What’s it like to be adopted? An adult adoptee’s perspective.

adoption trauma adult adoptee

Lately, I’ve been thinking about adoption. Specifically, how we talk about adoption like it’s a fairy story.

Look at this tragic infant who has been abandoned! But here come the selfless, loving couple who are going to take the baby home and love it like it’s their own. The parents are healed from the pain of childlessness, and they all live happily ever after.

We know life is more complicated than that. But I think it’s still basically how many of us think about adoption. I’m sure that’s why local authorities still produce brochures of sad-eyed children looking for their forever families. Personally, I don’t love the idea that you can browse kids like they’re in the middle aisle of Aldi, but maybe that’s just me.

My Adoption Story

I was taken into foster care at the age of one, fostered until I was ten, and then adopted.

My parents and family are wonderful people, and my life was better because I was adopted. I had a happy childhood with loving parents, siblings, cousins and grandparents. We were financially secure, and I was supported through school, college, two universities and beyond.

It’s fair to say there are chunks of my life where I barely thought about being adopted. I think that’s how it is, though. You sort through some feelings, forget about it, then hit a new stage of life and there are new feelings to sort through.

When I became a parent, I realised how much adoption had shaped the person I was, and the parent I wanted to be. And how traumatic it was, in some ways.

The Impact of Adoption

Watching Flea grow up, I see how similar we are. But I also see things she takes for granted, that I never did. I see that things I worried about don’t even occur to my child. It’s like looking an alternate world where everything is the same, but completely different. 

I spent eight years in foster care before my family adopted me, and I used to worry a lot about being ‘sent back’. Maybe I’d get into trouble, or my birth parents would show up, or someone else would decide they wanted me, and I’d be given away. If I wasn’t good enough, or worth the trouble, then my parents might decide not to adopt me. I remember some family friends took me for a day out, and were mystified when I freaked out and begged to be taken home. I was about seven or eight, and I was terrified I’d been given to new parents.

As a child, I often imagined there was someone in a radio van outside the house, watching me, and commentating on the things I did. Actually, it was Stuart Hall from It’s a Knockout, which I’m choosing to see a sign of a vivid imagination and definitely not weird in any way.

I think Stuart helped me cope with the insecurity of foster care, and the constant worry of whether I was getting things right. He was a reassuring, cheerful inner voice that helped me feel more sure that I was saying and doing the right things, or that people around me would approve of me. So as far as I was concerned, my job was to never give anyone a reason to think I wasn’t worth keeping around.

Adoptee Quirks

It’s nice to know that Flea has never really experienced these sorts of feelings. But I can certainly draw lines between those childhood experiences and the adult I have become.

Like it makes complete sense that I can be a little emotionally reserved, and I need to work that bit harder to have close relationships with other people. I can see why that child who constantly looked for approval became a writer (attention seeking? moi?) and developed a competitive streak a mile wide. I don’t think those quirks are necessarily bad. I’m just the sum total of my life experiences, as we all are.

Probably the only thing I’d like to change is that I take rejection very badly.

When there was a family row and my adoptive brother stopped speaking to us, I wasn’t just hurt or offended. I was broken. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t sleep. I woke up every day for months feeling worthless and disposable. All I could think was how hard I’d tried to be good enough for my family and they’d decided… I wasn’t.

It took a year for me to start putting the pieces back together. Now, I see it was just an unfortunate situation. I said something thoughtless and it hit someone’s sore spot. They responded by criticising and rejecting me, and it was like they’d trampled all over my sore spot. Then set it on fire. And put the ashes in the bin.

Nobody here is a terrible person. I am not a terrible person. I’m not worthless, I’m not disposable and I just have to keep telling myself that. I think some of my family feel that I’m being dramatic. I should just “get over it”.  The problem is that as much as my brain knows this, I can’t get my heart on board. The rejection feels like indelible ink on my skin. It’s like I can taste it. Whatever the thing is that other people have, to let them get over that feeling, I just don’t have it.

It’s annoying.

adoption trauma

The Upsides

So far I’m doing a great job of making adoption seem deeply tragic. But it really, truly isn’t.

Being in foster care might have given me wonky self-esteem and weird attachment issues but I was happy. I am happy. I have great people in my life and if I dropped dead tomorrow, I think how lucky was I? I’ve had a lot of fun and made some people happy.

I also think that being adopted has made me a better mum. I have worked hard to raise my daughter in a stable family that Flea can trust will be there for her. I often tell Flea there’s no mistake she can make that would stop me from getting up at 3am to help her. That she doesn’t need to do anything to deserve or “earn” love. She gets it just because she’s here, and she’s herself. Maybe that’s the thing I most wanted to hear when I was growing up.

The point is…

Sorry to say but if you got this far, there’s really no amazing point. It’s just me sorting through my mental jumble and trying to organise the results. But since I seem to struggle with the concept of not saying anything useful in a blog post, here’s what I would say:

If you’re involved in the adoption of a child, in any way, shape or form, please make sure you tell them this: You are safe with me. It’s okay to be yourself. It’s okay to feel sad, or angry, or sometimes wish you weren’t adopted. You don’t have to feel obliged, or that you owe me or anyone else anything special for being adopted. You deserve to be loved just for being your unique self. We all do. You are loved. No matter what. You’re home. 


6 thoughts on “What’s it like to be adopted? An adult adoptee’s perspective.”

  1. Speaking as an adopter – you’re absolutely spot on Sally. Thank you very much for sharing this, it’s really interesting to read your perspective on being adopted.

    1. Thanks Gretta. I suppose that I am grateful and happy that I was adopted, but when I look at how Flea has grown up as a non-adopted child, it makes me very aware of the difference between our experiences. It’s odd how this stuff just pops up from time to time and gets you thinking!

  2. This is a beautifully honest and poingant post. The account of your day out with friends gives an insight that most of us wouldn’t even have considered. And it’s important to know.

    About your brother, I once blurted out something stupid and 100% didn;t mean it how it came out. A good and long friendship was lost in an instant. I apologised and tried to explain more than once but in the end I just had to let her go. I still regret what happened but I can’t take all the responsibility when someone made up her mind and nothing I could do would change it.

    Lots of love to you Sally, xxx

    1. Thanks Rachel – I know we’ve chatted online about this before and I am a believer that you can apologise but you can’t make someone forgive you.

      The important thing is that you know you did your best to do the right thing, and if your friend truly felt that her life was better without mending those fences, then you can only accept that and know that you’ve done your best, and if she did forgive you she’d only be harbouring a grudge and it wouldn’t ever be the same friendship in future.

      Someone said a great thing on Instagram about this – not everyone who is with you on the journey makes it to the last chapter. It doesn’t mean you didn’t love them or have great moments with them, but we shouldn’t always expect everything to go on forever.

  3. This was a great read Sally.
    When I adopted my daughter she asked many questions and this post is spot on.

    I wrote a post on being an adopter and the process and what a a mix of feelings/emotions

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