This leaflet has been written from our experience and expertise and also with help from external research*. In this leaflet we discuss the good things that come from reading your birth records.
If you have difficulties with language or reading, please let us know and we will read this information over the phone or to someone who can support you. Should you need any further information or support about this matter you can phone or email us via the details on our website.
You will learn more about your birth parents.
You will have a better understanding of why you were adopted.
You will fill in the missing gaps.
You will gain information to help you with your search.
You will know more about your identity and your life story.
With all this to gain, you might wonder why we want to support you with your birth records. For many people it is a good experience, giving them insight into their early infancy and helping them to piece together the story of their life. However, there are a few challenges, and we want to make sure you are well informed on these.
Firstly, the information will have been gathered by Social Workers, and they will often reflect the moral view of the decade in which you were adopted. You might find some of the historic views of adoption quite upsetting. For example, you may be referred to as ‘the child’ and not by your name, and you may find that the language is very impersonal, especially when you know that at this time you would have been a tiny infant. You also might be surprised by the impact of realising that people who were formerly only in your imagination come to life and feel real.
You might find some of the language to be judgemental towards your birth mother and father, reflecting the attitudes and values of a past era. There might be some negative comments about single mothers or babies born ‘out of wedlock’. This was just the common language and view of the time and is so very different from the way we see families now.
We have also found comments that are racist and judgemental, for example in the situation of a mixed race baby. There is never any excuse for racism in our view, but we have to bear in mind the context, and between the 1940s up until recently there have been attitudes that are either unconsciously racist or sometimes blatantly racist that are rightly offensive to people. Often these comments are written with no understanding of how they will be received in the future. We will always remind you that this would be no reflection of our thoughts now towards your parents and are sadly a relic from an unenlightened era where equality was not valued.
You are also likely to find language that is sexist and discriminatory towards women. There will be a lot of focus on what a young woman has got wrong rather than a focus on the father. Usually birth fathers were not interviewed during the adoption process, thus placing all responsibility on the mother. Sometimes young women will not have revealed the identity of the father in order to protect herself as well as the father. Sometimes the process will have been taken over by the birth mother’s parents, and she would have been powerless to have her voice heard. She also may have been very anxious and afraid at this time, and her rights as a parent may not have been considered.
Many of the notes will have been written at a time when attitudes to single mothers were condemnatory. If you read your notes, and then you meet your birth mother and share the notes with her, you may find that she has a very conflicting account of her experience. And it is very likely to be true that a Social Worker of that era and vulnerable young mum who is about to lose her baby will have conflicting views of the situation.
Birth records are official documents, and it is likely that the facts are accurate but of course the experience will be open to interpretation, and the actual story will have much more meaning to you than a pile of facts. Your interpretation of the information will be influenced by how you feel at the time and probably how you feel about your adoption. We have situations where an adoptee might have always thought that their birth mother was a bad person who ‘abandoned’ them. Then when they read the file they realise that often birth mother’s have had no choice and have been powerless to make any other decision when they are under such a lot of social pressure. We have people completely turn around their lifelong rejection of a birth mother when they actually hear what has happened.
You may have many feelings as you approach this process. Some people don’t want to be upset and so ask us to read the records and make the whole experience more manageable for them, which we are delighted to do. Some people may be angry about their story and need our help with coming to terms with information. Some people may be shocked and upset and need our help as they make sense of their infant days and being handed over to their adopted parent. Some people fear that they might find a terrible story, but this is not often the case. Sometimes adopted people have idealised their birth parents and the records tell a more complex story than they had imagined. It is equally hard to step back from an idealised version of events in order to establish reality.
Some people may have a grudge against Social Services for forcing an adoption. You will see that names of Social Workers are often taken out of the records. It has to be born in mind that at the time they were simply doing their job as they would have been advised.
Fortunately, we have a lot of expertise on children who are adopted. Jo North has worked in the field for many years and she will be able to help you piece together a digestible story. So please ask for her help as we are on hand to support you.
Don’t react to information. Take time to think about it and write a list of outstanding questions that we can often help you with. Don’t hold back on any questions to us.
Do share your story with close supportive people if possible. But only people who you know will be non-judgemental and supportive.
Don’t get in touch with birth relatives until you have been able to digest the information that you have. You don’t want to start contact with relatives with an attacking frame of mind because you feel angry or confused. Just hold back until you have had a chance to make sense of things.
In a way you have to act as if you are a historian, piecing the snippets of information together into a human story.