Life story work and Long Division

Before we became adopters, we knew that we were going to be open and honest with our children about their past. It was obviously the right thing to do, and we believed it would help these theoretical children to grow up confident of who they were and where they belonged.

I still think that honesty is right. I no longer think it’s simple.

With very small children, it can be enough to say ‘your birth parents couldn’t look after you’. By the time our children are adults, they deserve to know everything that we know. The tricky part, for me, has been the journey between those two places!

At many points, the boys have completely misunderstood what we’ve been telling them. Middly spent almost a year denying that he was adopted at all. Eldest once told a therapist that adoption meant your parents had bought you from the government. Both of these seemed awful at the time. We were convinced that we were failing the boys miserably.

But, I think it’s worth bearing in mind that Middly also insisted that there were two suns (one for the Earth to rotate around and one to move across the sky); and Eldest used to get guinea pigs and cows confused. Children make mistakes, that’s an important part of learning and there’s no reason why their life story should be the exception.

The boys’ story has some unpleasant parts. We agonised over when to first share some of these details with the boys. We didn’t want to give them stories they weren’t ready for, but nor did we want to lie by ommission.

There are rules of the, which seem sensible, until you try to apply them. Rules like: wait for the children to ask, then answer their questions. The problem is that the boys’ questions were big and vague ‘why couldn’t they look after us?’ The question of how much detail to share remained.

My husband and I carefully planned when to share this difficult information. We sat down with the boys and carefully explained. We asked if they had any questions. They shook their heads.

A few days later, the same question came up again. I shared the same story, only to be met by blank stares. All that agonising, and the boys had completely forgotten what we’d said!

That’s been a bit of a pattern, to be honest. Every single piece of the jigsaw of their lives has to be shared over and over again.

I am not sure what effect the re-telling has on the boys. But, it’s quite reassuring for me. I get to hone my telling, using vocabulary they understand well, pausing at the points they’re most likely to ask further questions, having ready every detail that I’ve needed to check in the past.

Re-telling also takes the pressure off each individual moment. Life story work for us isn’t about one (nor even several) Big Conversations. It’s about lots and lots of conversations, some big, some small, some serious and some tongue-in-cheek; they all build on one another as part of the fabric of our family. If I know that I am going to get another shot at this, what does it matter if one time I didn’t know an answer and had to go and check? What does it matter if the boys lost interest partway through and ran off to get a snack? There’ll be another chance, we’ll pick this back up later.

As they’ve grown, some of these conversations have become more speculative. We talk about the sources for the information we have. We talk about why different people might have told me stories in different ways. Sometimes the boys try to deduce what ‘must have really happened’. Other times we lament together the difficulties of living with uncertainty.

I do wish that I had something simple to tell them. But, in the absence of that, shared uncertainty seems to be the most honest approach.

Ultimately, talking about their past is a lot like everything else that I’m teaching them. Some days it feels like everything I say is going in one ear and out the other. Some days the boys are burning with curiosity and they make astonishingly mature points or ask insightful questions. Some days they treat the whole thing as a joke; other days it’s incredibly serious. Just like talking about relationships, or managing money, or democracy; or any of the thousands of aspects of life that the boys want to get a handle on.

They don’t remember everything I say. I’m not entirely sure that they believe everything that they remember, but, then that’s the same for long-division too.

The important thing is that we’re still talking about it, and they trust me enough to ask. If I can keep the conversation open, I think that’s good enough.

Except for with long-division, that they should really just take my word for that.

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