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A story of adoption, family and law by Shanika Varga

Shanika Varga joined Stowe as a trainee solicitor in October 2014. Qualifying in 2016, she now works from our Leeds office. She advises on all aspects of family law with expertise in high income cases, domestic abuse and children work. Shanika is also a member of our new adoption team, an area that she brings both professional and personal experience to.

This is her story and experience as an adopted child, how this has impacted on her life and how she uses this to help her support and advise her clients.

Last summer, a BBC documentary Searching for Mum followed two women during their search for their birth mothers. I must admit, I was quite reluctant to watch it at first however after much deliberation, I decided to and share my thoughts here on the blog.

This is not written in my professional role as a family lawyer. It is by no means, a guide for people who have experienced the adoption process or are thinking of embarking on the adoption journey. It is simply my personal reflection on my own adoption and a few of my observations.

The programme detailed the journey of Ria and Rebecca: both women born in Sri Lanka and adopted by parents living in the United Kingdom. Ria is younger than me and was adopted by a couple who lived in Northern Scotland. Rebecca, is older than me and now has a family of her own, she was raised by two parents who were both Sri Lankan but lived in London.

Ria had a happy ending to her story, she found her birth mother and her extended family, however, sadly Rebecca was unable to find her family despite meeting an elderly woman who was sure she was her grandmother. Both women had two very different experiences and upbringings, however, I found that both of their stories and feelings resonated with me.

I was adopted from birth in Sri Lanka. I have an older brother in Sri Lanka. My birth mother put me up for adoption because she couldn’t afford to keep me. She hoped I would have a better chance and a better life out of Sri Lanka. My biological father left my birth mother, so it is likely I have other siblings. I have no ill feelings towards him but I never have and never will search for him.

I was brought to England ten days after I was born. Both of my parents are English. Whilst I know I have siblings in Sri Lanka, I am an only child. I am fortunate to have been adopted by two unbelievably loving and supportive parents, who always made sure I knew where I was from and that I could ask as many (or as few) questions as I wanted to. Even now, I know that if I told my parents that I wanted to search for my birth mother, they would not only do everything they could to help me but the first thing they would do is offer to come with me.

From a young age, it was never a question of “if” I would search for my birth family but more a case of “when”. As I have got older that “when” has slowly turned to an “if”. My plan was always to get through University, take my professional exams and qualify as a solicitor. Then when I was more settled I thought I would want to find them. I am now nearly two years qualified and will have been married for three years in November, but now at that time I thought I would be ready, I don’t feel like I am. My reluctance is not from a fear of upsetting my parents. There are so many questions that I am not sure if I could cope with or want to know the answers to and until the day that the need to find my birth family consumes all my thoughts, it is a step I won’t take.

I am only 28 and I am sure how I feel may change in the future but below are some of the thoughts and feelings I have had over the years and what I have learnt from them and watching “Searching for Mum”.

It didn’t matter how supportive my family was about knowing where I came from or looking for my birth mother. It didn’t matter how much I knew about her and my extended family, I always wondered about my birth mum. I would wonder whether she was still alive, whether she was ok, how my brother was doing and whether I now have younger siblings. Most of all, I hope life has been kind to them. Sri Lanka is a poor country with political uncertainty and low living standards.

I used to feel quite overwhelmed as a child. I’d sit and think about how different my life would have been in Sri Lanka. I would probably never have gone to school let alone university. I probably would have been married very young. I did marry quite young in this day and age, but it is to someone I chose and was when I wanted to do it not because socially and financially I had to. I used to think about if I had been adopted by someone else, that I would be an entirely different person, I might not even speak English. But now I have learnt to focus on who I am and be thankful for the opportunities I have had.

I shouldn’t feel guilty. Wondering about my birth family didn’t make me disloyal to my parents and being happy and feeling fortunate did not betray my birth family.

Knowledge was power for me. Not everyone wants to know everything about their background but knowing the truth made me feel secure. I was always encouraged to ask questions, I never felt as if anything was being kept from me and always knew an appropriate amount for my age. Nothing was forced on me, but I always knew enough to keep me satisfied. Perhaps it was easier for my parents because they knew they could tell me I was placed for adoption out of love. Not everyone can say that. I cannot say that if my situation was different I would have wanted to know or felt as secure as I do.

It is completely my decision to look for my birth mum and knowing I am supported if I want to, has made it easier. The thought of looking for my birth mother fills me with anxiety because there are so many unknowns, but what I do know is that I don’t have to worry about upsetting my family and for that I am lucky.

Throughout my life, I felt different. The town I was brought up in was not particularly diverse. I had Asian friends and although I looked like them I didn’t fit in with their families or culture. On the other hand, I didn’t feel like I fit in with everyone else either because I didn’t look the same as them. I always had a sense of being between two worlds and not really fitting into either. Now I have the benefit of hindsight, I know that it doesn’t matter if I am slightly different, it’s what makes me unique.

People can be rude and thoughtless. When I was younger and out with both of my parent’s, people would stare because we didn’t look the same. We would get funny, often disapproving looks and it would really upset me. 28 years later, families and society are much more diverse but back then people were narrow-minded. I used to want to scream that people should just ask if they were unsure. I now talk about my background quite openly and I don’t mind if people ask me lots of questions.

People will always have their opinions on whether I should (or should not) look for my birth family. I like hearing other people’s thoughts but I do not have to take them on.

Everyone’s journey, experience and feelings are different. I know plenty of people adopted from Sri Lanka. I grew up with them being some of my closest friends and still speak to many of them now. Some of them have searched and found their birth mother’s, other’s feel they never will. I am still unsure. Even those of us with similar stories feel entirely different.  I try to remember that when I see clients, it doesn’t matter if their situation is one I have dealt with hundreds of times, it is personal to them and they will not cope with it or feel the same way about it as others.

I have learnt it’s OK to change my mind. I always thought I would find my birth mother eventually. Now I am not so sure and that is OK. It’s not a decision to enter into lightly and even if I start to look for her, I can change my mind. I always felt that when people asked I should give them a definitive answer. But now I know there isn’t necessarily one.

There isn’t always a happy ending. Programmes and films often show a loving embrace and everyone skips off into the sunset. Not all birth families want to be found due to personal reasons or social stigmas. And even if they do want to be found there are occasions when the adopted child finds their birth family is not what they expected. These are both concerns of mine.

And finally, making the decision to adopt a child is wonderful and brave. I wouldn’t have my life as it is now had my parents chosen another child and that makes me feel unbelievably lucky.

“Searching for mum” touched on a whole host of issues I deal with on a daily basis as a family solicitor. My job involves not only dealing with complex legal matters but it goes to the heart of most people…their family.

My role is not only to protect my client’s interests but often to guide them through one of the most difficult times of their life. Clients often feel, amongst many other things, rejected, confused, uncertain about their future and often question who they are now their circumstances have changed.

These are all feelings that Ria, Rebecca and I have felt. I try to apply my personal experience to my interactions with clients.

This article has been republished for National Adoption Week.

Shanika Varga-Haynes is a Senior Associate based at Stowe Family Law's Leeds office. She has a particular interest in domestic abuse cases and children work and has also been involved in external and internal relocation cases. Shanika is part of the adoption team.

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  1. Debra Leigh says:

    Great to hear your story Shanika. I was adopted by my step father at 15 years old. I still can’t fully forgive me birth father for signing the papers but there you go.

  2. Olivia says:

    Shanika, I really enjoyed reading your story. You have such a wonderfully positive mindset choosing to see the benefits and opportunities you have been given. Looking back or wandering ‘what if?’ would have been so easy but instead you have focused on making a real difference to so many families within a legal framework. I am sure your parents are very proud of you and you continue to bring joy to their lives. Thank you so much.

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