When I told my son J that he had a little sister, and what her name was, the baby girl in question was already a few months old. Seven year old J looked at me saucer-eyed, and with his mouth wide open. “But how do you know all that?” he asked me.
At the point of his placement with me earlier that year, J’s knowledge and understanding of where he came from, and how he had come to be in care, had seemed sketchy to say the least. A start at explaining things had been made by his adoption social worker, Lynn, but he still didn’t seem to know that he already had four siblings, or that, sadly, one of them had died as a baby. I, meanwhile, had been provided with a great swathe of information, and working out what to share and when, and then doing it in an age appropriate way, was to become one of the interesting challenges of being an adoptive parent.
Luckily, the people at voluntary agency IAS (later Tact) who saw me through the process of being approved to adopt, and readied me for adoptive parenthood, had put significant emphasis on Life Story work. In particular, one of the social workers who worked with my group was routinely contracted by the family courts to prepare life story books for children in care who didn’t already have them, and so she had some great advice. These books are important because they help children make sense of their past, and provide an account of their life in words, pictures, photographs and documents, made by them with the help of an adult they can trust. When children lose track of what has happened in their past, they can find it especially difficult to develop emotionally and socially.
So after a few months together, J and I set to work on putting together a Life Story book for him.
The information that I had received about J opened with the unpromising words “J is a white child who is of average height he has fair hair with a small area of blond/white hair in the middle of his head. He has blue/grey eyes and an enduring smile (sic)”. J meanwhile arrived with his memories, some photographs, four years’ worth of birthday cards, a teddy, and a couple of letters from his birthmum. Oh, and that smile of course.
The life book content took many forms. I have written already about my contact with the lovely people at the hospital where he was born, and our subsequent visit. I had met J’s birthmum, and she had been generous with the information I’d asked for, and later too when we wrote to her for more. J and I visited his first nursery school and took photos, and I talked to him about his memories of living in foster care and before, and recorded those. J made collages of pictures of his birthplace, tracked his early criss-crossing across the country on a map of Britain, and constructed a concertina version of his personal time line. He drew his family tree, or what we knew of it at least. We incorporated new photos alongside the old, and his drawings alongside accounts of his memories. I tried to record in words which he could understand what had happened to him, which I hoped would help give context to his memories. This all happened from time to time over a period of more than a year, and was something we enjoyed doing together.
The result is a deeply personal record of his early years, which he can share with friends and family, all captured in a lever arch file which allows him to remove pages or details whenever he chooses not to share them. Over the years we have added to it a little, but mostly it’s in the format we developed all those years ago. Once written, J in fact rarely looked at it again, I think because he had committed it to memory and didn’t feel the need. But he has regularly hauled it out for family and new friends, and more than once I’ve heard him describing his early life experiences using exactly the words we used in his book. With J’s permission, we eventually shared it with new primary school teachers each year, and when (finally) I formally adopted him, he proudly showed it to the presiding Judge.
Today he has happily given permission to share here specially selected pages from the book.
Until now, J has relied on the contents of his life story book, and our conversations about it, for his understanding of his early years. He has resisted looking at copies of the official records which we keep in many files under the stairs, for when he’s ready.
Until today that is. At the age of 16, J has for the first time wanted to read for himself his Form E, which is the document prepared about him by his social workers for potential adopters all those years ago. It’s difficult for me to explain what a huge step forward this seems to me: from a version of his history which I have helped him to interpret, to one which he is starting to make sense of himself, with me standing alongside him. I suspect that this will be a slow process, and one full of stops and starts, but one that might lead one day to his meeting that little baby sister who is already ten years old.
I am linking this post up to the Adoption Social’s Weekly Adoption Shout Out week #112.