When I was training to be a counsellor one of the things we talked about was the unique experience of our clients. Empathy is the ability to walk in someone else's shoes whilst keeping one of your feet firmly on solid ground and not being overtaken by your clients experiences. We all have our own experiences and our own reactions and emotions as part of those experiences. No two experiences are the same and it is not possible to totally share someone else's experience. Given the same set of circumstances you might respond and react very differently and the impact of those responses will impact upon you in a very different way. Your character and resilience and early experiences will shape how you react to experiences. This is very obvious with adoption. No two children will react and behave in the same way to a particular set of circumstances. As an adopter it is not possible to have any guarantees as to how your child may react during their life to their experiences before adoption and subsequently once they become part of your family (obviously the same is true of birth children).
Recently I received a tweet in response to my post "Deciding to Adopt". In that post I talked about the 10 miscarriages we experienced before becoming parents to Katie through adoption. The tweet I received said that Katie was actually my 11th choice and the tweeter wondered how that might make Katie feel. I felt incensed to receive such a message. "Katie is certainly not my 11th choice" I inwardly raged. Katie is everything to me. She is an amazing young lady and I couldn't imagine my life without her now. I see my journey through infertility as the path that led me towards being her mum. The tweeter has a point though. Will Katie see it that way in the future? Will Katie feel that the only reason we adopted her was because we couldn't have a birth child. That is a tough question to answer and I can only give my experience as a reply because Katie will have her own feelings on the subject.
When we started to try for a family we didn't question how we would become parents. We just tried to get pregnant. I only knew one adopted person at that point so adopting wasn't really on our radar. We then found ourselves on a medical treadmill of trying to sort out the reason as to why I kept miscarrying. Somewhere along the way that treadmill took over the desire to be a parent and it became a problem to solve. I suspect we both lost our way a bit during that time because the need to not give in took over. Deciding to become a parent through adoption was a much more considered journey for both of us. We questioned our desire and ability to be parents in far more depth.
When you start the journey towards becoming an adoptive parent you will hear and read and absorb a lot of information about adoption and the children who need to be adopted. There are blogs written by Adoptive Parents; Adoptees; Birth Parents and Agencies. Each one detailing the writers own unique experience and their resulting thoughts and feelings. It is easy to get confused as you read so many stories of extremes. I churned inwardly for about 48 hours after receiving the tweet I mentioned above. I worried. I read some of the links the tweeter sent me. I spent a lot of time thinking and feeling some very big and quite scary emotions. But then a feeling washed over me. It reminded me a bit of the scene in "Good Will Hunting" when the psychiatrist Sean has the following conversation with Will after Sean had a sleepless night thinking about things that Will said to him:
"Sean: Thought about what you said to me the other day, about my painting.
Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me...
fell into a deep peaceful sleep, and haven't thought about you since. Do
you know what occurred to me?
You're just a kid, you don't have the faintest idea what you're talkin' about.
Why thank you.
It's all right. You've never been out of Boston.
Sean: So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every
art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life's
work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the
whole works, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like
in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up
at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you'd
probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have
even been laid a few times. But you can't tell me what it feels like to
wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You're a tough kid. And
I'd ask you about war, you'd probably throw Shakespeare at me, right,
"once more unto the breach dear friends." But you've never been near
one. You've never held your best friend's head in your lap, watch him
gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I'd ask you about love,
you'd probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and
been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her
eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could
rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn't know what it's like
to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through
anything, through cancer. And you wouldn't know about sleeping sitting
up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the
doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms "visiting hours" don't
apply to you. You don't know about real loss, 'cause it only occurs when
you've loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you've
ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you... I don't see an
intelligent, confident man... I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But
you're a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly
understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about
me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life
apart. You're an orphan right?
You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how
you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that
encapsulate you? Personally... I don't give a shit about all that,
because you know what, I can't learn anything from you, I can't read in
some fuckin' book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then
I'm fascinated. I'm in. But you don't want to do that do you sport?
You're terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief."
This scene encapsulates perfectly the assumptions that people make about each other. The tweeter made an assumption about my life based on their own feelings and attacked me based on those feelings and assumptions. Those weren't my feelings or my experiences for that matter (and I'm not comparing the tweeter to Will Hunting here in any way shape or form - I was just using the scene as a metaphor). Once I came to that realisation I felt much more comfortable and able to have a dialogue with the tweeter with my fears and anger put to one side and (hopefully) based on mutual respect and understanding that we come from very different perspectives on the whole issue of adoption. I could have easily just blocked the tweeter (and I was tempted as I have enough stress in my life as it is without seeking out any more) but I felt that there was a valid experience to be heard. It doesn't mean it will be my experience or Katie's experience though.
The adoption system is a part of our culture. Adoption, in various forms, has been a part of our society for as long as humans have been around I would imagine. If a parent is unable to care for their child, for whatever reason, then (I feel) it can only be a good thing for that child to be placed within a loving family. I was watching Les Miserables the other evening and struck by how Fontaine leaves her daughter, Cosette, in the car of the unscrupulous Inn Keeper and his wife because she is forced to find work to support her child. Legalised adoption enables children to be cared for with parents who have been vetted and deemed suitable (one would most certainly hope although this isn't always going to be the case as no system is infallible). Obviously this same system finds some birth parents unsuitable to retain custody of their child and there is a great subjectiveness within this system that I do not feel qualified to write about. There are some who are calling for adoptions to be allowed to be overturned and for an adoptee to be legally repatriated with their birth name and all the legal rights that entails, if they so wish. This is an interesting debate and I can empathise with the feelings and reasons involved but I am also aware that not every adopted child will want to do that. Those feelings and desires will be based on each adoptees own experiences. It's also worth acknowledging that feelings change as the years pass by. I do not have contact with my birth family and I have experienced a great many feelings over the years before arriving at the acceptance that I currently have. I have enough years under my belt to see a bigger picture - what I call the "10 Year Review" where you can look back and see how things interconnect and lead you to a certain point. I can see the challenges that my experiences have brought and the things I have achieved as a result of those experiences. I felt able to be an adoptive parent because of some of the sadness and pain I have experienced. I no longer see my life in black of white but embrace the many shades of grey (in a very non-Christian Grey sort of way!).
As an adopter, it would be so useful to be able to sit down and really talk about the various layers of adoption with adoptees and birth parents. To hear each others feelings without being angry or judgemental with each other or trying to invalidate each others experiences. To set aside the need to be right but allow the ability to just come together and share experiences. To be able to really listen and learn from each other and to, hopefully, benefit the children that are coming through the care system and being placed within adoptive homes. What an experience that could be!
I would be really interested to know if that is happening within the UK and, if so, what the results have been?