loss, but at least when I write my letters full of news of their children, I am writing to somebody who I have a relationship with on some level. I can picture them as they write, and I am sure that helps me to write letters that are more rounded and more personal. One day, if my children wish, I will go with them to meet their first mothers again, and we will not be meeting as strangers.
Over the years, I have been asked several times if I would still have raised these children if I had not been able to adopt them. Would I have been their permanent foster carer or guardian, but not their mother? It’s both a difficult and an easy question to answer. The easy answer is “Yes!” I made a lifetime commitment to them that wasn’t predicated on a particular legal order but on love.
However, I was not responsible for writing their care plan. Other people decided that, and adoption is what they decided. The option of remaining in foster care with me or having me as their guardian was not available. If I had not adopted them, somebody else would have. In the UK, children who are young and who cannot live with their parents or family members are generally adopted. This is the path successive governments have pursued and the system we all currently work within, for better or worse.
For me, as an adopter, the positive of adoption is in the possibility of lifelong belonging. It is not that the children belong to me—what child really belongs to their parent?—but that I belong to the child, forever. My children will never ‘leave care’. They will never cease to be my responsibility. Whatever path they choose in the future, I will always bear that responsibility and they will have a right to expect that of me—not as a favour to a former foster child of mine, but as a child of a parent. If they come to me needing help at 20, 30, 40 years old, as long as I am alive, they have a right to expect that help from me. When they leave my home to make their way in the world, their bedroom will not be handed over to another foster child. Having seen care leavers struggle through their early adulthood, seemingly abandoned by the corporate parent that undertook to raise them, I think there is something in the belonging of adoption that is worth holding on to.
Yet, I am also acutely aware that my children have another ‘belonging’ relationship, with their birth families. They do not belong to their birth parents any more than they belong to their adoptive parents, but in an unbreakable way, their birth families belong to them. What can they expect from that relationship in the future? Only time will tell, but my hope is that my children will grow to adulthood with the understanding that what has happened to them does not mean that they have no family, but rather that they have two families.
Becky is a former teacher, a foster carer, and a single adoptive mum to two fantastic children in the UK. She works for an adoption support charity, promoting improved understanding and support in schools for children who have experienced the care system.
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