"I want my hair like that!" I screeched at a 5ft 8in woman with curly hair as she cradled me in her arms. Those were the first words I uttered to my future mother. At that time, I was clueless that the woman holding me would commit one of life’s most selfless acts: adopting a child.
I was 5 when I was adopted and that day is still perfectly etched into my memory. We were at the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in London to make it all formal. I remember asking my soon-to-be adoptive parents whether the paparazzi gathered outside this grand building were for me. Their 17-year-old son, Simon, who would soon become my new brother, followed behind as we walked through the doors into the courthouse.
I was kept in a room with my social worker, who encouraged me to play with an abacus. I was perfectly content, unaware of the pain next door. I was taken from my birth mother because she and my father (who were not married to each other) were both drug addicts and criminals who had been in and out of prison most of their adult lives.
My mother’s cries echoed through the corridors while legal documents were signed. My adoptive mother recalls that day, too – how heartbroken she was for my birth mum, who had her baby girl taken away from her.
Being adopted was never a secret in my family. Years prior, I was in the care system, fostered by many families until I settled at my final foster mum’s house in Camden. We lived in a big townhouse full of children and pets, with a garden to play in. Every birthday and Christmas comprised cake and ice cream and we would open presents together. One day, I met my foster mum's daughter, Debbie, and her husband Dennis, and everything changed.
It took a whole year for me to be adopted by Debbie and Dennis. I spent a few weekends at their house to get used to the environment. I was monitored to see how I would 'fit in'. I did fit in – perfectly, in fact – "because you looked like our family," as my mum recalls. I had Dennis’ long chin, Debbie’s button nose and head full of ringlets.
When our social worker came over to deliver the news, I didn’t know how to react. "Jessica. You are going to be adopted," she said. My face dropped, distraught that I’d have to move to yet another family. "Deborah and Dennis will be your Forever Parents." I screamed. Clapped. I jumped up and down, completely elated. I finally had my forever family. I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of sadness, though. The situation was bittersweet.
I absolutely adored my foster mum (who is now my grandmother) and I would miss the frequent visits to Sainsbury’s where she would treat me to a can of Coke and a chocolate bar. But I had always longed to have a permanent home and a family who would love me unconditionally. I didn’t want to have to fear being moved on to yet another family. I had already lived with three, none of which worked out.
My childhood was a happy one. My dad taught me how to ride a bike, my mum read to me and my brother and let us play video games. While my mum was at work, Dad was the stay-at-home parent and I enjoyed the time we had together when I came home from school. We’d go to the park, and spend my pocket money on penny sweets on "treat day".
At Christmas I'd leave a carrot, mince pie and a glass of sherry on the mantelpiece then head up to bed early so Santa Claus could see I was being a good girl. I’d fall asleep to the sound of sleigh bells ringing outside (it was my mother standing in the garden, hitting a cowbell with a wooden stick) while my father tucked me in.
My older brother would wake me up at 5am and we’d both jump on my parents’ bed to wake them up so we could all open our presents together in the living room. We’d watch The Lion King or Home Alone together as our Christmas feast was being prepared in the kitchen. It’s a tradition we still keep up to this day (me aged 26 and my brother aged 38), much to my now-retired parents’ despair.
Family holidays involved long drives to Wales where I would vomit on my favourite pink cashmere blanket, after singing along to the Muppet Babies theme song played on my brother’s Walkman. Whitney Houston’s "All At Once" was a car journey favourite of mine – but not for my family, who had to listen to the shrieking from the back seat as I tried to hit the high notes.
Then there was the holiday when my dad gave me the responsibility of giving him directions on the motorway in France. I sent him 150 miles in the wrong direction, our car slowly losing steam in a village in the middle of nowhere; not to mention when I accidentally left the boot open only to later witness our groceries fly out of the boot on the roundabout.
I was obsessed with The Lion King growing up because Mufasa’s words – "Remember who you are" – always stayed with me. I’d receive a letterbox contact, a formal biannual service arranged by social services and the court to allow birth parents to stay in contact with their children, on my birthday and at Christmas. It was signed: "I love you, Lion King Princess." There were times when receiving these letters would confuse me, even upset me. Sometimes I’d rip them up or throw them in the bin. It would trigger emotions I didn’t understand.
My parents did a great job of introducing the letters to me and helping me understand why I received them. They encouraged me to keep them in my Memories Box, which I still have to this day and frequently take down from the top of my wardrobe, and go through the letters one by one.
As I got older, I often felt I was living a double life. I wanted to learn about my birth family and eventually meet them. My family’s encouragement kept me hopeful. They would go through everything with me – tears and laughter – and we’d plan it out.
At 23, I took the plunge and asked social services to give me my mother’s number. In September that year, I rang it. She answered. "Happy 50th birthday mum, it’s Jess," I said. She sobbed. "Is that you, Jessica? My princess?" she said, crying happy tears.
We proceeded to WhatsApp messaging for a few years, promising to meet up. It wasn’t until 2018 that we finally did, when she was in London with my grandmother. My grandmother had stage 4 lung cancer and was dying. My mum said she didn’t have long to live. I took a deep breath and agreed to meet. It was scary and I was nervous but as I drove closer, my heart pounding in my chest, I could see her pacing up and down. They looked like me, spoke like me and even laughed like me. We shared the same big forehead. We didn’t talk about much and instead spent most of the time staring at each other, my mum frequently crying out of sheer shock. Ditto for my grandma, whose jaw was on the ground.
Surprisingly, I felt okay about the whole situation. I felt as though I were meeting up with a friend after a long time of being apart. We took a selfie, we shared a cigarette, laughed and cried. I noticed a lot of similarities, notably stubbornness and our big eyes. We didn’t talk about the circumstances. We didn’t need to discuss why I was put up for adoption; I already knew. We were just living in the moment and taking it in, feeling grateful that we were able to meet. It was a really special day and while I couldn’t feel emotion in front of my mum and grandmother, when I got home, I cried. I was happy that I finally had closure.
Two weeks after we met, my grandmother succumbed to her cancer. I had never felt guilt or grief like it. I’m so grateful we met when we did. But I also felt bad I left it that long.
Weeks went by. I met my family at my grandmother’s funeral, including two older brothers with whom I was extremely close before I was first taken from my mum, aged two. I still have our pictures hanging on my wall. I met my mum’s brother whom I apparently lived with for a short space of time. I met so many people who claimed they knew who I was, which confused me. The whole day was draining.
My adoptive parents offered to come with me, but I felt it was something I needed to do alone. I wanted to be able to collect my thoughts beforehand and have space afterwards to take it all in. They were worried that it would cause a negative reaction, or that I’d be told something that I wouldn’t like to hear. I was always paranoid that my adoptive parents would think that if I met my biological family, I would go and live with them. I’ve always worried about their reaction and I’m sure they’ve been worried about mine. We did speak about it a few times and they were adamant that they would support me in any decision I make, but to ensure I kept boundaries – I respect them for that. They have always encouraged me to meet them, sharing documents and information over the years to ensure I was aware of the bigger picture. It helped that my adoptive father was on an adoption panel where he could learn from professionals.
I used to be embarrassed by my past. I was always jealous of my friends who led what seemed to me to be perfectly happy lives with no complications or drama. I never considered myself a normal child and hid the fact that I was adopted. But I was proud to have opened Pandora’s Box because I was able to piece parts of my story together and understand it more as an adult. I’ve been able to practise forgiveness, despite my emotions yo-yoing from time to time. A lot of my unanswered questions were answered and I was able to finally be at peace with who I am. I still have my birth family on WhatsApp and on some of my social media channels, but I haven’t seen them since.
While I could have decided to see them frequently, I don’t feel like I need to. I lead a completely different life to them and we don’t have too much in common. But I’m pleased to have met them and shared a few memories in my adult life.
At 26 years old, I stand tall as an adopted child. I cherish my memories and darkest moments. My parents reminisce and tell me how much of a difficult but sweet child I was: "I remember seeing this skinny little girl with her hair tied back tightly with these bug eyes who was crazy about the Spice Girls," they recall.
Adoption has taught me, and my family, that blood isn’t always thicker than water and the unconditional love we have for each other cannot compare to anything else. Every family has its challenges, its skeletons, its ups and downs, but love is what binds us together. That's a good thing to keep in mind this Christmas.