What does Life Journey work mean for me and my son?

Adoptive parents are encouraged to talk about their children’s life journey with them. It can be a powerful way of helping them explore and understand their history, gives them a better sense of their identity and why they were adopted.

We spoke to Nicola, who is a single adopter from Mid and West Wales about how she introduced her son’s history with him, what tips she’d give to other adopters and anyone starting out on their adoption journey. Here’s what she had to say.

Can you tell us a bit more about your life story journey?

Life story work I believe is critical for the adopted child, but also for me as an adoptive parent. I adopted my son at the age of seven months, so he has no knowledge at all of life without me. To some people this may seem perfect, or people who don’t understand adoption may think it great and the child doesn’t need to know anything, but for me it reinforced that I needed to really focus on the life journey work, so my son knew who he was growing up from a young age.

Almost immediately, before my son even moved home, I wondered (or worried) when is the right time to start talking about the life story? How and when do you tell a child they are adopted? How do you even explain adoption to a child who has no memory of life without you as their parent? Being a single adopter, I also worried about how to explain to my child that he only has a mummy.

After thinking it through I decided day one, at the age of seven months, was the best time for me to start talking about the life journey and adoption. It may seem crazy to talk about this to a baby, but I couldn’t envisage one day saying to my son, by the way your adopted.

Have you maintained contact with your son’s Foster Carers?

We kept in close contact with my son’s Foster Carers and whenever we visited, I would say things like “remember when you used to have a bath in here” taking him up to the bathroom. At first, he didn’t reply as he couldn’t talk, as he got older, he used to say yes and would tell me what he played in the bath, clearly all imagined, and then one day on a visit when he was two, before I said anything he told me “Mummy I used to have a bath here” and “mummy I used to sleep in that room”. Whether or not he had processed this information or not I don’t know, but he had registered and remembered that he once lived in this house, which was a good start as far as I was concerned.

Were you given a life story book for your son?

From a young age I told my son that he didn’t grow in mummy’s tummy. Again, at first, he wouldn’t have understood, but it was being reinforced somewhere inside his brain. When he was three, he pulled up his top and said to his Nanny, pointing at his tummy button, “Nanny this is from when I was a baby, but I didn’t grow in my mummy’s tummy, I grew in someone else’s tummy”. When I was told this, I felt so proud of my son, at the age of three, completely unprompted, walking home from the shop he understood something. Understanding ‘something’ meant to me that when I progress the conversation further then there won’t be big shocks for my son.

I then worked with the Adoption Team to produce the Life Story book. The Adoption Team were great and asked me for lots of photos of me and my son together, my son in places familiar to him now, with his extended family, pets, toys and even asked what he liked. I gave the team lots (a ridiculous amount!) of information about us and they also had photos and information from my son’s first seven months. Importantly the Adoption Team also had a photo of my son with his Birth mother. The book is worded using language I would use every day with my child, and I was asked to proof-read the book and make whatever changes I felt necessary.

The final book is fantastic, it starts by being all about my son now, so it is safe and known to him. It then goes back to the beginning and includes lots of photos of him as a baby, the Foster Carers and the birth mother. Finally, the book moves through the few years that we have already had together. The book contains lots of photos, but also words providing more explanation.

My son loves “The book about (son’s name)” as he calls it. We often sit down and look at the book together. Some days my son will just look at the pages about him now, and completely skip the pages about him as a baby and the birth mother, and that to me is fine, that is him looking at what is important to him on that day and what he can / wants to relate to and being only three I want to be guided by him and have conversations at his pace. On other occasions he will look at the photos of the birth mother, and will say, I grew in her tummy. Just hearing him say that is enough for me at this age, it shows me that my son already understands something. I have on several occasions asked my son if he has any questions when we get to photos of him as a baby or the birth mother, but his questions are only ever queries such as “did I like monster trucks as a baby as well?”, and that’s also ok, because he knows he can ask me questions, and as he gets older I am sure the questions will progress. I also try to add little snippets of information when we look at the book, just tiny extra bits of information about the birth mother so as not to overwhelm him, sometimes this is received well, other times he turns the page.

What challenges do you face as a parent, when it comes to your son’s life journey?

There are always challenges trying to talk about life journey work, even with a three-year-old. Through our choice we have very regular contact with the Foster Carers and my son knows he lived in their house as a baby. However, one day when looking at his book I explained foster care to my son and explained to him it was really kind of Foster Carer One and Two to look after him until he could move home with mummy. My son was horrified and declared that it was not nice of them at all, it was very horrible of them. I very quickly realised that he didn’t understand and was worried that he may have to go back and live there, or they had taken him from mummy. I first reassured him that he was going to live with mummy forever and ever, and then we talked about foster care. Finally, my son then agreed it was very lovely of his Foster Carers to look after him until he could move home with mummy.

Would you recommend any resources to help other adopters?

The other work I have done with my son is to buy some adoption and family books. I bought several books about families and adoption, which demonstrate to him that families can be different and explain adoption, such as saying “you needed a family to love you, I had lots of love to give you” etc. Whilst he will look at these with me, he does protest, and therefore they are looked at only occasionally. However, as I am working through the assessment process for adoption number two, I bought books about adopting a sibling, and these have been more of a hit with my son, and we have been able to discuss why some children are adopted and about finding the right family.

The life journey book has been invaluable to helping my son understand his story so far. Having a photo of the birth mother and some information about her I feel will help him when he is older. We also have the later life letters, but they are safely put away for when my son is much older.

Life Journey work has been a rollercoaster already. Some of the things I have worried about most such as talking about the birth mother have been accepted most readily, and some of what I thought would be simple like the Foster Carers evoked the biggest reaction.

My son is almost four and moved home over three years ago. He doesn’t know his background yet, but he knows he didn’t grow in my tummy and knows the photo of his birth mother and some very basic snippets about her. My son knows what adoption is, he adores his foster carers, he knows he is living with mummy forever and ever, that he can ask or tell me anything, and that mummy loves him more than anything else in the world. For me at this stage this is enough, I will add to his life story as he gets older, in an age-appropriate manner, not overwhelming him, and when I believe he is old enough to understand and process the information.

In relation to life story work, What advice would you give to anyone who has just started the adoption process

  1. From my experience the most critical thing about life journey work is that it is never too early to talk about the life journey with a child. The child’s history is part of them, and you can never take that away or should never want to. The first conversation may seem daunting but having a chat with seven-month-old who cannot talk back is so much easier than the thought of having it with a six-year-old for the first time! My experience with my child is that children are full of surprises!
  • I would advise that you are always open and honest with your child, but in an age-appropriate manner to protect them, help them understand and not overwhelm them. I have always remembered that a three-year-old has no filter. Therefore, whilst being honest, I need to remember that what I say is likely to be repeated, and in order to keep my son safe, details may need to be kept until he is older. This is his life story and not mine to tell, but at the same time what he repeats at a very early age, he may not want shared when he is older. Frequently once information is out it cannot be taken back.
  • My other advice is to work with Social Services to get the right Life Journey book for you and your child. The book needs to be in your language, and it should be age appropriate to your child now otherwise it will be hard to use. I believe my son likes his book because the first few pages are reinforcing positive secure messages to him; is about him now with me, his future, rather than starting at day one as a baby which he does not remember or may be negative for some children. Having a good book that you and your child will use, like we have is so critical to me.

What has adoption meant to your life

Adoption has meant everything to me. I have the most amazing son and I am now in assessment stage to go through adoption for a second time. We have an amazing relationship with my child’s Foster Carers, and I have met new friends and learnt so much along the way.

I would say that in one way I don’t think about the adoption on a day-to-day basis, my son to me is no different to a biological son, and I certainly don’t ever look at him and think of him as adopted. We lead a normal life, whatever normal is. My son is my child, and I am his mummy. However, on the other hand adoption is always on your mind, the life journey work, the unknowns as he grows up and develops, discussions with teachers, anticipating questions, especially around times such as Father days being a single adopter, and so much more.

Adoption changed my life for the better. Whilst there are challenges along the way, in addition to the challenges faced by many other parents, I wouldn’t change a thing. I have already had so many wonderful moments with my child. I wake up every morning to his little voice saying good morning mummy (at a ridiculous time) and just hearing that little voice so happy to see me and call me mummy, is enough to put a smile on my face for the rest of the day. There are children out there that need a loving and secure home and providing that to a child, doesn’t only offer them a chance of a happy future, but in my experience enriches your life massively.

We hope Nicola’s story has highlighted the importance of doing life journey work with adopted children and demonstrated how it can help strengthen relationships and children’s trust in adults. If the story has inspired you to consider adoption, then we’d love to hear from you.