Phoning is the best way to discuss feelings, says Gary Clapton
Here’s Daniel’s story. “The first time I ever spoke to my mother was on the phone. I was 32 and she was 51.
“I had never spoken to my mother before, because I was adopted just after I was born. In fact, the first time I ever really spoke to anyone about being adopted, apart from my wife, was on the phone to Birthlink. It was such a relief to talk to someone about my feelings about being adopted. My negative feelings, as well as the positive ones that I tried hard to feel. It was good to hear that there was no right way to feel, but also that my feelings and worries were normal. Both good messages to hear. That was just the first of a few phone calls before the most important one – when I heard my mother’s voice for the first time since we were separated by adoption.”
The phones at Birthlink are always busy – with enquiries, with follow-up contacts, with calls from people who have been told there is a match on the register, or who have been found by one of our expert searchers. Often the first telephone contact is about factual advice, which can be given quickly and easily, but experience tells us that if a first question is answered confidently and accurately the caller can feel more confident about raising less straightforward issues.
Email and letters are of course used too, but for many people the discussions they have with their Birthlink counsellor by phone are often crucial in helping them decide whether to register on our Adoption Contact Register, and how to take the next steps if a contact is made.
Although there are many helplines nowadays, there are very specific issues for adults affected by adoption that makes a phone call to Birthlink the quickest way to get not only factual advice but also to have the opportunity to discuss their feelings, and the possible feelings of the other parties.
Many anxieties and experiences will be common to people affected by adoption. These can include guilt over taboo breaking, distress evoked because of a trigger as simple as a TV programme, or just curiosity. Birthlink’s counsellors are aware of important adoption-related issues to bear in mind when speaking with adopted adults, and other callers, including the birth parents or even adoptive parents seeking advice on contact. Some of the things we take into account are:
•Adopted adults often complain of being talked about and even treated by adoption services that they make contact with as if they are forever children. The description “adopted child” appears to be more common than “adopted adult” even when the person concerned is well into adult life and has children of their own.
• For many callers, this will be their first contact with an agency and it could easily be the first time they have spoken to anyone about their adoption. They will often have been curious about their origins for some time, but this curiosity is often not understood by those nearest and dearest to them. Many adopted adults feel alone and unsure about their current situation, and this can lead to them being defensive and therefore possibly angry or apologetic about their natural curiosity.
• There may have been a significant life event that has triggered the call – the birth of a child, the death of a parent, the need for medical information.
• Adopted adults may also feel that it is disloyal to their adoptive families to search for birth family and so may be unable to discuss things with their nearest and dearest
• Because they were not in control of the very first thing that happened to them – being given up by or taken from their birth parents – adopted adults often feel that it is important that they and not others are in control of what happens when they initiate contact.
Mediation is a key part of the service that Birthlink offers, and the counselling and mediation work relies heavily on phone calls. A one-to-one phone conversation allows people to share difficult feelings, and to develop trust with someone who listens.
Although we live in a world of emails, text messaging and communication within 140-character tweets, our daily experience is that the telephone remains the best means for these first, often emotional and overwhelming, communications.
• Gary Clapton is a university lecturer in social work and a consultant with Birthlink, an Edinburgh-based charity with over 100 years of experience of working with families.