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Monday, June 27, 2022

The life of a birth child

Felicity Henry discusses her experiences growing up with foster siblings.

CW: abuse, trauma, fostering.

Sitting at my first dinner in the Oxford interview process of December 2019, I began to feel my eyes rolling. I’m sure we all encountered some characters in our interview experiences, however this particular person’s behaviour struck much deeper than your classic verging-on-misogyny ‘banter’. The confident, budding PPEist, taking centre stage of our table, was proclaiming she hated children, to which all her peers chuckled in agreement. Her reason was that they were annoying her at the tennis club she coached at. “Really?”, I thought, as my grip tightened around my cutlery. I sat at that table thinking, “well, I hate kids because one’s just been using my younger sister as his punchbag and another’s just gone on a hunger strike, hit my mum, and called her a c*nt”. 

I never uttered these words aloud, nor did she know I’d been experiencing what it is like to be a birth child in a foster family for two years. She had no reason to know the trauma I’d witnessed or endured because of the LACs (looked after children) co-habiting with my family, but it still enraged me. Are these the type of people I’m going to have to confide in when I’m struggling at university because of my past? As it turns out, the tennis coach is now one of my best friends. She is, in fact, incredibly understanding.

Maybe it is a result of my concerted effort not to unload my trauma onto others, but I still haven’t found a single other person at this university who has had a similar experience to me. I do appreciate we all come from very different backgrounds with our various issues, and it doesn’t negate the fact that the tweed-wearing misogynist can have trauma too – there is no ‘invalid’ trauma. I understand. I am also aware that I am extremely privileged to have been the birth child and not the LAC in my situation. However, perhaps like many others at this university, I felt that nobody could relate to my particular experience, and I found that very hard. My GCSEs and IB, for example, were heavily disrupted by instances relating to foster care: one day a child and their parent refused to get into the car with my mum, and so I couldn’t be collected from school, and I remember not being able to focus on my French vocabulary because I had to report a child who had told me she was being abused. Who, here, could really understand and relate to these experiences?

No one knows how proud I am to have my place at this university, to have got the grades I did while my home was torn apart by abuse inflicted on myself or my family, unfortunately often by those who had been abused themselves. When people tell me how easy it was for them to get in, how ‘calm’ the interview process was, or how it was just the natural progression for them as their parents went to Oxbridge, though I do feel guilty about my reaction, I can’t help but feel resentful.

It is hard to carry your trauma anywhere, but I find it particularly challenging at this university. I find it challenging to reconcile that so few people have had an experience like mine, and so many have been sheltered in happy, loving, comfortable homes and have glided into their room overlooking the Rad Cam. I am acutely aware that this is not their fault. I know I am white, from a financially stable background, able-bodied and went to a school that encouraged my application, and so I apologise if this article comes off as something of a sympathy or a ‘woe is me’ piece. I still think I am allowed to acknowledge at times the hurdles I leapt over to earn my place and wish people would be more sensitive, not just towards me, but everyone. You just cannot assume you know what anyone has been through to get here. I guess my hope is that if you find yourself absent-mindedly recounting how you found it so easy to gain your place here, please think again. If anything, open up a judgement-free space to discuss freely what you have all overcome to study at one of the best universities in the world.

Image credit: Pavel Danilyuk.

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