Our New Year ‘To Do’ list includes a task included consistently each year since we first adopted our son.
January means writing our ‘letterbox’ contact.
Required by the Court as part of the Adoption Order for our children, Letterbox comprises a letter we write to update their birth families about their health, well-being and progress.
The letters are sent to the Adoption Service through whom we adopted our son and daughter. From there they are disseminated to not only their birth parents, but also to the wider families, grand parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, half siblings, some in care, some adopted elsewhere.
Writing the letters is always, for me at least, a difficult task. It's an emotional job in itself, looking back over the previous period and seeing how your child has developed, how they have grown and what they have experienced.
We attempt to create a letter that celebrates our child's progress, yet remains sufficiently anonymous not to identify their location. Perhaps more difficult is creating narrative that both retains an appropriate detachment, so as not to suggest a misplaced intimacy for the birth family who no longer have any link to our child, but also is not so clinical as to appear heartless.
We recognize every time we write these letters that their mere arrival must be a reminder of loss not only for the birth parents, but also their wider family.
So we end up writing letters that are factual, hopefully friendly but lacking in warmth and, if I'm honest, I fear are somewhat anodyne.
Our son is old enough to engage in the process of writing the letters. For the last three years I have asked him to read what we have written and edit it as he feels appropriate.
That experience has been really interesting. The first time he was very clear, he wanted to edit very large parts of the update out. So much so that the letter effectively became worthless in terms of saying anything useful about his life, interests and development.
"I don't want them to know anything about me, they're not my family any more," he said firmly when we began to debate whether some of the redacted information should actually be included. It took some debate, but we eventually came to a conclusion with which we were both comfortable.
The following year he engaged with editing in a totally different way. He removed some parts that he felt told them too much about how he felt, he seemed to think this was giving away too much personal information. But he then added in much more information. Affirmative, positive, factual information. The fact that he has been picked to play for the village football team, that he sang with the school choir at an old people's home at Christmas, that he has been invited to various birthday parties. It was almost as though he wanted to prove that he was successful and popular. I'm tempted to say 'despite the past' at the end of that last sentence, but that would be putting words in our son's mouth. The intent though, I feel at least was clear.
Last year was different still.
I asked our son what he would like to say in his Letterbox, or perhaps, would he like to write it himself?
He returned with a note, typed on the computer, which was devastatingly simple:
"I'm alive. I'm happy. I never want to write to you again. Goodbye."
He didn’t want the birth family to know anything about him. They’d ‘harmed’ him (his words). They didn’t care about him. He didn’t care about them. (Again, his words). He forbade us writing the letter. He wanted nothing more to do with them.
Calls to the Adoption Team identified my feeling that this, actually, wasn’t our son’s decision to make. The Adoption Order committed us to continue writing contact letters until our son is 18. After that further contact was entirely at his own discretion. Until then, we had an obligation we should fulfill.
Much negotiation followed, resulting in our writing a letter that included a very basic list of the year’s events. A sanitized account of our son’s progression. An account he didn’t even want to review.
Our son’s antipathy is borne from one overwhelmingly devastating fact. His birth family has never responded to our letterbox.
Perhaps sadder are these letters that come the other way.
In the case of our daughter these are not only from birth parents, but also from wider family members. Often written in the warm style of a family card or as if they have been written to maintain contact during an extended separation, they use language and terminology that I see becoming increasingly alien to our children.
The names by which the family members refer to themselves, the terms with which they address her, are no longer applicable, they have no substance and ultimately no meaning currently for our daughter.
Indeed, our daughter, adopted at a much younger age than our son, has little interest in, or indeed understanding of, the correspondence that arrives.
We therefore put the letters, cards and notes away dutifully in her memory box, saving them for the day when perhaps she does want to know more. When that day comes, as I feel inevitably it must, they will be there waiting. Whether the family terminology will mean any more to our daughter at that stage I don't know, but at least they can never say we hid anything from her.
Our son’s memory box remains empty. He remains hurt, angry and unsurprised. We support him as best we can. Making no excuses. As angry and unsurprised as he is.