Toni’s story

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in foster care for at least some of the time. I was first placed in care when I was about one. At the time, I mostly lived with my mum, dad, half-brother and half-sister, although I just knew them as my sister and brother. Our mum and my dad had drug problems. I remember days where I didn’t go to school and if I did I would fall asleep and had to be taken to the kindergarten nap bed. I had permanent sniffles, asthma, and I was very skinny. I was close to my sister.  She took me to school, shopping, we hand-washed clothes in the bathtub. She is the main memory I have from childhood.

I was in and out of foster care as my parents were given chances to sort themselves out. When I was taken from school in the middle of the day to my last foster home, I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone. I didn’t know it was the last time I would see my friends, go to that school, and that I would NEVER go home again. My parents had run out of chances. When we arrived at the foster home, it was one I had been in before with my sister, so a little familiar, but I still didn’t understand. This time it was only me. I hadn’t ever known a time when I wasn’t living with strangers every now and then, so I assumed I’d go home; then I was told that I couldn’t. I needed a new family who could look after me properly.

From then on, I would see my sister and family occasionally. My sister visited most, and when she got pregnant at 15, I was excited to become an auntie. I was only 6 when she had her first child aged 16.

One day I was told that I was going to meet two people who wanted to be my ‘forever’ mummy and daddy. They took me swimming for the first time. These would be the people that would do so much with me for the first time, how to tie my shoelaces; how to hold a knife and fork; how to ride a bike. I moved to live with them in a different city 5 hours away.

My accent changed quickly, my name changed, and my mixed white/south Asian heritage was wiped. My new parents were both white, an English lady and a Canadian man. At that age, it meant nothing to me, but I found my dad’s accent hilarious. ‘Say tomato’. ‘Say Tuesday’. Even now, we have banter about it. I met my new family in England and was welcomed straight away by my 4 older cousins and my aunties and uncles. When I was 8, I met my new family in Canada for the first time. This was all so new. International travel? New toys, new clothes. Most of all, ONE place; a warm home; hot food in my belly – although that was a huge struggle for my parents as it was the one area of life where I was a terror to them as I wouldn’t eat!  It’s scary worrying if you will be ‘sent back’ and I could have so easily had behavioral problems or rebelled, but I took another route and was always trying to make everyone else happy. Apart from eating.

When I headed to university a strange thing happened. My eating improved as I let go and tried new things. I think it had been a coping mechanism;. the one thing in my life I controlled. But then at university, I struggled with my identity. As I had just turned 18, which in my head had been a ‘magic age’ because it meant that, legally, I could see my sister again. But so much had changed. How do you rebuild that? It was cruel that we were ripped apart, but it felt cruel to still long for a sibling connection when I had such a great family and happy life.

We made contact over Facebook and spoke a bit. I did eventually go back to my birth city as my biological mother is terminally ill. My biological father had already died and I didn’t tell anyone or reach out. I had a lot of confusing emotions to deal with. This time though I spoke to my parents and I went to say goodbye (or hello?!) and see my sister and her children. My biological mother had a drip in her foot because her veins everywhere else were destroyed. It was an awful sight. Ultimately, it was sad, but I didn’t feel any connection to this lady. I did, however, with my sister. We have stuff in common and she made me laugh and I hope one day we can build on our relationship.

I’m now almost 30 and a lot has happened. I have decided it’s important to me to talk about my childhood now, talk about the pain you feel being taken from the person you are closest to (my sister, not my biological mother). It’s important to me to recognize where I came from and how far I have come. I couldn’t read or write like the other kids because my education had been so disrupted. My (adoptive) parents were told I should be moved down a year to catch up. They weren’t having it. With good support and a LOT of strength, determination and resilience from myself, I can read and write, not only in English but in other languages too. I have learned that it is not about where you come from but where you are going. Your circumstances might not be great, but you can always work hard and push yourself to do better.  I’m glad that my sister didn’t let our difficult childhood stop her either and she has always worked to provide for her family.

I am proud of who I am, this complete mixture of different backgrounds and people and nationalities. I have been lucky to be part of the family I am (but I do not like it when people say I was lucky to be adopted. Adoption starts with loss). Not all families look the same, whether it’s adoption, single parent families, stepfamilies, same-sex parents, childless families or whatever. Family is what you make it. Family is more than DNA and it means sharing a whole life together. Anyone can become your family, and everyone has the ability to love other people in the world unconditionally. I will continue on my journey, going to psychodynamic therapy sessions, being open, talking about things, and admitting that my life hasn’t been easy, but I have nothing to be ashamed of.

I wanted to write this with the hope that even if just one person sees it may help them. I get ‘you don’t look adopted’ or ‘I would never have known’ or ‘for someone who came from that background you’re normal’, but what is normal and how am I supposed to look? This is MY normal! I don’t know what it’s like to have people in your life since you were born. I don’t know what it’s like to only have family in one city or country either. You are stronger than you think.

Courtesy Toni Locke of South London.

Next: Orla’s story