‘Happy’ Homecoming Day (is it really a happy day?)

This weekend is the little one’s homecoming day. The day we mark when she came home to us for good. It’ll be her 3rd homecoming day, which means it’s 3years since she joined our family.

As I am adopted myself, I have grown up celebrating my own homecoming day. I still mark it now 32years later. I don’t know where the idea came from, but I’ve never known a time when we haven’t had it. The reason behind it is to celebrate the day that we were taken home by mum & dad. To celebrate the start of a new life with our family. For me it was alway a joyous occasion, and it truly was a celebration. A day to celebrate being adopted. Looking back now, I still celebrate it because for me it is a day to be thankful I was adopted. I know for sure adoption was the right thing for me. I would not have had the life I’ve had, and would not be where I am now if I had not been adopted. Adoption is part of me, and forever will be. It’s also a good excuse for a cake, because who doesn’t want cake?…

The last two years we’ve celebrated our daughter’s homecoming day. We’ve done this because its been really special to carry on a family tradition with our own family and our little girl. It’s helped to be able to explain to her about adoption. We’ve been able to start to explore her story with her. We love celebrating her and who she is. We love making her feel special, to feel loved, to feel wanted. Of course she is all of these things any and every day, and we don’t need a special day to communicate this to her. It has felt right to mark the occasion when she moved to live with us, because whatever the feelings or emotions around this day are, it will always be a significant day in her life.

However, I’ve been thinking about if this truly is a ‘happy’ day in her life. From listening to many voices in adoption, I know that for some people, adoption is far from a happy thing. Some may love their adoptive family with everything they have, and yet they still have mixed feelings about adoption. The day they came home may not have happy, positive connotations. The day they came home was the day that their previous life ceased. The day they came home was the day their identity was changed forever. For some children the day they came home is the last time they ever saw their Foster Carers, the people who they came to love and trust. Although some children will be excited about a new home and family, I’m sure they’re also very scared and feel very alone. Coming home is very much a day of mixed emotions, not all of them might be happy.

I was talking to my daughter about her homecoming day, and what this means to her. I asked her what it makes her feel like, and she told me ‘happy’ We also talked about how its ok to feel sad too because its also a day when we remember she left her much loved foster carers behind. We talked about why she needed to be adopted, and why those other people were no longer able to look after her. As a family we try really hard to talk about her Birth Family and Foster Carers. We have some level of contact with both, which I think for her really helps. They are not cut off/out of her life. When we talk about ‘family’ they are all included, because these people are important to her, as is she to them. We have photos of all those people she loves, and who love her. We are honest with her about her story, and validate/empathise with feelings she has. I don’t want to put words in her mouth, because I think she may just repeat what I say, or say what she thinks I want to hear. I hope she grows up knowing that she can talk to us about how she’s feeling. I know that she may feel torn, and worried about upsetting us. But I hope that if we talk to her about these things, she’ll understand that it’s really ok to feel them.

So, this weekend we will celebrate her homecoming day. We will celebrate her, we will celebrate us. We will celebrate how far we’ve come as a family in the last 3years. We will celebrate our achievements. We will remember how much we’ve all changed in that time. It is also our wedding anniversary the same day. So, we can share the celebrations of our family, as a family together. But, from now, I think we’ll also use this day to reflect, and to remember that it brings with it mixed feelings and emotions. At the moment I do think it’s important to mark the occasion, and to celebrate it, whilst at the same time acknowledging and making space for whatever, or however she might feel as she grows up. I am fully prepared to stop celebrating her homecoming day in the future if she doesn’t want to. If celebrating is not the right thing to do, then we won’t. We may no longer openly celebrate that day, but in my heart I always will. In my mind, it’s the day I became her Mummy, and to me, that is always a day worth celebrating. And, this weekend, we will eat cake, because that’s what a celebration needs….

Is there anything right about adoption today?

I’ve been thinking for a while about the current adoption climate. I’ve been listening to lots of different voices and perspectives. I’ve been reflecting on my experience and views, and on those that my daughter might have now and when she’s older. As with every other complex ‘subject’, there’s a whole spectrum of thoughts and opinions. I don’t think there is a definite answer to this question, as there are so many variables that affect each and every case. What might be right for one person, could be absolutely wrong for someone else. Anyway, in this post I’m going to try to look at some of the themes that are currently being debated, in an attempt to explore the question.

From listening to adoptee voices, the overwhelming message that I have taken from them is that adoption in itself is trauma. Regardless of the reasons why someone might ‘need’ to be adopted, the actual physical action of adoption will cause trauma to the individual. I think it’s well recognised that moving in with total strangers, being separated from your familiar care givers is traumatic for children. As adults we understand why it happening, but for children, they most likely don’t, however well they are prepared. As adults we can see the purpose of adoption and the long term benefits it can have. Children can’t. They often don’t understand time. They only have limited experience to draw on. That experience is often negative. They learn to expect negative. They don’t know it’s going to be their ‘forever home’, they expect their caregiver to disappear, just like the last one did. How do they learn to trust again?…

The argument for adoption, for putting children through this level of upheaval is that we know that children do settle, that they do learn to trust again. We know that they will go on to have positive experiences, and that’s why adoption can be the right option for some. With time, effort, support this part of the trauma of adoption can be healed. Probably not fully, but it can be reduced. If the transition is managed well, and everyone is supported, then they can be successful. These processes should always be child centred, and care should be taken to ensure they go at the child’s pace.

The trauma of adoption runs deeper than just moving house and caregiver. As adoptees have taught me, it’s the total cut off from birth family that causes much damage. Adoptees are expected to change their names, have a new birth certificate, be permanently separated from their birth families. Their identity is totally changed, and they don’t feel whole or complete. They’re expected to be grateful to their adopters for ‘rescuing’ them, when sometimes they didn’t want to be recused at all. Many adoptees don’t know anyone who is genetically related to them. This is a big deal to some people. They feel like they don’t fit in their new families. They might not look like their adoptive family, which marks them as ‘different’ even more. They can’t give information about ‘family history’ in medicals, they don’t know who/where they get their characteristics from. They have no baby photos to look back on, no photos of birth family members to treasure.

The argument seems to be that when we understand the level and depth of trauma that some of these issues bring up, then how can we knowingly put children through it again and again? I’ve had it said to me (as an adoptee adopter), that I’m ‘repeating the cycle of trauma’. I get this, I see where they’re coming from. But…for some children, their best option is still adoption. Adoption with every effort made to maintain some of those links, to maintain that identity. This could be through some level of direct contact where appropriate. It doesn’t have to be a birth parent, it could be another relative. It could be through a foster carer who the child lived with before adoption. All these connections will allow the child to build up an understanding of where they come from. The child can ask these people important questions, they may have access to relevant information that helps them make sense of who they are. As an adoptee told me this week, it allows gaps to be filled, and prevents the mind imagining. Or fears/fantasies being made about their birth family.

As a family, we have direct contact with birth family member and foster carers. It’s hugely beneficial for everyone involved, and I think it is helping our daughter make sense of her story. It’s helping her learn about her two families, and how/why she came to be with us. As she gets older. she’ll be able to explore more and ask more questions. It might not be easy, but we’ll always try to do what’s best for her. The other day I was talking to her about adoption, and she was asking questions, and I could see the confusion on her face. It felt so wrong that someone so little would have such big thoughts to have to work through. I hope gave her an appropriate answer that helped her to understand a little bit more and reassured her. It made me angry that if she hadn’t been adopted, she wouldn’t be asking questions like this. Without going into details about her story, I know that adoption was best for her given the options available. We are very open with her as appropriate, and she has a good understanding of her story. She does ask questions, and I hope she always feels able to, however difficult the answers might be (for us and her). Contact with birth relatives doesn’t answer all those questions, but it does keep that link open. I think that in adoption these days, direct contact is being considered more. As the research shows the benefits it has, more people see that it must happen (where appropriate). Prospective adopters need to be told about it early on in the process, and professionals need to consider it more. More needs to be communicated to make people understand that adoption isn’t a fairy tale story in which everyone lived happily ever after. Adopters need to understand that adoptive parenting is hard. They also need to know it can be wonderful too.

Another argument against adoption is why don’t people become long term carers/guardians rather than adopters? That way, the child maintains their identity, and are not legally disconnected from their birth family. I see the benefits of this approach, but I’m not sure there would be many people willing to be essentially carers until the child is 18, rather than a parent. I know that no one has a right to ‘have’ a child, and to be a parent. But, being a parent is what many people do want to do. Historically there was a need to reproduce to achieve survival of the fittest, and continue the gene line. Now days it’s not about that, but I still think the desire to have and care for children stands. For some people, genetics doesn’t matter, and their chid doesn’t have to be related to them, for them to have deep sense of needing to care for and protect that child. To me a parent is very different to being a carer. This doesn’t take away from the fact that carers do an amazing job of looking after children, usually as they would their own. However, for some children having a parent rather than a carer allows them to feel secure, to know that no one can take them away. It provides stability and familiarity that enables them to start to heal, to strengthen attachments. A child needs these things first before they can start to learn and take on the wider world. For some children, they will never manage or thrive in a family, and in these cases long term, care is appropriate. Voices are being raised in the adoption world, and maybe practice will change to give more options for adoptees to maintain their original identity.

What also needs to be done is that more support needs to be given to families, so that they don’t even get to the point of needing children taken into care. More support needs to be given to help children return to families from care. But, we can not ignore the fact that for some families, they are given chances and more chances, and a massive amount of support. And yet they are not able to keep children safe. Many times this can be due to generational deprivation, and sometimes the safest thing to do is to break this cycle altogether. More needs to be done to work with families where children have been adopted out, to prevent further children being taken into care. To help parents learn to parent safely.

In conclusion, to answer the question, there is a lot ‘wrong’ with adoption right now. But, these issues are complex, and will take time, effort, money to solve. There does seem to be more awareness around some of the problems, and more voices being raised in unison to petition for things to change. But, on the flip side, when done well, with support, there is lot right with adoption now too. It’s not perfect, and it never will be. However, adoption does give the most vulnerable and hurting children the chance to grow up safe, and to achieve their potential in life. It can provide healing, and it can transform a child and their life before them.