A ‘poster child for adoption’ – that’s how Polly Penter describes herself.
Polly had a “happy childhood” is now blissfully married, has a job she loves and adores her vibrant life in London.
But her halcyon days threatened to come to a juddering halt, within the click of a mouse, when she received an unexpected email from a stranger on her work account.
Polly said: "I was born in 1982 and adopted when I was just three months’ old. I always knew I was adopted – we used to celebrate the day my parents brought me home, so I used to tell my friends I had two birthdays! This meant being adopted was very normal for me – it wasn’t something we sat down and had a difficult conversation about.
I had a very happy childhood in the north of England and later in Guernsey and it never occurred to me that I should feel anything other than fully a part of my family. I was similar to them in many ways – in looks, habits and interests. As an adult, I am closer to my parents than almost anyone I know, especially my dad, as we are so much alike. My mum is my confidante, my dad my best friend. I speak to my parents most days, and still go to the football with my dad whenever I can.I am very happily married, have a job I love, live in London and do a lot of travelling. I would describe myself as a poster child for adoption.
I thought carefully about whether or not I wanted to trace my family or find out more about my background, and my parents said they would support me if I did. After a lot of consideration I came to a decision in 2009, just before I got married. I decided I didn’t want to do anything or know anything – I never had any sense of not belonging, or of anything missing from my life, as people tell you, you might when you’re adopted. Although I was curious about my origins it wasn’t something I ‘needed’ to do.
Then, in August 2013, out of the blue, I got an email to my work account from someone called 'Lee' claiming to be my older brother. This was a huge shock.
I was sitting at home with a glass of wine, checking my work emails on my phone as it was a busy time of year. When I read it the content didn’t quite sink in and I had to give the phone to my husband to read. I didn’t know anything about my background, or whether I even had a brother, let alone whether this might be him. I assumed it was a mistake, or even a hoax.
I remember when the law was changed a few years ago to allow family members to trace adoptees. At the time I was extremely against the idea. I did not like the idea of being “found” at a time of someone else’s choosing – or indeed at all. I wrote to my MP about it at the time, protesting against the rules, and received a rather supercilious response telling me that I had to respect others’ rights.
I couldn’t even bring myself to reply to the message – I asked my husband to send a reply, saying that I would consider what to do next, and that we would get back in touch later. I had no idea what to do. I did not want to be “found”, and I didn’t really want to find out the circumstances of my past after so many years. I was nervous about speaking to my mum and dad as I thought they would be upset, and anyway, they had always been very open about my adoption but said that they were not really told a lot, back in 1982, about the circumstances.
Lee’s email simply told me he had been fostered rather than adopted, and had always known he had a younger sister who was put up for adoption. He had tried to trace me in the past and failed. His foster mother had recently died, and she had been the matron of the children’s home where I had briefly lived, and had been involved in my adoption. After she died he had found letters from my (adoptive) mum when going through her things – I discovered later that my mum had kept in touch with her periodically, updating her on my progress. I later found out that, when I was adopted, she had been told I was likely to have learning and developmental problems, so she was always very proud of anything I achieved and wanted to tell Beryl, the social worker Lee and I have come to call our “guardian angel”. Lee had been curious who the girl in theletters was, so googled me. It wasn’t long before he stumbled on a comment I’d made on Twitter about celebrating my adoption birthday. The dates matched,so he thought I might be his sister.
The ease with which Lee had tracked me down, put two and two together and made four shocked me and made me feel incredibly vulnerable. But it had also opened a box I couldn’t close. I knew I was now destined to look into my past, whether I wanted to or not. After some difficult chats with my husband and two of my closest friends I contacted the agency in Blackburn through which I had been adopted so they could find my file and confirm whether or not Lee was my brother.
The lady I spoke to seemed surprised by the call and told me the sort of request I was making was unusual and that normally someone would be offered counselling before deciding to look into the past. I explained it was a little late for that! I also felt a sense of responsibility to Lee: I couldn’t keep withholding an answer from him, whatever we decided to do next. That would have been too cruel. A social worker called me back and said she would retrieve my file, but that it would take several weeks.
The next few weeks were probably the most difficult of my life. I was on edge, anxious, tearful, snappy, constantly feeling on the verge of panic. I was scared about what I might find out, terrified about what I would do if he was my brother, scared about the loss I knew I would feel if he was not. I applied for counselling through work but was put on a waiting list. I wanted to take time off work but it was a very busy time (I work in a university, and we were approaching the start of the new academic year). I couldn’t sleep and was eventually put on medication to “stabilise” my mood. Eventually the social worker called to say that they had found my file, but that I would need to go to Blackburn in person. After the phone call I went onto Facebook and found Lee – I don’t know why but I had been avoiding doing it up until then. His picture stared back at me with big blue eyes just like mine.
My husband and I took the day off work to go up to Blackburn. When I opened the file the first thing I saw was my original name: 'Kelly Marie'! I had no idea, because I had been almost newborn when adopted, that I had ever had a different name, and that my birth mother had chosen this for me. The file stated "mother wished for Kelly to be adopted - mother has never seen her" which I found incredibly sad. I dissolved into tears and the social worker hugged me for a very long time.
The second thing I saw was Lee’s name. I remember reading it again, over and over, not really sure what I was feeling – there were too many emotions to process.We are just fifteen months apart in age. Suddenly I had a big brother - something I always wanted! And yet, this was someone I didn’t know at all.
I emailed Lee in the car on the way home, a rather formal message saying I was his sister! Neither of us really knew what to say to each other, but I had seen from his Facebook cover photo that he was a Liverpool fan. My dad and I had been going to watch Bradford City for as long as I can remember, so we at least had football in common! We must have exchanged over a hundred messages over the next few days – I found out we were both musical, both liked sport (he swims, I run) and enjoyed the same subjects at school.
Lee and I met for the first time in a pub a couple of months later. The day before, I had finally had my first counselling appointment, after 10 weeks on a waiting list! In the pub there was football on in the background, so it was a good, natural place to meet. My husband left me to it, but came to meet us later.I expected it to be more emotional and I was very nervous, but actually I found we got on very easily, even though our backgrounds are very different. We had a lot in common – Lee even called his daughter Niamh, my favourite girl’s name which I had intended to call my daughter if I ever had one. We now talk several times a week, and every Saturday to congratulate/commiserate on the football. We play Words With Friends together, and have met up several times.
Unexpectedly, I am now in touch with my natural father too – again, this has come about as the result of social media, which concerns me as I would not really have had a choice had I not wanted contact. He is friends with Lee on Facebook, saw the pictures he posted of our reunion and got in touch. Fortunately, it has turned out very well - we have met several times, and most recently I took him on the London Eye. I now write regularly to my wonderful grandma and am in regular contact with new-found aunts and cousins, one of whom lives in Canada! I was briefly in touch with my mother, but sadly this didn't work out.
Although it turned out well in the end, this situation could not have happened this way even a few years ago. The plethora of information available on the internet, and the many options social media affords us to contact strangers, makes anonymity difficult and means that people who have decided they do not want to be ‘found’ will be tracked down anyway, without the help and professional support of an intermediary or counsellor. I was very lucky in that I have an amazing husband and some incredibly close friends – particularly Tim, Em and Helen – who were very supportive and also very forgiving when I was in quite a state waiting for news, and wonderful parents who were there for me even though it must have been very hard for them for me to be “found” 30 years after they had adopted me.
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