Ten Questions with Jo Willis and Brigitta Baker


 Q1: What prompted you to share your story?

JW: This is the book I wished that I could have read secretly under my duvet when I was only just surviving. I needed someone who had been there, understood and could lead me through this and out the other side. It was time to speak up and begin to deconstruct the dominant narrative that adoption is a positive experience with no impact on any of the parties involved. Adoption is no one’s first choice. It is a westernised solution that has loss at its core. By debunking the myths, those directly impacted by this experience can regain their sense of worth and dignity and access help to heal and redress barriers limiting their wellbeing.

BB: For me, I had kept a journal of the search for my birth mother, so there was a point when I was reading back on what I’d written and thought, ‘This might be useful for other people.’ It was around that time I was introduced to Jo and found she’d been working on a book for several years, so it seemed natural to collaborate. I think for both of us it is summarised in the description we use of this book as being ‘a hand to hold through the adoption journey.’

Q2: How did you meet each other?

JW: I had been writing a version of the book — a mishmash of thoughts on my own adoption journey and reflections from adopted people/clients about what they needed. The book had stalled because I was going through a patch of being tired of doing it on my own. I needed to partner with someone who had writing acumen and who was as passionate as I am about helping our peers and educating others about the impact of adoption. I mentioned this to my admin support person in the adoption team and within days she said ‘Can you ring Brigitta Baker? She is an adopted person inquiring about searching . . . and by the way she wants to write a book.’ I called Brigs immediately!

BB: I was wanting to find out more about my birth father, so I contacted the Adoption Services team in Napier. I was chatting to the women who answered my call and mentioned that I was thinking of writing a book about reunion, and she said, ‘Oh, my boss is writing a book on adoption too — you should talk to her.’ We met for a coffee, and it was honestly the most validating experience I’d ever had as an adopted person. I left feeling for the first time that I wasn’t alone in this.

Q3: What do you hope people will get out of reading the book?

JW: We have spent literally decades unravelling the impact of early separation and growing up under the closed-adoption system through books, articles and therapy to understand the full impact that our adoptive experience has had on us. I hope that Adopted will offer easier access to a good deal of this research. I hope that those affected by adoption will see that the issues challenging them are not them being bad or that something is wrong with them but that it is a totally understandable, even predictable, response to a devastating experience.

BB: An understanding of the unconscious trauma inflicted on adopted people through disconnection from their birth family, the potential impacts of unprocessed grief and loss for all parties in the adoption circle, a sense of how common these experiences are and the toll they can take on relationships. I hope that it also promotes a more open dialogue about this topic in a country that had one of the highest rates of closed adoption in the Western world.

Q4: How does being adopted affect your sense of self?

JW: Growing up, and well into adulthood, I felt something was missing. Reunion with my birthparents went some way towards filling the void but not all the way. Adopted people seldom see themselves as complete. They can feel that a part of them/something is missing and often blame themselves. There has been no acknowledgement that this might be due to their adoption experience.

BB: Unlike Jo, I didn’t grow up with any sense that something was ‘missing’ for me. I was in complete denial that adoption and not knowing anything about my birth heritage or whakapapa had any impact on me. I bought into the philosophy that I was a blank slate, a sponge that absorbed everything I needed from the family I grew up in. I had no curiosity about my biological history or the stories that predated
me. It wasn’t until the birth of my eldest daughter (who according to everyone was the spitting image of me) that I even allowed myself to think that I might have missed out on something; that I, too, might look like other people out there somewhere in the world. My sense of identity was completely welded to the ‘fake history’ of being the natural child of my adoptive parents. Not being in a relationship with my family of origin until I was almost forty meant I had to reconstruct this understanding of ‘self’ decades after most people begin the process.

Q5: Did your relationship with your adopted family change when you started looking for your biological family?

JW: I didn’t tell my adoptive family when I first started searching for my birth family. I thought that they would be anxious for me and maybe even protective of me doing this. Or they might have wanted to help. I wanted to protect them and also not have an additional emotional element in the mix. I also felt I was being disloyal to them. I wanted to do this on my own for all these reasons. While I was terrified of what I might discover, it was also incredibly empowering to take action on my own.

I told my adoptive parents after I had met both my birth parents, Sue and Tony. I was very nervous but it was a ’good’ story to tell. They were genuinely happy for me. They were also amazingly welcoming of both birthparents into all of our lives. My adoptive mother expressed that ‘there was enough love to go around’. Once we could all be open about this, my relationship with my adoptive family flourished due to acceptance and inclusivity.

BB: Internally the relationship changed hugely for me, but wanting to be the ‘good girl’, I worked damned hard not to show it. I probably wasn’t very successful, as I felt a great deal of internal conflict about trying to keep both my adoptive and birth families happy at all times. The tension I felt whenever we were all together leaked out. My daughters talk about that in the book, which was really tough to read. It was almost a sense of whiplash for me — swinging from feeling that anything prior to being adopted was irrelevant, to feeling like I wanted to reject everything associated with my adoptive family. It was quite dramatic and for a long time I felt anchorless. Even now, when someone asks me where I’m from, I don’t know how to answer, nor do I have a strong sense of where my roots are. That is something taken away from us in closed adoption. I know for some adopted people they feel strongly aligned with their adoptive family, for others, they can comfortably stand with their feet grounded in both their birth and adoptive families, and some are estranged from both. It’s still a ‘work-on’ for me.

Q6: You have included the words of your birth parents, partners and children, which provide an insight into how adoption affects the wider family. What led to the decision to do this?

JW: We wanted to illuminate these issues and educate about the complexity, the emotional challenges, the legacy of adoption for all parties involved — partners, children, friends — because compassion and empathy flow from understanding, which is healing for all. The residue from adoption trauma oozes into relationships and I felt guilty about how my adoption-related emotional and psychological baggage landed heavily on those I loved. I wanted people to understand that this was an almost-predicable aspect of the terrain and for adopted people to take responsibility for their part in the dynamic. Self-empowerment and growing beyond these limiting patterns is life changing.

BB: Early on Jo and I talked about how many adoption stories tended to be one-sided and what a point of difference it might be to try to tell our stories from multiple viewpoints. I know when I’d read these books, I would find myself wondering what the other ‘players’ in the story were thinking, and what their experience was like. We were very privileged that our families were willing to be part of this work, and we’ve had lots of feedback on how much readers have enjoyed this aspect of the book. All of the interviews we did added so much richness to the story, and the addition of my daughters’ contributions right at the last moment before the book was printed was an absolute gift. Up until that point they hadn’t really been old enough to contribute in the way Jo’s children had — but one of our editors encouraged me to submit these additional sections. The girls were both incredibly honest in what they shared — there were certainly some brutal truths I had to face in reading the first draft!

Q7: It is a very personal subject and was no doubt a difficult process at times. At any point did you feel that it was going to be too challenging?

JW: Oh, yes, many times, especially before I met Brigitta. Writing one’s intimate experience (which for me began as a cathartic release in a personal journal) brought me face to face with deep insecurities, incredibly confusing and painful emotions, and challenges to my core beliefs. This can be a heavy load to manage on one’s own. Alongside my personal writing and healing I was also an adoption social worker and counsellor for adopted people which at times triggered my own pain and mirrored my own struggle. The adoption journey is life long; so many times during the writing I faced challenges in the relationship with my birth mother or myself. This was hard because at times it felt as if adoption was literally consuming all of me and permeating every aspect of my life. It was extremely intense. Teaming up with Brigs brought more lightness and ease to the process. I’m so grateful for this collaboration, as I’m not sure this book would have ever seen the light of day without it!

BB: Hell yes! Too many points to name. We had no issue creating content we felt was going to be of value, so during that phase of the work I felt invigorated, and the writing flowed. What felt hard and overwhelming at times was trying to pull it all into a structure that made sense and would appeal to an audience. It was also extremely difficult dealing with the range of emotions that came from sharing such a personal story. There were times I felt I was in therapy myself rather than writing a book — delving into a lot of my own unprocessed trauma, as well as living through reunion with my birth family in ‘real time’ while working on the book. Jo and I also had to deal with being in a relationship as a writing partnership . . . and as two adopted people, we brought a lot of baggage with us that made it really tough at times! We actually had to take a few breaks over the years, and there were many occasions when we thought we just couldn’t do it. But what kept us going was the belief that if reading this story could help just one adopted person feel heard, seen, and not quite so alone in their experience, it would be worth it.

Q8: Have you been surprised at any of the feedback you have received?

JW: Both surprised, immensely delighted and profoundly moved by it. Nothing negative at all just gratitude and expressions of support from a wide range of readers, adopted and non-adopted.

BB: So far, I’ve been surprised at how overwhelmingly supportive the feedback has been. I think Jo and I were both braced for some backlash, and that may still happen, but there has been such strong acknowledgement of how engaging and ‘real’ the approach we’ve taken is. The adoption space can be highly emotive, and many adopted people and their families simply don’t want to talk about their experience, or acknowledge that adoption might be playing out for them in ways that aren’t positive. Our aim with telling our stories is to open up the dialogue about adoption in Aotearoa in a safe and inclusive way — it impacts so many people in this country — and to respect all experiences of adoption.

Q9: What would you say to someone who is thinking about searching for their birth parents?

JW: Prepare by knowing why you want to do this, how important is it to you. Be honest with yourself about what you are seeking and how you might feel if you discover things that are not ideal. Prepare by reading about reunion experiences — for example in reunion, after the honeymoon period, how do both parties engage in a healthy relationship when both have wounds that they inadvertently project onto each other? How might you navigate loyalty towards your adoptive parents and your birth parents if applicable? Relationships are tricky and these ones can be extra tricky. Prepare by putting in place support people (personal/ professional) you know are there for you to talk to, lean on and help you, if needed, from the outset. Listen to podcasts for the lived experiences and reach out to those who have been down this path before if possible. Local adoption social workers are there to help also. Prepare for anything, nothing and everything!

BB: I would say do your work first! Ideally with the support of a counsellor or other professional. Gain an understanding of why you want to search, what you want to know and understand about yourself, what expectations you have, and what you might need if these aren’t met. Read other stories or listen to podcasts about the experiences adopted people have had searching so you have an idea of what might play out. There is now so much more content available on this subject than when Jo and I went through it, although much of it comes from overseas.

Once you start the search, have at least one person who can be one hundred percent in your corner as you go on the journey — someone who can hold space for you, cheerlead, advocate for you if and when it gets tough, and who can help you work through the emotions that will invariably come up. From my own experience, I’d also say try really hard to notice when you are falling into the ‘good and grateful’ adopted person role and putting other people’s needs before you own. At the end of the day, however, you can never be fully prepared, so accept that there is no ‘perfect’ way to do this. Nothing in life that involves secrets, shame, judgement and loss is going to be easy to navigate!

Q10: Currently a review is underway of the adoption laws in New Zealand. What do you want to see changed?

JW: Firstly I would like to hear a public acknowledgement and apology for the practices under the 1955 Adoption Act that this legislation was inhumane. Financial reparation was offered in Australia to those affected to access help, and I would like similar here in New Zealand. Adopted people are often not in a financial position to fund the support they need. Ongoing access to counselling or services that can support the development of the child, mediate relationships when required, and help all parties involved navigate this lifelong process with more ease.

I would also like new legislation to reflect our current social and cultural values and be in line with the principles behind the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including only separating a child from their parent in exceptional circumstances and that public authorities have a duty to extend particular care to children without a family and without means of support.

There are other important elements to include around research, policy and practices regarding adoptive parents and the needs to the child; for example, that there is only one legal birth certificate with all information contained on it. I’d also like to see a child-centred law that in no way fosters secrecy, shame, or severs a child ever again from their human right to their whakapapa, lineage or family.

BB: That’s a big question! Jo and I both made lengthy submissions to the current review, but I’d certainly like to see adoption as a social and legal construct abolished in favour of some form of long term guardianship. I absolutely recognise that there are some circumstances when it is not ideal for a child to be raised in their family of origin; however, establishing healthy attachment wherever possible to the person who carried us for the first nine months of our lives, maintaining strong connections to kin, and having access to our heritage are all critical for healthy human functioning. The whole concept of legal ‘ownership’ of a child by parents who have no biological connection to them simply seems wrong to me. When biological parents do have to relinquish their children, we need far more education and support for them to maintain the relationship throughout the child’s developmental phases, including into their teenage years, when the search for self is so critical.

I would also love to see the financing of professional support for all New Zealanders who have been affected by adoption. We are overrepresented in all measures of compromised mental health, including addiction, depression, suicide and having higher rates of incarceration and relationship breakdown — yet there is an absolute lack of adoption-informed counsellors and therapists available.