The reunion

While I was on a writing course in 2013 I wrote this composition as a piece of coursework. At the time I had not written a great deal about adoption and so this was a lovely thing to write about. Today I want to post a happy post because the last few have been painful. Here is the story of a meeting that happened in 2004:

Meeting Margaret

It was sunny outside, on what could have been a lazy August afternoon. I paced across the lounge, again, and then sat heavily on the edge of the sofa.

“It’s three o’clock! Where are they?” I shout at no-one in particular. Dan is in the garden, impatient with my impatience, and I can see out the patio doors that he is carefully deadheading the purple Cosmos, engrossed and, for the moment, not concerned that his wife is losing the plot in the lounge.

“Where are they?” I wail.

The phone in the hall starts to ring. I rush to pick it up and I hear Anja’s voice.

“Hi Roz, you OK?”

I think for a moment; yes, I am still breathing, albeit a little heavily.

“Hi, yes, just here, waiting. Where have you been?”

Anja laughs down the phone “Well, Margaret just had to have her hair done and Ron wanted to come the scenic route, so a little difficulty in the setting off time we had talked about!”

I picture the scenic route from North Yorkshire to Oxfordshire and silently I am thankful that they arrived here today at all. Their friend Anja, enjoying her role as go-between, has been tasked with transporting them to our meeting, and for the several months that passed while the arrangements for today were finalised, she and I have been in regular contact. I am, as ever, grateful for her help and support today.

Out-loud I say “Where are you?”

“We are in a street by the church. I think that pub you suggested we meet in, that’s along here somewhere, isn’t it?”

I am so busy with the details of the practical arrangements that it isn’t until I put the phone down and turn towards the door to the garden that I remember. Then I have to sit down on the stool at the kitchen bench. I am drenched in fear and anticipation and excitement, all mingling in my body; I can feel tingling and my heart pounds, blood gushing round my cells.  I find myself stumbling towards the back door where I meet Dan coming in from the garden. He puts his arms round me and meets my eyes with an inquisitive gaze.

“They are here,” I whisper…

So, finally “The Moment” has arrived, and now I find I am not prepared at all; I need to change, again, and go to the toilet, again. Eventually, I appear from upstairs and am pacing once more, this time up and down the hall.

“Come on, let’s go,” Dan says calmly, as always.

The pub I have chosen for the meeting is completely the other end of town from our house. I rue this as we tramp along the busy shopping streets in the blazing sunshine and hazy air of the centre of Witney.  I think I am silent but my head buzzes and adrenaline makes colours vivid and my step broader. By now it is 4pm; we are approaching The Green by the parish church where the sunshine has enticed people to collect outside the pub.  As Dan and I walk together along the shaded pavement beside this open grassy space I see the tables in the sun are busy.  I am searching for faces I have only ever seen in photographs; further ahead of us I spy the group we are to meet. I see a woman’s head whip round in response to a girl’s nod in our direction.  Short, newly cut, copper coloured hair on this woman is striking, and is my first and (as I can now say) lasting impression of Margaret.

I am moving towards the group, fixated on Margaret. She is about my height (five and a half foot), and I recognise the stocky build I have been fighting with all my adult life. She is dressed casually in blue jeans, and a jumper the same colour as her hair; I am burning on this hot August day, she is not, being the daughter of an Australian expat, who grew up in the tropics of Papua New Guinea.

As I approach the table I hear Margaret’s laugh, and the three people round the table stand up. She and I lock eyes of cornflower blue, and immediately I am drawn into a short but definite hug. “Long time no see!” I say over her shoulder as we are momentarily held together by the embrace. She laughs again, and I feel my shoulders drop, relaxing a little into the meeting now the ice is broken.

Dan is greeted by the man. “Hi, I’m Ron” he says in his wonderful antipodean accent, and with what I know now is a customary familiar and friendly warmth. They shake hands.

“Champagne! Do you like champagne?” Ron asks me, once the men have settled their welcome. “Margaret, would you like champagne?”

Not really waiting for answers Ron walks purposefully to towards the bar. Anja is watching us as she sits back down, smiling, and I reach for a chair, feeling a little dizzy again. Margaret and I sit and look at each other; this is how mother and daughter meet after 36 years apart following my adoption at 7 weeks old, when Margaret was only 19.

Once champagne is served and Ron re-joins the group, he and Dan strike up a conversation. I stand to take a candid photo of the gathered clan and Ron looks up at me. His eyes open wide, seemingly startled.

“She looks just like our daughter, Jeanette!” Ron exclaims.

He is not my dad (but I do wish he was!), nevertheless he can see the family resemblance.  They all agree; I do indeed resemble my half-sister.  Up until this point I have merely seen photographs of my three half-siblings sent over the internet from Australia, and they, in turn, have seen a few carefully selected ones of me. I guess it is only in the flesh that the comparisons become striking.

As I look back to this reunion, over eight years ago now, I am unsure really what we talked about but the conversation continued as we all began the impossible task of trying to recover the missing years. I do recall that the next few hours passed in a blur as we drank champagne and got warm and relaxed in that late afternoon August sunshine.

I often look back on the photographs of those precious moments; they are vivid with smiles and bright celebrations.  One of my favourites shows me sat next to Margaret, we are both looking happy, laughter not far away, but, just in the corner of the shot, you can see Ron’s hand in hers, comforting, reassuringly steady.

As the years have passed since that first reunion meeting I have found out more about my Australian family and been over to visit them in their New South Wales homes. My younger sister, Linden, and brother, Markham, have both visited me in the UK and been great hosts on the Australian tours.  During my first visit to Australia Jeanette invited me to be a bridesmaid at her wedding, even though she had never met me personally. When asked about this she explained that as I was her sister, and mum had met me and liked me then that was good enough for her.

Just after this wedding I was due to travel home, and Margaret and Ron took me to the airport. Goodbyes are tough for me and I was dreading this one. After a long lunch at the airport, spotting planes for Ron and the obligatory glass of champagne for Margaret and me, we were walking to the gates. She veered off and disappeared out of view into a card shop. Ron, impatient with his wife, huffed and paced; I had a plane to catch!

He had walked ahead by the time she appeared. She handed me a small package, laughing, but with tears in her eyes. I looked inquisitively at her, she said “Show Ron, so he knows what all the fuss is about.”  I opened the bag; inside was a pretty stone fridge magnet decorated with purple flowers that reminded me of those Cosmos. On it were the words “Always my daughter, now too my friend”. We knew then what the fuss was about.


The alien chameleon

One big problem with being adopted is no one understands how much it feels like you are an alien. Anne Heffron puts it very simply, “You want to hear my generalized story of the adoptee in six words? Something is wrong. No one understands.”

Possibly if adopted as a young child then people would see that you had a history with parents or foster parents or in an institution of some kind, but I was placed for adoption immediately, with the gap of only seven weeks between birth and adoption and no one thought that was time to have a history. I don’t know when the cut off is, my brother was three months old when he was put up for adoption and no one thought he had a history either, even though he had been with his birth mother all that time, and cried for a full day when first he came home with our mum and dad. He cried until he was exhausted and then was fractious, but no one thought about the trauma to him of losing his mother, suddenly and completely.

Another point made by the wonderful Anne Heffron (an adoptee who wrote “You don’t Look Adopted”, the book which began my current flurry of writing) is this; imagine being suddenly removed from one life completely then confusingly placed somewhere unknown and randomly told to get on with it with people you don’t know, where you can have no contact with your previous family or life, where if you are upset by this they simply don’t understand why. Now imagine this happening to an adult. It’s called kidnapping and is a criminal offence. But that is how closed adoption works, where files are sealed and no contact is allowed. I know it’s different now in many cases, but this is how it was for my adoption.

By the time I reached mum and dad (I use this nomenclature to be less clumsy than adopted mum or adopted dad, and actually mum and dad were the roles they were in, successfully or not) I was on my third mother through having been fostered, so the alien syndrome was already present. It is now known that newborn and very young babies are responding to their mother and she mirrors them, she smells right and she has the other half of the bond they share fixed before birth, the biological bond that is our animal heritage birthright. Of course, an adopted mother, even if she is the most loving and devoted parent can have none of these advantages, she is on the back foot before she begins.

I am not an expert in the biology and psychology of these areas, there are many good references on bonding, attachment, and separation trauma, starting for me with John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott. Initially, I learned most of what I know in relation to adoption and these issues from Nancy Verrier, who wrote “The Primal Wound” and “Coming Home to Self”, both of which are go-to reference books for me in dealing with the adoption issues. Read them for lots of sense, and referenced and researched science.

The bit of science that seems relevant here is the limbic regulation that the mother provides to her baby, to soothe and to give a feeling of security. This is part of a neurochemical bond and without it, the child feels overwhelmed and this causes a large part of the traumatised response that maternal separation induces. I imagine my little mind was full of confusion and loss, the limbic overload of trying to mirror and connect but not getting the right signals, maybe not any signals given my mum was not a cuddler or an empathetic mother. My baby needed to connect to stay alive, literally, the baby is helpless and all they have is this connection.

There appear to be two responses to this lack of connection in adopted children; to be compliant or to act out in the external world their rage and despair. I was a compliant baby – a “good” baby, mum said. When the Adoption Society conducted a welfare visit on 24 March I was reported to be on three meals a day and sleeping through each night. I was 15 weeks old.  The reptile brain operates very basically: do what is asked of you and be safe, anything else and they might abandon you too. I conformed and slowly turned into a very proficient chameleon.

Growing up it felt normal to feel alien, it was the water I swam in. I didn’t look like anyone I knew and felt disconnected and abstract for much of the time. I continued to be a compliant and quiet child, the chameleon. But more of this anon, I feel the need to process what is written here already, stay with the newly adopted Baby and be with her.

The Gap

“You were chosen”. These words are said carefully by parents who adopt, but they are not true. They are meant to make up for the fact that there is a silence, a gap in history not spoken about, the gap between being born and being adopted of which nothing is known in any closed adoption. This gap for me is 7 weeks, which is how old I was when I passed to my adopted parents.

The words are not true because you are not chosen from a range like selecting a brand of washing powder from the supermarket shelves or a new car with a variety of options in a showroom. No, not chosen, you are delivered like information on a piece of real estate, in a letter with your particulars and those (that are known) of your anonymous birth parents. The new parents can then accept or reject you, as my adopted parents had already rejected one baby on the grounds they (read my mum and grandmother) didn’t think the baby would be intelligent enough. Mum was already, unconsciously perhaps, emulating her cruel mother by loving conditionally, even before this baby was able to talk.

Then you are collected, like a parcel from the post office. In my case, there were six days between letter and delivery. You don’t, however, come with instructions so everyone is feeling the burn of the change; no nine months to get used to it, read up, or plan anything in the case of parenting, and no way of helping the baby understand what was going on. Like a plant, I went into transplant shock and I am still dealing with it today.

The big trouble is until about 1990 no one realised that babies noticed the difference. The separation from biological mother postpartum is a primal wound, the bonding that begins in utero is the start of a continuum, so bonding does not begin at birth. Thinking about it that would make no sense – the baby is literally formed from the mother’s cells, within the mother’s body – she grows a fully formed human connected by a blood pumping cord – how could they not be attached even at birth!

I blame Descartes! The separation of body and mind. And a human history of arrogantly thinking ourselves  “above” being an animal. Of course a baby separated from its mother is hurt and terrified, we see it happening in all animals – it is not natural and it is a trauma. In terms of understanding it from an adopted child’s point of view, I recommend The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier. It’s where I started my journey into all this 20 years ago.

So, that was me, traumatised, in an alien environment for the second time (having spent four weeks in foster care) with an alien mother, who, as I’ve described previously, was ill-equipped for mothering any baby.

But still, the world kept turning.

The Mothership

What does “mother” mean? How does it shift if I consider that I have a birth mother, a foster mother and an adopted mother? I understand intellectually the dictionary definition – mother means a female parent, but that is what they are, not what they do.

Maybe, simply, I can describe a mother’s role to be responsible for mothering? Mothering seems to be encapsulated by the word nurturing, defined in my dictionary with phrases such as feed and protect, support and encourage, bring up and educate. OK, where do my three mothers fit into all those?

Down the rabbit hole we go…

I was conceived on a ship that my birth mother took from Australia to England where she had a short relationship with a member of the crew. She got off the ship 10,000 miles away from home and pregnant.

I arrived three weeks early and very quickly by all accounts. Consequently, I was delivered at her home in London by a paramedic. I was then with her for three weeks. In that time did she mother me, was I nurtured?  As I write this I don’t know if I was fed by my birth mother. Clearly, I was fed, but by her milk? She has been back in my life 14 years and I have never thought to ask this question! For two of those weeks we were in hospital where, she reports, staff were surprised I was to be adopted, so I am deducing that she did look after me as any new mum would.

The last week we had together before I was fostered was spent at a “Mother and Baby” Home. I wonder what protecting went on?  She was only just 19, I imagine she needed support and encouragement and protecting too, were we vying for the emotional care and the physical resources that were available? I find it heartbreaking that this week was Christmas and New Year and I don’t imagine there was much celebrating going on, while now my Baby-self remembers and cries at Christmas.

I was taken to the foster mother, Mrs Jones, by my birth mother. While I was there my maternal grandmother flew in from Australia, no mean feat in 1966, and was helping/hindering her daughter in the details of my despatch. There has been talk of her wanting my birth mother to keep me, of her asking where the baby was in her very late years after being overtaken by dementia. But my birth mother has always maintained that I was to be adopted and she wanted me to have two parents. It always was her decision, she says. During the search for my birth mother, I was given access to my adoption file, a thin and meagre set of papers that the social worker seemed to be embarrassed about for its lack of detail. However, within its contents was one telling handwritten note: “Mrs Jones reports, the girl’s mother won’t even look at the baby and the girl’s father, still in Australia, refuses even to discuss the matter, therefore, adoption is the only answer”.

I know less about the four weeks I spent in the foster home. Were there other children or babies there? Did Mrs Jones look after me with others or just her? What was it like there? I know that my adopted mother said, disparagingly, I arrived with nappy rash so she thought I had a bit less nurturing than necessary, obviously! However, I know nothing more of that time except when I left I had spent over half of my life in that house. I do know that January, the span of which covers my time with this temporary mother, has always been a tricky emotional sea for me to navigate each year and I am sadly familiar with the bleakness that can’t always be squared away with it being wintery outside.

I arrived with my adopted parents, (who I shall refer to here as mum and dad) at seven and half weeks, moving on to my third mother. This woman was already an adopted mother to a three and a half-year-old boy. Still, I am unsure how ready she was to be a mother. She had had five days notice by letter of my impending availability when she and my adopted dad travelled to collect me. This time I was destined to stay and was legally adopted at 5 months.

This mother was ill-equipped psychologically for her nurturing role. She suffered from clinical depression, not yet diagnosed at my arrival, but it manifested over the rest of her life in ways that blighted our family and created much despair for her and for me (and others). She was such a damaged individual herself; reared by parents who wanted a boy, who demanded academic excellence and dominated by a mother who was cold in her emotional neglect and cruel in harsh judgment – she once said to my mum it was a good job that she and my adopted father could not have children as heaven knows what they would have produced! Permanently feeling a failure on all counts and battered by life, my mum fell into severe depression and never really recovered for over fifty years.

Unfortunately, having such a poor role model, my mum fixated on the practical details of mothering; we were washed and clothed and fed and educated. We were not protected or nurtured; we were not loved, cuddled or supported emotionally. I remember even as a small child how I felt her lack of connection with me when washing my hair or cutting my nails; she would hold me or move me like I was an object, an inanimate thing, not warm or caring in touch or sensation.  I know now it was her lack of empathy, her inability to feel or to understand what the other feels, but then it just felt remote, harsh and strange, and it left me with a sense of being a burden or an inconvenience, a feeling which I still find hard to shake in relationships today.

I was desperate to connect; adoption leaves the child with the adoption grief – the loss of the mother – at whatever age this occurs. Sadly, my adopted mother was not available for connection, and I know this upset her terribly from conversations we had when I was an adult. She regretted not hugging us, not cuddling us but it was too late and patterns were concreted in. She said she didn’t feel she could love or was loved by anyone and I tried, desperately, to be there for her and to love her, ending in a childhood too full of caring for her, helping dad to care for her. She told me she could love me more if I was her natural daughter. This when I was 14 during one of the late night heart to hearts when I became a surrogate therapist. But it was all one way; I never dared to tell anything of mine for fear of breaking her, upsetting her to the point of collapse, which was often threatened. Being asked to stay away when I was at university, by my dad, because my being at home caused rows and upset her; being yelled at to effectively choose which of my mothers I would be loyal too when I was an adult and had successfully searched for  my birth mother; having been asked at 18 if I thought they should split up because I was so upset just before my A Levels began that I had my mum by the neck and was screaming “It’s all your fault!” over and over into her face. These, all these, lead me to suspect my mothering left a lot to be desired.

It may be unsurprising then that I decided not to be a mother myself. I felt totally unmaternal and completely put off the child rearing idea. Once I had decided, even after a failed attempt at pregnancy, that I was not cut out for it I was more settled. With all that I recount here and the instinctual feeling that I couldn’t be a mother, that Mothership sailed and I remained a childless mother as well as a motherless child.

I am learning to mother myself now.


Moving into Myself

This winter a transformation began to crystallize. Before, it was swirling around; I was aware of it but now it feels more grounded and available to me. Since dad died last August I have noticed the small voice that I knew as the Grown-up – my adult self – has been getting stronger. This is not exactly a voice of reason as it holds many emotions,  but more a still centeredness, an assuredness, and the gift of fielding my reactions and allowing me to respond appropriately.

Previously, I have felt a tsunami of feelings when I am upset or angry. I have not always been able to avoid being swept away into a reaction that is devastating and damaging to myself or others around me. I would yell, cry, maybe even leave the building, and then repeat if pursued. This is a catastrophic limbic reaction, I know, and I found it impossible to contain, until now. More often I find that if I feel upset or angry I can hold that in, return to it and while breathing through it, not open my mouth to shout or feel an overwhelming urge to run away. I can literally face the emotions that are coming up. I have a new image; a dam wall holding back the water and I can operate sluice gates to let a little emotion out, and then a little more. It isn’t perfect and sometimes the dam wall breaks anyway, but it is beginning to feel more enduring and I am beginning to trust it will stick around!

I am sure that mum’s death, now three years ago, began this change, enabling me, freeing up space in my head (and in the physical world), to move more into Myself, hear my Grown-up, and feel the corresponding groundedness that accompanied it. Mum and I had a complex relationship. This is another blog post in itself I am guessing but here are the headlines; my adoption issues and her depression, the contorted family relationships and our repeated failures to be the mother and daughter we needed led to much pain and heartache. Her death was a release from the binds of this relationship and so I could stretch, begin to move into Myself.

I also think that being 50 became a turning point as in the last year since that birthday the sense of Myself has been stronger. I am amazed because this last year chiefly has been full of all the parental woes; illness; aging; incapacity and finally death. J and I have been juggling three parents in these difficult stages in practice whilst also trying to handle the emotional minefields that these circumstances created. The amazement is because, looking back, I have not only managed myself through these tricky waters I have also grown and changed in this period. In times gone by I would have felt I was continually bailing the boat of myself, the leaky vessel would be getting worse, not better. I have the definite feeling that I am mending the holes in the boat – healing not constantly bailing and just barely managing to keep afloat. This is both a surprise and a joy.

Being 50 and being free of my parental relationships released me into something that I didn’t know I needed; permission to be Myself. I will continue to navigate this opening way and hope to record it here.